Sunday, July 25, 2010

Irish Football 101: The Glory Days of Lou

Q: So Notre Dame wins the championship in '88. How did their title defense go?

A: The Irish sprinted to an 11-0 record and the #1 ranking with senior quarterback Tony Rice at the helm, setting up a regular season finale showdown in Coral Gables with the Miami Hurricanes. Unfortunately the Canes got their revenge for the '88 game, defeating the Irish 27-10 en route to a national championship. Notre Dame finished with an identical record to the Hurricanes but were placed #2 in the polls since they'd lost head-to-head to Miami.

Q: That makes sense and seems fair that we'd end up #2, doesn't it?

A: Yes, can't disagree at all. If two teams finish with identical records and one team beat the other head-to-head then the most blatantly obvious/fair/logical thing to do is award the higher ranking to the team that won that head-to-head matchup.

Q: Why do you belabor that point?

A: You'll see later.

Q: Alright. A national championship in year three, a 12-1 season in year four. Did Holtz sustain this sort of success the rest of his tenure?

A: The next two years the Irish slipped just a bit after Tony Rice graduated. In 1990 the Irish posted a 9-2 regular season record. After defeating Miami in the final Catholics vs Convicts contest (thanks in large part to The Rocket) the Irish received a bid to the Orange Bowl against #1 Colorado.

It would be the final game in the collegiate career of Rocket Ismail and he did everything he could do go out in style. With 1:05 remaining the Irish trailed 10-9 and Colorado was forced to punt. Instead of kicking it out of bounds, the Buffs inexplicably gave Rocket one last chance. This is what happened:

In what would have no doubt gone down as one of the greatest and most clutch plays in college football history, the Rocket emerged from the pack and raced 92 yards for what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown. But a line judge threw a flag for what will forever be known as "The Phantom Clip."

Q: Wait, where was the clipping penalty in that call?

A: There was no clipping in that play. It was a call that deserves as much ignominy as Jim Joyce's call to screw up Galarraga's perfect game this year. We were robbed of one of the greatest Notre Dame Moments ever.

Q: Damn, so how did the Irish bounce back from that the next year?

A: It was another down year by Holtz's standards, going 9-3 in the regular season and gaining what many thought was an undeserved berth in the Sugar Bowl against #3 Florida. Notre Dame went into the contest ranked #18 and was a heavy underdog against the Gators and their high-octane offense led by Shane Matthews and head coach Steve Spurrier.

Many in the media cried that Notre Dame only got an invite because of their name and that their team didn't stand a chance against Florida. In the weeks leading up to the showdown it became known as "The Cheerios Bowl," because the joke was that the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios was that Cheerios belonged in a bowl.

Q: Were the critics right?

A: Final Score - Irish 39, Gators 28. Notre Dame kept holding Spurrier's Fun n' Gun to field goals and eventually wore down their defense with running backs Rodney Culver, Reggie Brooks, and Jerome Bettis. Bettis ran for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter (3, 49, and 39 yards), all right up the middle of the Gators' defense. The Irish outscored them 32-12 in the second half and the media got to eat a whole lot of crow.

Q: How did the next couple years go?

A: The 1992 season was probably Holtz's most disappointing as head coach. It was a stacked offense led by senior quarterback Rick Mirer, tailback Reggie Brooks, and fullback Jerome Bettis (they would finish 1-2-3 in NFL Rookie of the Year voting the next season). Expectations were through the roof preseason, but they couldn't escape September without stumbling to a tie against Michigan. Then in a game that took place over the Notre Dame student body's fall break, the Irish fell at home to heavy underdog Stanford which essentially ended their national title hopes. They regrouped to finish the season 10-1-1, stomp Texas A&M 28-3 in the Cotton Bowl, and claim a final ranking of #4.

Expectations were lower the next season because so much talent had graduated, but at the same time the most highly touted recruit in Notre Dame history arrived on campus. Ron Powlus was a quarterback from Berwick, PA that ESPN analyst Beano Cook proclaimed would win multiple Heisman Trophies by the time he'd graduated from ND. He was installed as the starter before the first game before breaking his collarbone in practice. This opened the door for senior quarterback Kevin McDougal to take the reins. The Irish burst out of the gate with nine straight victories, setting up a November #1 vs #2 showdown with top-ranked Florida State in South Bend. It was billed as The Game of the Century.

