It was a day of finales in South Bend. Notre Dame seniors, Rick Mirer, Demetrius DuBose, Reggie Brooks, and Irv Smith among others, would play their final game in Notre Dame Stadium. It also marked the end of a brief but intense rivalry with Joe Paterno and Penn State. Yet the most exciting conclusion of all, occurred in the closing seconds of the game itself. Irish Legends helps you remember the game simply known as "The Snow Bowl."
While the Notre Dame-Penn State series initiated back in 1913, it was not until 1981 that the teams began playing on an annual basis. Since the series renewed, the outcomes had decidedly been in Penn State's favor. Paterno's Nittany Lions had won the last two meetings in 1990 and 1991, and eight of eleven since 1981. Coming into the '92 matchup however, Penn State was struggling, having lost three of their last four games after starting the season 5-0. Yet, no one on Notre Dame's side was going to take the Nittany Lions lightly. Lou Holtz and several Notre Dame players had been on the field in 1990 when the top-ranked Fighting Irish fell to #18 Penn State on a field goal in the closing seconds, which had ended Notre Dame's National Championship run. In a series that regularly boasted #1 rankings from one side or the other, this day was not about a title run. Instead, Holtz had made it clear that the focus of this game was to win it for the seniors, something his teams had not been able to accomplish on senior day since 1989.
As kickoff approached, the temperature hovered right around freezing, causing snow flurries to scatter in the afternoon sky. Yet the biggest concern for Notre Dame was not the cold and wind, rather the health of ailing quarterback Rick Mirer. After battling stomach issues earlier in the week, there were questions on whether he would have enough energy to play four quarters, let alone lead the Irish to victory over a tough defensive team in Penn State. On the other side of the ball, Penn State was fresh off a bye week which had allowed their hobbled defense a chance to recover from some nagging injuries. If the Nittany Lions wanted to win, they would need all of the rest they could get as Notre Dame's multi-faceted offensive attack led the nation in total offense coming into the game.
Penn State won the opening coin toss and elected to differ to the second half which meant that Notre Dame would start their final home game with the ball. After a short run by Reggie Brooks, Mirer hit fellow senior Adrian Jarrell for a 9-yard pass on second down giving the Irish a first down. In addition, the pass also gave Mirer the record for all-time Notre Dame total offense, vaulting him past Steve Beuerlein's 6,459 total offensive yards. Mirer would continue to lead the Irish deeper into Penn State territory, as he connected with senior Irv Smith for a big gain over the middle. However, the drive would be stopped short of the end zone, when Penn State tackled Lee Becton just inside the 10-yard line on third down. Holtz would call upon dependable Craig Hentrich to put the Irish on the board, and he delivered with a 26-yard field goal through the uprights.
It didn't take long for Penn State to show their explosiveness as sophomore, J.T. Morris nearly broke the ensuing kickoff return for a touchdown. Notre Dame fans held their collective breaths again on Penn State's first snap from scrimmage, as O.J. McDuffie bobbled the exchange on a reverse, yet still would have gone the distance had it not been for a diving tackle made by defensive back Tom Carter.
Despite consistent production all season from tailback Richie Anderson and wide out O.J. McDuffie, Penn State would be hampered by inconsistency at the quarterback position in 1992. After winning a tight quarterback battle for the starting position in spring camp, Kerry Collins broke his right index finger playing volleyball at a family reunion. His replacement, John Sacca, would be injured against Cincinnati and replaced by freshman Wally Richardson. Sacca would become the full-time starter again until late-October when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice. Collins regained the starting position by default, yet found himself with very little game experience playing against an athletic Notre Dame defense that was continuing to grow in confidence. That confidence grew even more for the Irish defense when Collins forced a pass to his tight end that was tipped into the air and intercepted by Notre Dame defensive back John Covington.
It appeared as though Notre Dame was going to march right down the field and score again, as Mirer connected with Irv Smith who proceeded to barrel over multiple Penn State defenders. Yet after missing a wide open Smith later in the drive, Mirer floated a pass beyond the outstretched arms of Dean Lytle and into the hands of Penn State safety Lee Rubin.
On the next possession, Collins showed that he would not be intimidated by Notre Dame's defense as he connected with Tyson Thomas for a 46-yard completion that brought the ball down to the Notre Dame 8-yard line. Thomas had actually stepped out around the 17-yard line, but a forearm shot to the head from Jeff Burris moved the ball half the distance to the goal.
As the snow began to rip down from the sky, Penn State picked up a first down inside of the five yard line, which had been a benefit of the penalty by Burris. It was no surprise to either side what would happen next. Penn State lined up and handed the ball to Richie Anderson who attempted to leap his way into the end zone. Anderson would be met in a mid-air collision by Jeff Burris and Demetrius DuBose and fall short of the goal line. On second down, Anderson tried it again, this time resulting in an even bigger mid-air collision with Burris. Finally, on third down, Anderson inched his way over the goal line, despite taking another big mid-air hit. Penn State would only take a 6-3 lead however, as the extra point would be blocked by Notre Dame freshman, Bobby Taylor. Taylor, who had been a standout basketball player in high school, showed off his leaping ability and used every bit of his 6'4" body, extended his arms up and batted the ball out of the sky. Not even Taylor could have foreseen the significance this play would hold in the outcome of the game.
