Marcus Freeman accepts the 2022 Gator Bowl Trophy in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo: Phil Houk)

I doubt if I’ve missed more than a play or two of the 41 ND Bowl games played in my lifetime. Most of those I watched on TV, especially when I was younger, when jumping on a plane for a trip to some faraway venue was typically not in my economic cards. But over the more recent years of my life, especially since the journalism thing gained traction, I’ve been able to frequently get away in late December for some college football season “bonus action”.

My podcast partner Tim Prister has covered the last 32 ND bowl games, he also attended a few as a fan. Okay, I can’t hold a candle to that record, but I have been to more than my share, and I’m now hooked on them. Bowl game trips have become something of an expected bonus at the end of the long regular season.

After my recent journey to El Paso my Notre Dame bowl attendance record has now reached 10, two games I attended as a fan, eight as a journalist. Don’t let anyone tell you that bowls are not special, because my experience has been that each has a charm all its own. Some I have most definitely enjoyed more than others, and not just because of the game on the field. but no matter, each bowl attended was an adventure.

Here is my game by game breakdown.

1983 Liberty Bowl, ND v. Boston College 11 degree temps with wind chills near zero, and the town, including the stadium, was covered in a sheet of ice. It is not supposed to be that way in Memphis, no matter what the time of the year. It is a fact that I was treated for a minor case of frostbite after my first ever ND Bowl game, which didn’t occur until I was 22 years old. Attracted by the fact that we could drive there in about eight hours, I attended this game as a fan, with one of my law school roommates, who similarly had a love for ND football.

BC was led by Doug Flutie, and entered the game at 9-2 and ranked #13. Notre Dame, led by Gerry Faust and QB Blair Kiel, on the other hand, limped into the game unranked at 6-5, after opening the season at #5 in the country.

Allen Pinkett rushed for two first half touchdowns, and Kiel hit Alvin Miller with a scoring toss and the Irish took a 19-12 halftime lead. The Irish then held on for a 19-18 win in what may have been the highpoint of the Gerry Faust era. On the day and due to the miserable weather only one extra point was converted by either team, and that was the final margin. ND notched their first bowl win since Joe Montana’s heroics in the 1979 “chicken soup game” Cotton Bowl, and I soon afterward realized just how cold I had been as I had to seek treatment for the frostbite.

January 3, 2007 Sugar Bowl, ND v. LSU My first bowl as a credentialed journalist, and I still consider it to be one my favorites, right up until the game that is. Bourbon Street was as fun as it had been billed to be and the LSU fans AND the ND fans were everywhere. A highlight for me was interviewing Robin Weber, the hero of the 1973 “Battle of New Orleans” and writing a story about him and that famous game. (Robin Weber Caught a Piece of Fighting Irish History) I also remember me and Tim Prister discovering a blues artist that went by the name of “Rooster” and loving every minute of his set.

January 1, 2007 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Bourbon Street was a lot of fun. (L-R) Me, friend Wes, Rooster and Tim Prister. (courtesy photo)

And then the football game happened. Both teams came in at 10-2, but LSU had too much Jamarcus Russell who went on to be the first overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft. On the day Russell passed for 377 yards and two TDs as LSU piled up 577 yards of total offense. Brady Quinn could only manage 15-35 passing and 134 yards. LSU ran away with the game 41-14 and as I flew home the next day doubts about Charlie Weis’s future crept into my head.

January 7, 2013 BCS Championship Game, ND v. Alabama The last bowl game I attended as a fan, finding a ticket for this game was insane. In fact, I flew to Florida three days before the game and all I had was a parking pass. Miami Beach was awesome. The weather terrific, and the parties everywhere. ND fans were hungry to celebrate their first National Championship in 25 years and was confident that Manti T’eo and company could get it done. Fortunately a good friend came through for me with a ticket, so I got in to watch. But did I mention that my wife Lynda was with me? She ended up watching the game in the parking lot, just waiting for me! What a trooper that girl was, no wonder I love her so much.

