clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Penn State - Notre Dame: A History of the Rivalry

Lately I think we've all noticed a little animosity between fans of the great institutions of Notre Dame and our beloved Dear Ol' State. I've been thinking about this lately trying to come up with an explanation why two fan bases with no geographic ties having only met on the field 18 (soon to be 19) times in over 120 years could possibly detest each other so much. I took a look back at the history between the two schools and put together a timeline of events you may find interesting. (Or you may not, in which case I would suggest you just come back tomorrow to see if I have my Michigan State preview ready.)


The two schools met four times from 1913-1928. Penn State was still a relatively infant program. Notre Dame was a already national powerhouse with five National Championships in that span. Penn State was completely overmatched and held an 0-3-1 record against the Fighting Irish. It would be over four decades later before the schools would meet again. Notre Dame would win five national championships in that time while Penn State struggled to build a program and gain national recognition.


Joe Paterno leads the Penn State Nittany Lions to a perfect 12-0 record. It is his third perfect season in six years, yet for the third time Penn State is denied the National Championship as they finish #5 in the polls. The title instead goes to an 11-0 Notre Dame squad. It is the seventeenth National Championship for the Irish (not all consensus).


The Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish would get a chance to settle the 1973 score on the field as the two teams met in the 1976 Gator Bowl. Joe Paterno's 7-4 team was outmatched by Dan Bevine's 8-3 Irish, and Notre Dame cruised to an easy 20-9 win. It was only Joe Paterno's third loss in nine career bowl games.


The two storied programs would play the first of a series of games that would span the next 12 years. In that time the two schools would combine for three National Championships. In nine of those games at least one of the two teams was ranked, and in five contests, including the last four, both teams were ranked in the top 25. Penn State won the first game in State College 24-21


Penn State took their #5 rank and 8-1 record to meet the #13 Irish. Notre Dame had a 6-1-1 record and was coming off a fresh upset of #1 ranked Pitt the week before. A win over Penn State would put the Irish in a position to get back in the race for the National Championship.

When the Penn State team plane landed in Indiana they were met by a sea of reporters. It was the first trip by Joe Paterno led team into South Bend. Paterno was peppered with questions about how he was going to keep his players focused on the game when surrounded by all the Notre Dame mystique and tradition. The put-off Paterno loaded his team on the bus and took them straight to the hotel. Once there he assembled them and gave them a speech that included this line which has lived on in Penn State lore ever since:

You're going to hear all about Notre Dame tradition, and you know what? It doesn't mean a thing unless Knute Rockne leaps out of the ground and tackles you. Their field has got a hundred yards and two goalposts just like every other football field.

Penn State went on to escape Notre Dame with a 24-14 win. The win propelled the Nittany Lions to #2 in the polls. They then went on to beat #5 ranked Pitt and the #1 ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl to give Joe Paterno his first National Championship. The Irish would go on to lose to Air Force and USC to end their season on a disappointing three game losing streak and not make a bowl game.


Both teams were having relatively disappointing seasons and were unranked. The defending National Champion Nittany Lions appeared to be turning things around after losing their first three games of the season and rallying to beat #3 Alabama and #5 West Virginia. Penn State rallied on a last minute touchdown drive to down the Irish 34-30 in Happy Valley.


Both teams were once again unranked, a rarity since the series began in 1981. Notre Dame routed Penn State in convincing 44-7 fashion.


Joe Paterno returned the favor from 1984 as #1 ranked Penn State destroyed the Irish 36-6. Penn State would go on to play in the National Championship game where they would lose to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl. After several disappointing years, Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust would resign at the end of the season to spare himself the embarrassment of being fired.


The Penn State program is at an all time high. They won the championship in '82 and played in the National Championship game in 1985. In 1986 they were on their way to beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl and winning their second national championship.

