Boston College has spoiled Notre Dame’s season before

Josh Ott’s 71-yard interception return for a TD propelled BC to a 14-7 victory over Notre Dame in “The Holy War” of 2002.
Josh Ott’s 71-yard interception return for a TD propelled BC to a 14-7 victory over Notre Dame in “The Holy War” of 2002.
2002 file/barry chin/globe staff

Ten years later, Brian St. Pierre remembers stepping onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium for warm-ups and seeing the Fighting Irish in their navy blue jerseys.

Nothing special.

As BC’s senior quarterback, St. Pierre understood the dynamics of a rivalry that now stretches 37 years. BC was the team with its nose to the grindstone. Notre Dame was the one with its nose in the air. St. Pierre had no reason to believe the Fighting Irish, 8-0 and ranked fourth in the nation, would treat a game against the 5-3 Eagles with special significance.

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“Notre Dame always tried to play it off like it wasn’t as big a deal to them,” St. Pierre said.

The Eagles were banged up but confident, if only because they had beaten the Irish the year before.

“We just felt like we measured up with them,” St. Pierre said. “We weren’t shy about saying they were our rivals and we wanted a piece of them.”

When game time neared, St. Pierre walked out of the tunnel with cocaptain Vinny Ciurciu. The crowd of 80,935, then a record for Notre Dame Stadium, was somewhat expected. But the Irish’s wardrobe change wasn’t.

“All of a sudden, they just bust out of their locker room in all-green jerseys,” St. Pierre said. “The place went crazy. To this day it was one of the loudest I’ve ever heard a stadium. You know about the history of Notre Dame, they only break out the green jerseys for big games. The last time they had done that, I don’t know when it was. It may have been against USC in the ’70s. It was a big deal.”

Notre Dame coach Ty Willingham said the point was to bring everyone together in “the pursuit of victory.”

It backfired.

It didn’t shake the Eagles. It inspired them.

“That was throwing gas on the fire for us,” St. Pierre said. “We were already ready to go, but as soon as we saw that, we knew it was go time.”

In the long timeline of “The Holy War,” BC’s 14-7 upset of Notre Dame in 2002 is a milestone. It derailed the Irish’s season (they lost three of their last five), and propelled the Eagles (who won four of their last five). It wasn’t pretty, by any means. The teams combined to run the ball 77 times. Notre Dame fumbled seven times. And the deciding factor, as it had been for years for the Eagles, was a defense that continually made plays when it needed to, none bigger than Josh Ott’s 71-yard interception return, on which, he said, his only thoughts were, “Don’t trip.”

“That’s one of the biggest plays in BC history,” former Eagles offensive lineman Augie Hoffmann said.

The Irish visit The Heights this weekend. They are undefeated again. They are ranked fourth in the nation again. The Eagles are assured of finishing last in their division in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and have just one win against an FBS opponent, but in this rivalry records don’t matter. The past two times the Eagles have faced an undefeated Irish team, they’ve spoiled their season.

“One of the reasons you go to BC is to beat Notre Dame,” Hoffmann said. “There’s something special that week. When we went out to Notre Dame in ’02, the situation was no different. Really, the only people that thought we could win was us. It’s no different now, it’s the same situation, and you’ve got to believe that you can win.

“It wasn’t so much about ruining their season, it was more about us going out and winning a game that I don’t think anybody thought we could win. We have a lot of pride in the program at BC. It was just us going out and saying, you could wear green, you could wear white. It doesn’t matter what you wear or what you’re ranked, we’re going to come out and win a football game.”

There’s a certain value in history, but it only goes so far. In 1993, David Gordon’s 41-yard field goal ruined Notre Dame’s perfect season. But in 2002, coach Tom O’Brien knew not to lean to heavily on a game played nine years prior.

“These kids were 11 and 12 years old,” O’Brien said at the time. “Ninety-three had nothing to do with this game. I don’t think that Boston College had beaten Notre Dame before 1993. It will continue to be a big game for our school.”

Current BC quarterback Chase Rettig was 11 when Ott ran back that interception. So was wide receiver Alex Amidon.

But that turned into a golden era for the Eagles in their rivalry with Notre Dame. It was the second of six straight wins over the Irish, and it has a special place in BC history for a reason.

“Everybody asks, ‘What was one of your favorite football memories?’ ” Hoffmann said. “Well, that’s tops right there. Going to ND and winning in that atmosphere was probably the best memory I had playing football. Guys were ripping up pieces of the grass. It was one of those feelings that you can’t match, no matter how hard you try. It sits alone on a shelf by itself.”