Irish Legends

For Notre Dame fans and alumni, it has been far too long since the Fighting Irish stood atop the college football standings. However, with a third straight stellar recruiting class, Notre Dame football is putting together the type of roster that has not been seen in South Bend since the early 1990's.

As Charlie Weis and the players look ahead to the future, Irish Legends takes a look to the past and remembers the Top 10 victories of the 90's.

As with any ranking system, there is sure to be some controversy and lots of discussion. Despite the disappointing end results, there were plenty of big games in the 90's, as evidenced by six honorable mentions prefacing the Top 10 list. Let us first take a brief look at some of the games that did not make the cut:

Honorable Mentions

September 22, 1990: #1 Notre Dame d. #24 Michigan State 20-19 Trailing 19-7, Sophomore Rick Mirer led the Irish to two fourth quarter touchdowns, aided by a little bit of luck. By all accounts, the game should have been over. Mirer had thrown a wobbly pass directly to Spartan cornerback, Todd Murray. Had the pass been a spiral, perhaps Murray would have made the interception. Instead, the ball deflected off of Murray's shoulder pad at the 2-yard line and into the hands of Irish receiver, Adrian Jarrell. Notre Dame handed the ball to running back, Rodney Culver, for the game-winning score with 34 seconds on the clock.

January 1, 1994: #4 Notre Dame d. #6 Texas A&M 24-21 Coming off perhaps the most disappointing loss in Notre Dame history, an upset at the hands of Boston College, many questioned whether the Irish would even show up to play in the 1994 Cotton Bowl. A Ray Zellars 2-yard run tied the game at 14 early in the second half. The teams traded rushing touchdowns to make the score 21-21. With under four minutes to play, Notre Dame speedster, Mike Miller, returned a punt deep into Aggie territory. The Irish were only able to manage a 31-yard field goal but it secured the win and kept the Irish in consideration for the National Championship. This game also marks the last time Notre Dame has won a bowl game.

September 23, 1995: #21 Notre Dame d. #13 Texas 55-27 Recovering from spinal surgery, Lou Holtz watched from the press box as his Fighting Irish put on a fourth quarter show. Trailing 20-19 midway through the third quarter, Notre Dame would outscore the Longhorns 35-7 the rest of the way, including four fourth quarter touchdowns. The Longhorns turned it over five times on the day. Offensively, Notre Dame was led by Randy Kinder (129 yards rushing) and Derrick Mayes (146 yards receiving), but it was the defense and special teams play that sparked the Irish on this day. Emmett Mosley returned a punt 64 yards for an Irish touchdown, and speedster Allen Rossum returned a blocked extra point all the way for a score.

October 14, 1995: #17 Notre Dame d. Army 28-27 Looking on again from the press box, this time in Giants Stadium, Lou Holtz saw his Notre Dame team let a 28-7 lead as late as halfway through the third quarter, slip away. The reason this game gets consideration is not because Notre Dame pulled out a 1-point victory over a 21-point underdog, but because of the unbelievable play that saved the victory for the Irish. With 39 seconds remaining in the game, Army quarterback, Ronnie McAda, hit receiver Leon Gantt for a seven yard touchdown; his first receiving touchdown of the year. The touchdown made the score 28-27 in favor of the Irish, but Army wasted little time in deciding to go for the win. On the conversion attempt, McAda rolled to his right and hit open Tight End, Ron Leshinski, inside the one-yard line. However, before the 6'3" 240 lb. Leshinski could turn around and break the plane of the goal line, 5'9" 161lb. backup cornerback, Ivory Covington, hit him square, wrapped him up and drove him to the turf to preserve a most dramatic Notre Dame win.

October 14, 1998: #22 Notre Dame d. #5 Michigan 36-20 In his first career start, Notre Dame quarterback, Jarious Jackson, threw for two touchdowns to help the Irish defeat the defending national champion Wolverines. The Irish were led by 162 rushing yards and two touchdowns by starting running back, Autry Denson. Bobbie Howard's 14 tackles led a Notre Dame defense that sacked Michigan quarterback, Tom Brady, three times and propelled the Irish to jump from #22 to the #10 ranked team in the nation.

