The decade that concludes this evening has been the Brian Kelly decade. Notre Dame’s head coach was hired in December of 2009, and in the 10 years since he was hired the Irish have had a pair of undefeated regular seasons and have three other seasons with at least 10 victories.
It’s been an up-and-down affair at times, but it’s also been a decade with plenty of memorable wins. Below is a breakdown of what I view as the 10 best wins of the past 10 years.
It looks at how big the games were when they were played, not how they looked from a hindsight standpoint, which is why the 2013 victory over Michigan State - a team that finished 13-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country - is not included. At the time the Spartans were unranked, and it was an ugly game, only later did we realize just how big of a victory that was for the Irish.
With that being said, here’s my 10 best Notre Dame wins of the last 10 years.
10. November 27, 2010 — Notre Dame 20, USC 16 — Kelly has gone 7-3 against the Trojans, so beating USC has become expected during his tenure, but when the Irish beat USC to finish the 2010 regular season it had been almost a decade since the last time Notre Dame had defeated its biggest rival.
There were many memorable moments in that game as well. The three that stand out the most are Harrison Smith’s game-clinching interception, USC wide receiver Ron Johnson dropping a would-be touchdown and Robert Hughes destroying Chris Galippo on the final touchdown drive. In, fact, that entire final drive was one to remember.
9. September 1, 2018 — Notre Dame 24, Michigan 17 — Listening to Michigan fans talk about how bad they were going to beat Notre Dame made for a long offseason, and fuel was added to the fire when the Irish were considered home underdogs against the Wolverines, who were coming off an 8-5 season and Notre Dame was coming off a 10-3 campaign.
Notre Dame jumped all over Michigan, taking a 21-3 lead in the game. It was an old-school physical battle between the two teams, but the Irish controlled the action throughout. It was the last brilliant game from Brandon Wimbush, and the Irish defensive line announced itself as one of the nation’s best in that game. It was a win I won’t soon forget, and it let the college football world know the 2018 Fighting Irish were a legit team.
8. September 5, 2015 — Notre Dame 38, Texas 3 — This might have been the most dominant Irish victory of the decade, and it was certainly one of the most convincing wins over a brand program of the last couple of decades. There was a great deal of excitement coming into this game, with the Irish checking in as the No. 11 team in the country. It was the official beginning of the unfortunately short-lived Malik Zaire era, and the stadium renovations created a much louder environment.
Notre Dame destroyed Texas, out-gaining the Longhorns by a 527-163 mark. The performance Zaire put together is without question the best single-game performance from a Notre Dame quarterback in this decade. Zaire completed 19-of-22 passes for 313 yards and three scores, and we were introduced to Josh Adams, who rushed for two touchdowns in his first career game.
7. December 31, 2010 — Notre Dame 33, Miami 17 — It was nine years ago that Notre Dame earned one of my favorite wins of the Kelly era, but it was also a big win. No, Miami wasn’t very good, and they were going through a coaching change, but it was still Miami, and anytime you can beat Miami it’s a big game, and a fun win.
This was also a big win for Notre Dame. The 3-0 finish to the regular season, which included a 28-3 win against a ranked Utah team and the road victory at USC, had recruits buzzing about the Irish. Beating Miami … no, let me rephrase … pounding Miami resonated with recruits, sent Notre Dame into the offseason with a great deal of momentum and played a huge role in the Irish finishing off the 2011 class in impressive fashion.
6. September 6, 2014 — Notre Dame 31, Michigan 0 — I imagine this game will be much higher up the list with some of you, but it ranks a bit lower for me. The main reason is Michigan stunk and everyone knew it. But that doesn’t take away from how fun this win was for the Irish and its fans. Anytime you can spank a rival the way Notre Dame did it’s a big game. I would imagine some of you will also say I provided the wrong score (37-0).
Adding to the significance of the game was Michigan’s trash talking about Notre Dame’s decision to end the rivalry. The year prior the Wolverines insinuated that Notre Dame was chickening out, so the Irish absolutely destroying Michigan squashed that talk. The shutout was the first Notre Dame had ever earned over Michigan, which only added to the significance.
5. September 29, 2018 — Notre Dame 38, Stanford 17 — This game was huge for Notre Dame in many ways. First of all, the Cardinal were ranked No. 7 in the country at the time, and while they ended up not being that good, when the game happened it was arguably one of the biggest wins of the Kelly era. Notre Dame was ranked No. 6, and a victory over Stanford would have been another huge resume builder.
