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Pluck of the Irish

Oct. 24, 1988
Oct. 24, 1988

Table of Contents
Oct. 24, 1988

Notre Dame-Miami
World Series
Redskins-Cardinals
Tyson-Givens
Top Filly
Photo Credits: Bill Smith

Pluck of the Irish

Spunky Notre Dame laid claim to the top spot in the national rankings by outlasting No. 1 Miami 31-30

Do you want to call this good triumphing over Evil? Did Notre Dame's 31-30 defeat on Saturday of previously unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Miami remind you of Milton's archangels whupping up on Beelzebub and the crew from Chaos?

This is an article from the Oct. 24, 1988 issue

Well, O.K., winning by one point while getting outgained 481 yards to 331 isn't exactly the way Michael handled the devil, but you catch the drift. Did you fall for those signs and T-shirts that sprouted in South Bend during game week comparing Notre Dame to the Sistine Chapel and the University of Miami to the River Styx house of detention? If you did, then you probably feel now that all is right with the world and that God is in his place.

But if you happen to be a Hurricane fan, you might argue that Miami was jobbed out of a fourth-quarter touchdown—or, at least, possession of the ball at the Notre Dame one-foot line—when the officials ruled that Miami fullback Cleveland Gary wasn't down before he fumbled the ball as he tried to extend it across the goal line. Or you could contend that Hurricane coach Jimmy Johnson didn't have to go for a two-point conversion after wide receiver Andre Brown made a brilliant catch of an 11-yard TD pass with 45 seconds left in the game to make the score 31-30. Miami could have just accepted a tie, the way Notre Dame did against Michigan State in their famous battle of undefeateds in 1966.

And, you could insist, the Irish upset would not have occurred if Notre Dame defensive tackle Jeff Aim wasn't 6'7" and hadn't batted down one of Hurricane quarterback Steve Walsh's passes and intercepted another just by extending his damn arms. And who knows how bad the Hurricanes might have thrashed Notre Dame if they hadn't made seven turnovers—three interceptions, one of which was returned 60 yards for a TD by free safety Pat Terrell, and four fumbles, two of which were recovered by Irish nosetackle Chris Zorich, the human groundhog.

Yeah, you could argue about a lot of things, particularly the Good versus Bad stuff, but you couldn't change the fact that this was Notre Dame's day. The setting was so gorgeously old-fashioned—sunshine, real grass, primitive end-zone chalkings, Irish players in name-free jerseys and black shoes—that even Touchdown Jesus, the mural on the university library overlooking Notre Dame Stadium, seemed to be raising his arms a little higher in blessing over coach Lou Holtz's boys.

"The afternoon was absolutely perfect," said Notre Dame defensive end Frank Stams (one tackle for a loss, two fumbles caused and one fumble recovery), celebrating in the locker room after the game. "This is what college football is all about."

The Irish scored first on junior quarterback Tony Rice's first-quarter seven-yard option keeper, on which he waltzed into the end zone unscathed. Rice, who's listed at 6'1" and 198 pounds but who looks much smaller, took a pounding on most of his other carries (21 rushes for a net of 20 yards), but he remained upbeat throughout the game. "The glass isn't half empty for Tony," said flanker Ricky Watters afterward. "It's always half full."

In between the beatings, the occasionally scatter-armed Rice even completed eight of 16 passes for a career-high 195 yards. Included in that number was a rainmaking 57-yard, second-quarter bomb to wide receiver Raghib ("Call me Rocket if you can't say Raghib") Ismail, which traveled almost 70 yards in the air. Said the smiling Rice in the locker room, "Never say bad things about a little guy, because the little guy will fool you." Meaning himself.

Miami scored seven minutes after Rice's touchdown on an eight-yard pass from Walsh to Brown. The Irish then went ahead 21-7 on a short scoring pass from Rice to fullback Braxston Banks and Terrell's return of that tipped Walsh pass. Not the swiftest or gainliest of athletes, Walsh nevertheless chased Terrell to the bitter end, diving and cutting his chin in a futile attempt at a tackle near the goal line.