October 16, 1999: Notre Dame d. USC 25-24 This game earns consideration not because of its significance, but because of the heavenly influence that helped Notre Dame find victory. Marking 25- years since the comeback in L.A. that ended any chances Notre Dame had at a National Championship, God sent an apology letter to the Irish, in the form of Mother Nature. USC got out to an early 21-0 lead and led 24-3 in the third quarter. However, USC self-destructed in the second half with costly penalties and turnovers. Aiding the collapse of Troy was the weather as every time USC had the ball, the rain would seem to pick up and the wind would change to blow in the direction opposite of USC's drive. With 2:43 to go in the fourth quarter, Jarious Jackson fumbled the ball into the end zone, potentially ending any chance at an Irish victory. However, seconds later, Notre Dame Tight End, Jabari Holloway, sprung from the underneath the pile with the football and the game-winning Notre Dame touchdown. The victory marked the greatest Irish comeback in Notre Dame stadium and ended a three-game losing streak to the rival Trojans. It was the game that left Irish fans thankful that God was on their side.

If you thought those games were exciting, take a look at the games that actually made the list:

#10 – November 10, 1990: #1 Notre Dame d. #9 Tennessee 34-29

The nation was primed for an upset. Notre Dame entered the contest as the top team in the nation, but many fans and media around the country felt that the high-powered Tennessee offense would pose a serious problem for the vulnerable Notre Dame defense. In the first eight weeks of the season, Notre Dame had struggled to keep teams off the board, giving up nearly 400 yards and 24 points a game, including 31 points in the previous week to Navy. While Coach Lou Holtz expected there would be some growing pains for his talented but green secondary, he did not plan on his defense losing All-American Nose Tackle, Chris Zorich. Zorich, also a team captain, had gone down with a partially dislocated knee in the third quarter of the Pittsburgh game only two weeks prior and was considered doubtful by Lou Holtz. However, with major questions heading into the game on the defensive side of the ball, especially with Zorich's health, it was another Notre Dame captain that provided answers on the offensive side of the ball. Captain Ricky Watters, who had struggled earlier in the season, erupted for 174 yards against a strong Tennessee defense that had given up only 135 rushing yards per game. Overall, the Irish gained 316 yards on the ground and were able to narrowly edge out Tennessee's aerial assault.

