Irish Legends: Top 10 Victories of the 90's

When Lou Holtz took his family out to dinner in Orlando prior to the 1992 Sugar Bowl, he thought it was going to be a nice evening filled with conversation and good food. The last thing he expected his waiter to serve was a hearty entrée of motivation.

Upon realizing the identity of his customer, Holtz's waiter decided that rather than have Holtz autograph a menu or pose for a picture, he instead wanted to share a joke that he had heard about the Notre Dame football team. Foolishly he blurted out, "What's the difference between Cheerios and Notre Dame?" Holtz didn't know. "Cheerios belongs in a bowl, Notre Dame doesn't." Unamused and irritated, Holtz quickly fired back at the waiter, "What's the difference between a golf pro and Lou Holtz?" This time the waiter was stumped. "Golf pros give tips, Lou Holtz won't."

If there was something that Lou Holtz lacked as a football coach, the ability to motivate a football team certainly wasn't it, yet Holtz was fuming over the lack of respect that Notre Dame was receiving leading up to their matchup against Florida. The Fighting Irish had started the season well, winning eight of their first nine games, but had stumbled down the homestretch and backed their way into the bowl season with consecutive home losses to Tennessee and Penn State, followed by a lackluster 48-42 victory over Hawaii to close out their regular season. Prior to the Tennessee loss, Notre Dame had reached #5 in the rankings. They dropped down to #17 after falling to Penn State and were so unimpressive in their victory over Hawaii that they dropped another slot down to #18.

Florida, on the other hand, came in at an impressive 10-1 and the undefeated champions of the SEC. The Gators were riding an eight game winning streak and had not lost since a September game at Syracuse, which had been rationalized as a letdown following their 35-0 drubbing of Alabama the week before. There was no doubting the Gators were talented. In fact, their roster boasted 11 All-Americans and nine players that would be selected in the coming NFL draft. They came into the game ranked #3 in the country and were not shy in vocally expressing their annoyance when #18 Notre Dame was announced as their Sugar Bowl opponent. Spurrier and his Gators felt that their team was worthy of National Championship consideration and to prove it they wanted to play the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes. When the Sugar Bowl announced that Florida's opponent would be lowly Notre Dame, the Gators were furious, realizing that their only chance at a National Championship would be if Miami and Washington both lost; to them, beating Notre Dame was a foregone conclusion. In the weeks leading up to the Sugar Bowl, it became quite apparent to Notre Dame that the Gators were not the only ones that felt the Irish did not deserve to be in the bowl. Media outlets across the country claimed that Notre Dame's invitation was a money-driven decision based on tradition and name rather than merit. In reality, this probably held some truth, but Lou Holtz would hear none of it. The official line from Las Vegas had Florida as 6.5 point favorites, but with all of the negative press, Notre Dame fans and players could have easily mistaken that line to be 65 points; a blatant disrepect that Holtz masterfully used in motivating his football team.

Finally, after weeks of being bashed in the media, game night had finally arrived. It would be the fifth straight January bowl game appearance for a Lou Holtz's Notre Dame team. No one heard more criticism about Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl than Lou Holtz, and he took it very personally. So much in fact, that for the first time in his coaching career, he felt the need to bring out the green jerseys. It was the first time in over a decade that Notre Dame had donned the white and green, and they looked sharp. The uniforms were the traditional white and gold Notre Dame road uniforms, but instead of blue, the socks, belts and numbers were kelly green. Holtz had hoped the uniform switch would propel his team to quick start, but it was actually Florida that came out firing on all cylinders.

In previewing the Sugar Bowl, one of the questions that frequently was brought up was how would Notre Dame's defense be able to stop the Florida Gator offense? Notre Dame had given up 112 points in their final three games of the regular season, yet when the Irish won the coin toss, Holtz never hesitated in calling upon his defense. Perhaps he was sending a message to Florida, but apparently the Gators didn't seem to get it as they took the opening drive 85 yards in four minutes and twenty seconds for an opening drive touchdown. The score happened when Florida quarterback Shane Matthews hit favorite target, Willie Jackson, for 15-yard score over the middle. An extra point later, Florida was out to a quick 7-0 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, Notre Dame's Clint Johnson took the return from the five yard line and for a brief second it looked like he had daylight up the middle. Instead, the ball came loose at the 35-yard line and fell right into the arms of a Florida special teams player. It was early, but things already looked bleak for the Irish. Were the critics right? Were the Irish in over their heads?

