The Notre Dame football program was on some hard times in 1986. The tenure of Gerry Faust from 1981 to 1985 just hadn’t gone the way anybody hoped. The Irish had finished sub-.500 in two of those years, including 1985. They hadn’t reached a major bowl game since 1980 and hadn’t won a national title since 1977.
Lou Holtz was hired to fix all of the above. The 1986 Notre Dame football team was first go-around in South Bend and while you could clearly see the progress, there was a lot of heartbreak along the way.
Those twin themes of progress and heartbreak were on display in the opening game against Michigan on September 13. Playing in front of the home crowd, Notre Dame took leads of 7-0 and 14-7. Even when the Wolverines jumped out to a 24-14 lead, Irish quarterback Steve Beurlein rallied the offense.
Beurlein finished 21-for-33 with 263 yards, and led a drive for a touchdown and a field goal. But there was missed extra point in the mix and Notre Dame still trailed by a point when Beurlein got them in position for a 45-yard field goal with 17 seconds left.
John Carney was the Notre Dame kicker and had a long NFL career in front of him. He would make the Pro Bowl for the San Diego Chargers in their Super Bowl year of 1994 and lasted in the NFL until early 2010. All of which makes his rough day on this afternoon stand out even more. Carney, having already missed an extra point, now missed a chance at redemption on the final play.
Notre Dame’s 24-23 loss was crushing, but also filled with hope. Michigan had come into the game ranked #3, they had a feisty quarterback in Jim Harbaugh and were on their way to a Big Ten title. Surely, if the Irish could hang like this with the Wolverines, then a lot of wins were around the corner. The game even made the cover of Sports Illustrated, indicating Notre Dame was perceived as being back.
Those optimistic prophecies would be proven true, but it would take longer than anyone thought. Another close loss to a mediocre Michigan State team followed. Holtz got his first Notre Dame win when they blew out Purdue, but an October 4 visit to #2 Alabama didn’t go as well.
The Crimson Tide had a tough defense, and while they would eventually be exposed as less than national championship worthy, today wasn’t going to be that day. Their All-American linebacker, Cornelius Bennett hit Beurlein on a ferocious, tone-setting sack early and the Tide won 28-10.
Notre Dame came home and lost a heartbreaker to Pitt, a team en route to a 5-5-1 record. Now the Irish were down to 1-4. The next four weeks included a bye, along with easy wins over Air Force, Navy and SMU.
The first and last of these games shouldn’t be overlooked—Air Force was a consistently good team, one that Faust openly lamented about his troubles with. And SMU was an above-average team, this being a year before the NCAA leveled them with the “death penalty” shutting the program down. To drop 61 points on the Mustangs in 1986, as Beurlein’s offense did, was a significant accomplishment.
With the record now even at 4-4, Notre Dame faced three big battles. Undefeated Penn State would come to South Bend on November 15, eighth-ranked LSU awaited a week later and the season would end on Thanksgiving Saturday at #17 Southern Cal.
If the game against Michigan was a heartbreaker, the Penn State game went a step beyond that. Tim Brown, the explosive receiver and return man who was just a year away from winning the Heisman Trophy, had a 97-yard kickoff return called back. Notre Dame trailed 24-13 in the fourth quarter and against one of the country’s best defenses they rallied.
Beurlein hit Brown on a touchdown pass, their second scoring connection of the day. The two-point play was missed, but the Irish got the ball back on their own 15-yard line with 2:29 to play. Five straight completions put the ball on the Penn State 6-yard line with 1:28 left.
If we fast-forward the calendar about six weeks, the Nittany Lions would make a similar stand in almost identical fashion against Miami to win the national championship. This was the dress rehearsal. Brown was a tackled for a three-yard loss. Beurlein was sacked on second down, just as Penn State would do to Miami’s Vinny Testaverde in the upcoming Fiesta Bowl.
On third down, Beurlein found tight end Joel Williams in the end zone, but a perfectly timed hit jarred the ball loose before Williams could come down with it. The fourth down play was easily turned back and Notre Dame had its heart broken again.
One more crushing loss awaited down in the Bayou as LSU, on its way to the Sugar Bowl, survived Notre Dame by a 21-19 count. Finally, in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the worm turned.
USC appeared to running away with it, leading 30-12 in the third quarter, and that Holtz was destined to go down as the coach of the best 4-7 team in history. But Notre Dame, as they had all year, just kept fighting. Beurlein threw three touchdown passes and the lead was cut to 37-35.
The defense held the Trojans, and the ball was punted to Brown. The WR/return man’s early 1987 Heisman campaign took a big step forward when he brought it back 56 yards and set up a chip shot field goal by Carney to win it.
The 1986 Notre Dame football season might have ended at 5-6, but it was clear to all who watched how far this program had come in one year under Holtz. They lived through the heartbreak, but the progress would bear fruit one year later with a return to the major bowl stage, and in 1988 with a national championship.