Tennessee was first to score on a 36-yard field goal, but Notre Dame answered right back with a 59-yard catch and run by Rodney Culver. The game would head to halftime with the Irish leading 10-6 after both teams converted field goal attempts. Tennessee quarterback, Andy Kelly, led the Volunteers out of halftime and into the end zone as he drove the offense quickly down the field. Tennessee took the lead 13-10, but Notre Dame countered right back only 24 seconds later with a 67-yard scamper by Ricky Watters. The Irish took the lead 17-13. Following the ensuing kickoff, Kelly again drove the Volunteer offense down the field with ease, eventually connecting with Alvin Harper for a 34-yard touchdown pass, giving Tennessee the lead 20-17 with 10 minutes to play in the third quarter. As the quarter wound down, Notre Dame appeared to tie the game on a field goal. However, Tennessee was ruled offside and Notre Dame was awarded with a first down. Unfortunately, Culver was stripped inside of the five-yard line and Tennessee recovered. Notre Dame's defense was able to hold Tennessee in check, and forced a punt from their own end zone. The punt was fielded by Notre Dame junior, "Rocket" Ismail, at the Notre Dame 48-yard line where he found a seam to the left and was finally run out of bounds at the 13-yard line of Tennessee. Unable to put the ball in the end zone, Notre Dame settled for a field goal, tying the game at 20. Tennessee would take the lead with a 45-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter, after another impressive drive led by Kelly. After a short punt by Tennessee gave Notre Dame the ball in Tennessee territory, Rick Mirer and the Notre Dame offense marched toward the end zone in only four plays, capped off by another touchdown run by Ricky Watters. The Irish took the lead 27-23. Kelly and the Tennessee offense had been nearly perfect all day, but on the next drive, Notre Dame's Don Grimm picked off one of Kelly's 60 pass attempts on the day. With only 3:44 left to play, Rocket Ismail took a toss from Mirer toward the right sideline, turned the corner, and darted 44-yards for a touchdown to put the Irish ahead 34-23. The Vols weren't done yet. Kelly again led the Volunteers down the field, connecting on six passes including another touchdown pass to Alvin Harper that just cleared the outstretched fingertips of Notre Dame defensive back, Rod Smith. After a failed two-point conversion, Tennessee stayed alive by recovering the on-side kick. Notre Dame had struggled to stop Tennessee's offense all day. Kelly had hit sophomore receiver, Carl Pickens, 13 times for 163 yards and connected with Alvin Harper for two touchdowns. Combined, the Tennessee offense had shredded the Notre Dame defense for over 500 yards on the day. With the ball and good field position, it seemed only a matter of time before the Tennessee offense scored again. Holding on to a five point lead with under a minute to go, the Notre Dame defense took the field for a final time, already exhausted as the onside kick left them without a sideline breather. As the clocked ticked under 50 seconds, Kelly dropped back to pass and saw that Alvin Harper had a step on the Notre Dame safety. What Kelly did not see was that Rod Smith was cheating in his zone coverage and had dropped deeper into the secondary anticipating a pass. As Kelly released the ball, Smith got a good read on the pass and made the leaping interception at the two-yard line to secure the Irish victory. Notre Dame would escape Knoxville with a close win, but fall the following week at home to #18 Penn State. The win against Tennessee is the last time that Notre Dame has won a football game as the #1 team in the nation.

#9 – November 15, 1997: Notre Dame d. #11 LSU 24-6

No one saw this coming. LSU entered the game at 7-2 including a victory over then #1 Florida earlier in the season. Fresh off a 27-0 trouncing of Alabama, the Tigers were rolling. Notre Dame, on the other hand, entered the game with a 4-5 record. After opening the season 1-5, Bob Davie's team was starting to come around with back-to-back wins over Boston College and Navy, but this was LSU…in Death Valley. Apparently someone forgot to tell Notre Dame that they were supposed to be blown out, because they came out of the gates firing on all cylinders. After LSU deferred the coin toss, Allen Rossum quieted the crowd quickly, fielding the opening kickoff from his own goal line and sprinting his way out to the 43-yard line. After a personal foul face mask and a couple of quick hitters from Ron Powlus, Autry Denson put the Irish on the board with a 9-yard touchdown run, just 2:30 into the game. It was a sign of good things to come for Notre Dame. In game planning for the Tigers, Coach Bob Davie placed his number one focus on containing All-American Kevin Faulk, something obviously easier said than done. LSU managed to move the ball consistently throughout the game, but they were never able to break the big play, a specialty of Faulk's.

After the Notre Dame defense forced LSU to punt on their opening possession, Scott Cengia's 29-yard field goal gave the Irish an early 10-0 lead. An A'Jani Sanders interception return, followed by a Clement Stokes 6-yard plunge into the end zone, put the Irish up 17-0 with 1:37 left on the clock still in the first quarter! The teams traded punches for the next two quarters, but no scoring occurred until late in the third quarter. Again it was Clement Stokes who put the Irish in the end zone, following an Autry Denson 34-yard dash up the sideline. Notre Dame led 24-0. The Tigers would finally convert with a Kevin Faulk touchdown late in the fourth quarter, but by then the game had long been over. The Irish gained 260 of their 339 yards on the ground, led by Stokes' and Denson's 92 yards apiece. Powlus only attempted 10 passes and completed 6 of those, but the Irish didn't need to throw as they got out to an early lead. LSU's Kevin Faulk gained 105 yards on 26 carries, but the Irish defense prevented him from breaking any long runs the entire game. Notre Dame intercepted Herb Tyler three times on the day, as they limited the LSU play caller to just 167 yards through the air.

