Building Blocks

The No. 10 ranked squad in our Top 15 countdown – the 1987 Fighting Irish.

From 1980 through 2009, Notre Dame completed 30 football seasons. Each week this summer, IrishEyes will profile and rank the top 15 teams of that span, counting down to our No. 1 overall Irish squad to be highlighted during the final week of August training camp.

Today, IrishEyes continues the countdown with our No. 10 ranked squad – the 1987 Fighting Irish (8-4).

1987 – By the Numbers

Offense: The Irish boasted the nation's No. 35 ranked offense, highlighted by the country's 14th best rushing attack. A mixture of option, wishbone, and power football carved out spaced for 252 yards per contest, the highest team average since Ara Parseghian's squad in 1974.

Notre Dame scored 29.9 points per contest in '87 (15th nationally) and posted 33 rushing touchdowns (up 15 from the previous season). The team's three contributing quarterback's struggled with consistency over the course of the season, tossing 11 interceptions, two of which were particularly notable (as described below). Irish QBs accounted for a paltry four TD passes and a completion percentage just over 49 percent.

Defense: Defensive coordinator Foge Fazio's unit ranked 17th in total defense, buoyed by a pass D that finished 13 nationally while allowing just 16.6 points per contest (21st in the country). The team's rush defense – No. 41 overall – was the program's lowest ranking during the first five years of the Holtz era, though the Irish allowed only 14 rushing touchdowns.

Special Teams: Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown returned three punts for scores while averaging 11.8 yards per return. Notre Dame averaged more than five yards per return than did their opponents in 1987. In his first and only season as the squad's place-kicker, walk-on senior Ted Gradel (replacing John Carney) nailed 14 of 18 field goal attempts and hit each of his 33 PAT.

Notables: statistical and otherwise

  • Senior all-purpose star Tim Brown was the nation's best offensive weapon, averaging 167.9 yards per game and 14.2 per play. Brown posted five 100-plus yard receiving contests including three straight in November wins over Navy, Boston College, and No. 10 Alabama. He notched receiving, return, or rushing scores vs. Michigan, Michigan State (2), Purdue, USC, Air Force, Navy, and Texas A&M. Brown averaged 21.7 yards per catch as a senior in '87 and, over the course of his career, 42.3 yards per touchdown (22 career scores).

    Brown was actually better across the board in as a junior in '86, totaling more rushing, receiving, kick return, and all-purpose yards while scoring more touchdowns than in his senior year Heisman campaign.

  • Junior tailback Mark Green led the ground oriented Irish attack, totaling 861 yards on just 146 carries (5.9 per rush) while scoring six touchdowns. Green's highlight performance was a 149-yard effort that included a 74-yard TD sprint vs. Alabama in Notre Dame's convincing 37-6 home victory over the then-No. 10 Tide. The former flanker recruit finished second on the squad in receptions and third in total touchdowns.

    Freshman tailback Ricky Watters ably backed up Green, finishing with 373 yards on 69 carries (3 touchdowns) and finished third on the team in receptions.

  • Sophomore fullback and South Bend native Anthony Johnson led the team in touchdowns, rushing for 11 scores in eight starts. Johnson showed flashes of his future versatility vs. Purdue, catching passes of 51 and 39 yards with the eventual 24-point victory still in doubt. Johnson's backup was sophomore fullback Braxton Banks (212 yards and 4 touchdowns).

  • Senior quarterback Terry Andrysiak started, and finished the season for the Irish, though the '87 campaign is best remembered for the 7.5 games played by future star Tony Rice. Andrysiak began the season well, passing for 137 yards with only four incomplete passes in a convincing upset win at No. 9 Michigan. He guided the Irish to victories over Michigan State and Purdue before suffering a broken collarbone at Pittsburgh.

    Andrysiak returned to quarterback the Cotton Bowl loss to powerful Texas A&M, a decision panned by Irish followers with 20/20 hindsight.

  • Rice showed glimpses of his future greatness in his first season as a contributor, rushing for 337 yards and 7 touchdowns; though he hit on just one touchdown pass vs. four interceptions.

