EDITOR’S NOTE – As we prepare for the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Notre Dame, this is the fifth and final installment in a continuing series on the history of the rivalry between these two tradition-laden schools.
It took Ohio State 60 years to do it, but the Buckeyes were finally able to draw even with Notre Dame.
On Sept. 28, 1996, the fourth-rated Buckeyes went into South Bend and emerged with a resounding 29-16 win over the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish before a capacity crowd of 59,075 and a national television audience on NBC.
The win, coupled with a 45-26 OSU rout the year before in Columbus, evened the all-time series between Ohio State and Notre Dame at 2-2. The Irish had won the two previous meetings in 1935-36.
“This was huge,” said OSU junior cornerback Shawn Springs. “You don’t get wins like this every day. This was exciting. Notre Dame is Notre Dame.”
OSU coach John Cooper basked in the glow of perhaps his biggest win as the Buckeyes coach as well as his 150th as a collegiate head coach.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Cooper, who was presented with the game ball by his team. “This ball was given to me by our football team for my 150th win. Obviously, that ball belongs to our football team and not John Cooper. But I am a happy man here today.
"I told our squad that this is a great victory for Ohio State, the players, and the fans. Not many teams can come in here and win against this great Notre Dame football team."
The Buckeyes had opened the 1996 season with routs of Rice (70-7) and Pittsburgh (72-0). But the win at Notre Dame proved that the Buckeyes were for real.
“This team is definitely legitimate,” said OSU junior offensive tackle Orlando Pace. “We have a great defensive team and our offensive team is catching a lot of people by surprise. We wanted a physical match-up, they wanted a physical match-up and we came out on top today.”
The Buckeyes came at Notre Dame from every angle – literally – unveiling a blitz package designed to confound and disconcert standout Irish quarterback Ron Powlus. OSU registered four sacks on Powlus, who was 13 of 30 passing for 154 yards and was picked off twice.
“Their defense wasn’t confusing,” Powlus said. “They just beat us up on defense. They were blitzing and weren’t disguising it.”
Ohio State opened the game with a flourish as Dimitrious Stanley returned the opening kickoff 85 yards to set up a touchdown. Tailback Pepe Pearson ran behind the Pace-led OSU offensive line and rolled up 173 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
“It felt great,” Pearson said. “We came in here and got the job done. You come in here to South Bend and beat Notre Dame, that’s a great victory for us.”
How well did Ohio State dominate Notre Dame? Ohio State outgained the Irish 283-93 in the first half while building a commanding 22-7 lead. For the game, OSU enjoyed a 391-280 yardage edge.
“We come out and take the kickoff almost back for a touchdown and that just set the tempo for the entire game,” said OSU sophomore tight end John Lumpkin, who made a diving grab of a pass from quarterback Stanley Jackson to set up the touchdown that put the Buckeyes ahead for good late in the first quarter.
Notre Dame, which fell to 3-1 with the loss, mounted a valiant late charge to try and get back in the game – just as it had stolen the 1935 meeting between the schools. But a critical holding penalty negated Autry Denson’s apparent 90-yard punt return for a touchdown in the closing minutes and the Irish could never recover.
“It was a shame that we made that mistake, but Ohio State is as good a team as we’ve played in a while and particularly when they do things we aren’t prepared for,” said ND coach Lou Holtz, pointing to OSU’s blitz packages.
“But give them the credit. They’re allowed to do that.”
As It Happened
Notre Dame won the coin toss and elected to defer its choice to halftime. That was a bad decision as Stanley fielded the kickoff at the 2. He stepped right and cut through a big opening. With Springs providing a key block, Stanley cut back to the middle of the field and was clear until ND’s Allen Rossum, a world class sprinter, tracked him down at the Irish 13-yard line.
Jackson, making just his third career start at quarterback for the Buckeyes, then had to scramble with a 7-yard run to get a first-and-goal at the ND 3. Pearson then took a give over the left side. Pace rode ND linebacker Kory Minor out of the play and Pearson shrugged off linebacker Kinnon Tatum and scored on the 3-yard touchdown.
Snapper Kevin Houser’s snap on the PAT was high and kicker Josh Jackson nearly missed the ball. The miss left OSU with a 6-0 lead just 1:45 into the game.
The Buckeyes then withstood a blocked punt by ND’s Bert Berry. But they could not withstand a tipped pass interception of Jackson. He was hit by ND’s Lamont Bryant as he threw and the pass was picked off by Tatum at the OSU 15 with 7:41 left in the first quarter.
The Irish needed four plays to find the end zone with Powlus hitting fullback Marc Edwards for the 3-yard TD. The PAT kick put Notre Dame ahead 7-6 with 6:05 left in the first quarter.