The Nittany Lions won the game against Notre Dame that year 24-19. It was Penn State's fifth win in six games over the Irish since the series was renewed in 1981. Notre Dame was at a low point in their program. They had suffered through several mediocre years since their 9-2-1 record in 1980. But Lou Holtz was in his first year in South Bend, and things were about to change.


Lou Holtz had the Irish headed in the right direction in only his second season. Penn State was a modest 7-3 and unranked as Notre Dame came to Happy Valley for the regular season finale. Notre Dame was riding high with an 8-1 record and a #7 ranking. With the defending National Champion Nittany Lions having an off year and #1 ranked Miami on the schedule the following week, the Irish were in prime position to put themselves in the National Championship game.

Notre Dame scored a touchdown in the final minute against Penn State to pull within one point. Figuring an extra point and tie wouldn't be good enough in the eyes of the voters, Holtz decided to go for the two point conversion. Heisman Trophy candidate Tony Rice was stuffed short of the line and Penn State held on for the 21-20 victory. Notre Dame would go on to lose to Miami and Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to finish with a disappointing 8-4 record.


The Irish came into the annual contest undefeated and ranked #1 in the country. The Irish defense dominated as Penn State fell by a 21-3 score. The Irish would go on to win their last National Championship.


Notre Dame was riding high as for the second year in a row the defending National Champions brought a 22 game winning streak and #1 ranking into the game. Joe Paterno had his Lions climbing back after missing from the national scene for a few years. They came into the game with a 6-2-1 record and a #17 ranking with their two losses against ranked teams by very close margins. But Lou Holtz and the Irish were once again too good for the Lions as they fell for the second consecutive year. It was the first time Notre Dame had beaten Penn State in consecutive games since 1928.


Roles had completely reversed. While Penn State dominated the early part of the 1980's, the Fighting Irish were now in the midst of a small dynasty of their own. For the third consecutive year Notre Dame came into the game with a #1 ranking. Penn State had started the year with losses to Texas and USC, but were coming on strong with seven consecutive wins. Still, #18 ranked Penn State was a heavy underdog going into South Bend.

The Irish took an early 14-0 lead, but Rocket Ismail left the game with an injury and Notre Dame's offense struggled in the second half. With the score tied, Rick Mirer threw an interception in the final minute of the game. Craig Fayak kicked the game winning field goal as the clock ticked down and Penn State escaped South Bend with a 24-21 win. Like 1982 and 1987, the Irish's dreams of winning the National Championship were dashed once again by Joe Paterno.


Both teams came in with identical 8-2 records. Penn State was ranked #8 while the Irish were ranked #12. Notre Dame was shell shocked by a loss to Tennessee the week before, and Joe Paterno's boys took them behind the wood shed for a 35-13 thumping. This would be Paterno's last win against Notre Dame.


Notre Dame was having a good year with a 7-1-1 record while Penn State was struggling at 6-3 after a 5-0 start. With light snow falling all afternoon both offenses had trouble putting points on the board. Penn State took a 16-9 lead late in the fourth quarter and it looked like Paterno might once again have Holtz's number. Rick Mirer led the Irish down the field and found fullback Jerome Bettis open in the flat for a touchdown. Trailing by one Lou Holtz decided to go for the two point conversion just as he had in 1987. This time Mirer found Reggie Brooks open in the back of the endzone and Notre Dame pulled out the one point win in the game that would forever be known in South Bend as "The Snow Bowl". (ed. note - Penn State fans prefer to call it a "light dusting." Our Snow Bowl was in Happy Valley on November 18, 1995 against Michigan. Two feet, bitches! Top that!)


Penn State accepts an invitation to join the Big Ten Conference. The two storied programs that shared a bond as two of the last independent teams in college football parted ways. They would not play again for 14 years.

Penn State is also forced to end its century old series with in-state rival Pitt. This leaves Penn State without a natural rival and forces them to look elsewhere. Ohio State and Michigan absorb some of that, but some of it falls on Notre Dame when the series is renewed in 2006.