As the snow fell harder, chaos ensued. The football and the players became increasingly slick, resulting in what looked at times to be a game of catch the greased pig. Penn State, who was determined to keep the ball away from speedster Mike Miller, kicked the ball to Lee Becton. Becton, who had been dealing with a shoulder injury, took a helmet directly to his right shoulder and the ball squirted loose. After a brief scrum, the Irish would recover on their 22-yard line, but Becton would be forced to the sideline. Then, after a near breakaway run by Reggie Brooks, fullback Dean Lytle burst through the Penn State defense for another big gain, but was hit from behind and fumbled the ball over to Penn State. On the very next play, Kerry Collins threw directly at Notre Dame's Greg Lane, but the interception was dropped. Had Lane held onto the ball and stayed on his feet, he would have had an easy touchdown.
As the second quarter started, the snowfall became heavier but more importantly, began to stick to the ground. Visibility also became a factor as players from both teams had passes hit them right in the numbers and fall incomplete. The second quarter also saw the afternoon debut of Jerome Bettis, who continued to be slowed by a previous ankle injury. After a first quarter which had not seen a punt from either team, both Notre Dame and Penn State traded punts on the first four possessions of the second quarter. On the fifth possession, facing third and long, Collins scrambled from the pocket but was hit from behind by Notre Dame defensive end Karmeeleyah McGill and lost the ball to Notre Dame after a mad scramble on the slippery turf. Notre Dame would turn the ball over on downs when Irv Smith could not hang on to a rocket slung by Mirer which would have resulted in a touchdown. As the game progressed, the playing surface turned to mud, bringing both offenses to a screeching halt. Despite poor footing, Hentrich was able to put the Irish on the board just before the half, sending both teams to the locker rooms tied 6-6.
The first half had proven to be difficult for both passing games as Mirer completed just 6-10 passes for 75 yards and an interception, while his counterpart Collins was just 1-8 for 46 yards and an interception. Notre Dame, who had averaged 40 points and nearly 500 yards per game, had finally found a defense that could stop them, and its middle linebacker was Mother Nature. Yet, the sun came out in the in third quarter, but the sloppiness still continued for both teams as right from the kickoff, Penn State returners collided resulting in a fumble. Penn State would recover, but the third quarter would be relatively eventless. The teams would trade punches but found themselves mostly hitting air as neither team could produce much offense. Notre Dame finally got on the board when Hentrich kicked a 37-yard field goal attempt with 5:27 to play in the quarter. It would be the only scoring of the third quarter for either team and was setup by a key third and long completion from Mirer to Lake Dawson.
Behind some inspired defense, led by Demetrius DuBose, Notre Dame had kept Penn State off the scoreboard since the first quarter. However, in the fourth quarter, Penn State finally broke through and capitalized on a scoring drive. Facing third and twenty, Penn State Tight End Troy Drayton was able to fake out Bobby Taylor to the inside and break free to the outside for the reception. Taylor was able to recover just in time to save the touchdown, but Penn State had the ball inside of the Notre Dame 5-yard line. After an impressive defensive stand by the Irish, Penn State was forced to kick a field goal to tie the game 9-9 with fewer than ten minutes to play in the contest.
Notre Dame found themselves in trouble on their next possession when Irv Smith fought off four Penn State tacklers while managing to stay on his feet, but had the ball stripped from him in the process. This gave the Nittany Lions momentum and the ball at Notre Dame's 44-yard line. Penn State seemed content in running the clock out by keeping the ball in the hands of Richie Anderson. However, on a third down and nine, Paterno knew he had to go to the air to keep the drive alive. Collins found O.J. McDuffie on a quick slant from the right, moving the chains inside of the Notre Dame 15-yard line. Two plays later, Penn State scored as fullback Brian O'Neal would find the end zone on a 13-yard trap call to the right. Despite his tremendous play all afternoon, Notre Dame was hurt when Demetrius DuBose was caught looking at his wrist band play sheet as the ball was snapped. Caught off-guard, DuBose overreacted and was swallowed by the Penn State blocking scheme, allowing O'Neal to scamper to the end zone. Once again, it looked like Penn State was going to cause Notre Dame heartbreak on Senior Day.
Anticipating that Penn State would kick the ball to the up man to avoid Miller, as they had done all day, Notre Dame placed Reggie Brooks in that position in hopes of making something happen. Brooks had a nice return to the 35-yard line, but it left the Irish still with 65 yards to reach the end zone and only 4:19 to play in the game. After his first pass of the drive was batted down at the line of scrimmage, Mirer hit Bettis on a perfectly executed screen play which resulted in a 22-yard gain for the Irish. The play would prove costly however, as Bettis and Notre Dame receiver, Ray Griggs, both left the field due to injury. After the players made their way to the sideline, a busted play call on first down resulted in Mirer being sacked, but on second down and sixteen, Mirer reminded Notre Dame fans why he was so special. He took the snap and rolled to the left where he came face to face with a Penn State defensive end. Reversing direction, Mirer rolled back to the right and took off downfield resulting in a 15-yard scramble. The ball was spotted just short of the first down marker. On third and inches, Notre Dame lined up with double tight ends and a powerhouse backfield as Jerome Bettis returned with Reggie Brooks and Jeff Burris to either side. The handoff went to Bettis up the middle, who powered his way just far enough to reach the first down.
