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History of the matchup through the eyes of The Observer: Notre Dame vs. Stanford 

The Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry is a long-standing matchup, dating back to the close of Knute Rockne’s seventh season as head coach, the first Notre Dame national championship. Since then, Notre Dame leads the series 21-13. 

The teams have gone head to head every year since 1988, sans the 2020 Covid-affected season, and The Observer has been there to catch it all. Before the Irish take the field against the Cardinal once again, these are the moments that have made the rivalry what it is today. 

1925: The Rose Bowl

In the 1924 season, the Irish went 10-0 under Rockne in the regular season. They took that perfect record all the way to the Rose Bowl on the backs of the “Four Horsemen.” This moniker followed the legendary backfield that included fullback Elmer Layden and halfbacks Don Miller and Jim Crowley, led by quarterback Harry Stuhldreher. With the Horsemen, the Irish played in a modified single wing known as the Notre Dame Box.

This 1988 story about the 1925 team ran before the Stanford game in 1988 and again in 1989. This is the 1989 version. / Observer Archives

Once they made it to the Rose Bowl, the Irish found the Cardinal waiting for them in Pasadena. The Cardinal went 7-1-1 on the season, 3-0-1 in the Pacific Coast Conference, under head coach Pop Warner. They spent the season undefeated, and this was the second time Stanford made it to the postseason. 

In front of 60,000 fans, on Jan. 1, 1925, The Irish won 27-10 over the Cardinal. While there were no polls to determine a national champion at the time, this would go down as Notre Dame’s first national championship due to later analyses creating a consensus around the team. 

The 1988 coverage also included a photo from the 1925 Rose Bowl. The story was originally written by Vic Lombardi. / Observer Archives

Notre Dame would take the field three more times against Stanford in the next 60 years, losing only one of those matchups. 

1988: The annual showdowns begin

In 1988, the Irish were ranked No. 5 heading into the matchup. The Cardinal came to South Bend on Oct. 1 that season, which was Notre Dame’s fourth game of the year. The Irish started the season ranked No. 13. After beating No. 9 Michigan, they jumped to No. 8.

Two more wins over Michigan State and Purdue brought them to No. 5 before they would beat Stanford 42-14, win out on the season, rise to No. 1 and then take the national championship. That year’s performance also included a 31-30 win over (then) No. 1 Miami. 

Brian Johnson was the Stanford quarterback to take on the Irish in 1988. The Observer Sports staff cautioned the QB on what to expect from the Irish defense. / Observer Archives

1989: The Legends Trophy is born

With the second annual rivalry game came a new annual tradition. Whichever team won the matchup would take home the Legends Trophy. The trophy itself is “awarded by the Notre Dame Club of the San Francisco Bay Area” to the winner of the Notre Dame-Stanford contest each year. It combines Irish crystal in the cup and a California redwood base. 

In 1991, the Irish took home the Legends Trophy after defeating Stanford 42-26 in Palo Alto on Oct. 5. / Observer Archives

“It’s a beautiful trophy. They took good care of it last year, and we’ll take good care of it this year,” Lou Holtz said in 1991 after a 42-26 win over Stanford.

1990 upset starts an even-split decade. 

In 1990, the Irish were primed to return to the National Championship. Ranked No. 1, just two years after their ’88 crowning, they wanted another. That is until an unranked Stanford stepped into Notre Dame Stadium. The final score was 36-31 in favor of the Cardinal. Holtz said he “couldn’t recall ever being in a loss which was as difficult as the defeat at the hands of the Cardinal” — at least not in Notre Dame Stadium.

The Irish hadn’t given up 36 points since they defeated USC five years earlier in Holtz’s first season. They hadn’t given up 36 points at home or in a loss since a 36-32 fall to South Carolina before Holtz even became head coach. Several Irish fumbles became Cardinal touchdowns and the defense couldn’t keep up. 

The 1990 loss turned the series into a yo-yo. In the 10 games until 2001, the Irish went 5-5 with the Cardinal. In 1992, the Irish fell to Stanford again, which became their only loss of the season. Again, Stanford broke into the 30s, winning 33-16. A No. 4 and No. 8 Irish squad would win the ’93, ’94 matchups, respectively (48-20, 34-15). However, after a two-year hiatus, the Irish let Stanford break 30 points once more and snag another win in 1997. Notre Dame would flip the script in 1998 with an almost identically scored win, 35-17. 

At the turn of the century, the two teams each won a game in their traditional fashion. The ’99 Stanford team won behind a strong offense that a mistake-filled Irish defense couldn’t stop and the Irish offense could barely keep up with. The Irish defense allowed scoring passes of 62 and 38 yards to Stanford receiver Troy Walters. And Stanford’s Aaron Focht took an Irish fumble 37 yards to the house. Despite the sloppy play, Notre Dame tied the game at 37 with 1:32 remaining in regulation. A roughing-the-passer penalty on the Irish though, set up Stanford kicker Mike Biselli’s game-winning 22-yard field goal as time expired. The loss had mirrored a particularly frustrating season for the Irish. After the game, Irish head coach Bob Davie told the Observer “I don’t ever want to be 5-7 again.”