When the final seconds ran off the game clock, Notre Dame had pulled one of the biggest upsets of the 1997 season and in reality the 24-6 disparity should have been a lot greater, had Notre Dame converted a few key plays in the first half. Notre Dame would win their next two games against West Virginia and Hawaii, finishing the regular season on a five-game winning streak and 7-5 overall. On December 28th, the Irish would meet the Tigers again, this time in Shreveport for the Independence Bowl. The Tigers would get their revenge, but the Notre Dame win in Baton Rouge would remain the highlight of the season.

#8– September 21, 1996: #9 Notre Dame d. #6 Texas 27-24

Looking to avenge a 28-point loss in South Bend the season before, the Longhorns hosted this early-season matchup of top-10 teams on a perfect day in Austin, Texas. Notre Dame had entered the game after opening the season with a close win at Vanderbilt and a 35-0 shutout against Purdue. The Longhorns had rolled over their first two opponents, beating Missouri 40-10 and New Mexico State 41-7. With a backfield of Ricky Williams, Shon Mitchell and Priest Holmes, the Longhorns had one of the most dangerous running attacks in the country. However, on the other side of the ball, Notre Dame had a pretty good defense as well, led by captain Lyron Cobbins, just one of 12 future NFL players on the Notre Dame defensive roster.

The Longhorns got out to an early lead, taking the opening drive of the game 80 yards, finished off by a 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback, James Brown, to receiver, Mike Adams. The Irish took their first drive the length of the field as well, covering 82 yards in 12 plays, but were stopped at the Longhorns' 1-yard line and forced to kick a field goal. At the end of the first quarter, the score remained 7-3 in favor of the Longhorns. After an impressive 75-yard drive, Priest Holmes put Texas up 14-3 with 8:30 left in the second quarter. Notre Dame would not let the Longhorns pull any further ahead, as the Irish scored on an 18-yard option pitch to Robert Farmer, capping off an 80-yard drive. The Irish would score again with time running out in the second quarter, when Ron Powlus found an open Marc Edwards from three yards out, to put take the lead 17-14 heading into the locker rooms. Things would settle down in the third quarter, as the only scoring came on a 47-yard field goal by Longhorns' kicker, Phil Dawson, which tied the game at 17. At the start of the fourth quarter, momentum appeared to be shifting in favor of the Longhorns' when Ricky Williams scored to put Texas up 24-17. It would be the final time that Texas would score on the day.

After the offense failed to score, Coach Holtz gambled with a fake punt. The Irish were not able to convert and Texas had a chance to put the game away. Instead, Lyron Cobbins came up with a key interception at the Longhorns' 35-yard line, giving the Irish another chance. With 3:05 to play in the game, Notre Dame faced a 4th and Goal from the 6-yard line, trailing by seven. The Irish sent Emmett Mosley in motion, pulling the defensive back with him. As the ball was snapped, the fullback Edwards followed Mosley to the left as Powlus turned and ran the option with Denson to the right. The motion was just enough to pull the Longhorn defense away from the play, as Powlus pitched the ball to Denson, who cutback at the 4-yard line to avoid the Longhorns' Tyson King and dove across the goal line for the touchdown. Holtz later credited Denson with the effort, saying that the fullback, Edwards, had blocked the wrong direction on the play. After the Notre Dame defense forced Texas to punt, the Irish had one last drive to try and win the game. Starting at their own 43-yard line, with under a minute to go, Powlus handed the ball off to Denson on a draw. Denson broke a run down to the Longhorns' 34-yard line, before being dragged down by Texas standout free safety, Chris Carter. Two plays later, still needing about ten yards to get within field goal range, Powlus hit Malcolm Johnson between three Longhorns' defenders at the 21-yard line. The Irish called timeout with just :05 left on the clock. The fate of the game laid on the shoulders and right foot of freshman kicker, Jim Sanson. Lining up his kick from the left-hashmark, Sanson took a deep breath, took two strides to his left and waited for the snap. A clean snap, a clean hold and 39-yards later, Sanson was a hero. Statistically, the Irish dominated the Longhorns. Notre Dame did not turn the ball over, and possessed the ball for 34:00 compared to Texas' 26:00. The Irish outgained the Longhorns 419 yards to 313 yards, but perhaps the most surprising statistic was that the Notre Dame defense held the heralded Texas ground game to only 135 yards rushing. The win escalated the Irish to the #5 ranking in the nation, and improved Notre Dame's overall record against the Longhorns to 8-2.