Despite being ranked #1 to Alabama’s #2, the Irish were 9.5 point underdogs and as the game got started, I quickly saw why. Too much AJ McCarron, Eddie Lacy and Amari Cooper, and not nearly enough Everett Golson, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert. Bama out gained the Irish 529-302 yards and won 42-14. Post game I got out of the stadium as fast as I could, found Lynda and I couldn’t wait to get out of town. ND obviously had not yet cracked the elite level of college football.

December 30, 2014, Music City Bowl, ND v. LSU Now fully credentialed, this was an easy one to get to, and while the weather could have been better, my first ever trip to Nashville was great. My college age son AJ drove down with me and we had a blast on Broadway Street. AJ still gives me a hard time over the fact that he discovered how much I enjoyed PBR as my beverage of choice as we bounced around Tootsies, The Stage, Legends Corner and more. On the two days leading up to the game I guest co- hosted four hours of live radio back to Indiana. Along with fellow broadcasters CoyoteKris Underwood and Todd Burlage, we did the show from the front room af Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Bar on music row.

The game did not disappoint. The Irish had been decimated by injuries and had dropped 5 of their last 6 regular season games and entered the game at 7-5. LSU was 8-4 and their big back, Leonard Fournette brought back memories of Alabama’s Eddie Lacy to me.

Brian Kelly masterfully managed the game as he rotated Malik Zaire and Everett Golson at QB and the game went back and forth. Fournette was a load and ran for 144 yards on just 11 carries, and had a kickoff return for TD. CJ Procise tied the game at 28 for ND late in the third quarter with a 50 yard run. The game came down to a Kyle Brindza 32 yard field goal attempt as time expired. I watched from the sideline standing next to the ND leprechaun as the kick split the uprights. The final, ND 31 LSU 28. Broadway Street was a blast that night and I recall an LSU fan buying me my first ever shot of Fireball. See, we can all get along!

January 1, 2018, Citrus Bowl, ND v. LSU The Citrus Bowl in Orlando has a long history and I was excited to be in Florida for a New Year’s Day game, and for another match up with LSU. AJ came along again, now as my photographer for the game. It was odd for me to spend New Year’s Eve away from Lynda but AJ and I had a nice time and I recall sitting in an open air bistro at midnight and toasting everyone back home over Facetime.

ND prevailed in exciting fashion in what will forever be known as the “Boykin game”. But it also was Ian Book’s coming out party and signaled the beginning of the end of Brandon Wimbush’s tenure at ND. Both teams had finished the 2017 season with 9-3 records. In the first half Wimbush was ineffective as a passer and late in the 2nd quarter Ian Book entered the game with the score 0-0. He managed a bit of a spark with a field goal drive for a 3-0 ND lead at halftime, then in the second half things got interesting. Book played well (finishing 14-19 for 164 yards and 2 TDs) but with 2:03 remaining LSU took a 17-14 lead on a field goal. Book came right back though and with :35 on the clock hit Boykin along the sideline and Boykin powered his way into the endzone from 55 yards out. AJ and I watched from our vantage point on the field directly opposite the play as Boykin hit paydirt and the ND sideline erupted.

December 29, 2018 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl, ND v. Clemson and this game marked my first ever visit to “Jerry’s World”. The gigantic state of the art stadium did not disappoint. In many ways this game marked my most unique bowl game experience. Media hospitality was over the top. The headquarters hotel ballroom that credentialed media had access to featured numerous big screen TVs, video games, snacks for the taking, a 24/7 buffett and open bar. We also were presented with computer/game bags with the game logo embroidered on the side. That bag was of such high quality, that it has accompanied me to every ND game I have covered since.

Perhaps the most memorable thing about the experience was my journey to get to Dallas a couple of days before the game. Reasonably priced flights into “Big D” were scarce and one of my colleagues, Len Clark hatched a plan that led to us flying into Little Rock, Arkansas and driving a rental car the remaining 320 miles to Dallas. The drive took place overnight and I still recall all the jackrabbits and coyotes in our headlights as we traversed the stark Texas landscapes that night.

