Say what you will about Miami's sack dances, touchdown shimmies and interception bumps and grinds—you really couldn't fault the Hurricanes for strutting last Saturday night. It was payback time in college football's nastiest, most sublime rivalry, and when it was over, the Hurricanes had ended Notre Dame's winning streak at 23 games while putting themselves back into contention for the national championship (page 75) a month after their only loss of the season, to Florida State. Miami all but shut down the Irish's vaunted option attack—as well as quarterback Tony Rice's Heisman Trophy dreams—in the 27-10 victory, and most of the Hurricanes stayed on the Orange Bowl field, basking in the crowd's adulation and savoring this delicious twist of fortune.
Last year Miami went to South Bend ranked No. 1 and left with a 31-30 defeat. It was their only loss of the season, and it deprived the Hurricanes of a second straight national championship. Notre Dame claimed the title by sweeping its regular-season opponents and easily defeating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Last Saturday, in the humid night air, the Hurricanes got to spoil Notre Dame's hopes of winning back-to-back titles. "This one is sweet," said Miami safety Hurlie Brown. "We waited so long for revenge."
On the game's very first play, Rice gained 12 yards up the middle, but that would be his longest run of the evening. Even so, the Irish were not broken until the Hurricanes received the second-half kickoff with a 17-10 lead and began the Drive, a remarkable 11-minute odyssey, to their third touchdown. The Drive lasted 22 plays, but should have stalled after eight. Following a Miami penalty, the Hurricanes had a first-and-25 on their own 26-yard line when Irish defensive end Eric Jones dropped quarterback Craig Erickson for a 12-yard loss and stripped him of the ball in the process. Coming from the other side, defensive end Devon McDonald swooped down on the fumble. Instead of falling on the ball on the 10-yard line, though, McDonald tried to pick it up and run in for the score. He didn't get a handle on the ball, and Miami center Bobby Garcia made the recovery.
"I messed up. I didn't do my job," said McDonald afterward. Upon being told that fumbles cannot be advanced in college football, McDonald said, "Is that right?"
December 4, 1989
That mistake evolved into disaster two plays later, with Miami facing third-and-44 on its own seven-yard line. Erickson called "80 double zone" in the huddle. Randal (Thrill) Hill lined up wide right and streaked up the sideline. Inexplicably, Notre Dame had only four defensive backs in the game, and cornerback Stan Smagala allowed Hill to get behind him. Erickson's pass settled into Hill's hands at the Notre Dame 49, giving the Hurricanes a first down.
Twelve plays after Hill's 44-yard catch, Erickson connected on a five-yard pass with wideout Dale Dawkins, who was open in the end zone. "In the huddle on the play before, I told him [Erickson] they were covering me one-on-one, so look for me," said Dawkins after the game.
"You told me? I told you" said Erickson, who was eavesdropping three lockers away. "I have to tell this guy what coverages they're in, what formation we're in, the snap count. Don't listen to him."
They were jesting, of course. Erickson was still a bit delirious with happiness. And why not? He had engineered a huge win without self-destructing, as so many people had expected him to do. All season Hurricane watchers have been saying it: Erickson has the footwork and the arm to be a worthy heir to Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and last season's starter, Steve Walsh. Erickson had one flaw, though: a proclivity for throwing interceptions.
The week before, in what was hardly a promising tune-up for the Irish, he had thrown his eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th interceptions of the season in a 42-6 victory over San Diego State. What's more, his season had consisted of only six games. Erickson had suffered a broken knuckle on his throwing hand against Michigan State on Sept. 30, forcing him to miss four starts, including the loss to Florida State, and the injury still affects him. "Every once in a while one gets away because of it," he says.
The larger challenge for Erickson has been learning Miami's offense. As a backup for two seasons, he absorbed coach Jimmy Johnson's system. When he finally got a chance to start, Johnson bolted for the Dallas Cowboys, and Erickson had to adjust to the scheme of new coach Dennis Erickson (no relation). It features some of the deeper patterns from Johnson's days but is primarily designed to take smaller bites out of the field with quick outs and hitch passes. The offense is not as glamorous a showcase for a quarterback as the previous Miami attack was. Craig Erickson runs into trouble—he throws interceptions—when he tries to make it one.