A normal team might have folded at that point. The crowd was wacky, the enemy was fired up, and Miami's quarterback was bleeding; you could almost hear Rockne and the Gipper cackling from on high. But the Hurricanes, who had whipped Notre Dame in the schools' last four meetings by a combined score of 133-20 and who were unbeaten in 36 straight regular-season games, are not a normal team. They are a testy street gang that has transformed itself into the high-wire act of college football—the Miami Pound Machine, a club that can score from anywhere at any time, a traveling bomb squad that four weeks earlier had trailed 30-14 at Michigan with less than six minutes left in the game and won 31-30, using just one timeout. And Walsh, the gunner, is a man who is ultracool under pressure.

In the final minutes of the second quarter Walsh threw a 23-yard TD pass to halfback Leonard Conley. Then he mounted a 54-yard drive in just 48 seconds, capping it with a 15-yard touchdown strike to Gary, whose 11 catches for 130 yards set a Miami single-game reception record for running backs. The teams ran off at halftime tied 21-21, and the general feeling of the stunned Golden Dome fans was Heaven help us, Miami is possessed by the devil.

Earlier in the week Walsh, who would complete 31 of 50 passes for a career-high 424 yards and four touchdowns against the Irish, suggested that the Miami air attack is so sophisticated that nobody can stop it. "If I get the time, there's always somebody open," he said, adding that this is why he has not allowed himself to be sacked this year. "I'd rather throw the ball away than get sacked. An incompletion? Big deal. If it's third-and-eight, third-and-10, we'll get that. We have entire third-and-long scrimmages. We're so used to it, it's nothing."

His three interceptions and two fumbles were his undoing, however, and almost undid any chance that the Hurricanes would win their second consecutive national title. The long-armed Aim quashed one third-quarter Miami drive, and the hard-working Stams twice looped in from Walsh's blind side to jar the ball from his clutches. "He seemed real comfortable back there," said Stams with a shrug, knotting his tie and listening to the wild Irish fans outside the locker room. "He seemed to think he had more time than he did. Yes, I think I'll party tonight."

Long before the game Miami coach Johnson knew that his time of dominating the Irish was coming to a close. People kept harking back to the 1985 game, in which Miami wiped out Notre Dame 58-7, a contest Irish fans said branded Johnson with the mortal sin of running up the score. Whatever the truth of that charge, the rout was a firm shove out the door for departing Irish coach Gerry Faust, a man who, at the time, was almost certainly the worst tactical coach in the country. In his five years at Notre Dame, Faust was so overmatched that he made the faithful tremble in fear over the prospect of facing the likes of Air Force. The fidgety, driven, inspirational Holtz followed Faust and after 2½ years has the Irish back where they belong, in the ozone.

"They say we're fast, but look at these times," said Johnson after Thursday's practice, holding up a Notre Dame football guide to a page listing the players with the fastest times in the 40-yard dash. "They've got four guys under 4.4. The only guy we have under that is Randal Hill."

Johnson flipped through the pages and then said, "Sixteen of their starters were high school All-Americas. Four were honorable mention. They have quarterbacks backing up Rice who were All-World. And we've got guys like Russell Maryland starting, guys who weren't even offered scholarships. Poor old Notre Dame."

Needless to say, the poor, old, ever-feisty Johnson isn't well-liked in South Bend. One T-shirt popular on the Notre Dame campus was emblazoned TOP TEN REASONS TO HATE MIAMI. It listed reason No. 10 as THEY THINK 'LEAVE IT TO BEAVER' IS A METHOD FOR GETTING 'HOMEWORK DONE, and No. 1 as simply JIMMY JOHNSON.

Bear in mind that Notre Dame students, a generally restless, brainy and athletic group of wise guys (and not a few wise gals), rise like fish to meal when it comes to slogan-painting and hero-bashing. They jumped all over the Hurricanes and their lingering reputation as a band of outlaws, CAN YOU READ THIS? MIAMI CAN'T said a banner high up on Flanner Tower. Another hot-selling T-shirt read YOU CAN'T SPELL SCUM WITHOUT U.M. Another: CATHOLICS VS. CONVICTS. There were others as well that crossed the line into bad taste—for instance, one with a drawing of Johnson as the devil above the words JIMMY JOHNSON PORK FACE SATAN.