Game day in Jerry’s World was an impressive spectacle but from Notre Dame’s standpoint the game was not. I recall first laying eyes on then freshman Trevor Lawrence from a few feet away as he warmed up pregame. He looked huge, and graceful, especially when compared to Ian Book who was warming up on the other side. ND played tough for most of the first half, but when CB Julian Love went out with injury late in the second quarter, Lawrence made ND pay with two TD passes in the last two minutes of the half and Clemson cruised to a 30-3 victory. That was a great Clemson team, they went on to blowout Alabama the next week in the National Championship game, 44-16. Notre Dame finished the season 12-1.

December 28, 2019, Camping World Bowl, ND v. Iowa State This game marked a return to Orlando Florida for the second time in three years, but that year’s opponent was a new one for ND, Iowa State. ND had had an excellent season losing only to Georgia and Michigan en route to a 10-2 season, Iowa State, led by Brock Purdy (yes THAT Brock Purdy), was a less heralded 7-5.

Len Clark and I took another circuitous route to the game by flying into Atlanta and then driving the remaining 430 miles to Orlando. That worked pretty well, until the game was over and we had to be back into Atlanta to catch a 7 AM flight back home about 12 hours after the game ended. By the time I arrived home I had been awake over 30 hours. Since that test of endurance, by the way, I have resolved to spend the extra money for more direct flights to the games!

The game itself never really was in doubt. ND led from start to finish. Chase Claypool in his last game at ND had 5 catches for 146 yards and a TD and Tony Jones, also in his last game, ran for 135 yards including an 84 yarder for a TD in the 3rd quarter. Brock Purdy hit 17-30 for 222 yards, but didn’t find the end zone. ND prevailed 33-9. As I strolled the field among the celebrating Irish post game I recall thinking, “am I really about to get in a car and drive all night to catch a 7 AM flight out of Atlanta?”

December 30, 2022, Fiesta Bowl, ND v. Oklahoma State This game marked my first ever trip to Tempe and AJ was again along as was photographer Chad Ryan. Chad is a guy who I had fortuitously hooked up with during the 2022 season. I had known Chad previously by his work, he had shot everything from high school sports to Super Bowls and his work had a national reputation. He has became a huge asset to the Fighting Irish Preview operation.

Media HQ for the game was the famous Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, and it was fabulous. The resort is a large community of separate adobe style apartments with all the amenities of a five star hotel. For many years it has been a destination for the rich and famous. The Fiesta Bowl organizers did a nice job with the hospitality which included shuttle bus service and plenty of local cuisine. I really enjoyed my first visit to the area. Good weather with beautiful mountains and lots of cactuses.

After the tumultuous month of December of 2022 that had seen Brian Kelly take the money and run to LSU, the Fiesta Bowl matched up the 11-1 Irish and the 11-2 Cowboys in Marcus Freeman’s first game at the helm. Jack Coan torched the Oklahoma State defense as the Irish ran out to a 28-14 halftime lead. But there had been some clues as the half had worn on that Oklahoma State was gathering its footing and adjusting to the Irish onslaught. I recall a discussion I had with Tim Prister at halftime along the lines of, “we will see if the new head coach can make the right adjustments because Oklahoma State looks to have the momentum”. Sure enough the Cowboys scored the next 23 points unanswered and went on to a 37-35 victory.

AJ and I spent the next day exploring the area and loved it. We also spent a few hours watching our Indianapolis Colts lose a playoff “win and in” game to the Raiders. Two painful losses in 24 hours, ouch. Fortunately the next day when I flew back home, it was on a direct connecting fight!