Facing first down and fifteen after an illegal man downfield penalty, Mirer found Ray Griggs, who also returned from the sideline, for a 17-yard reception across the middle for a Notre Dame first down. With just two minutes to go, Notre Dame sat at the Penn State 21-yard line. While the snow had stopped falling, the entire Penn State red zone was still coated white, making the field conditions still extremely sloppy. Two plays later, using the wet field to his advantage Mirer found himself scrambling again, this time leaping towards the first down marker and out of bounds just inside the 10-yard line to stop the clock. On the next play, Reggie Brooks took the handoff around the left end, broke a tackle, but was brought down around the 5-yard line, making it second and goal. After an option keeper by Mirer for no gain and an incomplete pass to Reggie Brooks, Notre Dame faced fourth and goal from the 5-yard line with 25 seconds to play in the game.
After calling their final timeout to discuss the fourth down play as well as a potential 2-point conversion play if successful, Notre Dame came out and spread the field with Bettis as the lone back. Mirer took the snap and dropped back into pass formation. After initially delaying in the backfield in pass blocking formation, Bettis circled around to the middle of the field where Mirer found him underneath the layer of linebackers for the touchdown. After the crowd was removed from the end zone and Bettis emerged from underneath the pile, Notre Dame lined up to go for the win.
Initially, Notre Dame had chosen to line the ball up on the left hash mark, allowing for Mirer to roll to the right if needed. However, just before lining up, Notre Dame had the ball moved back to the middle of the field, potentially causing doubt in the defense as to which way the play would be run. The Irish lined up with trips to the left; Dawson, Jarrell, and Brooks; and Bettis wide to the right. The backfield was empty, leaving only a quarterback draw for a potential running play. Mirer took the snap and leaned to the left of the pocket, with no one open and pressure coming from the end, he rolled right. Right Tackle, Justin Hall had pinned his defender temporarily, giving Mirer just enough time to wait for his receivers to make their way back to the right side. At the last second, just before being hit, Mirer was able to sling the ball off his back foot to the right corner of the end zone. It looked the ball would be overthrown, but Reggie Brooks made a spectacular fingertip catch, while diving on snow-soaked turf to bring in the eventual game winning score. The play, which looked remarkably similar to Joe Montana's 1979 comeback against Houston in the Cotton Bowl, marked the end of another #3's game winning drive, and made for a perfect Notre Dame Stadium finale for the 20 scholarship seniors on Notre Dame's roster. For those watching at home, the look on Paterno's face was priceless.
With twenty seconds still to play in the fourth, the game was not completely over. Notre Dame fans, who had been called for an excessive celebration penalty earlier in the game, gasped when they realized that another penalty on them had been called which might lead to a Notre Dame loss. After a 15-yard celebration penalty, Notre Dame found themselves kicking off from the 20-yard line, and Penn State still had its full complement of timeouts. A squib kick by Hentrich was returned to midfield, leaving Penn State fifteen seconds to get into the range of a potential game winning field goal. After two incomplete passes, a field goal attempt was eliminated from consideration, as Penn State's only hope would be to convert a Hail Mary. Prepared to bat down anything that came their way, Notre Dame dropped back into a prevent defense. As Collins prepared to unload the pass, nose tackle Jim Flanigan popped Collins right in the chin, causing his pass to fly errantly out of bounds. The game was over. Notre Dame had won. The stadium erupted.
The senior-to-senior connection that resulted in the Notre Dame win, was a perfect example of the cohesiveness of the third-winningest senior class in Notre Dame history. As the winning play unfolded and Mirer was left without a receiver, Reggie Brooks darted towards the far side of the field, making himself available to the scrambling Mirer. Said Brooks after the game, "When the quarterback scrambles, you go to the quarterback." He followed up by saying later, "When Rick starts scrambling you've just got to get open. We had to win. Senior Year. We weren't going to out losers."
While Brooks and Mirer connected on the play of the game, the player of the game was undoubtedly, Demetrius DuBose. The senior linebacker, who made 12 tackles on the day, showed a fire and passion in his final home game that inspired the Notre Dame defense throughout all sixty minutes. He explained after the game that his dream was just to be part of something special at Notre Dame. He certainly was, and the student body let him know it. As the students rushed the field at the conclusion of the game, DuBose was hoisted up by his fellow classmates in gratitude and sincere appreciation of his four years at Notre Dame. An emotional DuBose held his helmet high in the air, allowing himself to take in the final moments of his Notre Dame Stadium career. For this group of seniors, led by Mirer, Brooks, and DuBose, there could not have been a more fitting ending. They would go on to defeat USC the following week and run over the Texas A&M Aggies in the Cotton Bowl on their way to a final season ranking of #4 in the country and a 10-1-1 season record.
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