Top 15 Countdown: Honorable Mention

IrishEyes begins its summer countdown of the top 15 Notre Dame teams of the last 30 years with our honorable mention selection…

From 1980 through 2009, Notre Dame completed 30 football seasons. Beginning this week, IrishEyes will countdown and profile in detail, the Top 15 Irish teams in that 30-year span.

We'll rank one squad each week throughout the summer, concluding with our No. 1 team during the final week of August training camp.

Today, we examine unlucky No. 16 – the squad that just missed the cut – the 1986 Fighting Irish: Lou Holtz's first Irish team and perhaps the most snake-bitten group in program history.

1986 – By the Numbers

Lou Holtz's desire for a true option attack would have to wait at least one season. The Irish featured a power running game with QB Steve Beuerlein as a play-action threat and the occasional wishbone backfield, while backup Terry Andrysiak provided the option QB threat in relief. Junior flanker Tim Brown was an intriguing, untapped weapon entering '86 with 53 career receptions and 4 touchdowns (plus one KR TD), but had not yet scratched the surface of his greatness.

Offense: Ranked No. 14 nationally in total offense at 411.5 yards-per-game. The Irish ranked 24th in scoring offense at 27.2 ppg and boasted the 33rd ranked rushing offense and 28th ranked passing game.

They accrued 53 percent of their yardage through the air, though the Irish ran 551 times and passed just 291.

Defense: The base 3-4 defense ranked No. 26 in total defense highlighted by the nation's 19th best rush D. ND allowed 19.9 ppg to rank No. 44 overall and the defense surrendered 24 total touchdowns, allowing more than three on just two occasions.

Notables: Statistical and otherwise:

  • Mark Green's 406 rushing yards marked the lowest total by a team rushing leader since 1971. Green had just 96 rushing attempts to pace the squad.
  • Five running backs (including Tim Brown) totaled between 209 and 406 yards on the ground, each averaged better than 4.1 yards per carry.
  • Steve Beuerlein's 2,211 passing yards was the highest at the school since Joe Theismann threw for 2,429 in 1970. Beuerlein struggled prior to Holtz's arrival, throwing 3 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in '85 (and had totaled 14 TD vs. an astounding 37 INT entering the season), but turned his career around under the new head man, tossing 13 TD passes vs. 7 picks.
  • Tim Brown's 910 receiving yards were the highest since Theismann's teammate Tom Gatewood set a then-program record with 1,123 receiving yards. Brown returned two kick-offs for touchdowns, averaging 27.9 per return (he returned just two punts…but for 75 yards).
  • Backup QB Terry Andrysiak rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown and passed for 223 more plus a score on 17 completions.
  • ILB Mike Kovaleski's 88 tackles marked the lowest total to pace the squad since Ed Hoerster recorded 73 in 1962 (Kovaleski himself topped the total twice prior). 10 Irish players accounted for 40-plus tackles in '86.
  • Cedric Figaro's 7 fumble recoveries in '86 still stand as a program record (and should for the foreseeable future).
  • Senior CB Troy Wilson led the secondary with 52 stops. Wilson started 22 consecutive games (and 30 of his final 31 despite a leg injury) to conclude his Irish career.
  • 5th-year senior CB Mike Haywood had his season truncated in October due to arthroscopic knee surgery.
  • Finally, a graduating walk-on named Skip Holtz earned a monogram thanks to his work on special teams.

1986 – Personnel Highlights

Brown and Beuerlein were the stars of '86 but Holtz's first Irish squad featured multiple breakout performers as well as a few promising young backups.

Coaching Staff of Note: Foge Fazio (defensive coordinator); Joe Yonto (defensive line); Kurt Schottenheimer (outside linebackers); Vinny Cerrato (recruiting and quarterbacks); Tony Yelovich (offensive line); Pete Cordelli (wide receivers); George Stewart (tight ends).

  • Team Captain: Senior linebacker Mike Kovaleski
  • Unsung Hero: Senior split end Milt Jackson finished with 31 receptions for 592 yards (an impressive 19.09 yards per catch) and two touchdowns, one of the spectacular variety in the season-ending comeback upset at USC.
  • Top position group: The backfield featured Mark Green (96 carries), Anthony Johnson (80 carries), Pernell Taylor (69 carries), Braxston Banks (49 carries), and Tim Brown (59 carries) and piled up 1,502 yards and 12 touchdowns. You could argue the defensive line (as indicated by the draft results below), but I'll take my chances with Tim Brown and Co.
  • Seniors drafted following the season: DT/DE Wally Kleine (2nd Round), Steve Beuerlein (4th), DT/DE Robert Banks (7th), TE Joel Williams (8th).

    K John Carney was not drafted (nice scouting) – he remains active in the NFL 24 seasons later, kicking for the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints in 11 contests last season.

  • Award Winners/All-America Selections: Flanker Tim Brown (first team A.P. All-America); defensive tackle Wally Kleine (second team All-America Football News); defensive tackle Robert Banks (Notre Dame Outstanding Lineman award); quarterback Steve Beuerlein (honorable mention A.P. All-America); outside linebacker Cedric Figaro (third team Football News All-America); center Chuck Lanza (honorable mention A.P. All-America); offensive guard Shawn Heffern (honorable mention Football News All-America); inside linebacker Mike Kovaleski (honorable mention A.P. All-America; Notre Dame Outstanding Defensive Player).

