Top-ranked Notre Dame had spent nearly the entire 1989 season atop the polls before a regular season-ending loss to Miami. They responded by defeating No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl by a score of 21-6. They eventually finished the season ranked No. 2 in the AP behind only Miami and No. 3 in the UPI behind Miami and Florida State.
The 1990 season, however, marked new era in Notre Dame football. The Irish would be without All-American Quarterback Tony Rice, replaced by highly-touted sophomore, Rick Mirer. Mirer, who grew up in Michigan but moved to Goshen, Indiana for high school, was thought to be a Michigan man, at least by Bo Schembechler. So much in fact that Schembechler spent little time recruiting Mirer. According to writer John Kryk, who wrote the book Natural Enemies, Schembechler said about Mirer, "All his life he was a Michigan fan. He had Michigan stuff on his car. He was Michigan all the way, but he got away. I was surprised."
Even before he arrived on campus, the attention surrounding Mirer was tremendous. Comparisons to a young Joe Montana were tossed around by Irish faithful, which were only enhanced once Mirer was issued a No. 3 jersey; Montana would even write Mirer over the summer wishing him good luck and asking him to take care of his number. Yet, despite all of the hype, there was still uncertainty as to how the young quarterback would respond to following one of the all-time Notre Dame greats. A first collegiate start is enough for any young quarterback, yet alone at Notre Dame, against the fourth-ranked team in the country, under the lights and on primetime television.
For Michigan, the biggest question mark was how the team would respond to new head coach Gary Moeller. Moeller was not new to Michigan, having served 17 years under Bo Schembechler, but he too was following in the footsteps of a legend. Schembechler had served as Michigan head coach for 21 years and no one quite knew what Moeller's Wolverines identity would be.
Much like Notre Dame, Michigan would also be relying heavily on their youth, especially at quarterback. 6-5 Elvis Grbac would lead the Wolverines into South Bend. As a freshman, Grbac had played impressively against the Irish, completing 17-of-21 passes and two touchdowns in relief of Michael Taylor, but still he only had four collegiate starts under his belt. Despite all of the question marks, expectations for both teams were extremely high as Notre Dame came into the season-opening matchup ranked No. 1 while Michigan was close behind at No. 4.
As 9:00 eastern time approached, millions across the nation turned their televisions to CBS to see if Notre Dame could defeat Michigan for a fourth straight year, a feat that had not been accomplished by any Michigan opponent since Purdue had done it in 1966. In the offseason, Notre Dame had signed a controversial deal with NBC to televise all future home games that left much of college football up in arms, but that deal would not take effect until the 1991 season.
The teams finally took the field, and if Rick Mirer was nervous, it certainly was not obvious to the fans or his teammates. After a Michigan botched handoff resulted in a turnover deep in their own territory, Mirer put the Irish on the board with a 2-yard plunge off-tackle into the end zone.
Michigan responded with a field goal on their next possession, but Notre Dame retaliated, driving the length of the field for another touchdown, this time a 2-yard run by Tony Brooks. As the dust settled and the first quarter ran out, Mirer and Notre Dame found themselves with a 14-3 lead.
However, Michigan would not roll over. Sophomore quarterback, Elvis Grbac would find fellow sophomore Desmond Howard for a 44-yard touchdown and bring the score to 14-10 by halftime. In the third quarter, Michigan scored two more touchdowns, including another connection between Grbac and Howard, this time for 25-yards. Midway through the third quarter, Michigan had taken a 24-14 lead. While Grbac and Howard made the most noise on the scoreboard, it was redshirt sophomore sensation, Jon Vaughn, who was shredding the Irish defense on the ground. Vaughn was unstoppable for most of the game as he finished with 201 yards on only 22 carries in his debut start for Michigan.
With under three minutes to go in the third quarter, it appeared that Michigan was going to extend their lead, but kicker J.D. Carlson missed a 36-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Wolverines a comfortable 13-point lead. Instead, Notre Dame fans hoped that the missed field goal would give the Irish a spark of momentum as they had done little at all offensively since the first quarter. That hope seemed short-lived, however, as Notre Dame's first three plays resulted in a net of -5 yards. If the Irish could not get a first down, Michigan would take control of the ball in good field position and a score would likely put the game out of reach.
