BLAST OFF!

Notre Dame exploded in time to win another season opener against Michigan
September 23, 1990

By now it should be obvious to all you Michigan fans that when it comes to playing season openers against Notre Dame, it doesn't make any difference if your coach is named Bo, Mo or Joe Blow. The Irish are going to find a way to beat you, and you might just as well accept it. For four straight years now, Notre Dame has dampened the Wolverines' debut. It's sort of spooky, really. Even when Michigan has the better personnel, as may well have been the case last Saturday on a cool and crazy night in South Bend, the Irish will reach down into their mystique bag and pull out exactly what's needed.

This time Notre Dame plucked out a Joe Montana impersonator named Rick Mirer. Just as Montana used to do for the Irish in the 1970s, Mirer, a sophomore making his first start, coolly took Notre Dame on a last-gasp scoring drive that erased the last three points of what had been a 10-point deficit and gave the Irish a 28-24 victory before the usual sellout crowd of 59,075. He completed five of six passes on the drive, including an on-the-money 18-yarder to flanker Adrian Jarrell for the winning TD with 1:40 to play.

Mirer had a ballyhooed high school career in Goshen, Ind., 25 miles up the road, and was pursued by both Notre Dame and Michigan. He picked the Irish after watching kicker Reggie Ho make a field goal to give Notre Dame a 19-17 victory over the Wolverines (Michigan's Mike Gillette barely missed a game-winning kick from 48 yards in the closing seconds) in the 1988 season opener. Then, last year, Mirer was on the Irish bench, understudying Tony Rice, when Notre Dame rode Raghib (the Rocket) Ismail's two touchdown kickoff returns to a 24-19 win over the snakebit Wolverines.

This time, Mirer—with plenty of help from a big-play Irish defense that exploited several Michigan mistakes after the wolverines had taken a 24-14 lead in the third quarter—was the answer to Notre Dame's prayers. "I grew up a fan of Michigan," said Mirer, unintentionally rubbing it in during the postgame celebration, "and it was sweet to get my first victory against them."

The latest improbable comeback enabled the Irish to cling to the No. 1 ranking they inherited by virtue of Miami's upset loss to Brigham Young a week earlier. It also ruined the debut of Michigan's head coach Gary (Mo) Moeller, a longtime assistant to the legendary Bo Schembechler, who retired last January and handpicked Moeller as his successor. Mo quickly showed, though, that he's no Bo clone by trying to surprise Notre Dame with a no-huddle offense that called for a liberal amount of passing by quarterback Elvis Grbac. But when the Wolverines had a chance to salt away the victory in the fourth quarter, Grbac disappeared, and Moeller made a couple of play calls that even he admitted were questionable.

"Honestly, when we came in here, we felt we were going to win this game," said a glum Moeller afterward. "It hurts. There's a lot of seniors and veteran players in that locker room who are hurting."

No wonder. The Wolverines have been thinking about Notre Dame ever since the Rose Bowl, which they lost to Southern Cal in Schembechler's final game, thus ending a 21-year career at Michigan, where he had a 194-48-5 record. When Schembechler tapped Moeller, everybody in Wolverine country felt he was just the man to extend Michigan's string of outright Big Ten titles to an unprecedented three, or even get that national title that Schembechler couldn't seem to win. Never mind that Moeller had been 6-24-3 during a three-year stint as coach of Illinois in the late 1970s.

Bo left Mo what may be the best offensive line and defensive secondary in the country. As a symbol of their faith in the new man and of their chagrin at being characterized as "fat and slow" after last year's loss to Notre Dame, Michigan offensive tackles Greg Skrepenak and Tom Dohring shed a total of 52 pounds, Skrepenak going from 360 to 322, Dohring from 290 to 276.

The Wolverines also seemed to like the idea that under Mo their offense would be more flexible than it was under Bo. Or, as senior fullback Jarrod Bunch said earlier last week, "In the past, we were going to run and everybody knew it. We just dared them to stop us. There was no mystery. Now we'll take what they give us."