#7– October 21, 1995: #17 Notre Dame d. #5 USC 38-10

The Hit. The game will forever be remembered by The Hit. Having bested Army by only a single point the week before and losses to Northwestern and Ohio State earlier in the season, 1995 appeared to be the year when Notre Dame's unbeaten streak against USC would finally be in broken. The Trojans were undefeated coming into South Bend, and ranked as the #5 team in the country. With National Championship expectations, many felt the Trojans would be too much to handle for the inconsistent Irish.

For the first time all day, USC had managed to make their way deep inside Notre Dame territory. The noise in the South End Zone was deafening, as Notre Dame fans tried to help the Irish defense keep the momentum in their favor. It was 2nd Down and Goal from the 4-yard line. Trojan quarterback, Kyle Wachholtz, took the snap from center and turned to his left to hand the ball off to running back, Delon Washington. The play called for fullback, Terry Barnum to serve as a lead blocker for Washington, however, a blitzing Kinnon Tatum beat Barnum to the line of scrimmage forcing Barnum to dive at Tatum's ankles. The only thing missing from Tatum's uniform was a Superman cape as he had blitz through the line faster than a speeding bullet, leaped over Barnum, soared through the air and hit Washington with the power of a locomotive. The hit occurred just at the point of exchange, forcing the ball to shoot into the air. After a brief scramble for the ball, Notre Dame's Bert Berry emerged holding the football in the air for all to see. Tatum's incredible hit prevented the Trojans from scoring, and will go down as one of the greatest individuals plays of the decade.

Notre Dame had scored first on a Marc Edwards run from the 9-yard line to put the first points on the board. Kevin Kopka missed the extra point, leaving the Irish with a 6-0 lead. In the second quarter, USC would briefly take the lead when Wachholtz hit Keyshawn Johnson on a 17-yard pass play to put the Trojans up 7-6. Notre Dame would respond with two scores to finish out the half. Edwards would score the first on a 2-yard run and then catch the 2-point conversion on a pass from Powlus to put the Irish up 14-7. Notre Dame would get the ball back when the Trojans turned it over on downs at the Irish 38-yard line. The Irish wasted little time moving down the field, putting the ball in the end zone in the final minute of the half with an Autry Denson 4-yard touchdown. Amazingly, USC was able to drive all the way back down the field and get to the Irish 3-yard line with seconds to play. Instead of kicking a field goal, the Trojans gave the ball to Rodney Sermons. Sermons, who would be the overtime hero for the Trojans in 1996, had no such luck on this day. Looking to put the Trojans in the end zone, he was abruptly met by the forces of Renaldo Wynn and Kinnon Tatum. The Irish carried the momentum into the locker room, 21-7. An inspired Notre Dame defense, aided by four turnovers and seven USC penalties, kept the Trojans from ever getting in a rhythm offensively. USC would tack on another field goal in the third quarter, but the Irish put the game away with a fourth quarter eruption that resulted in 17 unanswered points. The scoring appropriately started with the defense when linebacker, Kory Minor, sacked Wachholtz in the end zone for a safety. Powlus then hit tight end, Pete Chrplewicz, from the 2-yard line to put the Irish up 29-10. Marc Edwards would run a two-point conversion in to make it 31-10 and then cap off his career day with a final touchdown run late in the game. Edwards would finish the day with three touchdowns and two two-point conversions, but he was overshadowed by the brilliant play of the Notre Dame defense. USC was able to amass 379 total yards, but the timely defensive stops and turnovers were key to the Irish victory, including twice holding the Trojans without points from the 3-yard line. All in all, the highly-ranked Trojans ran into a wall on that day; a wall that knocked them out of National Championship contention and continued the streak of 13 games without a victory against the Irish.

