When Stanford plays Notre Dame, it has that big brother versus little brother feeling to it. Some may say it's more like a family get-together where you see that one cousin that you hate that won't shut up until you smack them one time. Stanford and Notre Dame have only played 29 times in their history which is very small considering the history of both schools but there have been monumental games that have changed seasons and programs for better or worse.
Stanford first played Notre Dame in 1925 in the Rose Bowl while both sides featured legendary players and coaches. Notre Dame had Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen while Stanford had Pop Warner and Ernie Nevers. Both squads came in undefeated and Notre Dame left victorious but it was Ernie Nevers of Stanford who is forever immortalized by playing on two broken ankles and outplaying the Four Horsemen. While Nevers was becoming a legend, Notre Dame was celebrating its first national championship.
Stanford would go on to win a national championship in 1926 but Notre Dame was turning into a powerhouse. Notre Dame won consecutive championships in 1929 and 1930 while it took Stanford 14 years to win another. That would be the last National Championship Stanford would win while Notre Dame went on to win another 8. Even with national championships flying between these two schools early on, this so-called rivalry hasn't been nationally relevant as most rivalries due to many years without playing each other. After the 1925 Rose Bowl, Stanford and Notre Dame didn't play again until 1942. That would be their only game between each other until 1963 and 1964 and was stopped again until 1988.
It is truly a shame that these two schools could not have played more during the earlier years as it could have produced more championship moments for either side. To think that five of Notre Dame's Heisman winners never played Stanford and that Stanford Heisman winner Jim Plunkett and Stanford great John Elway never got a chance to play Notre Dame is terrible because it would have been great to see.
Since 1988, Notre Dame and Stanford have only missed two seasons where they did not play each other. Notre Dame would own the two games in the 1980's as they owned everyone, losing only 1 game in 1988 and 1989. The 1990 game however changed the course of how these two schools finally viewed each other. In 1990, Notre Dame came into the season ranked #1 and beat #4 Michigan in their first game of the year. Notre Dame was in prime position to win another national championship. That was until October 6th 1990 when 1-3 Stanford played in South Bend against the top-ranked Irish. Stanford outscored Notre Dame 21-7 in the 2nd half and had their first win over Notre Dame since 1963 and was their first ever win at Notre Dame.
Stanford would lose the following year but came back the next year in what is known as the "midterms" game. Stanford came into this game ranked and even if the upset from 1990 was forgotten, Notre Dame was not going to get snake bitten again by overlooking Stanford. It started out just as Notre Dame would have liked with a 16-0 lead. Notre Dame went into halftime with a 16-6 lead but a hit that will forever remain in Stanford lore happened in the 3rd quarter. Notre Dame gave the ball to fearsome running back Jerome Bettis and John Lynch met him head on that caused a fumble and a Stanford recovery. The momentum swayed toward Stanford and never left. Stanford ended up scoring 33 unanswered points and won 33-16. It is the game that many consider the switch from dislike to an official rivalry. The Legends Trophy would end up being the prize awarded to the winner between Stanford and Notre Dame and although it started in 1989, it truly was the 1992 game that it became a trophy for legends.
Since that 1992 game, Notre Dame still has gone on to win 13 of the 20 games played between the two teams but there has been a little added motivation on both sides. In 1997, Notre Dame traveled to Palo Alto in October, which would end up being the last time Notre Dame played Stanford on the road before Thanksgiving weekend and ended up losing in almost identical fashion to that 1992 game 33-15.
Notre Dame won the next year in South Bend and Stanford again at home and so on. The series has been a smaller rivalry partly because the home team is usually favored and usually wins. Yes there have been upsets to both sides but it definitely decreases the value when you can presume the home team in this series is always going to win. In 2003, Stanford was just starting their worst era of football and although they played Notre Dame at home, former coach Tyrone Willingham who left in the middle of the night and phoned in the 2001 Seattle Bowl was back on the sidelines in Palo Alto. Instead of just beating Stanford, he embarrassed them 57-7 including a fake punt that some Stanford die-hards still talk about today as fuel to beating Notre Dame. Stanford was not competitive in football for another 4 years and still lost to Notre Dame by 7 in 2007 and 2008 during Harbaugh's first two years. It wasn't until 2009 that Notre Dame finally got hit back.
A young man by the name of Andrew Luck was coming into his own as a quarterback but was still a long ways from where he would eventually end up and was coming off his toughest loss just a week before throwing a pick in the red zone that helped Cal defeat Stanford and keep the Axe. Notre Dame was 6-5 and was coming into the game on a 3-game losing streak but was still very talented. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen threw for 5 touchdowns and future NFL star wide receiver Golden Tate had 200 yards receiving but it was the Stanford combo of Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart that led Stanford to a 45-38 victory. Luck didn't throw for a touchdown but was good enough to hit his receivers and let Gerhart run wild. Gerhart would end the game with over 200 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns along with his passing touchdown to boost his Heisman campaign which would eventually be wrongfully given to an Alabama player but we will get to that soon enough.
Stanford would go on to finally get that dreaded win in South Bend in 2010 for the first time since 1992 and officially bring back this series into the national conversation. In the following season, Stanford-Notre Dame was the most important game between these schools in a long time as a victory for either school would have BCS implications. Stanford would hold Notre Dame to just 57 yards rushing in a 28-14 victory. The next 3 meetings would all have major postseason ramifications as all 3 meetings would have both teams ranked in the top 25. The home team would come out on top in each game and each game was settled by single digits each time (17 points total). Between controversial calls, whistles, and broken dreams, this series had finally turned into must-watch TV.
That brings us to the 30th meeting of the Legends Trophy this Saturday between 6th ranked Notre Dame against 9th ranked Stanford. If this game didn't already scream excitement being a rivalry, it has 2 top-10 teams battling it out for a potential playoff berth. And to top it off, Stanford has a chance to finally show off Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey as Stanford is playing in a time slot that is primetime for the east coast viewers and voters. Now like I was saying earlier about Toby Gerhart having a Heisman moment but losing out to an Alabama running back. That will happen again with Christian McCaffrey as he will lose out to another Alabama running back. God forbid the Heisman go to the best player and not the best player in the SEC but we understand the whole 2nd place Heisman thing by now here at Stanford.
Anyways, Stanford and Notre Dame are playing for more than just bragging rights. This might be the most important meeting since the Rose Bowl 90 years ago. Look for a battle in the trenches and a hard-fought game that isn't decided until late in the 4th quarter. Notre Dame is losing popularity with the voters so that should add motivation but Stanford has nothing to lose. With the Pac-12 conference championship looming, Stanford still has a Rose Bowl opportunity as a worst-case scenario. Look for a Stanford victory that helps boost McCaffrey for a trip to New York.