Irish Legends: Top 10 Victories of the 90s

In college athletics, great rivalries are usually built over time. They withstand highs and lows for both programs, and generally command at least some semblance of respect between the two programs, whether they would care to admit it or not. Such was not the case with Notre Dame and Miami.

After over a decade of dominance, which saw Notre Dame reel off eleven consecutive victories against the Hurricanes, the Miami football program exploded onto the college football scene in the 1980s.

After a 22-point loss to the Hurricanes in 1981, Notre Dame was able to rebound with a 16-14 victory in 1982. Then in 1983, the Irish were shutout 20-0 by an unranked Hurricanes squad that eventually went on to win the National Championship. That was just the beginning of the troubles for Notre Dame, as in 1984, in stepped Jimmy Johnson. Johnson was a different breed of college football coach. Like their coach, the Hurricanes took the field with an arrogance and cockiness about them that rubbed many teams the wrong way. Despite being perceived as brash and thuggish, they were also very good. A struggling Notre Dame program found out quickly with a 31-13 loss in 1984 and an embarrassing 58-7 loss in 1985. The 1985 game is really what ignited the hatred between to the programs, eventually leading to the Catholics versus Convicts battles of the late 80s. Notre Dame hated Miami's thuggish image while Miami's hatred stemmed from their perception of Notre Dame's "Holier than Thou" attitude. After failing 24-0 in Lou's first attempt in 1987, a year that the Hurricanes would go on to win the National Championship, the 1988 game between the two powerhouses would go down as one of the all-time classics in college football history. The #4 Fighting Irish would finally defeat the #1 Hurricanes 31-30 on a failed 2-point conversion attempt that would have given Miami the victory. This time, Notre Dame would go on to win the National Championship. In 1989, Miami lost their coach but not their winning ways. Dennis Erickson would take over the Miami program and upset #1 Notre Dame 27-10 in the Irish's final regular season game of the year. The win vaulted Miami into the National Championship picture, which became a reality, in large thanks Notre Dame's victory over top-ranked Colorado in the Orange Bowl.

When the two teams met for what would be the final time in 1990, it marked the first time that Miami had entered Notre Dame Stadium since the fabled 1988 game. Notre Dame came into the matchup led by captain Mike Heldt, Todd Lyght, Ricky Watters, and Chris Zorich. The Irish had held the #1 ranking for the first four weeks of the season before a disheartening loss to Stanford in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. They quickly rebounded with a 57-27 drubbing of the Air Force Academy and came into the game ranked #6 in the country in both major polls. Miami, on the other hand, had suffered a season-opening loss to Ty Detmer's BYU Cougars, but recovered with four straight victories, including a 31-22 defeat of Florida State, elevating them to the #2 ranking in the polls. The Hurricanes were led by quarterback Craig Erickson and receiver Randal Hill on offense, and #1 overall draft pick, Russell Maryland on defense. There was no shortage of talent on either team as over 70 players on the two rosters that day went on to play in the NFL.

Not that any additional hype was needed, but leading up to kickoff there were a number of ways to play up the 1990 meeting between the two college football powerhouses. Aside from Catholics versus Convicts, the game showcased the winners of the past three National Championships, had Heisman trophy candidates on both sides, and marked the final chapter in the brief but electric rivalry. Despite the beautiful weather, the skies looked pretty ominous for Notre Dame to start the game. Miami sent the opening kickoff through the end zone, and on the first play from scrimmage, Notre Dame's Rodney Culver fumbled to give the Hurricanes the ball at the 26-yard line. After Erickson scrambled down the 1-yard line, Miami put an early score on the board when running back Stephen McGuire soared headfirst into the end zone.

Trailing 7-0, Rick Mirer successfully drove the Irish down the field, but they were unable to convert in the red zone, leading to a field goal by sophomore kicker, Craig Hentrich. With the score 7-3, Rick Mirer again had the Irish driving, but an errant pass sailed over the head of Rocket Ismail and where Miami Free Safety, Daryl Williams was waiting with open arms at midfield. Williams would return the interception down to the Notre Dame 20-yard line, where Erickson and the Hurricanes would take over. After Miami nearly scored when Erickson hit wideout Lamar Thomas on a playaction strike to the 1-yard line, the Notre Dame defense held strong, holding Miami to only a field goal. With an early 10-3 lead, the Hurricanes appeared strong, but on the ensuing kickoff, the winds were about to change.