Waiting in the Wings: The following future stars played subordinate roles for the '86 squad:

  • Freshman Michael Stonebreaker (10 games played/1 start, 21 tackles, 1 INT);
  • Redshirt-junior Wes Pritchett (11 games played/0 starts, 46 tackles including 4 for lost yardage)
  • Sophomore Ned Bolcar (11 games played/0 starts, 5 tackles)
  • Sophomore tight end Andy Heck (11 games played/0 starts, 7 receptions with 1 TD)
  • Sophomore safety George Streeter won a starting job at the season's midway point.
  • Former fullback and future All-America DE Frank Stams got his first taste of action at OLB, then missed the remaining 11 games with a leg injury.
  • Freshman of note include: Jeff Alm, Tim Grunhard, Stan Smagala, Pat Terrell, Rod West (as well as the contributing trio of Braxston Banks, Anthony Johnson, and Michael Stonebreaker).

    Future Under the Tarnished Dome villain Jeff Pearson was also a newcomer in '86 as was the program's initial Prop 48 athlete and USA Today Defensive Player of the Year, John Foley.

On-Field Results/Irish in the Polls

Lou Holtz took over a 5-6 squad that finished the 1985 season losing its last three games – two vs. Top 5 teams – by a total of 84 points, including the infamous 58-7 debacle in Miami. The Irish began the 1986 campaign unranked and had appeared in just five A.P. polls over the last two seasons.

One week after losing to No. 3 Michigan 24-23 in the season-opener, the unranked Irish moved into the nation's top 20 after outplaying, but ultimately falling, to one of the nation's best teams. A 20-15 loss the following week at Michigan State dropped the Irish from the polls for the duration of the season.

Though the 2009 season offered more close games, the '86 season will be remembered for the greatest collection of debilitating losses…to top tier teams.

  • Bowl Result: N/A
  • Record vs. Top 20 Teams: 1-4
  • Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 2-0
  • Home W/L: 3-3 Road W/L: 2-3

  • Best Win(s): A dramatic 38-37 comeback victory in the season-finale at No. 17 USC. Trailing 37-20 early in the final period, the resilient Irish stormed back behind Beuerlein touchdown passes to Milt Jackson and Braxston Banks. After the Irish held the Trojans on 3rd and short near midfield, Tim Brown returned the ensuing punt 56 yards to set up senior John Carney for the game-winning, season-ending field goal (not seen by most thanks to an ill-timed commercial break by CBS).

    Also of note, the Irish beat Air Force 31-3 in mid-October. The win broke a four-season, four-game losing skid to the Falcons.

  • Toughest Losses: Take your pick: 24-23 on a missed 45-yard field goal vs. #3 Michigan; 24-19 to then #3 and eventual national champion Penn State; 21-19 at #8 LSU.

  • Worst Loss: On October 4, the Irish were destroyed by No. 2 Alabama in Birmingham, 28-10. The game was highlighted by Crimson Tide linebacker Cornelius Bennett's brutal hit of quarterback Steve Beuerlein. The helmet-to-chest/chin blow knocked Beuerlein from the game (after an extra snap) and still photos and paintings of the play don the wall of sports bars across Tuscaloosa, forever dubbed: THE SACK.

  • Head-shaking Loss: A 10-9 home defeat to Pittsburgh (finished 5-5-1). The Irish lost when John Carney missed a 38-yard field goal as time expired. Carney had previously accounted for all of Notre Dame's points in the contest but the miss was the second potential game-winner the future NFL Pro Bowler missed in the season's first five contests.

1986 – Final Analysis

Why the '86 Irish should rank higher: To be blunt, there's a decent chance they'd handle the teams that will appear at No. 13-15 on our list…the '86 Irish lost to teams ranked #2, #3, #3, and #8 en route to their six losses.

Why the '86 Irish should rank lower: Four teams considered for this spot (Faust's teams of '82, '83, and '84, and Holtz's '94 squad) each finished above .500. But the "Eye Test" is the determining factor for the '86 squad's Honorable Mention (#16) status.

If you were a senior at the University as I was in the fall of '94 (6-5-1), you know for a fact that the '86 squad was superior in its effort and dedication to the program and comparable in terms of developed talent.

Faust's '82 group ranked as high as No. 13 in mid-November but ultimately finished 6-4-1 when it lost three straight and did not participate in a bowl…his '83 squad lost its last three contests before rebounding to finish 7-5 with a Liberty Bowl win over Doug Flutie's BC Eagles…the '84 team won its last four regular season games but dropped an Aloha Bowl decision to SMU to finish 7-5 as well. Incidentally, each of the Faust squads I considered (‘82, ‘83, and ‘84) lost to Air Force.

(If you're wondering, I had the 2009 squad ranked at/around No. 21-23 over the last 30 seasons.)

The Eye Test/Atmosphere Surrounding the '86 Squad: Rebirth. The 1985 team would rank somewhere near No. 27 if we broke down each of the 30 seasons since 1980 (and at No. 30 if you looked only at that team's final month). Lou Holtz's first squad in '86 offered a lesson in determination and grit, losing to three of the nation's best team's – including the national champion Penn State Nittany Lions – by a total of 8 points, while dropping five decisions by an aggregate 14. Notre Dame outscored its 11 opponents by 90 points and outgained them by nearly 1,100 yards.

Though not in this same class as a team, the '86 squad was the most improved bunch over a one-year span since Ara Parseghian took over and turned the 1964 team into national title contenders. The '86 team laid the groundwork for the school's most recent national championship in 1988.

In the end, the '86 Irish earn the unfortunate moniker as the best .500-level team of the last 30 seasons, and Honorable Mention designation on our Top 15 list.

Next Monday: Our No. 15-ranked Irish team of the last 30 seasons.


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