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Throwback Thursday: Northwestern and Notre Dame’s 129-year-old rivalry

Learn about the history of these two teams, dating all the way back to 1889

Northwestern v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Northwestern and Notre Dame have a long and storied history beginning in 1889, facing off 48 times since. Notre Dame has won the matchup 37 times to the Wildcats nine, with two ties in 1903 and 1931. This article is a not-so-brief attempt to introduce much of the history behind the rivalry between the two schools, and many of the key events. The information used is a combination of press clippings from the Chicago Tribune, previous articles, Northwestern University archives and Northwestern Wildcats Football by Larry LaTourette.

The early years

In the inaugural clash between Northwestern and Notre Dame, the visiting Fighting Irish defeated coach Charles Hollister’s Northwestern team in a muddy clash at Deering Meadow. The Irish came out victorious, 9-0, in a brutal matchup over the Wildcats — one Irish player was expected to lose an eye and another broke his jaw as a result.

Images Taken from the Chicago Tribune, the first November 13th and the second November 15th, 1889.

Located only 110 miles apart, the proximity between the universities contributed to the animosity between their fanbases. The teams next faced off ten years later in South Bend where the “Purple” were again defeated, this time 12-0 in a downpour full of fumbles, as the Northwestern’s defensive line was outplayed by the Irish. Two years later, the teams faced off again with Northwestern coming out victorious 2-0 on a first half safety by the Wildcat center referred to only by his surname — Allen.

In 1903, the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Northwestern was less than a foot away from scoring.

Courtesy of Chicago Tribune 11/15/1903

Soon after, Northwestern got rid of its football team for the 1906 and 1907 seasons after many objected to the brutality of the sport.

The teams next faced off in 1920, when the rivalry truly began under the eye of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne. The first controversy between the two schools soon arose when Rockne was unhappy with his salary. Rockne allegedly objected to working at a co-ed institution, yet was intrigued by the possibility to coach in the Big Ten according to Laketheposts. As a result, he used interest from Northwestern to secure a raise. Throughout the 1920s, Notre Dame dominated Northwestern, winning all five of the matchups between the two schools.

In 1930, Rockne had been looking to create a larger fanbase for the Irish, and as a result the rivalry truly began, with the teams fighting for the Shillelagh, (if you want to learn more about the forgotten trophy see the article below) a trophy given to coach Rockne by the Irish free state.

Heading into their 1930 matchup, both teams were undefeated as they entered the final game. Northwestern had already clinched a partial share of the Big Ten title (and won the western conference championship) and the University cancelled classes the Monday after the Wildcats defeated Wisconsin to celebrate the team’s accomplishment and prepare to face Notre Dame in a de-facto national title game the week after. Unfortunately for Wildcat fans, their championship hopes were dashed after a 14-0 loss.

“I don’t think there were many unbiased spectators who will say that there was a 14-point difference in the teams as they played today,” Northwestern coach Dick Hanley said.

The front page of the Chicago Sunday Tribune the day after their 1931 clash
Chicago Tribune Archives

Following the tragic loss of Knute Rockne in a plane crash in March 1931, Notre Dame brought on Heartley Anderson, who coached the Irish to the second 0-0 tie in the history of the rivalry. The matchup took place on Soldier Field in front of a crowd of roughly 65,000, and rain storms caused many fumbles throughout the 2.5 hour slog.

The Fighting Irish triumphed in the next three matchups, all in Evanston, before an important 1935 clash in South Bend. Notre Dame entered the clash 6-0, after defeating a talented Ohio State team in “the game of the century.”

The Wildcats stole a 14-7 victory in South Bend, highlighted by six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries by the “Purple.” Northwestern were defending until the very end as Notre Dame’s Shakespeare (no, not that Shakespeare) had a late-game 47 yard run. A last-gasp Irish pass failed by inches, securing a euphoric victory for coach Pappy Waldorf’s Wildcats over an Irish team that had not lost since the previous season.

The Irish did not take long to return the favor, drubbing Northwestern 26-6 in South Bend the next year, handing the top-ranked 1936 Northwestern squad their first loss of the season.

The annual clash continued between the two, with the Irish winning the 1936-1939 clashes.