Fortunately for Notre Dame the bleeding stopped on the very next place as Matthews underthrew a home run ball that was intercepted just shy of the goal line by Irish defensive back, Willie Clark. Clark would return the ball out to the 33-yard line, but Notre Dame couldn't get anything going offensively. Over the next fifteen minutes or so, Florida would have plenty of scoring chances, but Notre Dame's defense held strong in the red zone, limiting the Gators to just two field goals. With 10:29 to go until halftime, Notre Dame trailed 13-0.

Facing second down and inches, Notre Dame finally got on the board when Rick Mirer connected with Lake Dawson for a 39-yard touchdown pass with 8:01 to play in the second quarter. Dawson had lined up in the strong side slot and ran a hitch route against Florida defensive back Larry Kennedy. The Florida safety bit underneath on Mirer's head fake and Dawson ran right past the frozen Kennedy who was left in man coverage. Dawson had to wait for the ball as Mirer almost failed to put enough zip on the ball, but the end result was all that mattered as Notre Dame cut the lead down to 13-7.

Florida would tack on its third field goal of the game to end the first half scoring as the Gators took a 16-7 lead to the locker room. Despite only holding a nine point lead, Florida was statistically dominating the frustrated Irish. The Gators had doubled Notre Dame's offensive yard production and also doubled their time of possession. Fortunately for the Irish, their red zone defense had held strong, preventing the Gators from potentially building a three or four touchdown lead. At halftime, Lou Holtz and Notre Dame offensive line coach, Joe Moore, decided to counter Florida's team speed with power football. Holtz told the media after the game, "When crunch time comes, you go back to what you do best…At halftime we said we're going back to the basics, power off tackle, et cetera. I told the team Florida's awfully good on defense, but I think we're a pretty good offensive football team, too. If they can stop us, we'll walk across the field and shake their hands. But let's give our players a chance."

In the first thirty minutes of football, Notre Dame had only managed 34 yards on the ground. Florida's pressure had kept the Irish passing game out of rhythm which meant few first down conversions and far too much field time for the Notre Dame defense. In the second half, the Irish would show something different and right from the start. Led by Rodney Culver, Notre Dame took the opening drive of the second half and bulldozed their way 64 yards, all on the ground, before ending the drive with a 23-yard Kevin Pendergast field goal. Pendergast, a Notre Dame soccer player who is probably best remembered for his involvement in a college basketball point-shaving scandal, had been selected as an emergency kicker by Lou Holtz when it was learned that Craig Hentrich would be unable to compete due to injury.

It was now a 16-10 game, but more importantly for Notre Dame, they had finally shown the ability to pick up yards with the running game. After holding the Florida offense, Notre Dame again attacked with the option running game. Led by Culver again, Notre Dame marched down the field into scoring position. After a key fourth down conversion by Jerome Bettis, Notre Dame had the ball first and goal at the Florida 6-yard line. After little success on first and second down, Mirer would find junior tight end Irv Smith in the back of the end zone on a perfectly executed play action pass to put the Irish up 17-16 with 2:02 to play in the third quarter.

Florida came back and once again moved the ball against the Irish defense, yet sputtered in the red zone. Another field goal put the Gators up 19-17 just minutes into the start of the fourth quarter. On their next drive, it appeared that Florida had finally ended their red zone woes, but running back Tre Everett let a Shane Matthews pass go through his hands in the end zone, resulting in yet another field goal attempt for the Gators. Florida kicker, Arden Czyzewski, would once again come through, kicking a Sugar Bowl record-breaking fifth field goal of the game to put the Gators up 22-17 with only 11:21 left to play.

While the first three-plus quarters had been solidly played, the 1992 Sugar Bowl will always be remembered by the fourth quarter performance put on by Notre Dame's Jerome Bettis. In the first half, Florida's defensive line had more or less shut the door on the Notre Dame ground attack. After a halftime change in philosophy, Notre Dame had pounded on that door throughout the third quarter putting up impressive numbers, but by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Bettis had busted the hinges off that door as Notre Dame waltzed right through the Florida defense. It started on the first drive of the fourth quarter for the Irish. Trailing 22-17, Notre Dame wore down the Florida defense and milked six-and-a-half minutes off the game clock. Finally on first and goal from the three-yard line, Bettis took a handoff from Mirer off right tackle and made his way into the end zone untouched. Holtz immediately called for a two-point conversion attempt that he hoped would give the Irish a field goal lead. Lining up on the left hash mark, Mirer took the snap and rolled to his right. As the defense collapsed on him, Mirer hit Tony Brooks, who had run a delayed pattern out of the backfield, in stride to put the Irish up 25-22 with 4:48 to play.