Q: Were the Irish favored?

A: No, much like in the Cheerios Bowl two years earlier the experts proclaimed that the Irish could not keep up with the speed of the Seminoles on both sides of the ball. It was set up almost exactly like the Catholics vs Convicts game in '88--Old School vs New School, Brawn vs Speed, Catholics vs Criminoles.

The brash Seminoles showed up on campus before the game and let the trash talking flow. When quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward was asked whether his team respected the history of Notre Dame he responded, "What’s the Gipper? Rock Knutne? The Three Horsemen? I’m not here for a history lesson."

In one of Holtz's greatest masterpieces the Irish staked a 31-17 lead with just 1:37 left in the fourth quarter thanks to some creative play-calling and the rushing of fullback Ray Zellers, tailback Lee Becton, and cornerback/goal line specialist Jeff Burris. The defensive line, led by Bryant Young and Jim Flanagan, contained the ballyhooed Florida State attack and their leader Charlie Ward for most of the day. Late in the game though Ward broke through and after cutting the lead to seven, the Seminoles had one last chance with time running out.

Unfortunately, it was the last time Notre Dame was ranked #1 and the last truly iconic Notre Dame Moment to date.

Q: Did Notre Dame win the national title?

A: No. The next week they were upset in the final game of the season at home against Boston College, 41-39. The Irish were trailing 38-17 in the fourth quarter before engineering a furious comeback to take the lead 39-38 with just over a minute to go. Linebacker Pete Bercich had a chance to clinch the game with an interception with under a minute to go but it slipped through his hands. Boston College kicked a field goal as time expired to win the game. It was one of the three most heartbreaking losses in school history (along with '64 Southern Cal and '05 Southern Cal).

Q: Wow, how did they bounce back in the bowl game?

A: They defeated Texas A&M in a rematch of the previous year's Cotton Bowl, 24-21. #1 Nebraska took on Florida State in the Orange Bowl and the thought was that if Florida State won Notre Dame would be crowned national champions. The Seminoles squeaked out a victory over the Huskers and ended the season with the same record as Notre Dame but were awarded the national championship.

Q: Wait, didn't they lose to Notre Dame just two games earlier?

A: Yes.

Q: So they had identical records...and Notre Dame beat Florida State head-to-head...and Florida State was still given the national championship?!?!

A: Yes.

Q: But where's the logic in that?

A: You can't find it. It's hiding somewhere with Lane Kiffin's integrity.

Q: Still, despite that disappointment it was quite a six year run for Lou wasn't it?

A: You better believe it. During that stretch he pieced together a 23-game win streak, won a national title, finished #2 twice, finished in the top 6 five times, went to six major bowls (winning five of them), and posted a 64-9-1 record (.877 winning percentage). It was one of the most successful runs in modern college football.

Unfortunately that gut-wrenching loss to Boston College seemed to sap all momentum from the Irish juggernaut. It marked an abrupt end to Irish dominance and the beginning of a free-fall that plagues the program to this day.


This Week's CliffNotes:

* Notre Dame followed their national championship season with a 12-1 campaign, losing only at Miami. The 23-game win streak they pieced together is a school record that stands today.
* The Rocket was robbed of one of the greatest plays in college football history when some idiot official threw a flag for clipping. The play is forever known as The Phantom Clip and cost Notre Dame a victory over #1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl.
* Notre Dame won the 1992 Sugar Bowl over Florida 39-28 despite being a heavy underdog in what was known as "The Cheerios Bowl." Fullback Jerome Bettis rushed for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to ice the victory.
* After a disappointing '92 campaign, Notre Dame won their first ten games of the 1993 season, including a 31-24 victory over Florida State in the Game of the Century.
* They were upset in the final game of the 1993 season at home against Boston College, 41-39. This is the greatest moment in Boston College history, even greater than Flutie's Hail Mary pass. This is the root of the reason we hate Boston College.
* Florida State and Notre Dame ended the season with identical records, but in the final poll Florida State was ranked #1 and ND #2 despite the fact Notre Dame defeated FSU head-to-head. This defies logic, much like Illinois deciding to give Ron Zook another year to coach their football team.
* Lou's run from '88-'93 was one of the best in the modern era of college football.

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