Notre Dame-Boston College: A Tale of Two Upsets

By Tom O'Toole

Let the 2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish beware! For if USC has damaged Notre Dame’s championship hopes the most often, two late-season losses to Boston College have been both the most recent and painful ends to Irish undefeated seasons.

The year was 2002, and a second-choice, first-year Notre Dame coach was leading a surprising Irish “Return to Glory.” Notre Dame may have wanted (until the fake résumé scandal, that is) George O’Leary, but Tyrone Willingham had the Irish at 8-0 and third in the BCS when an unranked Eagles squad marched into South Bend.

Unfortunately, starting Irish QB Carlyle Holiday, more a runner than a passer, hurt his shoulder in the second quarter, and Willingham was forced to insert walk-on QB Pat Dillingham in his place.

The QB who rhymed with the coach had bailed out the Irish once before, as Arnaz Battle turned his short-swing pass into a 70-yard game winning scamper to beat Michigan State. However, this time Dillingham just bailed, as under pressure he threw another five-yard pass—right into the hands of BC linebacker Josh Ott, who rumbled 71 yards to paydirt and was the difference in a 14-7 defeat.

Although the interception was the key play of the game, seven Irish fumbles, four of which were recovered by BC, also explains how an Irish team that outgained BC 357 yards to 184 lost to an inferior, if fired-up opponent.

Speaking of fired, Coach Willingham never recovered from that loss, going 13-15 the rest of his Irish tenure before being let go after the 2004 season. But if BC spelled the demise of a mediocre coach, it also signaled the beginning of the end of a great one, the one and only Lou Holtz.

Coming off an amazing victory against then #1 Florida State, Lou Holtz’ 1993 squad was now number one themselves, and needed only to beat BC, a team they demolished 54-7 the previous season, to complete a perfect season and play for Holtz’ second National Championship.

But an early blocked Notre Dame field goal nearly returned for an Eagle touchdown proved a bad omen, and by the fourth quarter, a stunned Irish crowd saw their 10-0 team trailing 38-14.

But with never-say-die QB Kevin McDougal at the helm, the Irish staged a miraculous comeback, and after two rushing touchdowns, a two-point conversion and a four-yard strike to Lake Dawson, the Irish were up 39-38 with 1:09 left to play.

But after a phantom late hit penalty on the Irish, and a dropped interception by Notre Dame’s Pete Bercich, the Eagle’s squeezed in seven plays, advancing all the way to the Irish 24 before BC’s David Gordon kicked a 41-yard field goal, sending the Irish to one of their most painful defeats ever.

That Boston College loss took a lot out of a lot of people, including Holtz, who after a brilliant 64-9-1 stretch concluded his career at Notre Dame with an average looking 23-11-1 record in his last three seasons. In its 125-year history, perhaps no two loses to one team ever cost the Irish as much as these—which is precisely why the 2012 team cannot allow BC to make it three.

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