But he came of age Saturday night. His first scoring pass, a 55-yarder to Dawkins at the end of the first quarter that made the score 10-0, came in the face of a heavy blitz. His second one finished the Drive, during which he completed six of eight passes, masterfully blending long and short stuff. And he was intercepted only once.
Before the Drive, the Irish had been outgained by just five yards, 133 to 128. But the Drive quelled Notre Dame's spirit. "I'd say, 'O.K., we've got to stop them on this play,' and they'd get another first down," said Smagala afterward. "It happened over and over, and each time it happened, it would take a little something out of you."
Yet surprisingly few tears could be found in the Notre Dame locker room Saturday night. Perhaps the Irish drew comfort from knowing that if they beat Colorado in the Orange Bowl game and got some help in other bowls, they might still retain their national championship. More likely, they recognized that against a team like Miami, winning becomes only a remote possibility when your most effective offensive weapon is a linebacker—senior Ned Bolcar scored the Irish's only touchdown on a 49-yard interception—and your passing attack makes Oklahoma's look state-of-the-art.
Throughout his team's winning streak, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz got a lot of mileage out of his "grenade" joke. "If the ball had been a hand grenade on some of our passes, none of our receivers would have been injured," he would quip after wins in which the Irish had not thrown impressively—which was weekly. Before taking on the Hurricanes, Notre Dame could afford to laugh: With its devastating ground attack, who needed to throw?
It was that lightning-quick option, which Rice had executed so flawlessly, that Miami bottled up. Unable to turn the corner against the even quicker Hurricanes, the Irish fell behind and reluctantly resorted to their passing game. "They've been forcing the ball down people's throats all year," said safety Brown. "They haven't had to throw, so they didn't have any practice at it."
"We knew they'd eventually have to start passing to catch up," said safety Charles Pharms. "So we just stayed way back and let our front seven take care of the run. They were like Oklahoma. They look great until they get behind."
For all intents and purposes, the Irish aerial attack could have consisted of a single spoken instruction in the huddle from Rice to flanker Raghib (Rocket) Ismail: "Rocket, you go deep, and I'll throw the ball as far as I can." Often, because the other receivers were needed at the line of scrimmage to neutralize Miami's blitzes, Ismail, who was held to one catch for 19 yards, was Rice's sole target, and Rocket drew double and triple coverage. "We should have called more play-action passes," said Holtz afterward. "I don't know why I didn't get to those."
The Irish were equally ineffective when they got into scoring territory. Twice they found themselves inside Miami's 10-yard line. For those efforts, they received three measly points, and that field goal turned out to be a gift. Early in the second quarter fullback Anthony Johnson appeared to fumble on the Hurricane one-yard line. The ball was recovered by Miami, but the officials ruled that Johnson's knee was down before the ball came loose. Replays showed that decision to be in error. "We've got to cash in when we get that close," said Holtz. "That's like getting paid but losing the money."
Last year's game was fraught with overtones of good versus evil—a notion propagated largely by followers of the Irish, who played on Miami's outlaw reputation. A favorite T-shirt in South Bend read CATHOLICS VS. CONVICTS, but the comparison didn't hold much water then—the teams rumbled in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms before the '88 game—and was even less appropriate this season. Though the Hurricanes still jive and jaw ("We're trying to cut back, but it's hard to just stop," says Pharms), they have, for the most part, been well behaved, while Irish players have been fingered in a number of well-publicized incidents, on and off the field.
At Miami, meanwhile, athletic officials have asked players to tone down the pregame woofing that had branded the Hurricanes as troublemakers. Some progress appears to have been made. "Oh no, I wouldn't say we hate them, not at all," said senior defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy before the game. "We're just glad for the opportunity to play Notre Dame."