Ohio State answered with an efficient seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to take the lead for good. The drive included five plays in excess of 10 yards, including Jackson’s 24-yard strike to Lumpkin at the ND 3.
Jackson then faked a handoff to Pearson and hit fullback Matt Calhoun on the 3-yard touchdown play. The Buckeyes then went for a two-point conversion, but Jackson was stopped shy of the goal line by ND’s Melvin Dansby. Still, OSU led 12-7 with 3:37 left in the first.
OSU defensive tackle Luke Fickell then intercepted a Powlus pass to snuff out an ND scoring threat, setting the stage for Josh Jackson’s 24-yard field goal and a 15-7 cushion with 3:52 left in the first half.
Then, after forcing an ND punt, the Buckeyes put an exclamation point in the first half. OSU marched 84 yards in six plays, capped by an easy 1-yard Pearson touchdown run to go up 22-7 with 54 seconds left in the half.
On the drive, Stanley Jackson completed passes of 31 yards to backup tailback Michael Wiley and 26 yards to Pearson. For the half, Jackson was 7 of 10 passing for 126 yards.
“As far as a hostile crowd on the road in my first time as a starting quarterback, I think I kind of played well,” said Jackson, who ended up 9 of 15 passing for 154 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Notre Dame moved 63 yards on the opening possession of the second half, but had to settle for Jim Sanson’s 26-yard field goal to trim the gap to 22-10 with 9:47 left in the third quarter.
“That was key,” Cooper noted. “They used up over five minutes, but they didn’t get a touchdown.”
Ohio State took over after an ND punt on the Irish 34 with 4:14 left in the third. The Buckeyes needed six plays to find the end zone. The key play was Jackson’s 15-yard pass to backup fullback Matt Keller to convert a third down. That set the stage for Jackson’s 13-yard scoring strike to tight end D.J. Jones that made it 29-10 with 1:44 left in the third quarter.
OSU’s Damon Moore then made a potential game-saving tackle on Denson at the OSU 17, stopping the Irish on a key fourth down play with 10:35 left in the game. But a Pearson fumble gave ND new life with 8:40 left.
Notre Dame rolled 53 yards in five plays. The key play was Powlus’ 42-yard completion to backup tight end Keith Carretta. That set up Edwards’ 9-yard TD burst up the middle. Fickell came up big again, blocking the PAT attempt. But Notre Dame had trimmed the margin to 29-16 and had some momentum with 7:01 left.
ND then forced an OSU punt and Denson returned it 90 yards for an apparent touchdown. But televison replays clearly showed that ND’s Ty Goode grabbed hold of the jersey of OSU’s Antoine Winfield. The Big Ten officiating crew threw the flag, thwarting ND’s comeback bid.
“When that return was called back, all of our chances of winning the game were over,” said Holtz, who refused to question the integrity of the crew or the call. “But the better football team won this game, no doubt about it.”
OSU safety Rob Kelly put the cherry on top with his interception of Powlus with 2:04 left. For the second year in a row, OSU just ran out the remaining time and won going away.
* The 13-point home loss was ND’s worst since a 33-16 loss to Stanford four years earlier in 1992.
* The 1996 OSU-Notre Dame game on NBC drew a 6.7 rating and a 19 share. It was seen by more than seven million viewers nationally. It remains the fourth-highest rated game NBC has done with Notre Dame football since the partnership began in 1991. This year’s match-up between Notre Dame and No. 1 USC matched the 6.7 rating.
The three ND games that did higher ratings on NBC are: 1993, Florida State (16.0 for No. 2 ND’s upset of then-No. 1 FSU); 1994, Michigan (8.4 for a 26-24 UM win); and 1993, Boston College (7.7 for BC’s upset of No. 1 ND).
* Ohio State went on to win its first 10 games and rose to No. 2 in the national rankings before a 13-9 home loss to Michigan. Still, OSU won a share of the Big Ten title and went on to defeat Arizona State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl to finish 11-1 on the year and No. 2 behind one-loss Florida in the final polls.
* Notre Dame went on and lost overtime games to Air Force and USC to finish 8-3. Holtz announced he would be leaving ND after the home finale against Rutgers. In 11 years in South Bend, Holtz was 100-30-2 – five wins shy of Knute Rockne’s school wins record. Holtz denied rumors he was forced out of the job and defensive coordinator Bob Davie was named as his successor. The Irish did not accept a bowl bid at the end of the season.
* Although Stanley Jackson would end up splitting time with Joe Germaine at quarterback for Ohio State as the year went on, Jackson did most of the work in this win. Germaine did come on and complete 4 of 5 passes for 31 yards in this game.
* OSU defensive end Mike Vrabel became OSU’s career sacks leader with his sack of Powlus on the final play of the first half. Vrabel upped his career sack total to 28, just better than Jason Simmons’ previous mark of 27-1/2.
