Hail To The Victors, Lucky

As the Lou Holtz era began at Notre Dame, the underrated Irish handled Michigan everywhere but on the scoreboard
September 21, 1986

Goodness gracious, who won this game, anyway?

Surely it was the team that piled up 455 yards and 27 first downs, converted 8 of 12 third-down situations, completed 21 of 33 passes, averaged 6.3 yards per play and never had to punt. Sorry.

You mean it was the team that punted four times, began one offensive drive on its own seven-yard line and finished it on its own five, averaged 2.4 yards per running play in the second half, gave up as many rushing touchdowns in the first half (two) as it did in the entire 1985 season and generally played defense more ineptly than it had since the ark was built—when Bo looked up and saw that, yeah, all bad things are wont to fall from the sky?

Indeed, it was that team. Michigan sneaked past Notre Dame 24-23 in South Bend last Saturday and then blew out of town before anybody could change the score. Luck of the Irish? Hah. Notre Dame suffered two lost fumbles, an interception in the end zone, a kickoff it could not field, a dropped touchdown pass, a missed extra point, an apparent go-ahead touchdown reception in the fourth quarter that was ruled incomplete and a last-second field goal attempt that was tipped and barely missed winning the game. If any one of those misfortunes had gone the other way, new coach Lou Holtz would probably have a Notre Dame winning percentage 119 points higher than Knute Rockne's.

It was as if Touchdown Jesus, the 132-foot-high stone mosaic that looms above the north end zone, beloved by South Bend faithful—clerics and laymen alike—had raised his arms, this time strictly for Bo Schembechler, with the message, "I gave you one. No more mewling about not winning here since '78. Now beat it."

"You think I feel sorry for these guys?" sniffed the allegedly mellowed Schembechler while combing his hair in the coaches' locker room. "After what happened in 1980? Come on!" What happened in 1980 was Notre Dame's Harry Oliver kicking a 51-yard field goal at the gun to beat Michigan 29-27.

As Bo scurried off to the Michigan bus wearing a big grin, Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein still stood near his locker, unshowered and dazed. "This game could very easily have been a blowout for us," he sighed.

And he was right. Except for the interception he threw, Beuerlein played well enough to lead an Irish rout. His throwing arm, repaired by surgery in 1985, was strong, and his leadership of Notre Dame's new wishbone attack was almost flawless.

Michigan, of course, came into the game loaded with goods and ranked No. 3—"your basic championship contender," noted Holtz—while the Fighting Irish were opening a season unranked by the AP for the first time in 22 years. It is hard to say how the teams should be ranked now. Several things are clear, however. One is that Notre Dame's lowly preseason esteem was simply a leftover from the dismal Gerry Faust years (1981-85, 30-26-1) and not based on a fair assessment of this year's squad.

Another is that Notre Dame finally has itself a real college coach who can draw up real college plays. "We could predict how they'd line up, but not what they'd run," said Schembechler. Said Notre Dame's Tim Brown, who led the team with 65 yards rushing on 12 carries, "No more Pinkett right, Pinkett left, Pinkett up the middle, punt." Allen Pinkett, since graduated, was Faust's idea of offense last (5-6) season.

The current Notre Dame team has talent. Forget what Holtz had been telling us. "If his cupboard is bare then we made some bad choices," said Schembechler, "because we recruited most of those players."

Saturday's game also proved yet again that mistakes, the making and not making of them, are really the most important factor in football. Notre Dame ran and passed almost at will on a defense that allowed the fewest points in the nation in 1985 and was said to be, if not better, at least more arrogant, this year. "I don't want to sound cocky, but we're like the Chicago Bears," declared Wolverine middle guard Billy Harris in the preseason. "We're ready to make videos." But it was Notre Dame's own foul-ups that kept the Irish from scoring big. "Yeah, we kinda self-destructed," said defensive tackle Robert Banks, which is something Michigan's opponents often seem to do.

Consider that last year Maryland gained 335 yards on the Wolverines but was shut out 20-0. Reason: four interceptions and a lost fumble. In the '86 Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska outgained Michigan 370 yards to 234 but lost 27-23. Reason: an interception and three lost fumbles. And then consider that in Michigan's final seven games last season, its own offense turned the ball over a total of five times. You can't achieve much tighter control than that without having the football stitched to your chest.

And the player most responsible for such error-free stinginess is senior quarterback Jim Harbaugh. The 6'3", 207-pound son of Western Michigan head coach (and former Michigan assistant) Jack Harbaugh, Jim led the nation's quarterbacks in passing efficiency last season, completing 66% of his throws for 1,913 yards and 18 TDs, with only 6 interceptions. By contrast, Iowa's Chuck Long, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, was intercepted 15 times. Miami's Vinny Testaverde, this year's early Heisman favorite, also threw 15 interceptions last year.

But Harbaugh is not only a careful passer, he is also a crafty and accurate one, and a brilliant scrambler as well. Against Notre Dame he completed 15 of 23 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown, and did it by eluding every type of rush the Irish threw at him. In the official play-by-play sheet distributed to the press, one of Harbaugh's plays was described thusly: "Harbaugh, under a heavy rush, runs around all day in the backfield, finally hits [John] Kolesar for 13 [yards]."

The young man, who was born in Perrysburg, Ohio, and lived with his family in six other college towns, has now gone eight games without throwing an interception. And during that stretch. 12 of his 146 passes have gone for touchdowns. Should he go four more games without having a pass picked off, a year will have passed since his last errant throw—on Oct. 12, 1985 against Michigan State. If that happens, Harbaugh should be handed the Heisman on the spot and be put in charge of all our nuclear reactors.