Time was running out and it was shaping up to be a shootout finale with the victor likely being the last team to score. It certainly looked that way when on the next possession, Matthews found a wide open Harrison Houston down the left sideline. Houston had nothing but orange pylons in front of him as he turned the corner, and should have scored, except that he forgot one thing…the ball. Matthews could not have placed the ball in a better position for his wide receiver, yet for whatever reason, Houston dropped it. It would prove costly too, as the Gators would turn the ball over on downs just a few plays later.

With under four minutes to play and holding onto a three point lead, a Notre Dame touchdown would likely put the game away. It didn't take long. On the very first play after Florida turned it over, Mirer handed to Bettis who shot through the front seven like a cannonball and sprinted 49 yards untouched for his second score of the game. The 250 pound Bettis had no fewer than 10-yards between him and the nearest Florida defender as he put the Irish up by two scores, 32-22.

As the Irish celebrated on the sidelines, Spurrier's gang showed that they still had some fight in them. Trailing by ten, Matthews once again looked Houston's way, who had beaten Notre Dame's Tom Carter by two steps. This time Houston secured the pass with both hands for the score, bringing the Gators back within four points, 32-28. Knowing that they would need another score and not wanting to play for the tie, Spurrier called in a two-point conversion play. The Gators spread out the Irish defense with a five wide receiver empty backfield set, but as Matthews looked for the quick out to the left corner of the end zone, Notre Dame's Oliver Gibson got a hand up just in time to bat the conversion pass to the ground.

After Rodney Culver recovered a failed onside attempt by the Gators, all Notre Dame needed to run out the clock would be a first down. Having picked up only five yards on their first two plays from scrimmage, it was once again Bettis who would take the stage. Taking the handoff from Mirer, Bettis ran to a crowded right side of the line where five Gator defenders were waiting for him. For a split second, Bettis disappeared into the mob, yet somehow escaped out back side without ever being touched. Bettis again sprinted to paydirt for his third touchdown run of the half and sealed the Irish victory, 39-28. Matthews would lead Florida down to the red zone one last time, but he would be picked off in the end zone by Notre Dame's Jeff Burris to end any last hope.

After being held to just 34 rushing yards in the first half, the Notre Dame backfield of Jerome Bettis, Rodney Culver, and Tony Brooks, erupted for 245 second half rushing yards including three rushing touchdowns by Bettis against a very highly regarded Florida defense. Perhaps the biggest question for Florida was how they could allow a 250 pound running back to score on three different rushing plays, totaling 91 yards, without once being touched. For Notre Dame, one simple coaching adjustment turned out to be the difference between night and day offensively for the Irish.

After the game, an elated Lou Holtz spoke to the media grinning from ear to ear as he recalled the Orlando waiter who had told him that Notre Dame didn't belong in a bowl. For Holtz and Notre Dame, the victory was greater than just the "W" in the record books. It had shown the nation that they had a passionate, talented football team that deserved to be in a premier bowl game on New Year's Day. The victory had silenced Notre Dame critics across the nation and perhaps even more surprising, had inspired numerous "Notre Dame apology" articles printed in the following days' newspapers.

As for the waiter, Lou Holtz likely never saw him again, but his comment will be forever linked to the game we all know as the "Cheerios Bowl." It wouldn't end there either. Having seen Holtz mention the Cheerios joke on national television, General Mills decided to show their support for the Notre Dame football team. Shortly after returning back to campus, Holtz received a shipment of 120 boxes of Cheerios from the company along with a note that read, "Like the Fighting Irish, we have been one of America's favorites for years. And as your team dramatically proved, both do belong in bowls." Holtz would donate the cereal to South Bend's Center for the Homeless.

Notre Dame has always faced a great deal of criticism in the sports media, yet rarely has it escalated to the levels exhibited during the seven weeks leading up to the 1992 Sugar Bowl. Many critics felt that Notre Dame had been given a gift and were waiting for them to fail on the national stage, but this Notre Dame team had too much pride. When some teams might have curl up and hide in a corner, team captain Rodney Culver, brought his troops together to protect their team and the University's name. Together they banded, ready to take on the "Fun ‘N Gun" Gators, and equally ready to take on a nation of doubters. It was this single game performance, more so than any other in the past twenty years, in which the football team truly lived up to the Notre Dame moniker. Strong of heart and true to her name, together these young men proudly represented the spirit of the Fighting Irish. Top Stories