  • The defense was led by redshirt-junior linebacker Ned Bolcar. CBS Sports' national defensive player of the year led the squad with 106 tackles, including nine games in which he posted at least nine stops. Bolcar recorded 17 tackles in the team's 30-22 loss at Pittsburgh, 13 stops vs. USC in a 26-15 win, and 10 tackles at eventual national champion Miami.

    Aiding Bolcar's effort was senior outside linebacker Cedric Figaro, who led the squad in big plays (sacks, tackles-for-loss, pass breakups, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries) for the second consecutive season. Figaro added 53 total tackles to rank fourth on the squad.

  • Senior Wes Pritchett teamed with Bolcar inside and finished second with 70 total tackles while senior Flash Gordon formed a bookend with Figaro at OLB, leading the team with 3.5 sacks.

1987 – Personnel Highlights

The workmanlike '87 season will be defined by the school's seventh Heisman winner Tim Brown and the debut of all-time quarterback great, Tony Rice. The assistant coaching staff ranks as a "Who's Who" in program lore.

Coaching Staff of Note: Foge Fazio (defensive coordinator); Tony Yelovich (offensive line); Barry Alvarez (outside linebackers); Joe Yonto (defensive line); George Stewart (tight ends); Pete Cordelli (quarterbacks, receivers); Vinny Cerrato (recruiting coordinator). Former Irish running back Bob Gladieux served as a graduate assistant as did former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman Tim Scannell.

  • Team Captains: Chuck Lanza and Byron Spruell
  • Unsung Heroes: Remaining offensive linemen Tom Freeman (11 starts) and Tom Rehder (9 starts), as well as tight end Andy Heck (11 starts) teamed with Lanza and Spruell to give the ground game consistent space in 10 of 12 total contests.

  • Nose tackle Mike Griffin (43 tackles, 4 for loss, FF, FR, Sack, pass breakup) manned the middle of Fazio's 3-4 defense. The 5th-year senior started all 12 games and notched 34 starts in his four seasons in an Irish uniform. The safety tandem of George Streeter and Corny Southall combined for 76 tackles, 4 interceptions, 6 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles, a sack and a touchdown while starting 17 combined contests. Cornerback Marv Spence finished tied for the team lead with 3 picks, starting the final 11 contests.

  • Top position group: The offensive line. Led by All-America center Chuck Lanza, the senior-laden front five paved the way for six different runners to gain more than 200 yards (as well as Brown, who totaled 144 yards from an occasionally wishbone look). Holtz called for nearly four times as many rushing plays as passing attempts over the course of the season, relying on ball control offense and his powerful front line to control the clock and the contest.

    Not until a matchup with an all-time great team, the '87 Miami Hurricanes, were the Irish held in check on the ground, as the OL unit had previously paved the way for either 200-plus rushing yards or three rushing touchdowns in 9 of the squad's first 10 contests. The Irish front wall and new starting QB Tony Rice began to impose their will on the opposition following an early October loss to Pitt, gaining 354, 351, 406, 304, 348, and 220 rushing yards in consecutive contests heading into the matchup vs. Miami's talented front seven.

  • Seniors drafted following the season: Wide receiver Tim Brown (1st Round); offensive tackle Tom Rehder (3rd); center Chuck Lanza (3rd); outside linebacker Cedric Figaro (6th); cornerback Brandy Wells (9th).

  • Award Winners/All-America Selections: Tim Brown (consensus 1st Team All-America, Heisman Trophy, Walter Camp foundation Player of the Year, Consensus Player of the Year); Chuck Lanza (Consensus 2nd Team All-America, Sporting News 1st Team All-America selection); Ned Bolcar (CBS/Chevrolet Defensive Player of the Year, A.P. 1st Team All-America); Cedric Figaro (Consensus 3rd Team All-America).

