Irish Eyes concludes its tribute to College Football Hall of Famer Lou Holtz with its choices for the greatest wins of Holtz's 11 seasons at the University.
No. 5 (1990 Orange Bowl): Notre Dame 21 Colorado 6 – The Buffaloes were undefeated and ranked No. 1 while the No. 4 Irish were a month removed from a 27-10 beating at the hands of (subsequent) No. 2 Miami, a loss which ended Notre Dame's school-record 23-game winning streak and 11-week run at the top of the 1989 polls. A 0-0 halftime struggle turned in the Irish favor…just as head coach Lou Holtz had promised earlier that week. In what was supposed to be a private team post-practice meeting, Holtz explained to his huddled players how he believed the game would unfold:
Holtz: "Let me tell you what, they've been living a lie; they've been living a lie all season," he told the team, unaware that a Denver-based television crew was standing nearby recording his speech. "Remember I told you."
"'Number one, they're used to scoring a lot of points…they aint playing any Kansas State. We've got to be patient on defense. Just play our football game. On offense, we want to control the football. All we want is a first down, first down, first down. Frustration will set in on Colorado's offense…by the middle of the third quarter, they will leave the game plan completely and start grab-bagging. Remember me telling you that. They are not patient. The quarterback will want to make plays and we aren't gonna let him."
After a hot Colorado start (outgaining Notre Dame 186 yards to 63 after the teams exchanged three possessions apiece) the Irish outgained the Buffaloes 315 yards to 96 over the final three-plus quarters. Rocket Ismail was the game's MVP, finishing with 108 yards on 16 carries including a 35-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Senior fullback Anthony Johnson added 89 rushing yards and two scores for the Irish.
The victory pushed the Notre Dame Program record to 5-2 vs. the nation's No. 1 ranked team in Bowl Game matchups. Miami won the national title while the Irish finished No. 2.
No. 4 (1993): Notre Dame 31 Florida State 24 – Game of the Century II featured the 9-0, No. 1 ranked Seminoles vs. the 9-0, No. 2 ranked (and six-point underdog) Fighting Irish in South Bend. The contest marked the first campus appearance by ESPN's College Game Day; two weeks of dedicated coverage from Sports Illustrated including a full game preview one week prior to the contest; and end zone tickets going for $400 apiece. The game wasn't bad either. .
The Irish led 24-7 early in the third period and 31-17 late in the fourth, courtesy of rushing touchdowns by the game's starting punter and backup wide receiver, Adrian Jarrell; two more by strong safety/goal line 'back Jeff Burris and a (conventional) trap-play ouchdown run from tailback Lee Becton. But a tipped pass touchdown from quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward – off the hands of Irish nickel safety Brian Magee – and into the waiting arms of Seminoles WR Kez McCorvey (he of the infamous "Rock Knute" quote Friday before the game) cut the Irish lead to 31-24 in a game they had controlled for three quarters.
The Seminoles held the Irish and posted one final, gutsy drive, ending with this fourth-down pass below:
Note:The contest would likely rank (at least) one spot higher had the Irish not suffered a season-ending loss and short-lived No. 1 ranking the following week.
No. 3 (1989 Fiesta Bowl/1988 National Championship): Notre Dame 34 West Virgina 21 – Though not nearly the most exciting game on the list it's nonetheless the most significant: the culmination of a 12-0 National Championship Season.
The Fiesta Bowl, in Tempe, Arizona, with the 11-0 and No. 1 ranked Irish vs. 11-0 and No. 3 West Virginia Mountaineers, who had outscored opponents 472 to 174 heading into the contest.
- As usual, the Irish came out hitting: West Va. QB and Heisman finalist Major Harris injured his shoulder on the game's 3rd play after being tackled by Irish LB Michael Stonebreaker and subsequently crushed by DT Jeff Alm and DE Frank Stams.
- Depth is the key: ND showed off it's substantial running game depth when junior FB Anthony Johnson, who scored the game's first touchdown, limped off the field in the first quarter and was replaced by backup fullback Braxton Banks…who later re-injured his knee and was replaced by freshman tailback/fullback and future team captain, the late Rodney Culver. Culver scored the game's second touchdown to give the Irish a 16-0 lead.
