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Notre Dame vs. Cal: The history of the matchup

While Notre Dame has strong rivalries with other California universities like USC and Stanford, Notre Dame and Cal will meet on the football field for just the fifth time in history this Saturday. These foes each share a mutual rival in the Stanford Cardinal. In addition, both schools are academic powerhouses that boast strong athletic programs. Before the series is renewed on Saturday, let’s examine the previous matchups on the gridiron. 

October 10, 1959: Notre Dame 28, Cal 6

The inaugural meeting between Notre Dame and Cal was on the west coast, with 68,500 fans packing Memorial Stadium. The Irish had a great start to the game, recovering a fumble on Cal’s first play from scrimmage. Quarterback George Izo threw a 27-yard touchdown pass two plays later to put the Irish up 7-0. The Irish defense was swarming to the ball the whole day, forcing a total of six turnovers.

Late in the first quarter, the Irish’s other quarterback, Don White, engineered a touchdown drive to expand the lead to 14-0. In the second half, the offensive drives began to stall out for both sides. The Golden Bears couldn’t get any offense until late in the fourth quarter after a 56-yard run play eventually led to a five-yard touchdown catch to make it 21-6.

After another touchdown by the Irish, the clock ran out a few minutes later. It was an important game for the Irish, needing to rebound after an upset loss to Purdue the previous week. The Irish struggled in 1959 but ended the season on a high note, beating two ranked teams in Iowa and USC to finish at an even 5-5. Cal finished 2-8 in the last season of the Pete Elliott era. 

September 24, 1960: Notre Dame 21, Cal 7

The second meeting between Notre Dame and Cal opened the season for both schools. This was also the first time the Golden Bears would take the trip east to Notre Dame Stadium. Leading the Bears after Pete Elliott’s dismissal was head coach Marv Levy. Levy is today more commonly known for his later tenure as head coach of the Buffalo Bills, making four straight Super Bowl appearances but failing to win all four. However, 26 years before he took the job with the Bills, he was the head coach of Cal.

Notre Dame got on the board first as a result of a short field due to a Cal fumble. But Cal responded with a sustained drive that eventually led to a touchdown. Cal outplayed the Irish in the first half, holding the Irish to a 7-7 tie at the intermission.

But Notre Dame came out of the break with a strong drive highlighted by a long kick return and a 33-yard touchdown run. Later in the third quarter, the Irish blocked a Cal punt and took it to the house to finish the scoring.

However, the Irish still had major concerns after the opening win. The passing attack was never able to get going, and the team seemed inexperienced. These would prove to be valid, as the Irish finished with a lowly 2-8 record. Cal finished only marginally better, going 2-7-1. Strangely, both teams beat their main rivals (USC and Stanford, respectively) in otherwise terrible years. 

September 18th, 1965: Notre Dame 48, Cal 6

During the five-year intermission between the second and third games of the series, Notre Dame football had lost its identity but found it again. After three subpar seasons where the Irish never finished better than 5-5, they hired the first non-Notre Dame graduate since Knute Rockne: Ara Parseghian.

Parseghian instantly turned Notre Dame football around. The team was 9-0 going into the final game of the 1964 season, boasting the number one ranking. However, USC upset the Irish to dash any national title hopes. Expectations were sky high for 1965, and they opened with Cal, who finished last in their conference in 1964.

The Irish rolled to a 48-6 win, amassing 381 yards on the ground. Cal head coach Ray Willsey said, “We have no excuses for this fiasco.” The Irish were up 9-0 after the end of the first quarter, but the lead had ballooned to 28-6 by halftime. Turnovers again plagued Cal, leading coach Parseghian to remark that “Cal was most unfortunate; it yielded field position on turnovers all day.”

Cal went on to go 5-5. The dominant win propelled Notre Dame to the number one ranking, which they would relinquish a week later in an upset loss to Purdue. The Irish ended up finishing 7-2-1 on the season. 

September 23rd, 1967: Notre Dame 41, Cal 8

The Irish again opened up their season facing the Golden Bears, this time in defense of their 1966 national championship. Notre Dame finished 9-0-1 in 1966, beating every opponent except No. 2 Michigan State, who they infamously tied 10-10.

The Irish lost 11 starters from the team the year prior, so new players had to step up. The Irish stepped up to the task, dispatching the Bears. Quarterback Terry Hanratty completed 15 passes for 203 yards and two scores. But he also lost a fumble and threw two interceptions. Receiver Jim Seymour and captain Rocky Bleier each caught touchdown passes. Cal Quarterback Barry Bronk had an awful day, completing just 2 of 20 passes and getting picked off twice.

By the time the fourth quarter hit, the reserves were in. Cal scored late in the fourth, upsetting gamblers who had backed the Irish as 35-point favorites. The Golden Bears had another middling season, going 5-5. For the second time, Notre Dame lost in an upset to Purdue the next week while carrying the number one ranking. The Irish finished 8-2, their other loss coming to USC.

When the game kicks off on Saturday it will be the first game in the series in 55 years. Cal has been dominated by the Irish in all four previous outings, mainly because they lost the turnover battles by wide margins. The 2022 Irish defense, which has not forced a turnover this season, surely is going to try to make history repeat itself.

Contact Joseph at jtunney@nd.edu

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