Notre Dame had only defeated Stanford twice in the previous decade, and those two wins were by a combined 10 points, so the Irish finally putting a beat down on the Cardinal was huge. It seemed like a shift in momentum in the series, which had been controlled by Stanford for a decade. That proved to be correct, as Notre Dame went on to blast the Cardinal again in 2019 (45-24), but the groundwork was laid in this game.
Stanford was 89-23 overall and 5-2 against Notre Dame from 2010 to the time this game was played, while the Irish were 73-34. Since this win, Notre Dame has gone 18-3 while Stanford has gone 9-11, including two blowout losses to the Irish.
4. December 30, 2014 — Notre Dame 31, LSU 28 — The Irish had lost the last four games it played and the Kelly tenure was on the brink. This wasn’t a great LSU team, but it had Leonard Fournette and it seemed no one thought the Irish had a chance to win this game. Notre Dame was a seven-point dog and most analysts covering Notre Dame picked the Irish to lose. The win helped erase some of the bad memories from November and gave the Irish a much-needed shot in the arm heading into the offseason.
On top of that it was just a tremendous football game. Notre Dame let LSU know it was in for a dog fight on the very first series, taking the opening drive down the field for a touchdown. Watching Notre Dame physically push LSU around made me feel like I was watching a vintage Irish squad. The Irish rushed for 263 yards, but the big play of the game was CJ Prosise’s 50-yard touchdown run, which showed the Irish could also match LSU athlete for athlete.
The dramatic fashion the win was achieved, with both Zaire and Everett Golson leading the final drive that set up Kyle Brindza’s walk-off 32-yard field.
3. October 27, 2012 — Notre Dame 31, Oklahoma 13 — What a game this was. It was a matchup of two storied programs, a matchup of two Top 10 programs, and it was the game that truly put Notre Dame on the map. The overtime victory over Stanford helped vault the Irish up the rankings, but despite Notre Dame being ranked No. 5 and Oklahoma ranking No. 8, the Irish were double-digit underdogs. No way Notre Dame could handle the speed of the Sooner offense, right?
Notre Dame took a first-quarter lead and led until the fourth quarter. After the Sooners tied it 13-13 with 9:10 left in the game it seemed Notre Dame was in trouble, but on the very next series the Irish staff dialed up a gutsy call, and Golson let loose with a bomb to wide receiver Chris Brown for a 50-yard gain. Five plays later Golson dove into the end zone to give the Irish the lead, and they outscored the Sooner 17-0 in the final nine minutes.
After beating Oklahoma the idea of Notre Dame playing for a national championship became very, very real.
2. October 13, 2012 — Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13 — Stanford’s dominance over Notre Dame began in 2009, and there wasn’t a single player on the Irish roster that had actually played in a win over Stanford. The two previous Stanford wins were by 27 and 14 points, and the Irish had not been competitive in either game. The Cardinal were the giant that needed to be slayed.
Overtime was needed, but the Irish ultimately slayed the Stanford dragon, winning 20-13 with a memorable fourth-down stop. That is what made this game even more impactful, Notre Dame beat Stanford by playing Stanford football. Great defense, control the clock, run the ball and don’t make mistakes. Golson’s touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Eifert was one of the best throws and catches of the last decade.
The Oklahoma game is what truly vaulted Notre Dame into elite status, but without the win over Stanford that game doesn’t mean nearly as much.
1. October 21, 2017 — Notre Dame 49, USC 14 — This is an easy choice for me. This was the only time in this decade that both Notre Dame and USC were ranked in the Top 15. The Trojans were 6-1 and ranked No. 11 in the country, while the Irish were ranked No. 13. We had not seen a matchup like this since the 2006 season, and it was a chance for Notre Dame to make a statement over its rival.
USC was led by QB Sam Darnold, who went on to become the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Trojans finished 11-3 and were the Pac 12 champions, but on this night they were physically embarrassed by Notre Dame. Notre Dame rushed for 377 yards and beat up the Trojans along both lines. It was the most physically dominating performance by a Notre Dame team in the decade, and it came on a big stage against the program’s biggest rival. It was clear by the fourth quarter that USC simply did not want to get hit in the mouth anymore.
Watching Quenton Nelson abuse the USC linemen was so much fun to watch, but Notre Dame also had the better athletes. The Trojans simply had no answer for Wimbush on that night as Noter Dame earned arguably the most impressive victory of the Kelly era.