December 30, 2022, The Gator Bowl, ND v. South Carolina After the Irish had notched a choppy 8-4 record in Marcus Freeman’s first full season, the payoff was a matchup against the 8-4 Gamecocks, led by Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler. The Gator Bowl, held in Jacksonville, Florida is one of the oldest bowls in existence and I looked forward to my first ever visit to that part of Florida. I flew in two days before the game and liked the set up. Media HQ was at a waterfront hotel about a mile from the stadium. Night life was a little limited within walking distance but the hotel was packed with fans and the whole atmosphere was festive.

I recall that a couple hours pregame as I endeavoured to record my “Last Thought’s Before Kickoff” video the process turned into a comedy as we had to do five different takes. Chad was the camera man but every time I was just about to wrap up the segment, some announcement would blare out over the stadium’s public address regarding rehearsals for the halftime show that were going on. The loud and jarring nature of these announcements ruined the take and we would be forced to start again, finally we got one done. (Here is a link to the final product).

The game was one of the most exciting I had covered in my bowl odyssey. The weather was near perfect and both teams’ fan bases turned out and were fully engaged. The Irish fell behind by two scores early but stormed back and the game was back and forth the rest of the day. Tyler Buchner, in his first start since suffering an injury early in the season accounted for 7 touchdowns, three passing, two running and two to the other team on “pick 6” interceptions. But Buchner came up big late in the game by leading a 12 play 80 yard drive capped off by a 16 yard scoring toss to tight end Mitchell Evans. The Irish then held on for a 45-38 victory.

I happened to be in exactly the right place at the right time for Buchner’s winning pass to Evans and fortunately I caught the whole play on video from field level. That video which has had over 22,000 views on Youtube is linked here. See if you can decipher right tackle Blake Fisher’s words to the South Carolina fans in the corner of the field during the celebration after the score, it’s priceless!

December 29, 2023, The Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, ND v. Oregon State The last bowl trip on my odyssey was to El Paso, Texas. My son AJ, who was my cameraman for the day, during the visit called El Paso “the most non-American, American city he had ever visited”. This comment was not intended to in anyway speak negatively of the place, in fact we both loved our three day visit. The place is beautiful in its own way, the culture rich, the citizens were kind and the hospitality warm. I especially loved visiting the world class art museum. But I agreed with AJ’s observation, the border town which is located in the farthest southwestern notch of Texas is dominated by Mexican influences. From the fabulous restaurant cuisine to the architecture to the proud citizens, the place had a very unique feel.

The treatment and the attention to detail from the local organizers was excellent. I’ll always appreciate the media gift that we each received: a genuine official Sun Bowl Tony the Tiger sweatshirt. It is already part of my heavy sweatshirt rotation. To nit pick a bit, the stadium was packed to capacity and that caused problems with the wifi during the game, always an important need for media these days. But the staff was attentive and went out of their way to assist us, and the pregame authentic Mexican meal in the pressbox is the best pregame meal I have ever had.

Notre Dame was so dominant in the game that it was almost anti-climactic when the Irish finished out the 40-8 victory. Sure Oregon State was down a bunch a players due to the opt outs and transfers that are now an unfortunate part of the college football landscape, but the fact is Notre Dame was down even more players than Oregon State. Notre Dame’s dominant performance in the Sun Bowl is a tribute to the game preparation spearheaded by Marcus Freeman.

The Sun Bowl victory sets the stage for what is a promising ND team in 2024. ND needed that win to jumpstart next season. I think Marcus Freeman and staff knew that and that need served as the impetus that had the Irish ready to play against Oregon State.

The proliferation these days of transfers and opt outs is a plague that is changing the public’s perception of the bowl system. 2024, with the new 12 team playoff will result in additional challenges as fewer teams will be available to play in the current games and the “meaning” of the bowls to a participating team’s season will become further diluted.

But now, after having been to 10 bowl games in my lifetime, I feel like attending, has become a habit, and one I rather enjoy. Therefore, I am concerned about the health of the bowl game enterprise, because ND’s play during the regular season willing, I hope to attend a lot more.

ByPhil Houk

For over 25 years, bringing you the glory of Notre Dame football.

Leave a Reply