The 1995 Notre Dame football team overcame a lot of adversity. They were coming off one of the worst seasons of the Lou Holtz era in 1994. They opened ’95 with a loss that looked a lot worse at the time than it really turned out to be. Even their coach was on the injured list for a while. Yet somehow, the Irish made it back to a major bowl game.
Notre Dame was ranked ninth in the nation, a testament to the respect the program had since Holtz had come aboard in 1986 and returned ND to the New Year’s Day stage a year later. Because the previous year had been miserable, the defensive talent was still not the stuff of the national elite and there were questions about whether hyped junior quarterback Ron Powlus would ever fulfill the “can’t miss” tag he had been unfortunately tagged with.
If nothing else, the schedule was aligned to allow for a quick 3-0 start. The school’s fabled rivalry with Michigan was off the docket for a couple years and replaced by a game with Ohio State, one that would take place towards the end of September. Notre Dame began the year with Northwestern, Purdue and Vanderbilt, none of whom had been competitive in recent years.
Then Northwestern came into South Bend on September 2 and stunned the nation. Linebacker and future head coach Pat Fitzgerald led a defense that collared the Irish. Powlus was sacked four times. Northwestern led 17-9 late in the game, when Notre Dame scored and had an opportunity to tie it with 6:16 left.
But on the two-point try, Powlus tripped over an offensive lineman’s foot and the game stayed 17-15. Notre Dame reached their own 44-yard line with four minutes to play, but were stuffed on a 4th-and-2. Ballgame and shock waves were going through the Irish program.
It turns out this was going to be a magical year for Northwestern. They won the Big Ten title outright, a turn of events even more stunning than the single-game magic in South Bend. If someone could have known that in the late afternoon and early evening of September 2, it would have soothed some Irish pride. But the immediate aftermath was that Northwestern didn’t even break the rankings, while Notre Dame barely hung on to a spot at #25. The result was seen as being far more about the Irish than the Wildcats.
Notre Dame beat Purdue, and then in the week leading up to the Vanderbilt game, it was revealed that Holtz would have to go in for spinal tap surgery. The 58-year-old coach was supposed to miss three games—it turns out, he would only miss the Vandy game, an easy 41-0 win, and be in the press box thereafter, but it was more piece of adversity in an opening schedule segment that was anything but the easy 3-0 that had been forecast.
September 23 saw Notre Dame host Texas. These two schools had played twice in Cotton Bowl games that settled national championships, the Longhorns winning in 1970 and the Irish in 1977. The ‘Horns were ranked 13th in the nation and were bound for the title of the old Southwest Conference (a league whose best teams, led by Texas, would merge with the Big Eight and create the Big 12 one year later).
There were 933 yards of combined total offense in this one. Notre Dame made a big play early, when Emmett Mosley returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. Texas quarterback James Brown threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns, and had his team ahead 21-17 in the third quarter.
Then the Irish offense unloaded. Powlus finished with 273 yards passing. Derrick Mayes, the game-breaking receiver that was the offense’s best player in 1995, caught six passes for 146 yards. A ground game led by running backs Randy Kinder and Autry Denson, along with fullback Marc Edwards, produced 249 yards. Notre Dame scored 38 points in the last quarter and a half and won the game 55-27.
The polls moved the Irish back to #15 and now an even bigger test awaited one week later. Notre Dame was going to Ohio State. The Buckeyes were undefeated and this was the best team Columbus had seen since their last Rose Bowl team in 1984. National title talk was in the air for Ohio State.
Notre Dame was ready to play though, and led 20-14 early in the third quarter. Kinder ran for 143 yards and three touchdowns on the afternoon. But mistakes were Notre Dame’s undoing in a rapid-fire series of events in the second half.
Moseley muffed a punt and the Buckeyes turned it into a quick touchdown. Powlus, after hitting Mayes with a 56-yard pass to get the Irish threatening, immediately overthrew Mayes and the ball was intercepted. Ohio State receiver Terry Glenn caught a simple 12-yard hook and turned it into an 82-yard touchdown pass. Notre Dame got the ball back and fumbled, resulting in another quick Ohio State touchdown.
The speed of this Ohio State turnaround is legendary for this writer and his immediate social circle. We were all helping a friend move that day, and had the game on in the background. Notre Dame was ahead when we decided to knock it off for the day and drive to a nearby sports bar.
Those of us from out of town briefly got lost. By the time we walked in, the 20-14 game we had left had turned into 35-20. Being logical sports fans, we blame the friend who got us lost for costing the Irish their last bid for a national title. The game ended 45-26.
Any glimmering hopes of a national championship were gone, and the season itself was in jeopardy. Two of the next three games would be against the teams that would share the Pac-10 title, a road game in Washington and a home date with USC.
Notre Dame answered the bell in Seattle a week after the Ohio State loss, and in a close game, it was Washington who made the key mistakes this time, as the Irish won 29-21. After a narrow escape at Army, all of South Bend got ready for the rivalry battle with Southern Cal, ranked #5 in the country and undefeated.
What took place was the best football game the Irish played in three years. Denson ran for 95 yards, Edwards ran for 82, and Holtz kept an aggressive Trojan defense off balance with screen passes. USC turned it over four times. This was a good Trojan team that had Keyshawn Johnson at receiver and would ultimately beat Northwestern in the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame made USC look silly on this day, winning 38-10 and moving up to #12 in the rankings.
The win over Southern Cal set the stage for victories over Boston College, Navy and Air Force, as the Irish first won their battle for the soul of the Catholic Church, and then took down the U.S. military. The downside? Powlus broke his arm in the Navy game, and would not be available for the Orange Bowl date the team earned.
Notre Dame was up to #6 nationally and they matched up with Florida State. Two years earlier, these teams played an epic 1 vs. 2 battle won by the Irish. The prior year, the Seminoles got revenge. Notre Dame played well in the rubber match, but not quite well enough.
Tom Krug was in for Powlus, and he hit Mayes on a 39-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. In the third quarter, Krug again went over the top to Mayes for 33 yards and a touchdown. Notre Dame led 26-14.
But Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell threw four touchdown passes on the night and two of them came in the fourth quarter. The Seminoles rallied to win 31-26 and end the Irish season on a disappointing note.
Disappointing or not, the 1995 Notre Dame football team showed some grit. It certainly wasn’t the best team of the Holtz era, but it was pretty good and they reached a major bowl game in spite of a tough schedule. And they should they could handle adversity along the way.