Entering the 1940 matchup, both rivals were ranked for the first time since 1936, with Northwestern ranked No. 10 and Notre Dame ranked No. 14. In South Bend, on the back of “burly” fullback Don Clawson who scored two touchdowns, Northwestern won 20-0. This was the most points Northwestern had scored against Notre Dame to date and the most the Irish had given up in nearly four years.

Shortly thereafter began a stretch of Notre Dame dominance, with the Irish winning every matchup between 1941 and 1948. The rivalry was briefly discontinued until it resumed in 1959 under Northwestern coach Ara Parseghian.

Ara’s era and a new wave of controversy

October 25th, 1959 Northwestern defeats Notre Dame in a renewal of the previous rivalry
Chicago Tribune

Parseghian’s No. 2 Wildcats traveled to South Bend on Oct. 24, 1959 to face off against Joe Kuharich’s 2-2 Irish team. Northwestern was explosive in their 30-24 victory, with three of their four touchdowns coming from plays over 50 yards. Northwestern also held Notre Dame’s running game to 47 yards, an impressive total both back then and now.

Parseghian’s Wildcats were victorious in the next two games against Notre Dame, both of which were close matchups. In 1960, the Wildcats won by a score of 7-6, and overpowered the Irish 12-10 in 1961.

Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

The 1962 battle was an important one, Parseghain’s Wildcats entered the game coming off a huge road victory over Ohio State and ranked third in the country. The Wildcats controlled the matchup throughout, with Notre Dame having only one successful drive, a 77 yard scoring drive four minutes into the 4th quarter. Northwestern quarterback Tom Myers was excellent, completing 13 passes for two touchdowns, both to Paul Flatley. The ‘Cats won handily, 35-6. Yet NU lost their last two games of the season and have not been ranked as high as third since then.

Parseghian’s shocking defection to Notre Dame in 1964 added a new intensity to the recently revived rivalry. After a falling out with Athletic Director Stu Holcomb, Parseghian’s contract was not renewed with the Wildcats. As a result, he moved to South Bend and took three Northwestern assistant coaches with him.

Post Parseghian — Striving to recreate the glory days

After the move of coach Parseghian, Northwestern got blown out in the next 14 games against the Irish, with Parseghian the mastermind behind nine-straight Irish victories. That stretch of losses for the Wildcats culminated in an embarrassing 48-0 rout at the hands of Notre Dame in Evanston. The rivalry matchup was not played from 1977-1991, which was fortunate for the Wildcats as they did not have a single season with a .500 win percentage or better, and five seasons winning either one or zero games (it definitely was not an easy time to be a Northwestern fan).

The front page of September 3rd’s Chicago Tribune, the day after Northwestern shocked Notre Dame in South Bend
Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

Entering their 1995 season opener, Northwestern had not beaten Notre Dame since 1962. Gary Barnett’s Wildcats were 27-point underdogs but put on a special performance in their 17-15 victory. The team’s slogan of “expect victory” was finally being given the respect it deserved. Running back Darnell Autry ran for 160 yards on 33 carries. The game-winning touchdown for Northwestern was a 25-yard pass from Steve Schnur to D’Wayne Bates in the third quarter. This victory sent reverberations all across college football and kicked off a historic season, as Barnett’s Wildcats finished 8-0 in the Big Ten and 10-1 in the regular season, losing 41-32 in the Rose Bowl to USC.

The next time the two rivals faced off was 2014, with former Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, a starter for the 1995 victory, matching up against Notre Dame for the first time as a coach. Once again the No. 18 Irish entered the game as massive favorites, this time by 17 points. The Irish jumped out to an early lead, 20-9 at the end of the first quarter. Northwestern entered halftime down four, after a Justin Jackson touchdown run and Trevor Siemian pass to Kyle Prater. The Wildcats entered the 4th quarter down 34-26, but scored 10 points in the last 5 minutes to send the game to overtime. In overtime, Notre Dame had possession of the ball first, they gained no yardage on a first down completion before throwing two incomplete passes before Kyle Brindza missed a 42 yard field goal, giving the Wildcats the opportunity to win. Coach Fitzgerald took a conservative approach, running the ball three times for a gain of one yard, before giving kicker Jack Mitchell an opportunity to win the game, where he made a 41-yard field goal to defeat the Fighting Irish.

NU’s win over Notre Dame remains one of the most enduring memories of the Pat Fitzgerald era. A win over No. 4 Notre Dame under the lights on Saturday could beat it.