Heading into the season, Lou Holtz said that his team was not going to rely on the young Mirer to win them football games, but rather to just play quarterback. However, with their backs against the wall in an obvious passing situation, Mirer had to do something. Perhaps it was fate or just plain luck but what happened next would be the first spark in one of Notre Dame Stadium's greatest comebacks. Mirer took the third-down snap, looked downfield and zoned in on Rocket Ismail. Unfortunately for Mirer, the pass deflected off of Rocket's fingertips. Fortunately, before anyone in the stadium had a chance to sigh, the ball landed in the hands of freshman wide receiver Lake Dawson.
Dawson secured the ball and galloped down the field before being brought down at the Michigan 40-yard line. The pass went for 45 yards and kept the Irish alive. Just minutes into the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's Rodney Culver would score from the 1-yard line, capping an 80-yard and 13 play drive which narrowed the deficit to three. The missed field goal had resulted in a 10 point swing for the Irish and put momentum back in their favor.
On the ensuing Michigan possession, the Wolverines started at their own 18-yard line with a little under thirteen minutes left to play. At this point the Notre Dame defense was running on fumes. Moeller had installed a no huddle offense to keep the Irish defense on their toes, but with little time to rest thanks to a sputtering offense, the Notre Dame defense was exhausted. Michigan took full advantage of the tiring defense and ran the ball right at the Irish front again and again and again. It was an impressive strike carried out with ease and good old fashioned hard-nosed football that saw Michigan move the ball 71 yards in a little under three minutes to the doorstep of Notre Dame's end zone.
Standing at the 11-yard line it seemed unlikely that Michigan would deviate from the running game as Notre Dame had failed to stop it. However, as he approached the line of scrimmage, Grbac saw something that told the young quarterback it was time to audible. He called the play then dropped back and fired to sophomore wide receiver Derrick Alexander. The ball never reached Alexander as Notre Dame's Michael Stonebreaker dropped back into coverage and made the interception in the end zone. For Stonebreaker it marked a triumphant return to the football field after missing the entire 1989 season with a dislocated hip and broken kneecap. It also marked the end of a promising scoring drive for the Wolverines and breathed life into Notre Dame Stadium.
For awhile it appeared as though Notre Dame was going to ride their momentum all the way into Michigan's end zone, but that came to a screeching halt as Cincinnati Moeller graduate and Michigan Free Safety, Vada Murray, intercepted Mirer at the Wolverine 10-yard line just inside of the 8:00 minute mark. Despite the outcome, the long drive did allow the Notre Dame defense to get some much needed rest as they came out and forced the Wolverines to punt the football.
Following the change of possession, the Irish had the ball with 4:33 to go, down by three, and were 76 yards from pay dirt. 60,000 people in the stadium, and millions in front of their television sets at home, watched from the edge of their seats to see if Mirer really had a little "Joe Cool" in him after all. His time had come.
In one of those special Notre Dame moments, Mirer led the Irish down the field completing five-of-seven pass attempts for 52 yards. The final pass put the Irish in lead as Mirer found fellow sophomore Adrian Jarrell for an 18-yard score that put Notre Dame up 28-24. Just as everything appeared to be perfect, Notre Dame and their fans had an "Oh No!" moment, as Michigan speedster Desmond Howard nearly broke the ensuing kickoff return but was wrestled down at the 41-yard line of Michigan. Still, with only 59 yards to protect, the final 1:30 on the clock seemed like an eternity. On the first play from scrimmage, perhaps trying to do too much, Grbac dropped back and forced a pass attempt. The errant throw was intercepted by then Notre Dame cornerback, Reggie Brooks. Michigan would have one final shot as they received the ball back in the last 30 seconds, but it was too late. Notre Dame had completed the comeback. The new "Golden Boy" had arrived. It was made official only a few days later, on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
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