The hate-Miami atmosphere had become so volatile that Notre Dame administrators declared the pregame days to be Spirit Week, a sort of rah-rah alternative to overt meanness. Holtz wrote an open letter to the student body, published on Oct. 6 in The Observer, the campus newspaper, asking students to behave themselves during game week. The Irish tri-captains, Mark Green, Ned Bolcar and Andy Heck, also wrote a letter to the paper, asking students to support the team "in a positive manner."

But what the heck, it wasn't like the Notre Dame kids were going to steal Miami's gold jewelry or something. They were just getting excited about the fact that Notre Dame, which was ranked No. 5, was going to play a top-ranked team in South Bend for the first time in 20 years. "As far as hatred goes: Hey, God hates things, too," summed up Observer news editor Mark McLaughlin in his column.

In the second half, what Johnson hated was the sight of Irish freshman tight end Derek Brown catching two passes for 46 yards, which helped Notre Dame sustain time-eating drives. A 6'7", 235-pound bruiser who can run like a deer, Brown is from Merritt Island, Fla.—'Cane country—and Johnson had recruited him like crazy, knowing what Brown would be able to do in Miami's offensive system. But Brown visited Notre Dame in the dead of winter and, miracle of miracles, fell under the Irish spell.

"I came here on a gut feeling," he said after the game. "I couldn't believe it, either." And what could he tell the disappointed fans in south Florida? "I'd just like to say, 'Well, I made the right choice.' "

With speedsters like Brown, Rice, Watters, Ismail and running back Tony Brooks, Notre Dame is no longer a lead-footed team. Miami found that out in the third quarter as the Irish pulled ahead 31-21 on a TD and a field goal set up by a couple of big passes from Rice and crafty running by Brooks.

But then it was Miami prime time. Everybody had the same thought: Could this team possibly roar back in the fourth quarter the way it had earlier this year in that game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, or the way it had last year against Florida State, when it had scored three times in just 4:57 to win 26-25? It would take faith. But as Walsh said before the game, "Notre Dame hasn't cornered the market on Catholic football players." Walsh is Catholic, as are the Big Three who preceded him at quarterback, Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde. All Miami's starting offensive linemen, including tight end Rob Chudzinski, are Catholics too.

The southern Catholics came back against the Midwestern Catholics. Miami scored on a field goal and then on the Walsh-to-Brown touchdown pass with 45 seconds left. Everything—or, at least, an Orange Bowl berth and the national championship—may have been hanging on the two-point conversion attempt. Johnson never considered playing for a tie. "We always play to win," he declared solemnly afterward.

But Walsh's floating pass intended for Conley was batted down in the end zone by Terrell, and Notre Dame won its sixth game in row. In the locker room where Bertelli, Lujack and Huarte used to dress, Rice smiled with pure satisfaction. Critics have questioned whether an option-type quarterback—a black kid from the Deep South, for goodness' sake—is suited to lead this hallowed institution on the gridiron. Well, after the Miami game, Rice's suitability is no longer in doubt.

Before the game, in the tunnel under the stadium, a fair-sized dust-up had broken out between Notre Dame and Miami players, and somebody had grabbed Rice's face mask and tried to punch him. "It was number 18," said Rice after the game. That would be Miami backup wide receiver Pee Wee Smith. Gee, has anybody ever been hurt by a guy named Pee Wee?

Rice laughed. It was no big deal. One time during the game he had come to the sideline and wiped off "a big gob of spit on my forehead." That was no big deal, either.

What is a big deal is that Rice now fits in at Notre Dame, both on the field and in the classroom. A former Proposition 48 casualty, Rice is pleased to announce that he got an A-minus and a B on two recent psychology midterms. How has he turned things around?

"They have so many people helping you here—how can you fail?" he replies. "Unless you don't want it. I want it."

Well then, welcome back, Notre Dame.