Fickell, Greg Bellisari and Winfield Garnett also had sacks for OSU. Bellisari led OSU with 14 tackles, while Vrabel had nine.
Notre Dame Head Coach Lou Holtz:
(On Ohio State) "Ohio State is an outstanding team and played outstanding today. They are very strong up front. We didn't tackle great and they made some great catches and great plays. They have a nice offense and made the big plays."
(On the second half) "In the second half, I thought we played as well as we could have played, but we couldn't stop their third-down plays. We couldn't control the line of scrimmage."
(On the lack of big plays) "We just didn't make the big plays. There were a couple of plays where we could have come away something big, but we didn't. If we had Derrick Mayes, we probably make some of those plays."
Ohio State Head Coach John Cooper:
(On pressure) "We controlled the tempo and put a lot of pressure on Ron Powlus with our defense. That is a credit to him. We had to keep him off-balance. He is an excellent quarterback."
(On his feelings) "I wasn't nervous going into the game. Once we started playing, I felt we were as good as them, maybe even a little bit better."
(On Pepe Pearson's performance) "We've had a lot of great backs at Ohio State. He is one of them. He did a great job. Take away the fumble and he had an excellent game."
(On team injuries) "I don't think anyone is limping in the locker room right now."
Notre Dame fullback Marc Edwards:
(On the game) "We embarrassed ourselves out there today in the first half. The offense couldn't move the ball and we left the defense in some bad situations. The defense played their hearts out. When we came out in the second half, we didn't come back like we should have."
(On the punt return being called back) "That one play, the punt return, could have turned the whole thing around. I haven't seen the tape yet so I am not sure what to think."
Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace:
(On the game) "We knew we had a great defense. Our offense was catching them by surprise. Both teams wanted a physical matchup. We overpowered them. Our offensive line really came together."
Ohio State receiver Mike Wiley:
(On Ohio State's play) "Not many teams can come in and beat Notre Dame. Stanley Jackson proved he can play at this level. Both Jackson and Joe Germaine proved they can play quarterback for Ohio State."
Ohio State safety Damon Moore:
(On the game) "This game is a little bigger, but we don't get caught up in the tradition."
(On Ron Powlus) "He was definitely distraught, really frustrated. We knew we had more speed on defense than they have on offense. We knew they were a good running team."
The Box Score
Sept. 28, 1996
At Notre Dame Stadium
Ohio St (4) 12 / 10 / 7 / 0 -- 29
Notre Dame (5) 7 / 0 / 3 / 6 -- 16
OSU -- TD, Pepe Pearson 3-yd run (kick failed); 1:45
ND -- TD, Marc Edwards 2-yd pass from Ron Powlus (Jim Sanson kick); 8:55
OSU -- TD, Matt Calhoun 3-yd pass from Stanley Jackson (run failed); 11:23
OSU -- FG, Josh Jackson 24-yd; 11:08
OSU -- TD, Pepe Pearson 1-yd run (Josh Jackson kick); 14:06
ND -- FG, Jim Sanson 26-yd; 5:13
OSU -- TD, D.J. Jones 13-yd pass from Stanley Jackson (Josh Jackson kick); 13:16
ND -- Marc Edwards 9-yd run (kick failed); 7:59
RUSHING: Ohio St-Pearson 29-173, Calhoun 4-16, Montgomery 4-11, M Keller 3-7, S Jackson 3-minus 1. Notre Dame-Denson 19-55, Kinder 7-20, Edwards 7-18, Powlus 9-15, Mosley 1-10, Farmer 1-8.
PASSING: Ohio St-S Jackson 9-15-1-154, Germaine 4-5-0-31. Notre Dame-Powlus 13-30-2-154.
RECEIVING: Ohio St-Pearson 2-42, Lumpkin 2-28, Jones 2-25, Stanley 2-24, Miller 2-18, M Wiley 1-31, M Keller 1-15, Calhoun 1-2. Notre Dame-M Johnson 3-40, Mosley 2-32, Denson 2-11, Edwards 2-7, Carreta 1-42, Champion 1-12, Nelson 1-10,
Here are the archives from the previous installments of our look at the history of the OSU-Notre Dame rivalry:
OSU-ND Rivalry Overview
Look Back At 1935 “Game Of The Century”
Look Back At 1936 Rematch In South Bend
Long-Awaited Rematch In Columbus (1995)
OSU-ND 1996 Game Photos
Here are some photos from this game in the archives:
Pepe Pearson runs for OSU. He had 173 yards and two TDs vs. ND
OSU freshman LB Andy Katzenmoyer eyes ND's Ron Powlus
Powlus takes off with OSU's Rob Kelly (34) and Greg Bellisari (30) in pursuit
Pearson follows big tackle Orlando Pace