To start the new millennium, the Irish were back to themselves, winning a low-scoring defensive matchup, 20-14. The aughts shone a Stanford flash in the pan though as they snagged their lowest-scoring win of the series to tie the decade of matchups at 5, winning 17-13 in 2001. 

An edition of the Irish Insider after Notre Dame beat Stanford 20-14 in the 2000 edition of the rivalry clash. / Observer Archives

2008: Irish don’t take trash talk lightly 

While the Stanford rivalry may not be the most aggressive matchup the Irish have taken on, it has had its bitter moments. In 2008, Stanford tackle Chris Marinelli showed up to South Bend swinging. 

“The field sucks. The stadium sucks. I think the area sucks. We are going out there to mash them up and that’s all there is to it,” he said of Notre Dame and its stadium. He continued to trash the Irish defense, its lack of sacks and, according to then-Observer sports editor Dan Murphy, just about “everything Notre Dame stands for short of Jesus Christ Himself.” 

Notre Dame players took that to heart. No one commented before the game but the Irish turned to the Pep Rally. Pat Kuntz ripped off a breakaway suit and promised to “rip somebody’s head off on Saturday.” 

Cut to the game. 

The Notre Dame defense spent most of the game dominant. They had been able to snag five sacks and Kyle McCarthy led the team with 14 tackles on the night. Through three, the Irish led 28-7.

At the start of the fourth though, the Irish started to slip. Stanford staged two touchdown runs in the fourth quarter to come within one touchdown of the Irish, much like this past weekend in Vegas. 

The Irish defense, in the middle of a less-than-stellar year, pulled out a stop though. Pinned at their own three, Stanford completed a pass near the end of the fourth but Anthony Kimble fumbled and it was Kuntz who came up with it. With 0:07 left, the Irish stopped the comeback to win the game by a touchdown. 

“We’re not going to let anybody come into our house and talk like that to us,” Irish linebacker Harrison Smith said. 

2012: Goal line stand to remain undefeated

No. 17 Stanford came into Notre Dame Stadium 4-1. Stanford, true to form, relied heavily on their offense that season. Every game they won was won with more than 20 points except for their matchup with Oregon that went to overtime. 

In the week six matchup, Notre Dame was undefeated and about to face the Stanford squad that, in the three previous matchups, had pushed them around. For the seniors, this was a team they hadn’t beaten. 

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt dominated the Stanford backfield while Manti Te’o crushed Stanford ball carriers all day.

Manti Te’o tackles the Stanford ball carrier during Notre Dame‘s tooth-and-nail battle against the Cardinal on Oct. 13, 2012. The Irish won 20-13. Credit: Sarah O’Connor | The Observer

The defensive work was there on the Cardinal side too, leaving Irish quarterback Everett Golson little to no space to operate. Stanford’s only touchdown on the day came from a Golson fumble, recovered in the end zone, a testament to the Irish defense. 

The first half closed with the Irish behind a touchdown, 10-3. The third quarter saw no scoring and this was Notre Dame’s only stretch so far that season they hadn’t been leading. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Golson found tight end Tyler Eifert for a touchdown, bringing the score to 10-10. 

The Cardinal answer was nothing short of effective. Taking 8:03 off the clock, they marched to the Notre Dame three for a field goal, 13-10 Cardinal. 

With the ball back, the Irish needed a touchdown to win or a field goal to tie. Golson went down with concussion-like symptoms the second they got the ball back which left backup quarterback (now offensive coordinator) Tommy Rees to win the Irish the game. 

Rees brought the Irish into field goal range to tie the game up and then hit T.J Jones for a seven-yard touchdown catch in the first overtime possession. It all came down to the defense.

Stanford tailback Stefan Taylor reached the Notre Dame 4-yard line after a 13-yard rush. That wasn’t enough though. In the next four downs, he was denied all four times. Manti Te’o and the Irish prevented a fourth and one breakthrough and the Irish remained undefeated for the season, defeating Stanford 20-13.

The Irish stumping Stanford in the 2012 goal line stand on Oct. 13. Credit: Julie Herder | The Observer

The win has since been vacated as the Irish were found guilty of allowing academically ineligible athletes to play but the defensive stop the Irish made remains legend among Notre Dame fans.

Notre Dame fans travel well through the ages

While the series is split fairly evenly and coaches and players have come and gone, Irish fans, as always, have remained loyal followers of ND football.

Thirty years ago, Observer Sports Editor Theresa Kelly traveled to the 1989 game in Palo Alto. There, she watched the Irish take down the Cardinal surrounded by cheering Notre Dame fans. Current Sports Editor Aidan Thomas covered last year’s game in Palo Alto and in his Observer on the Ground piece, he also noticed the presence Notre Dame had 2,000 miles from home, saying “Stanford was a Notre Dame home game but with warmer weather.”

Both saw the national brand really spread coast to coast and regardless of what year it is or how well the Irish are playing, there has always been an Irish fan base to watch the Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry put another faceoff in the books.

Observer archives
Former Observer Sports Editor Theresa Kelly discusses the Notre Dame fan presence in Pasadena when the Irish took down Stanford 27-17 on Oct. 7, 1989. / Observer Archives

Contact Mannion McGinley at mmcginl3@nd.edu.

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