Still a bit wild-eyed after Notre Dame's 21-6 Orange Bowl win over Colorado, Irish guard Tim Grunhard held his sodden, malodorous jersey under a reporters nose. "Look at this!" he commanded. "This is what this game's all about!" The shirt's top few layers of grime, perspiration and blood had been accumulated on the Irish's final drive of the season, a torturous exercise that bled 8:55 off the game clock and cruelly snuffed out the previously unbeaten Buffaloes' national title hopes.
If this sounds familiar, perhaps it's because on Nov. 25, on this same turf, Miami had subjected the Irish, then undefeated themselves, to just such a drive. That 11-minute marathon had sealed a 27-10 Miami win and—as things turned out Monday night—prevented Notre Dame from repeating as national champions. "Those drives will kill you," said Grunhard's linemate and roomie, tackle Dean Brown. "I'm just glad that this time, we were the drivers."
It was quite a switch from the game's first 30 minutes, when the Irish had difficulty sustaining much offense. More significant, their bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy was carried to absurd lengths. Bolting through gaping holes, Buffalo backs roamed the entire field—until they came within reach of the Notre Dame end zone. "We were expecting them to run more options," said Irish defensive tackle Troy Ridgley. Instead, the Buffs attacked Notre Dame's strength, its interior line, with tailbacks Eric Bieniemy and J. J. Flannigan gaining yardage right up the gut. Still, after three first-half trips inside the Irish 20-yard line, the Buffs had no points, and the half ended scoreless.
Never one to exaggerate the importance of football, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz told his charges in the locker room, "How you respond to the challenge in the second half will determine what you become after the game, whether you are a winner or a loser, for the rest of your life." His offense responded by scoring on the next two possessions. "I guess that means we're going to be winners," said Grunhard. "Maybe there's a future U.S. president in this room."
January 8, 1990
For his part, assistant coach Barry Alvarez, who will now leave Notre Dame to become head coach at Wisconsin, hastily reinstalled a defense the Irish had not used since the Michigan game back on Sept. 16. Instead of playing straight up on Colorado's offensive linemen, Irish defenders slanted and stunted. As a result, Colorado was held to 96 yards in the second half—compared to 186 in the first—with 39 of those coming on a serpentine scramble by sophomore quarterback Darian Hagan for the Buffaloes' only score.
The Notre Damers were impressed by the fleet Hagan. "I was shocked at how tough he was," marveled defensive tackle Jeff Aim. "I know I got one good lick on him, and he bounced right up."
The performance of the Irish's chief offensive threat, sophomore tailback-flanker Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, caught no one by surprise, though earlier in the week there was doubt that he would play at all. Ismail had suffered a slight separation of his left shoulder against Miami, and Notre Dame officials at first listed him as improbable for the game, then possible, before finally upgrading his status to probable last Thursday.
"The holy water must have taken effect," said Fighting Irish publicist John Heisler. He was kidding, although the numbers Ismail amassed—108 yards on 16 carries—suggest otherwise. Thanks mainly to his thrilling 35-yard, third-quarter touchdown on a reverse, Ismail was named the Irish MVP, though Holtz said he would have awarded it to his quarterback, Tony Rice, who threw for 99 yards. That may sound paltry, but 58 of them came during the first two Irish scoring drives. With Colorado's defensive backs constantly on their heels—they admitted before the game they were frightened to death of Ismail—Rice took the short and intermediate passes.
Did it rankle Rocket that, despite his efforts, the Irish would not be No. 1? "Not really," he said. "I'm just glad to be at Notre Dame." As for the Irish, the feeling is mutual.