The Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Sun Bowls are all older by a few years. And of course the Rose Bowl is the “Granddaddy” of them all, but the Gator Bowl is the 6th oldest bowl in existence and Notre Dame has a history with the Jacksonville, Florida based game.
The story goes that after World War II, civic leaders in Jacksonville were looking for a way to liven up a sleepy downtown. One thing led to another and in 1946 The Gator Bowl was founded and three times in its history, Notre Dame has played in the landmark game.
In 1976 there were just 12 bowls and Notre Dame for the first time in its history of “bowling”, which had not really gotten started until 1970, accepted a bid to a game outside the major bowls and played in the Gator.
The 15th ranked and 8-3 Irish were led by second year head coach, Dan Devine, their opponent was 7-4, and 20th ranked Penn State, headed up by the legendary Joe Paterno. Notre Dame was a young team, and most of their starters would be back in 1977.
The Irish scored all of their points in the first half. Running back Al Hunter gained 102 yards and scored both of the Irish touchdowns. Kicker Dave Reeve notched the rest of the points on two field goals.
Defensively the Irish, led by outstanding performances by a pair of brothers, defensive end Ross and safety Jim Browner held the Nittnay lions to a first quarter field goal and a late touchdown. The Irish prevailed on the day 20-9.
The young 1976 team apparently benefitted from their Gator Bowl experience and came of age the next season as they ran to the National Championship.
By 1999 when the Irish next visited the Gator there were 23 bowls in existence. Bob Davie had led the Irish to a 9-2 regular season and the Irish donned their green jerseys for the first time in several years and took on No. 12 Georgia Tech, also 9-2. The Irish task was impacted by a gimpy Jarious Jackson who had been injured earlier in the season. Autry Denson had a big day with 130 yards rushing and 2 TDs, but the Yellowjackets prevailed 35-28.
Four years later in 2003 it was back to the Gator and there were now 28 bowls. Ty Willingham’s first team had gone 10-2. The Irish, were led by the quarterback tandem of Carlyle Holiday and Pat Dillingham in the game that day but it was no answer for the passing of North Carolina State’s Philip Rivers. The Wolfpack trounced the Irish 28-6.
Now 19 years later there are 41 bowls and the Irish are looking to make a little more history in what has now been known as the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl since 2018, this time in a match up with 8-4 South Carolina. The Gamecocks, are led by quarterback Spencer Rattler and finished their regular season on a roll with upset wins over Tennessee and Clemson. They look to continue that hot streak against a Fighting Irish team looking for a little momentum going into 2023 and with interesting questions at the quarterback position.
One thing is for certain, many thousands of Irish and Gamecock fans will descend on Jacksonville for the game, and related festivities. Now, 77 years after the Gator Bowl’s founding, It looks like the civic fathers who were looking to liven things up in their downtown, have accomplished that mission.