"We can't go around resenting people," added fellow defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who's a junior. "That will only take away from our performance."
Notre Dame tailback Ricky Watters did his part to bolster the uneasy truce. "The fight will be in the way we hit them on the field," he said. "Besides, I talked to some of them after last year's game. Some of those guys are pretty cool."
Amid all this goodwill, the week's most memorable quip was not emblazoned on a T-shirt or spouted by an athlete. It came rather out of an impromptu theological debate between Holtz and Miami's chaplain. Father Leo Armbrust. In his invocation at a booster luncheon on Friday, Armbrust assured his listeners that the Almighty was impartial. When Holtz got up to speak, he agreed with Father Leo. "I don't think God cares who wins tomorrow, either," said Holtz. "But His mother does."
However, divine intervention isn't what stalled Notre Dame's rushing attack, which was chewing up 301 yards per game, although at practice on Thanksgiving morning, Erickson wasn't certain that his team would be up to the task. "I don't know how we'll do against their option," he said. "We haven't played any option teams, and our scout team can't really simulate the way Rice runs the option."
Quickness turned out to be the antidote. Kennedy and Maryland stunted, looped and bulled their way into the Irish backfield all evening. As a result, fullback Johnson, who is the first man Rice can hand the ball to on the option, was held to 26 yards on nine carries. Kennedy and Maryland are close friends with similar stories. Both came out of high school overweight and underappreciated.
Maryland, who's from Chicago, weighed 321 as a senior and was offered one scholarship—to Indiana State—before Miami decided to take a chance on him. "I had to lose some of the weight I'd accumulated during my younger years," he says. Having done that, he won a starting job as a sophomore, and had eight sacks that year. At 6'2", he now weighs in at 265 and is so virtuous his teammates call him the Conscience.
When Kennedy arrived at Miami two years ago from Northwest Mississippi Junior College, he was loaded with potential, as well as adipose tissue, carrying nearly 315 pounds on his 6'3" frame. Maryland took him under his wing. "I had come into the program under very similar circumstances," says Maryland. "I felt obligated to help."
Every morning last summer they would spend 20 minutes running up the hill at Tropical Park, a few miles from campus. Then they would run 110-meter sprints on the university's track. At 2 p.m. they would join the team for informal workouts. Kennedy got down to 290 and last August beat out Jimmie Jones for the starting job.
Notre Dame was confounded by the Hurricanes' front four, whose two other members were ends Greg Mark, an All-America, and Willis Peguese. Said guard Tim Ryan, "They destroyed our blocking scheme. They whipped our butts."
Miami's front four also kept the Irish linemen off the Hurricanes' linebackers. Therefore, said Notre Dame offensive tackle Dean Brown, those linebackers were "free to roam and make plays." In particular, they took away Rice's second option, the quarterback keeper. He rushed 20 times for a mere 50 yards.
If Rice sees one person in his sleep for the next few weeks, it will be senior middle linebacker Bernard Clark, who made 13 tackles and was in Rice's face all night. Clark's biggest play came in the waning moments of the first half, six plays after Bolcar's TD had evened the score at 10-10. Clark stepped in front of Notre Dame tight end Derek Brown, picked off a Rice pass and returned it 50 yards. The interception set up Miami's second touchdown, a five-yard burst up the middle by Steve McGuire.
Yet Clark was disappointed in himself after the game. "I got caught from behind [by Derek Brown]," he said shaking his head. "That's not good. I'll never live that down."
"If you were in any kind of shape at all, that would've been six!" said tackle Mike Sullivan jokingly.
Clark responded with a friendly obscenity. "See what I mean?" he said.
Then Sullivan planted a kiss on Clark's cheek.
As he surveyed these kinder, gentler Hurricanes, coach Erickson injected a note of defiance into the postgame gaiety. "Coming into this game, I don't think anyone gave us much credit," he said. "Well, the transition is over." And the battle for No. 1 has just begun.
"I'd say, 'We've got to stop them on this play,' and they'd get another first down."