Photo courtesy of Notre Dame media relations
Lou Holtz’s first season as head coach at Notre Dame was full of close calls as the Fighting Irish continually fell short of big-time wins.
In the regular season finale however, Notre Dame finally broke through and in a big way. It did so on this day 35 years ago.
The Fighting Irish rallied from 17 points down in the fourth quarter to stun rival USC, 38-37. John Carney kicked the winning field goal as time expired.
Setting the Stage
Notre Dame was just 4-6 as it arrived at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 29, 1986. Notre Dame had lost to top-10 Michigan, Penn State and LSU teams all by five points or less.
USC, on the other hand, was 7-3 and ranked No. 17 in the country. The Trojans were looking to snap a 3-game losing streak to Notre Dame. For most of the day, it didn’t seem as though that would be an issue.
Back Come the Irish
It didn’t take long into the fourth quarter for USC to equal its biggest lead of the game. Quarterback Rodney Peete’s 1-yard touchdown run pushed the USC advantage to 37-20.
Notre Dame answered with a touchdown drive of its own. Quarterback Steve Beuerlein hit Milt Jackson for a 42-yard touchdown, but the Trojans were on the cusp of putting the game away on the next possession.
With more than six minutes to play and a 37-27 lead, USC faced 4th-and-inches at the Notre Dame 5-yard-line. Head coach Ted Tollner elected to keep his offense on the field.
Peete appeared to move the pile on a quarterback sneak, but a controversial spot left him short of the first down. The USC quarterback then was called for unsportsmanlike conduct and the Fighting Irish proceeded to march 80 yards for another touchdown.
Beuerlein’s fourth touchdown pass of the day and second to fullback Braxston Banks — a 5-yard connection — was followed by a successful 2-point try as Beuerlein found tight end Andy Heck in the end zone.
What was once a 17-point lead was down to two, but a USC first down would have made things tough on the Fighting Irish. On 3rd-and-3, Notre Dame stopped USC’s Ryan Knight short of the marker and forced a punt.
The proceeding punt was returned 56 yards by Notre Dame standout wide receiver and future Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown. Notre Dame moved to near the goal line, melted the clock and sent Carney out for a 19-yard field goal try with two seconds remaining.
His kick was good as time expired. The comeback was complete.
Prior to Carney’s game-winner, Notre Dame’s only lead had come early on. Beuerlein’s 5-yard touchdown toss to Heck gave Notre Dame a 7-3 lead, but USC responded.
Louis Brock returned a Beuerlein interception 58 yards for a score before USC fullback Leroy Brock scored from three yards out to make it 17-7. Carney drew the Fighting Irish to within a score with a field goal, but USC kicker Don Shafer answered with a Pac-10 record 60-yard field goal to end the first half.
After an exchange of field goals early in the third quarter, USC’s Todd Steele scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. Notre Dame cut the lead to 30-20 later in the quarter on Beuerlein’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Banks.
The comeback victory for Notre Dame was the beginning of great things to come under Holtz and the beginning of the end for Tollner.
The Fighting Irish finished 5-6 in 1986. USC would go on to lose to Auburn 16-7 in the Citrus Bowl to finish 7-5.
Tollner was replaced after the season. Over his four years, he went just 1-3 against UCLA and 0-4 against Notre Dame.
In his final defeat to the Fighting Irish, the Trojans blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead. It happened on this day 35 years ago.