Irish Legends: Top 10 Victories of the 90's

As the final seconds ticked off the clock in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, no one was talking about how Notre Dame had just dismantled the Naval Academy 58-27. Instead, the hype had already begun for the potential #1 versus #2 matchup against the Florida State Seminoles.

The game was still two weeks away, but Notre Dame was heading into a bye week and Florida State faced the lowly Maryland Terrapins, a team that had lost by 70 points earlier in the season to Penn State. When the dream matchup was eventually finalized, the media frenzy had already been in full swing for a week, so it was hard to imagine what the actual game week could have in store. Yet, even the United States Postal Service decided to capitalize on the matchup, unveiling a commemorative stamp for the big game.

It was also the game that started a tradition for ESPN's College Gameday. For the first time, the show took its studio on the road, bringing it to the campus of Notre Dame as it broadcasted from the Joyce Center's Heritage Hall. All three hosts picked the Seminoles to win in a close game with the deciding factor being the overwhelming speed the Florida State would bring to the field. All three were wrong.

With the game creeping closer, it seemed like every media outlet was on campus to cover everything from the pregame stadium walk to the weather forecast and right down to the field conditions. In fact ESPN's Pam Oliver even did a featured segment on the Notre Dame Stadium turf, which she described as "dry," "very slick" and "shouldn't be a problem." There was clearly no shortage of media coverage, as broadcasters were looking for just about anything that they could put on television from campus.

More so than the speed of Florida State or the mystique of Notre Dame, the hot topic for the morning of the game had been the weather. An overcast and blustery start to the day led to questions surrounding the teams' passing and kicking games. In pregame warm-ups, Florida's State freshman kicker and former Notre Dame commitment, Scott Bentley, was visibly frustrated after struggling with the wind. When the game finally arrived, the ominous clouds that had hovered over Notre Dame's campus for the better part of the morning, opened up to a sky full of sunshine as if on cue for the opening kickoff.

After a stare down between the two teams in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel, the Seminoles would win the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half. Clint Johnson returned the opening kickoff from his own end zone out to the Notre Dame 34-yard line, and the "Game of the Century" was finally underway.

It didn't take long for the Irish to get things going as on third and long, following two defensive sticks by the Seminoles' All-American, Derrick Brooks, Kevin McDougal found Lee Becton on a slip screen for 24 yards and the Irish had the ball in Florida State territory. Unfortunately the drive would die there for the Irish, as a dropped pass by Ray Zellars on third down forced the punt. After a pooch punt by Notre Dame's Adrian Jarrell pinned the Seminoles inside their own 11-yard line, the dangerous Florida State offense paraded onto the field.

In a surprise to no one, Florida State and their fast break offense, immediately came out and tried to spread the Irish defense with multiple wide receiver sets. The Irish swarmed early, but the Seminoles were able to move the ball and picked up big yardage with a scramble by Charlie Ward. The Irish caught a break as Florida State's Sean Jackson overthrew a wide open Tamarick Vanover on a halfback pass which would have resulted in an easy touchdown. Despite missing the easy score, Florida State kept its foot on the gas pedal, primarily Charlie Ward. He would lead the Seminoles down to the 12-yard line of the Irish, before hitting wide out Kevin Knox on a quick inside buttonhook to give Florida State an early 7-0 lead.

Seeing that their opponents had taken the opening drive 89 yards for a touchdown with relative ease, the Notre Dame offense knew they had to respond quickly. After the kickoff sailed into the end zone, the Irish methodically moved the ball up the field, successfully countering Florida State's defensive speed with a well executed option attack. On the seventh play of the drive, from Florida State's 32-yard line, McDougal ran an option left to the wide side of the field. As the Florida State defense over pursued, McDougal pitched the ball on an option reverse to Adrian Jarrell who was able to turn the corner with the help of the Notre Dame offensive line, and outrace defenders for a 32-yard gallop into the end zone. The stadium went nuts.

As the first quarter wound down, it looked like Florida State would score again, as they quickly moved the ball into Notre Dame territory. After Jeff Burris nearly intercepted a Ward pass attempt, captain Bryant Young, with the help of end Brian Hamilton, combined to sack Ward and force a 54-yard field goal attempt by Bentley. The kick sailed wide right, a recurring theme for Florida State kickers in the early nineties, and the game remained deadlocked at seven.