#6– January 1, 1990: #4 Notre Dame d. #1 Colorado 21-6

For nearly all of the 1989 season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were the top-ranked team in America. Unfortunately, in the final week of the season, they ran into the Miami Hurricanes who were looking to avenge their one-point loss in South Bend the season before. The ‘Canes ran away from the Irish with a 27-10 victory, dropping Notre Dame to #4 in the polls. However, when the bowl matchups were announced, Miami was slated against #7 Alabama, and the Irish were picked to play the top-ranked Colorado Buffaloes in the Orange Bowl. The decade of the 1980's had ended on a sour note for the Irish, but Lou Holtz was determined to start the 1990's off on the right foot. Despite the loss to Miami, if Notre Dame could beat Colorado, they would have a legitimate chance at still being named National Champions, as Miami had previously lost to two-loss Florida State.

The undefeated Buffaloes and coach Bill McCartney had rolled through the 1989 season winning by an average score of 41-13. Sophomore quarterback, Darian Hagan, led the option attack as he became only the sixth player in NCAA history to run and throw for more than 1,000 yards in a given season. Hagan was joined by the backfield tandem of J.J. Flannigan and Eric Bieniemy, who combined with Hagan for nearly 3,000 rushing yards on the season. Notre Dame presented their own option attack with Tony Rice leading the offense and Rocket Ismail scaring defense coordinators every time he touched the ball.

Coming into the game, there was concern with the Notre Dame defensive line stopping the rushing attack of the Buffaloes, as two starters for the Irish defensive line were out due to academic suspension. However, defense was no problem for either team in the first half, as the game remained scoreless at the break. Colorado was able to enter the red zone on three different occasions in the first half, yet the Notre Dame defense managed to keep them off of the scoreboard. The second half was a different story, at least for the Irish. In their first possession, the Irish drove 69-yards for the first points of the game, capped off by a 2-yard touchdown by tri-captain Anthony Johnson. On the ensuing Colorado drive, playing in his final game at Notre Dame, Irish linebacker and tri-captain, Ned Bolcar, intercepted Hagan around midfield. The Irish were on the move again and scored quickly, really quickly in fact, as Rocket Ismail scored from 35-yards out on a run to the outside on a 3rd down and long play.

As the clock ran out in the third quarter, the Buffaloes' Hagan scored on a 39-yard sprint to the end zone, closing the gap to 14-6. However, Colorado kicker, Ken Culbertson, hit the left upright, adding to his kicking frustrations on the day. Holtz decided that Notre Dame would play ball control in the fourth quarter. The Irish ran nearly 9 minutes off the clock during a 17 play, 82-yard scoring drive that was completed when Anthony Johnson scored his second touchdown of the day from 7-yards out. That score would put the Irish up 21-6 and secure Notre Dame's victory. Once again, it was the Notre Dame defense that ruled the day, holding the explosive Colorado offense to 38 points and nearly 200 yards below their season average.

After the game, a spirited Lou Holtz made his case to the media as to why Notre Dame should be named National Champions. With the Buffaloes knocked from unbeaten status, there were no undefeated teams left in college football. Holtz argued that his team just knocked off the #1 team by 15 points, and no other team played as difficult a schedule as the Irish. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, voters chose the Miami Hurricanes as National Champions in both the AP and the UPI polls, with Notre Dame finishing #2 and #3 respectively. Voters cited that the head-to-head matchup, in which Miami defeated Notre Dame, was the deciding factor between the two one-loss teams. Florida State had lost their first two games of the season, but finished with 10 wins in a row, including victories over Miami and Nebraska.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Check back soon as Irish Legends reveals Top 5 Notre Dame victories from the 1990s. Be sure to check the Members Forum for video highlights of some of the games mentioned in this article.


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