The 7th-ranked team in our Top 15 countdown – the 1991 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. 7 ranked squad – the 1991 Fighting Irish (10-3).

1991 – By the Numbers

Offense: The '91 Irish were an offensive juggernaut, scoring 35.5 points per game, the highest total at the program in 18 seasons and to date the 7th highest number of the school's modern era (1964-present). The nation's 6th best ground game churned out 269.1 yards per contest while the passing game did just enough to afford the power-based offense the No. 11 national ranking at 455.6 yards per outing (to date the 6th highest total in program history).

Defense: Among the few reasons the '91 Irish were considered less-than-special (for the time period) was its young, underwhelming defense. The unit allowed just 21.8 points per game (53rd in the country) but ranked an uncharacteristic 84th vs. the run, surrendering almost 205 yards per week and more than 1,100 rushing yards than it yielded the previous season. The defense ranked 73rd overall, tying the program's lowest ranking of the modern era (three Irish defenses have finished worse since, including last year's crew).

Notables: statistical and otherwise

  • Sophomore fullback Jerome Bettis broke through as one of the nation's best runners, finishing with 20 regular season touchdowns (a single-season school record) and leading the team with 972 rushing yards. Bettis added 150 yards and three scores in the bowl game and paced the squad with five 100-plus yard efforts. Flashing his future versatility, Bettis scored four touchdowns on seven pass receptions.
  • Junior QB Rick Mirer accounted for 27 touchdowns (18 passing with a second-best 9 rushing scores) with just 10 interceptions. Mirer fired multiple touchdown passes in seven contests and never failed to produce a score (rushing or passing) over the 13-game slate.
  • The tailback position was manned by the senior tandem of Tony Brooks and team captain Rodney Culver. Brooks finished second with 894 rushing yards and led the backfield quartet with a 6.1 yards-per-carry average. Culver added 550 yards (5.3 per carry). The duo totaled four 100-plus yard rushing efforts
  • Tight end Derek Brown tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions, a number that's been matched just once at the program since (Pete Chryplewicz in 1996).
  • Senior split end Tony Smith enjoyed a breakout season, leading the team with 789 receiving yards (the 5th highest total of the Holtz era) and 42 receptions while tying Brown and Bettis with four touchdown grabs. Smith had four 100-plus yard receiving efforts including a 121-yard, TD effort in a loss at Michigan – a game in which he and Mirer were unfortunately the only offensive players to show up for the Irish.
  • The retooled defense was led by junior inside ‘backer Demetrius Dubose. Dubose did everything for the Irish who had lost three quality ‘backers to graduation, finishing with 127 total tackles (STAT) and forcing three turnovers including the season's first touchdown, a 49-yard interception return for a score vs. Indiana and future NFL quarterback Trent Green. Dubose led the entire team in minutes played (more than 300).
  • After three seasons dominated by household names on the defensive line, Notre Dame was forced into a youth movement up front. Only junior LDE Devon McDonald served as a front line contributor in the previous season. He led the team with 11 tackles for loss, forcing three fumbles. Future star Bryant Young emerged at DT, finishing with four sacks and 50 tackles as a true sophomore, starting nine games.
  • The secondary was also in transition, with seven different starters at three positions. Sophomore Tom Carter was the unit's constant and best player, finishing with five interceptions which to this day is tied for the 15th highest total in program history.
  • Future star safety Jeff Burris started 13 games, though just five at free safety (the first four contests then the Sugar Bowl). Moving between CB and his future safety home, Burris totaled 63 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions while serving as the team's punt returner (12.6 yards per return).

1991 – Personnel Highlights

Most of the national names that highlighted the first five seasons of the Holtz era had moved on, but a handful of the next generation's top players emerged in ‘91, led by Co-MVP's Jerome Bettis and Rick Mirer, with remaining veteran runners Tony Brooks and Rodney Culver as well as tight end Derek Brown still in the fold. Still, the group was considered one year away from its peak, and for about five halves of season-altering football, unfortunately played to that billing.

Coaching Staff of Note: Gary Darnell (defensive coordinator); Tom Beck (running backs); Skip Holtz (wide receivers); Joe Moore (offensive line); Peter Vaas (quarterbacks); Tony Yelovich (Recruiting Coordinator); Dick Bumpas (defensive line).

Current Irish head coach Brian Kelly credits Beck, his mentor at Grand Valley State, for his emergence for the Notre Dame head coach position. Click Here for a full account of the story.

  • Team Captain: Fullback Rodney Culver. Culver is one of only three players to serve as a squad's lone captain since Rocky Bleier in 1967 (when it was a common practice). QB Jarious Jackson ('99) and ILB Mike Kovaleski ('86) join Culver in this distinction.

  • Unsung Heroes: Sophomore Lake Dawson produced 433 yards (18 per catch) in his first season of extended action. Dawson's full-extension diving 49-yard catch vs. USC helped turn the tide vs. the sub-.500, but upset-minded Trojans.
  • Senior cornerback Rod Smith struggled at times but played spectacularly in the Sugar Bowl win over Florida, notching 18 tackles. He tied for second on the team with 69 regular season tackles adding three interceptions.