Three days before the Notre Dame game Harbaugh sat in the team cafeteria in Ann Arbor, pondering his ascent to brilliant helmsman. "Last year I was as surprised as anyone by my stats," he said with a shrug. "It wasn't like I was trying to be Mr. Efficiency. I guess I am very conscious of avoiding interceptions, because the philosophy here is, don't put the defense in a bad position. But, I don't know." He laughed, looking a little like Tom Cruise thinking about his superiors in Top Gun. "When I throw an interception, Bo tends to—ahem—get upset."

No kidding. Then again the boss has never had an offensive-minded quarterback at Michigan so perfectly attuned to his defense-first philosophy. "I've not bragged on him, and I'm probably not going to say anything after this," Bo had said during the preseason. "But there is no quarterback in America I'd rather go into the season with and have run my team than Jim Harbaugh."

Harbaugh would make a great All-America, too. He's courteous, smart (a solid B student) and straight as the day is long. He lists Bob Knight as one of his favorite people. He drives a $400 piece-of-junk Volkswagen and sometimes wears its keys around his neck on a string. "I lost them the other day, and I don't want to go through that again," he says. And won't parents everywhere be thrilled if Harbaugh becomes a national hero? Question, folks: Which hairdo would you rather have your son wear—a Harbaugh or a Bosworth?

"I like to think of myself as my own man," Harbaugh says. "What guys like [Jim] McMahon and [Brian] Bosworth do is okay, but I'd rather draw attention to the team than to myself." Harbaugh's gaze shifts. He spots Schembechler, who is dining a few tables away. "It's not like Bo is gonna beat the crud out of me if I make a mistake," he says. "I can handle him." Harbaugh smiles and shakes his head. "But he is getting in shape...."

Indeed, Schembechler is down to a sleek 197 pounds these days. He dropped more than 30 pounds this summer to win a bet from his friend Tom Monaghan, the Domino's pizza magnate. Bo's reward was a fully restored 1926 fire engine that now sits in his Ann Arbor driveway. "My dad was a fire chief, and I love those things," says Bo.

Nibbling on lettuce, skinless broiled chicken and seasoned pasta at a table dressed with a pink tablecloth and a cut-flower vase, the tough guy looks absolutely benign. Bo is into jogging and stationary-bike riding these days and seems to have gone the docile yuppie route. "Yuppie?" the coach fairly explodes. Then he laughs. With the grin still on his face he says, without a drop of humor, "Any loss is bad. I can't stand 'em."

Same old Bo. So what about that story Holtz tells about him, the one in which Bo describes his relationship with the press? "Lou," Schembechler supposedly said, "if I walked across water, the headlines the next day would say, 'Bo Can't Swim.' "

"That story?" says Bo. "He made that up. Lou Holtz is the greatest manipulator of the media in the history of America. Don't ever let him get you going."

When Michigan took a 24-14 lead in the third quarter Saturday, it looked as if there was no way Holtz would ever get his own team going. The Wolverines had just scored two touchdowns in a span of six seconds, the second on Harbaugh's 27-yard pass to running back Jamie Morris after Notre Dame failed to cover a backward-bouncing Michigan kickoff. But Holtz rallied his boys in a way that Faust never could, and the Irish charged 66 yards for a touchdown on their next possession to make it, after a blown extra-point attempt, 24-20.

It was clear that Notre Dame could win the game. In fact it appeared that Notre Dame had, when Beuerlein threw a bullet to tight end Joel Williams leaping in the back of the end zone with less than five minutes to play. But the pass was ruled incomplete because the back judge, Ted DeFilippo, saw Williams's right foot come down on the end line (NCAA rules require a receiver to first touch one foot inbounds for a reception to be legal). Neither photographs nor TV replays conclusively supported the call by DeFilippo, who had a direct sightline to Williams's feet. Notre Dame settled for a field goal, making it 24-23, which was how it ended, after John Carney missed a 45-yard field goal attempt with 13 seconds left.

Williams said after the game that he had been told by a Michigan ball boy poised near the end line that Williams had, indeed, landed inbounds. Said a crushed but ever-wry Holtz afterward, "The ball boy said he was in, and I believe Michigan runs an honest school."

But that touchdown is not coming back. Nor is Schembechler, at least not until the opening game of 1988 when the teams meet again in South Bend. Meanwhile that ball boy had better lie low, lest Bo thrash him to within an inch of his life and make him write "1980" 10,000 times on the blackboard.

It was a Michigan victory all right, but certainly not a pretty one. Said Harbaugh, "That's not the way Michigan plays defense." Just wait until Schembechler comes down from his victory high and realizes that his boys didn't even make the unranked villains punt. But then, that's not the way Notre Dame plays offense, either—at least not the Notre Dame we've seen for half a decade. It's obviously a whole new ballgame.

Welcome to the fun house, Lou.

PHOTOANDY HAYTKolesar (40) and Michigan came out on top, but Troy Wilson's Irish had a ton of fight. THREE PHOTOSJOHN BIEVERThat controversial play: As back judge DeFilippo watches, Williams makes the catch and comes down directly over the end line (left). But DeFilippo ruled that Williams's right foot grazed the stripe, making the pass incomplete. PHOTOANDY HAYTIf he maintains his interception-free efficiency, Harbaugh may make a run at the Heisman.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)