Waiting in the Wings: The following future stars played subordinate roles for the 1987 squad but served as the building blocks of the team's most successful era (1988-90) since Ara Parseghian's departure in 1975:

  • Freshman tailback Tony Brooks (54 carries, 262 yards, 1 TD).
  • Freshman free safety Todd Lyght (29 tackles, 2 pass breakups, Interception)
  • Freshman outside linebacker/defensive end Scott Kowalkowski (3 tackles, 1 sack)
  • Freshman nose tackle George "Boo" Williams (six games played, fumble recovery)
  • Freshman defensive end/outside linebacker Andre Jones (12 games played, 146 special teams appearances)
  • Freshman linebacker Don Grimm (98 special teams appearances)
  • Sophomore offensive guard Tim Grunhard (12 games played/4 starts)
  • Sophomore wide receiver Pat Terrell (2 receptions)
  • Sophomore defensive tackle Jeff Alm (9 games, 2 tackles)
  • Senior defensive end/outside linebacker Frank Stams (14 tackles, 2 TFL, sack)
  • Senior cornerback D'Juan Francisco (11 games played, 4 tackles)
  • Freshman nose tackle Chris Zorich (ineligible), freshman defensive tackle Bob Dahl, and sophomore linebacker Michael Stonebreaker (ineligible) did not see action for the '87 Irish.

On-Field Results/Irish in the Polls

The Irish finished unranked and 5-6 in 1986. The '87 Irish opened the season ranked No. 16 but a win at No. 9 Michigan vaulted the Irish to 9th for a Week Two matchup vs. No. 17 Michigan State. Wins over the Spartans and Purdue moved Notre Dame to fourth in the A.P. Poll but a 30-22 loss at Pittsburgh dropped the Irish to No. 11.

Five consecutive wins including a home blowout of No. 10 Alabama moved the Irish to No. 7 with slim hopes for a national title dancing in their heads entering a late November contest at Penn State. The Nittany Lions prevailed, 21-20, and an ensuing loss at eventual National Champion Miami dropped the Irish to No. 12 entering the Cotton Bowl. The blowout loss to No. 13 A&M resulted in an end-season ranking of No. 17 for Holtz's second squad.

  • Bowl Result: Favored by four points entering the contest, the No. 12-ranked Irish were crushed by No. 13 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, 35-10. The loss marked the last contest in which a Holtz team looked relatively unprepared until at the tail end of the '91 season. The underrated Aggies won their final eight contests to finish the season in style, 10-2.
  • Record vs. Top 20 Teams: 3-2
  • Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 3-0
  • Home W/L: 5-0 Road W/L: 3-3
  • Best Win(s): November 14 vs. No. 10 Alabama. A revenge match for the '86 squad's only blowout loss (28-10 in Tuscaloosa), Notre Dame manhandled the Crimson Tide up front, rushing for 348 yards and three touchdowns, including back-to-back 70-plus yard jaunts by Green (74 yards) and the freshman Watters (75).

    The Irish defense suffocated Alabama's passing attack, holding three Tide quarterbacks to nine completions in 29 attempts for a paltry 50 yards. Alabama managed just 10 first downs, recording its first in the 3rd Quarter, and 185 total yards on 63 snaps, en route to a 37-6 defeat in South Bend.

    The Irish also won at No. 9 Michigan, 26-7. The 19-point win ranks as the largest margin of victory by Notre Dame in the Big House since the team's resumed the series in 1978. (The Wolverines finished the season ranked No. 18 in the A.P. Poll). Double covered most of the afternoon, Tim Brown kicked off his Heisman campaign with a sublime leaping touchdown between two defenders to stake the Irish to a 10-0 lead.

    In Week Two vs. No. 17 Michigan State, Brown took control of the Heisman race and never looked back, returning back-to-back MSU punts for touchdowns (71 and 66 yards) in the second quarter of a nationally televised night game in South Bend (the Spartans finished 9-2-1 on the season). The Irish recorded two safeties in the contest, the first on the opening kickoff.

    The Irish also hammered USC, 26-15, outscoring the Trojans 26-3 in a 56-minute stretch.

  • Toughest Loss: November 21 at Penn State. Clinging to slim title hopes, the 8-1, seventh-ranked Irish fell a two-point conversion short in State College. The teams both recorded 312 total yards on the frigid afternoon and both committed two turnovers, though Notre Dame's first proved costly.

