Having had the opportunity to attend every Notre Dame home game over the last four years, I’ve had the privilege to see a lot of great players come through its hallowed grounds. Braylon Edwards, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Paul Posluszny and Matt Ryan (72 million?! Really!?!), among many others, have tried their luck against the Irish, and it gave Notre Dame fans a lot of really entertaining (but mostly soul-crushing) games. In chronological order, the best and worst of Notre Dame Stadium over the last four years.
September 11, 2004 vs. Michigan: Haaaave you met Darius?
Coming off a horribly embarrassing opening night loss to Matt Payne and the BYU Cougars, the 7th-ranked Wolverines were going to be quite the test for the young Irish, led by sophomore signal-caller Brady Quinn. After a woeful ground performance in Provo, Ty Willingham made one of the best decisions of his Irish tenure, unleashing freshman running back Darius Walker onto the world with a series of sweeps and tosses that Michigan had little success countering. After trailing 9-0 at the half, the Irish exploded for 28 second half points, led by D-Walk’s 115 yards and 2 touchdowns. Matt Shelton also started his magical season with a bang, hauling in a 46-yard bomb that first put the Irish on the board. This would, without question, be the highlight of the 2004 season.
November 5, 2005 vs. Tennessee: Zibby Climbs Rocky Top
Seen as the last major roadblock separating the two-loss Irish from a BCS bowl, the Volunteers were looking for revenge after the inexplicable Notre Dame win in Neyland the season previous. Quinn stormed the Irish out to a 21-3 lead with a couple of touchdown throws to Maurice Stovall and Anthony Fasano, but Rocky Top came back to tie the game at 21 in the third. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the home team poured on twenty fourth quarter points to win 41-21. This was also the game where Tom Zbikowski cemented his legacy for the next season and a half, returning a punt and an interception for touchdowns.
September 9, 2006 vs. Penn State: The Excellence of Execution
Other than maybe the road dissections of Pitt and Purdue in his first season, this was the finest performance put on by a Charlie Weis team. I remember looking up at the scoreboard and marveling at the fact we were beating a highly regarded, defending Big Ten and Orange Bowl champ Penn State team 41-3. How did the Irish get there? A beautiful game by Quinn and John Carlson, and an absolutely miserable game by Anthony Morelli, who squandered a great effort by Tony Hunt, whose 6.2 yards per carry average didn’t do the Nittany Lions much good once they trailed by 38 points in the third quarter. Thanks to their victory in State College last September, Penn State fans have finally stopped whining that faking a punt and going for it on fourth down – in the third quarter! – was piling it on.