A nasty collision on the ensuing drive would knock both Lee Becton and Derrick Brooks out of the game temporarily. Becton would return after a brief spell from freshman Randy Kinder, but Brooks remained out of the game well into the second quarter with an ankle sprain and an inability to decide on which Nike cleats he wanted to wear. After a failed quarterback sneak attempt inside the Florida State 30-yard line, it appeared that Florida State had once again gained momentum. However, a quick three and out defensive stand by the Irish put the ball back in the hands of McDougal where the offense took the field at their own 40-yard line. After chipping away at the Seminole defense, Lee Becton broke free courtesy of the Notre Dame offensive line and a key downfield block by Lake Dawson who opened a lane for Becton to squeeze through and scamper for a 26-yard Notre Dame score. The drive lasted only six plays but covered 60 yards and put the Irish up on top, 14-7.

Perhaps feeling momentum building for Notre Dame, Bowden called for a trick play involving two backward passes that eventually ended with the ball back in Charlie Ward's hands, and Ward slipping to the ground at the 6-yard line. The desperation call was not only premature, but it turned out to be devastating as the Seminoles were backed deep in their own territory. On the very next play, trying to avoid being pulled down for a safety, Ward lofted a pass attempt into the wind, and right into the middle of the Irish secondary, where it was reeled in by safety John Covington. A costly personal foul penalty moved the ball to the Florida State 23-yard line and the wheels were beginning to fall off for Florida State. As the Irish moved inside of the 10-yard line, Notre Dame shifted to their goal line package, bringing in Paul Failla at quarterback. Failla took the snap and handed off to Jeff Burris, who ran through Derrick Brooks and bounced off defenders for a seven yard touchdown score, putting the Irish up 21-7 in the second quarter.

As the Seminoles took the field again, Ward looked out of sync with the offense as Burris nearly picked him off again. The following play Bryant Young threw down his blocker before twisting and tossing Ward to the ground. The Seminoles had to punt again, resulting in tremendous field position for the Irish, who would be starting in Florida State territory. Unfortunately a dropped pass by Lake Dawson which would have easily resulted in a three touchdown lead for Notre Dame thwarted a golden scoring opportunity. From there, both teams traded missed punches as the first half expired with Notre Dame in the lead 21-7.

The game would go scoreless until 9:41 in the third quarter, when Kevin Pendergast kicked a career long 47-yard field goal to give the Irish their only points of the quarter and put Notre Dame ahead 24-7. Yet, just when it looked like Florida State might pack it in and head for home, the Seminoles came out with an impressive 11 play, 80 yard drive, capped off on a third down and two swing pass to speedster Warrick Dunn. Dunn ducked down the sideline and dove into the end zone with 4:45 left in the third quarter. The lead was reduced to ten.

As both defenses buckled down in the fourth quarter, Charlie Ward was able to find one guy that the Irish couldn't cover, Kez McCorvey. McCorvey seemed to find a way to get open in every key situation for the Seminoles, and continued to the keep moving the chains down the field. Despite allowing the Seminoles deep into Irish territory, the Notre Dame defense was able to hold Florida State and forced them to settle for a 24-yard field goal from the freshman Bentley. Even though they were able to keep them out of the end zone, tensions began to rise in Notre Dame Stadium as the one-time 17 point lead had dwindled to just seven in the fourth quarter.

With 10:40 left to play and holding onto a one possession lead, Notre Dame started with the ball from their own 20-yard line. With their first play from scrimmage, McDougal lobbed a screen pass to Lee Becton who ran behind excellent downfield blocking and picked up a 15-yard gain. On the play, left tackle Aaron Taylor had pushed the Seminole defender all the way to midfield before the defender opted to give up and run the opposite direction. After a short plunge by fullback Ray Zellars, McDougal found Mike Miler on a quick out from the slot receiver position, and Miller used the downfield blocking of Derrick Mayes to move the ball across midfield and into Seminole territory. Three plays later, McDougal double pumped and found Lake Dawson over the middle in traffic, for a critical third-down conversion. On the very next play, Becton took the option pitch from McDougal and picked up 14 yards, moving the ball inside the Seminole 20-yard line. After a punishing short run by Ray Zellars, in which he delivered powerful blows to the Seminole defense, Failla handed the ball off to Jeff Burris who put an exclamation point on the 80-yard touchdown drive as he eluded defenders on his way to his second touchdown of the game. Florida State was assessed a personal foul penalty for shoving Burris in the end zone after the play was over, which they had done on every other score by the Irish, although this time it was finally called.