Miami's special teams strategy was simple: keep the ball away from Rocket Ismail. They had been successful on their first two kickoffs as well a punt, but on the third kickoff, rather than kicking ball short or away from Rocket, Miami kicker Carlos Huerta tried to put the ball through the end zone for a touchback. He didn't quite get enough of it, as the ball only reached the 6-yard line. Rocket nearly fell at the 7-yard line after slipping, but fortunately for Notre Dame, he stayed on his feet. After a perfectly executed wedge blocking scheme, Rocket found himself with a field of open daylight around the 30-yard line. Wasting no time, he broke to the sideline and outraced the Miami defenders for the score, coasting into the end zone.

As the second quarter starter, Notre Dame added to its momentum when strong safety, Greg Davis, stepped in front of Miami's Randal Hill to intercept Craig Erickson in Notre Dame territory. After a key end-around by Rocket Ismail, Notre Dame tacked on a long field goal by Craig Hentrich, to take a 13-10 lead in the second quarter. Just when it seemed like Notre Dame was beginning to pull away, Miami put together a drive which ended with a Craig Erickson quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line, putting Miami back on top, 17-13.

Craig Hentrich converted on his third field goal of the game, pulling the Irish within one of the Hurricanes later in the second quarter. That would be the last time that Miami would hold the lead. In what turned out to be a pivotal moment, Notre Dame defensive end, Scott Kowalkowski bounced off his blocker and exploded up the middle, running right through Miami's Stephen McGuire. On impact, the ball shot from McGuire's grip, where it was covered up by Notre Dame's George Williams at the Miami 26-yard line. The Irish once again had to settle for a Craig Hentrich field goal, but it would be enough to give Notre Dame a 19-17 lead. After yet another Hentrich field goal, his fifth of the game, Notre Dame took a 22-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Miami would close the gap to 22-20, when Carlos Huerta connected on his second field goal of the game, but that would be the final scoring for Miami on the day.

In the fourth quarter, Erickson connected with a Lamar Thomas to move the ball from deep in their own end, to midfield, but his next pass attempt proved to be costly. Facing pressure in the pocket, Erickson rolled out to his right, where he spotted Lamar Thomas downfield. Making the throw across his body, limited his velocity and resulted in a slow floated right into the Notre Dame secondary. Sitting at 10-yard line, Notre Dame's Todd Lyght welcomed the ball into his arms, ending a serious scoring threat for the ‘Canes. Erickson later said that he had called an audible, which Thomas was unable hear, resulting in the confusion downfield and the interception.

The Irish put the nail in the coffin on the following drive. The first big play of the drive was an end-around to Rocket Ismail. Rocket was sprung loose with key blocks from Rick Mirer, Gene McGuire and Ray Griggs. Facing third down and four, Mirer found Rodney Culver on a screen pass out of the backfield. With one man to beat and Daryl Williams chasing him down, Culver picked up a great block from Griggs, allowing him the angle on Williams, giving him just enough space to break the goal line. Culver put the Irish up 29-20 and ended any hopes at Miami's outside chance at a National Championship run.

As for the Irish, the win catapulted them back into the National Championship race, with a 5-1 record. After wins over Pittsburgh and Navy, the Irish once again found themselves atop the national polls. After beating #9 Tennessee, Notre Dame lost their chance at a national title after falling to Penn State in the final seconds at home in second to last week of the season.

While 1990 may not have resulted in a National Championship, the Irish did win one very important title that year. As the Hurricanes' Michael Barrow expressed after the game, "The sad part about this is they just won bragging rights for all eternity." The teams may meet again sometime down the road, as eternity is an awfully long time, but after closing out the Hurricanes in 1990, Lou Holtz and his Fighting Irish took two of the final three meetings against the University of Miami at the height of their short-lived rivalry. As the sun set on the most electric rivalry in college football during the late 80s, once again, the Catholics had prevailed over the Convicts. Good had triumphed over evil, and old Notre Dame had won overall.


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