    Trailing 14-7 near the end of the first half, Holtz removed Tony Rice and inserted backup QB Kent Graham (technically the 3rd string QB with Andrysiak still out) for a goal line play from the Nittany Lions 3-yard line. Graham predictably passed and the offering was intercepted by the Nittany Lions to end the threat heading into intermission.

    Nearly 30 minutes later, Notre Dame scored on an Anthony Johnson run with 0:31 remaining. The Irish went for two points and the win, but Tony Rice's right side run and cutback was stopped short by a disciplined PSU front, ending the contest and the team's fleeting title hopes in the process.

  • Worst Loss: Likely the Cotton Bowl loss to A&M, but in terms of drawing the ire of the team's fan base, and likely of the players and coaches as well, the disappointing regular season finale at No. 2 and eventual national champion Miami stung the most.

    With revenge part of the storyline (it was the first meeting between the teams since Miami embarrassed the Irish 58-7 in former head coach Gerry Faust's last contest), Notre Dame proved only that it was one year away from competing with the big boys, losing 24-0 and gaining only 169 total yards.

    One week away from accepting the Heisman Trophy, Brown was held to 37 yards on 3 receptions while Notre Dame's previously unstoppable rushing attack was stymied, gaining just 82 net yards on 37 carries (187 below its season average). It was Miami's 31st consecutive regular season victory and the Hurricane's would go on to claim their second national title in five seasons with a victory over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

    Miami would not lose again until it traveled to South Bend in mid-October, 1988.

1987 – Final Analysis

Why the 1987 Irish could rank higher/are appropriately ranked: Any team that carries national title hopes into Game 10 moves to the front of what has previously been a solid, but unspectacular group of Irish squads on our countdown.

The Irish were admittedlya one-dimensional offense, though that dimension was reliable, consistent and occasionally dominant. The presence of Brown as a receiver and on special teams kept most opponents honest, defensively.

The battle-tested Irish faced eight teams that accrued four or fewer losses over the course of the then 12-game season, with only a poor Navy team serving as a break in the 11-game regular season schedule. While many of the teams listed 11-15 in our countdown could arguably beat the '87 Irish head-to-head, the '87 team accomplished more on the field, defeating two top 10 opponents at the beginning, then final month of the season.

Why the 1987 Irish could rank lower: Throwing out the 24-0 loss at Miami to end the regular season (that Hurricanes team would have eviscerated previously ranked teams in our countdown), it's nevertheless hard to justify the 25-point Cotton Bowl defeat to No. 13 A&M (the Irish were favored by four points entering the contest).

When compared to our No. 11 ranked team of 1996 (click the link at the bottom of this column), the '87 Irish scored far fewer and allowed nearly the same total of points, but that was a function of the era and the team's approach to offense. More important, it was a result of a taxing schedule – a regular occurrence in the first half of the Holtz era.

The '87 Irish were less impressive statistically than most of the squads I've ranked below them, but there's something to be said for a solid defense coupled with a reliable and at times dominant ground attack…not to mention the greatness of Tim Brown.

The Eye Test/Atmosphere Surrounding the 1987 Squad: One step away.
Holtz's first squad in '86 recaptured the team's fan base and his second team in '87 pointed toward a bright future, as the freshman and sophomore classes contained a staggering level of collegiate talent while the departing seniors included battle-tested vets such as Lanza, Figaro, and the all-time great Brown.

The '87 team is often lost in the shuffle: caught between the rebirth of '86 and greatness of '88. The 1987 Irish remained at least a notch below college football's elite in the final evaluation, but players such as Tony Rice, Ricky Watters, Tony Brooks, Todd Lyght, Stan Smagala, and Anthony Johnson began to emerge while veteran leaders Mark Green, Ned Bolcar, George Streeter and Wes Pritchett laid the groundwork for the championship season to follow.

Next Week: Our No. 9-ranked Irish team of the last 30 seasons.

Honorable Mention the 1986 Irish

No. 15 the 2000 Irish

No. 14 the 1998 Irish

No. 13 the 2006 Irish

No. 12 the 2002 Irish

No. 11 the 1996 Irish Top Stories