  • Top position group: The Irish backfield was the team's driving force, accounting for 45 rushing touchdowns from eight different players (Bettis, Mirer, Brooks, Culver, Reggie Brooks, Ryan Mihalko, Willie Clark, and Kevin McDougal and technically (considering Mirer threw 20 total touchdown passes including the Bowl), 61 of the team's record-setting 64 scores.

    Bettis, Tony Brooks, Culver, and Mirer ran for an aggregate 2,856 yards on 491 carries (5.81 per rush)

  • Seniors drafted following the season: TE Derek Brown (1st Round); DB Rod Smith (2nd); FB Rodney Culver (4th); RB Tony Brooks (4th); C Gene McGuire (4th); DT George "Boo" Williams (6th); WR Tony Smith (6th); OG Mirko Jurkovic (9th). Note: Williams did not play in 1991 for personal reasons.

    The senior class (recruiting class of 1988) finished with a record of 43-7 with three bowl victories, four (BCS equivalent) bowl appearances and a national championship. Its final Associated Press rankings were 1, 2, 6, and 15. The '88 and '90 squads played in de facto national title games while the '89 squad defeated No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl, losing the season-end vote to national champion Miami, who had beaten the Irish on Thanksgiving weekend.

  • Award Winners/All-America Selections: TE Derek Brown (Walter Camp first-team All-America; consensus third-team All-America); OT Mirko Jurkovic (Consensus first-team All-America; A.P. second-team All-America; Notre Dame Lineman of the Year); LB Demetrius Dubose (Football News first-team All-America); QB Rick Mirer (consensus honorable mention All-America, Co-MVP); Jeff Burris, WR Lake Dawson, P Craig Hentrich, LB Pete Bercich, WR Tony Smith, OG Gene McGuire, TB Tony Brooks, DE Devon McDonald, OT Justin Hall each were named honorable mention All-America by Football News.

Waiting in the Wings: The following future starters played subordinate roles for the 1991 squad.

  • Junior DE Karmeeleyah McGill emerged in the seasons final two weeks, starting vs. Hawaii and Florida and recording a combined 10 tackles, 2 sacks, and a pass deflection.
  • Junior tight end Irv Smith six receptions for three touchdowns plus another touchdown in the Sugar Bowl.
  • Junior tailback Reggie Brooks 18 carries, 122 yards, 2 TD (long 65)
  • Sophomore DT/ILB Jim Flanigan 36 tackles
  • Sophomore nose guard Oliver Gibson 15 tackles including two for loss
  • Sophomore cornerback Greg Lane 13 tackles, two passes defended
  • Sophomore guard Tim Ruddy started two games. He became an all-star center in '92 and '93.

On-Field Results/Irish in the Polls

The 1990 Irish finished 9-3, were ranked No. 1 on three separate occasions, and lost the de facto national championship game to Colorado, 10-9. They finished sixth in the final A.P. poll. As a result, Holtz's '91 squad opened at No. 7, but fell to No. 11 following a 24-14 loss at No. 3 Michigan (with Heisman winner Desmond Howard).

The squad slowly climbed back to No. 5 over the next seven weeks before dropping a 35-34 loss at home to No. 13 Tennessee. A thumping at No. 8 Penn State one week later landed the Irish at No l7 for the season-finale in Hawaii and an unimpressive win over the Rainbows (48-42) placed the Irish at No. 18 entering a Sugar Bowl matchup with No. 3 Florida.

  • Bowl Result: Defeated No. 3 Florida, 39-28 in the Sugar Bowl (recap below).
  • Record vs. Top 20 Teams (at game time): 2-3
  • Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 5-0
  • Home W/L: 5-1 Road W/L: 4-2 (1-0 neutral)

  • Best Win: A 39-28 Sugar Bowl victory over No. 3 Florida. The 18th ranked Irish entered the contest as decided underdogs and for the first time in Holtz's tenure, the subject of national disrespect. The team had surrendered 35, 35, and 42 points in its final three regular season games and the early edition of Steve Spurrier's Fun-N-Gun offense was expected to run roughshod over the reeling Irish defense.

    Spurrier's gang moved the ball at will (511 total yards) but were stymied in the red zone by Holtz's gimmick coverages (sometimes rushing two players and dropping nine; in multiple instances, rushing no one at Gators quarterback Shane Matthews.

    Bettis famously iced the contest with three fourth quarter rushing scores (3, 49, and 39 yards) and Mirer tossed two touchdowns including a timely 40-yarder down the sideline to Dawson, a score that stemmed an ugly early tide to cut Florida's lead to 13-7.

    The Irish pass defense was credited with 17 passes defended (including two interceptions) and Bettis (150 rushing yards), Culver (93) and Tony Brooks (68) were too much for the equally young Gators up front.

    By the final gun, Holtz's squad had proved that there was indeed a difference between Cheerios and Notre Dame.

  • Season Streak: Following a 24-14 loss at No. 3 Michigan in Game 2 (The "Desmond Howard Game"), Notre Dame rebounded to win seven straight, outscoring its opponents by a margin of 268-98 including a 42-7 pasting of then-No. 12 Pittsburgh in South Bend.