Leading 31-17 with 6:53 left in the game, it appeared that Notre Dame might be two defensive stops away from putting away the top-ranked Seminoles. The first stop came quickly, almost too quickly, as the Seminoles were forced to punt the ball back to the Irish with 6:14 left in the game. After milking about two minutes off the game clock, the Irish punted the ball back to Florida State who took over at the Notre Dame with 46-yard line with 4:05 to go. After another failed trick play by Florida State, Ward connected with fullback William Floyd for a minimal gain. However, Notre Dame inside linebacker Justin Goheen added a late hit to Floyd on the sideline, giving the Seminoles a first down and prompting Lou Holtz to sprint over to Goheen and give him an earful.

Even with the penalty by the Irish, the Seminoles struggled in the red zone as the student body and north end zone fans provided some extra support for the Irish defense. After Ward scrambled to the 4-yard line, the Seminoles were backed up by their own personal foul, followed by a false start. Facing fourth and goal from the 20-yard line, Ward spotted Kez McCorvey in the end zone. The problem for Ward was that he wasn't open. Safety Brian Magee stepped in front of McCorvey at the goal line as Burris, Covington, and Wooden all converged on the ball. McGee got two hands on the pass, but instead of knocking it down, the ball went off his hands and floated right into the arms of McCorvey for the Florida State score. The most improbable of scores had brought the Seminoles back within seven points, and the stadium had silenced, for the moment.

The Seminoles, showing no hesitation in calling for the trick play, once again tried to sneak one past the Irish as they squirted a reverse onside kick, resulting in a four on one ration for the Seminoles. Fortunately for the Irish, that one was Shawn Wooden who despite taking a nasty hit in which he was bent backward, recovered and held onto the ball, putting the Irish in the driver seat with 2:24 to play and the ball at midfield.

After once again trying to milk the clock, the Irish looked to punt the ball away with 1:02 remaining and hopefully pin the Seminoles deep in their own territory. Unfortunately, things didn't go quite as planned. Jarrell, who had played a great game, had to rush his kicking motion to avoid the Florida State blocker running right up the middle. The kick covered all of five yards, leaving the Seminoles only 63-yards from a game-tying touchdown with 51 seconds on the clock.

After an offside penalty by Notre Dame, Ward hit Warrick Dunn for a first down right at the 50-yard line. With the clock temporarily stopped for the first down, Ward and the Seminoles rushed to the line but by the time Ward had taken the snap, he had let the game clock run down nine full seconds. Ward found McCorvey on the sideline where he stepped out of bounds at the 32-yard line with 17 seconds to play. With four receivers in formation, Ward showed why he was considered the eventual Heisman Trophy winner in 1993, as he stepped up in the pocket and laced a ball through coverage and into the hands of Kez McCorvey, his eleventh catch of the game. The clock stopped with 10 seconds left as Ward and the Seminoles rushed to the line. With most in the stadium anticipating a spike, Ward dropped back into shotgun formation and took the snap with eight seconds left on the clock. After dancing around in the pocket, he fired the ball to the left corner of the end zone, but his pass was interrupted by the outstretched arms of defensive end Jim Flanigan. Flanigan, who had already stripped a ball away from Florida State earlier in the game, had swatted down Ward's pass with just three seconds to play. After Notre Dame called timeout to setup their defense, Florida State came out for one last shot at the victory.

As Lou Holtz paced the sidelines, Ward took the snap from the shotgun and again rolled left. The Irish rushed three and dropped eight back into coverage. Pressure from Notre Dame's Brian Hamilton forced Ward to roll further left and begin moving downfield. As Ward approached the line of scrimmage, he spotted two receivers in the North end zone. However, Notre Dame's defense was flawless. Ward's pass was knocked to the ground by corner Shawn Wooden, and the stadium erupted. The Game of the Year, The Game of the Century, The Game of the Millennium, whatever you wanted to call it, the game was over and the Fighting Irish had won 31-24. As the student body poured out onto the field, Tony Roberts, the radio voice of Notre Dame Football, emphatically cried, "Notre Dame is #1."

To paraphrase Lou Holtz, it was a game that certainly lived up to all of the hype.


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