- Good Fortune: The Irish fumbled twice in the first half. Both occurred on 3rd down, and both were recovered for first downs (recoveries by Banks and OG Tim Ryan).
- Pressure Keys the Defense: The Irish led 23-6 at the half though the Mountaineers had a glimmer of hope late in the 3rd quarter. Trailing 26-13, West Virginia intercepted Rice in ND territory but the Irish responded with a sack, an end zone pass breakup by CB Stan Smagala, and another sack, forcing a West Virginia punt.
- The MVP: The Irish marched down the field and sealed the victory with a 57-yard pass and run from Tony Rice to Ricky Watters and a short TD jump pass from Rice to backup TE Frank Jacobs. (Rice added a 2-point conversion run for a 34-13 lead).
- A Different Attitude: ND was flagged for 8 personal fouls (most of them legitimate) causing Lou Holtz to run onto the field (earning an undeserved personal foul) and into the Irish defensive huddle late in the game to put an end to the situation.
- Finishers: Notre Dame's record improved to 22-0 under Holtz when leading after the 3rd Quarter and the Irish laid claim to the 1988 National Championship.
Note: Below is my highlight tape of the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, originally published by BGI last summer.
No. 2 (1988): Notre Dame 27 USC 10 – The 10-0 and No. 1 ranked Irish traveled to The Coliseum to battle 9-0 and No. 2 ranked USC. In what would become a legendary Lou Holtz moment, the Irish coach sent Ricky Watters (the team's leading receiver) and Tony Brooks (the team's leading rusher) home the day of the contest, for, as game announcer Keith Jackson so eloquently put it: "Missing supper." (It was actually for repeated tardiness, including the last straw, Friday's team meal).
Junior QB Tony Rice ran for a 65-yard (option keeper) score to give the Irish a 7-0 lead; senior tailback Mark Green, facing a Trojans defense that had allowed just over 68 yards rushing per game, fought and scratched for 40 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns; and (as seen below), Irish CB Stan Smagala and DE Frank Stams provide the knock-out blows: the first, a 64-yard interception touchdown by Smagala shortly before the half and the subsequent vicious hit by Stams on unsuspecting Trojans QB and Heisman Trophy candidate Rodney Peete.
The Irish were outgained (356 to 253); lost the first down battle (21 to 8); punted eight times; and lost the time of possession battle by more than eight minutes.
But as was the case with every other game in that National Championship season, they certainly weren't out-hit.
Holtz would admit in the post-game press conference (the win marked the conclusion of the regular season): "I've never had a year as gratifying as this."
Stan Smagala Turns on the Jets
Stams: Search and Destroy
No. 1 (1988): Notre Dame 31 Miami 30 – Miami, defending national champions and winners of four straight over the Irish by an aggregate score of 133-20, traveled to South Bend without a loss in their last 36 regular season contests. When the dust cleared, the greatest game in modern Notre Dame history featured something for everyone (not the least of which was the decade's most infamous pre-game tunnel fight):
- Hurricanes QB Steve Walsh had thrown for an opposing team-record 424 yards and four touchdowns
- The Irish defense had caused and recovered four fumbles and the had picked off three Walsh passes
- The Hurricanes held option QB Tony Rice to an almost impossible 21 yards on 20 carries…
- …but Rice had responded with a career best 195 yards passing
- A former fullback (Frank Stams) was the CBS Chevrolet Game MVP…as a pass-rushing defensive end
- And a former walk-on transfer wide receiver from Yale (Pat Eilers) scored Notre Dame's game-winning touchdown as a wishbone tailback
Game announcer Brent Musberger with a classic line after Irish safety Pat Terrell knocked down a potential game-winning two-point conversion by the Hurricanes with under a minute remaining:
"…but take your hat off to Mr. Jimmy Johnson. He didn't play for any tie. If he goes down he goes down with guns blazing on a dusty street in South Bend, Indiana."
Terrell Goes the Distance