  • Toughest Loss: It's known across Knoxville as "The Miracle in South Bend." Irish fans in attendance remember a tale of two halves, though Tennessee began its unlikely comeback near the final gun of the first stanza, blocking a Craig Hentrich field goal attempt and returning the ball 85 yards for a touchdown to cut the Notre Dame half time lead to 31-14 with 0:14 remaining. Hentrich injured his leg on the play, an occurrence that would ultimately cost the Irish a game they never should have lost.

    Notre Dame dominated the first half with its power running game, churning out 228 rushing yards. The Vols shut things down defensively in the second half, holding the Irish to just 82 yards on the ground courtesy of an ever-changing defensive front.

    Tennessee took its first lead with 4:03 remaining, 35-34. Mirer led what appeared to be a Senior Day comeback drive, marching the Irish down to the Volunteers 10-yard line, but backup kicker Rob Leonard's kick never get off the ground and was famously stuffed by the derriere of one of his own offensive linemen (the block was credited to Tennessee's Jeremy Lincoln) at the final gun.

    The game marked the first major sign of dissent in the Holtz era with tailback Tony Brooks (20 carries, 126 yards, 1 TD) remarking post-game. "We were running all over them in the first half. Then we stopped running…I guess the coaches saw something we didn't…"

    It would not bode well as national championship aspirations disintegrated over the final three weeks.

  • Head-shaking Contest: One week after the team saw its championship hopes dashed on senior day in South Bend vs. Tennessee Notre Dame was predictably stifled at No. 13 Penn State (Holtz reportedly told his wife the morning of the game that "things could get ugly.") The 35-13 loss was embarrassing but maybe not as much as the win that followed in the season-finale at Hawaii.

    Notre Dame took a 28-10 lead into halftime against the seven-loss Rainbows. They escaped Aloha Stadium with a shocking 48-42 victory. The Irish defense used nine different defensive tackles and four different defensive ends in the contest as Hawaii piled up 473 yards of total offense including a staggering 326 rushing yards, scoring 32 points in the final 30 minutes.

    Tony Brooks dove on an onside kick to secure the final margin.

1991 – Final Analysis

Why the 1991 Irish could rank higher/are appropriately ranked: I originally had the '91 squad ranked one spot higher, but next week's featured team played for a national title on the season's final day, thus breaking any perceived tie between the two.

The '91 offense was technically the school's all-time best, though inconsistency reared its ugly head in two road losses vs. top level opponents as the Irish managed just 14 points at No. 3 Michigan and 13 points in the humbling at No. 13 Penn State.

Notre Dame exceeded 40 points in five of its first six games and scored at least 34 points in nine outings. The final official tally was a school-record 59 touchdowns, and the team tacked on five more in the Sugar Bowl win.

Why the 1991 Irish should rank lower: They shouldn't, as this team would put about 350 rushing yards on our No. 8 ranked team, the 2005 Irish, but they probably shouldn't rank higher, either.

After pitching a shut-out vs. Navy in Game 9 and holding No. 13 Tennessee to one offensive touchdown in the first half the following week, the Notre Dame defense collapsed, allowing 28 in the second stanza to the Vols, then 35 and 42 points respectively in the season's final two regular season games en route to a 1-2 finish. The defense ranked as the worst of the Holtz era and its inability to stop the run was maddening to old school Irish fans.

In the final analysis, storied players such as Ismail, Zorich, Lyght, Stonebreaker, Kowalkowski, Watters, Levens, Mike Heldt, Bob Dahl, Boo Williams, and Andre Jones proved too much to replace over one off-season.

The early 90s Irish never had to rebuild, but the '91 squad re-tooled and reloaded. From the Sugar Bowl beating of Florida through the next two football seasons, Notre Dame finished 22-2-1 with three major (BCS-equivalent) bowl victories.

The Eye Test/Atmosphere Surrounding the 1991 Squad: A team in transition. The talent loss following the 1989-90 seasons was staggering with 19 players drafted by NFL teams over a two-year period, a number exacerbated by the early entry of junior Heisman runner-up, Rocket Ismail.

The front four saw 10 different starters, nine at three spots with Devon McDonald holding down the LDE role all season. The three-man linebacker corps featured eight starters (the one constant was Demetrius Dubose) and the secondary's final count showed eight names as well, with only Tom Carter playing at a consistently high level (a sophomore Jeff Burris was one year away from consensus All-America status).

The final tally showed 15 sophomores and two freshman earn starts over the course of the season.

Irish fans were spoiled at the time. Notre Dame had finished 33-4 in the last three seasons (88-90), finishing No. 1, No. 2, and ultimately No. 6 in 1990 though that squad played in the national title game.

Youth was served in a season that marked the transition from Part I to Part II of the Holtz era (there were three parts in all with the third far less successful), and the '91 team finished on an all-time high note with the woodshed beat down of No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl. But a handful of more complete Irish teams preceded and followed the powerful, yet ultimately inconsistent 1991 edition.

Next Week: Our No. 6-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

No. 10 the 1987 Irish

No. 9 the 1995 Irish

No. 8 the 2005 Irish Top Stories