1994 - 2005

Penn State went on to do well in their first few years in the Big Ten. They went undefeated in 1994 and held #1 rankings for part of the time in the 1997 and 1999 seasons. Then they fell from grace in 2000 through 2004.

Notre Dame had a decent year in 1993 going 11-1, but then they struggled for the next decade with a brief bit of success in 2002 under Ty Willingham.

In 2005 both teams enjoyed success with Penn State winning the Big Ten title and Notre Dame earning a BCS bowl birth under first year coach Charlie Weis. The success in 2005 would lead to heightened expectations for both teams going into 2006.


The two storied programs meet again for the first time since 1992 and it's just like old times. Charlie Weis' senior laden group is too much for the Nittany Lions in a rebuilding year. Several Penn State turnovers lead to an Irish route. Penn State scores a few late touchdowns to make the 41-17 score seem closer than it really is.

With five minutes to go in the third quarter Notre Dame holds a comfortable 27-3 lead on a day when the Penn State offense is completely out of rhythm. Weis calls for a fake punt that results in a 43 yard gain to the PSU five yard line. Penn State holds the line on the next three plays, but Weis elects to go for the touchdown on fourth down rather than kick a field goal. When Travis Thomas crosses the goal line Weis is seen on television pumping his fist.

Then in the fourth quarter with Notre Dame ahead 34-3, Weis again elects to go for a first down rather than kick a field goal from the Penn State 25 yard line. Notre Dame goes on to score another touchdown at the end of the drive. Weis' actions leave a foul taste in the mouths of Penn State fans who feel like Weis was running up the score.

What Have We Learned Today?

I think there is a lot of reasons we can glean from this to explain the animosity between the two fan bases.

*    Several nail biting finishes that came down to the last minute sending one side into euphoria and the other into despair.
*    A few notable routes that rubbed salt in the wound of the losing fan base.
*    Two schools proud of their tradition that feel insulted when the other school's tradition is lauded without recognition for their own.
*    Two schools that featured two famous coaches during much of the 12 year span in the 80's and 90's drawing added attention from the media.
*    Two schools experiencing long periods of success at the expense of the other breeding arrogance in some generations of fans and jealousy in others.
*    Penn State ending Notre Dame's national championship hopes three times (1982, 1987 and 1990)
*    A rivalry getting extremely heated at the tail end of the 1980's before Penn State had to abruptly end it to join the Big Ten.
*    The end of Penn State's rivalry with Pitt leaves Penn State fans searching for a new rival. Ohio State and Michigan fill the void somewhat but not completely. Still searching, Penn State fans turn toward Notre Dame when the rivalry is renewed in 2006.
*    Two schools that have experienced long periods of disappointment that suddenly find themselves in a period of recent success. Struggling to determine where they fit in the college football landscape they find themselves hitting head on in 2006 and 2007.

Now I think it's a fair assumption to say that Penn State fans are a little more obsessed than Notre Dame fans when it comes to this rivalry. There are a few reasons for this.

*    Notre Dame fans consider USC and even Michigan as bigger rivals than Penn State.
*    North Eastern Pennsylvania has a high population of Catholics. Growing up in high school I was fortunate to attend just about every single football game and we played a lot of teams from NE PA. I can tell you first hand that probably two out of every three high schools in NE PA have adopted the Notre Dame fight song as their own. Notre Dame is huge up there. They are just as big as Penn State if not bigger. This mix of fan bases living in close proximity gives the feel of a natural in-state rivalry.
*    Penn State has a history of being snubbed by the media. Four times Joe Paterno has led an undefeated team that was not awarded the National Championship ('68, '69, '73, and '94). Notre Dame is unquestionably a media darling so it's only natural Penn State's hatred of the media would be directed toward the one the writers adore.

Add all of this up and it's easy to see why these two schools share a little animosity between each other. It's a great rivalry between two classy programs with very rich and very proud traditions. It's a shame they can't find a way to continue the series every year beyond 2007.