Below are my top bowl performances from Irish players, with weight – as always – given to the games that mattered most.
Baker's Dozen in Crunch TimeNotre Dame played in just three BCS bowl games, but in an eight-season span from 1988 through 1995, the Irish played in the equivalent of eight straight major bowls. Thus, the "Big Boys' Division" considers only the games with national impact.
1.) Tony Rice vs. No. 3 West Virginia: 1989 Fiesta Bowl (1988 season) – The No. 1 ranked undefeated Irish rolled to a 34-21 victory and the school's 11th National Championship. Rice completed 7 of 11 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 75 more on 13 carries en route to the culmination of Notre Dame's 12-0 season. ?
2.) Rocket Ismail vs. No. 1 Colorado: 1990 Orange Bowl (1991 season) – Despite suffering from a shoulder injury entering the contest, Ismail filled in at tailback for starter Ricky Watters (hurt on the game's third play) and torched the Buffaloes for 108 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in a 21-6 victory. The 12-1 Irish finished second in the final AP Poll when No. 1 Miami prevailed over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 33-25. ?
3.) Chris Zorich vs. No. 1 Colorado: 1991 Orange Bowl (1990 season) – The fifth-ranked Irish fell 10-9 to the Buffaloes in the de facto national championship game (Colorado split the title with Georgia Tech after the final vote). Zorich was named game MVP with 10 tackles (two for lost yardage) and one sack vs. the Buffaloes vaunted triple-option attack. ?
4.) Lee Becton vs. No. 7 Texas A&M: 1994 Cotton Bowl (1993 season) – Becton capped his junior season with his seventh consecutive 100-yard effort, gaining 138 yards on 26 carries in the 24-21 Irish victory. Becton's MVP effort was notable in that 11-1 Notre Dame still had a chance at both a split or outright national championship pending the result of the Orange Bowl later that evening, but finished second to Florida State in both polls despite identical records and a 31-24 defeat of the Seminoles in mid-November. ?
5.) Jerome Bettis vs. No. 3 Florida: 1992 Sugar Bowl (1991 season) – Then a sophomore, Bettis produced what was likely the best statistical effort in a January bowl game, barreling for 150 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns on just 16 carries in No. 18 Notre Dame's 39-28 upset over No. 3 and heavily favored Florida. The Irish finished the season 10-3 and ranked No. 13.
6.) Frank Stams vs. No. 3 West Virginia: 1989 Fiesta Bowl (1988 season) – The defensive MVP of Notre Dame's most recent national championship game, Stams sacked Mountaineers QB and Heisman finalist Major Harris twice for 22 lost yards and was credited for three additional QB pressures as the Irish defense held the previously powerful West Virginia offense to 282 total yards. ?
7.) Devon McDonald vs. No. 4 Texas A&M: 1993 Cotton Bowl (1992 season) – The senior defensive end totaled 10 tackles (four for lost yardage) and one sack as the Irish defense limited the undefeated Aggies to just 165 yards of total offense in the 28-3 Irish victory. The Irish finished the season 10-1-1 and ranked fourth in the final AP Poll. ? 8.) Rod Smith vs. No. 3 Florida: 1992 Sugar Bowl (1991 season) – Recorded 18 tackles and a pass deflection as a roving safety in
Lou Holtz's gimmick defense (one that rushed as few as two defenders) vs. Florida coach Steve Spurrier's pass-happy "Fun ‘N Gun" offense. Smith broke Bob Golic's previous bowl game record of 17 tackles (set in the 1978 Cotton Bowl vs. RB Earl Campbell and the Texas Longhorns). ?
9.) Jerome Bettis vs. No. 4 Texas A&M: 1993 Cotton Bowl (1992 season) – McDonald was the game's defensive MVP, but Bettis was the difference-maker in the backfield, in what was his final game in an Irish uniform, the junior fullback helped bury the 12-0 Aggies and its Wrecking Crew defense, rushing for 75 yards and two touchdowns and adding a 26-yard touchdown reception from senior QB Rick Mirer in the 28-3 rout. ?
10.) Phil Carter vs. No. 1 Georgia: 1981 Sugar Bowl (1980 season) – Bob Crable and the Irish defense had the daunting task of containing freshman sensation Herschel Walker (36 carries, 150 yards) but Notre Dame's talented sophomore tailback produced 109 rushing yards of his own and scored the team's only touchdown as the No. 5 Irish fell, 17-10 to the national champion Bulldogs. ?
11.) Derrick Mayes vs. No. 4 Florida State: 1996 Orange Bowl (1995 season) – The senior wide receiver single-handedly kept the Irish in the game, catching 6 passes for 96 yards and two spectacular touchdowns in the team's 31-26 loss to the Seminoles, The sixth-ranked Irish entered the contest without their starting QB (injured junior Ron Powlus) and starting TB (suspended junior Randy Kinder) yet still led 26-14 midway through the third period.
At 9-3, Notre Dame finished No. 11 in the final AP Poll. ?Mayes also shined in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl (1994 season), catching four passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns but the 6-5-1 Irish lost 41-24 (and were never in the contest) vs. the heavily favored Colorado Buffaloes.
12.) Jim Flanigan vs. No. 7 Texas A&M: 1994 Cotton Bowl (1993 season) – The senior DT finished with 6 tackles, including three for lost yardage, forced a fumble, and recorded a key sack on the Aggies final drive as Notre Dame held on, 24-21 for the aforementioned No. 2 national finish. ?
13.) Darius Walker vs. No. 4 LSU: 2007 Sugar Bowl (2006 season) – Walker gained 128 yards on 22 carries and added 30 receiving yards on two receptions but the overmatched Irish fell to JaMarcus Russell and the athletic Tigers defense, 41-14. Notre Dame plummeted to No. 17 in the final AP Poll.
One season prior, Walker ran for 90 yards on 16 carries, added seven pass receptions, and scored both Irish touchdowns in No. 5 Notre Dame's 34-20 loss to No. 6 Ohio State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. The Irish dropped to No. 9 in the final AP Poll.
Note: Part II will examine standout efforts in bowls played without national implications.