In the weeks before the game, while Mo grew weary of being asked to compare himself with Bo, Notre Dame's Lou Holtz was also feeling some heat, albeit of a different sort. Much of his time and energy was spent making denials. He denied former Irish lineman Steve Huffman's charges in SI that Holtz had turned his head to anabolic steroid usage by Irish players. He denied allegations from a former academic adviser at Minnesota, Le-Roy Gardner, that he once gave Gardner $500 for a player while he was the head coach there, as well as allegations from another former Minnesota player who claimed to have received $500 from Holtz's secretary during the coach's tenure at the school. And Holtz denied reports that he had sought the Atlanta Falcons' coaching vacancy last winter.

Holtz fretted that all the controversy swirling around him would hurt a Notre Dame team that had untested players at quarterback, on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary. Of course, on the positive side, the Irish would again have the services of All-America linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, defensive tackle George Williams and tailback Tony Brooks, all of whom missed last season—Stonebreaker for disciplinary reasons, Williams because of academic deficiencies, Brooks for both.

By the eve of the Michigan game, however, Holtz seemed to have shed his misgivings about his team. Speaking to a crowd of 6,000 at a rally in the Joyce Center, Holtz introduced his defensive starters by saying, "This is as fine a defense at this stage of the game that we've had since I've been at Notre Dame." Then, after introducing his offensive regulars, he said, "We've never had a bad offense at Notre Dame, and we won't have one this year."

This was mostly interpreted as an expression of faith in Mirer and his linemen, whose ability to weather Michigan's defensive pressure would be crucial. If Mirer seemed unusually cool about stepping into what may be the most glamorous position in college football, it was at least partly because he got a jolt of perspective from the fact that his older brother, PFC Jeff Mirer, 21, is an Army paratrooper currently on duty in Saudi Arabia. So far the Mirers—Ken and Karen Mirer also have a daughter, Julie, 16—have gotten only two letters from Jeff since he departed for the gulf on Aug. 13. Jeff still is not able to receive telephone calls. "You learn not to make a football game bigger than life," Ken said.

Unlike Rice, who threw only twice against Michigan last year while carrying the ball on 18 occasions, Mirer has such a strong arm that he runs only when necessary, which on Saturday was just eight times, not including two plays on which he was sacked. His passing totals were 14 for 23 for 165 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Mirer gives Notre Dame a new look, one that in time could be even more explosive than the Rice-led attack, especially if Mirer is able to get the ball to Ismail or one of his other fine receivers in the open field. Said Moeller admiringly, "Mirer's accuracy is going to get only better, and he's going to be a good quarterback, no question."

The same might have been said for Grbac, who filled in admirably for Michigan last year—4-0 in four starts—when senior starter Michael Taylor went down with an injury on the opening series of the second half against the Irish. Like Mirer, Grbac is a drop-back passer with a good arm. He got off to a bad start this time against Notre Dame when he had what Moeller called a "miscommunication" with tailback Jon Vaughn, leading to a lost fumble at the Wolverine 26-yard line that the Irish quickly converted into a 7-0 lead, the touchdown coming on a two-yard option keeper by Mirer, who rolled right and pranced into the end zone.

Before the end of the opening period, the Irish had another touchdown and a 14-3 lead, which is how it stood until late in the first half when Michigan recovered a fumble by tailback Ricky Watters and then shocked Notre Dame with a 44-yard touchdown pass from Grbac to flanker Desmond Howard. All at once, the Wolverines were rolling; they seemed able to move at will by mixing Grbac's passing with slashing, against-the-grain runs by Vaughn, who would end up with 201 yards rushing. "We had no clue he was that good," said Notre Dame nosetackle Chris Zorich. "He was fast, elusive. He almost looked invisible." The Irish, meanwhile, were suddenly sputtering against the veteran Michigan defense.

Early in the second half, it looked as if the Wolverines might take command. Leading 17-14, they recovered a Notre Dame fumble by Brooks, and Grbac immediately hit Howard in the fiat for a 25-yard touchdown. The score culminated a 16-second, two-touchdown explosion by Michigan and left Notre Dame Stadium so quiet you could almost hear the wheels spinning in Holtz's cranium.

On the other side of the field, though, the Wolverines' celebration was subdued. Moeller said he "couldn't feel good" about the 10-point lead. "Maybe if there were two minutes left...."

"I just wanted to keep pounding them," said Vaughn. "I knew they weren't out of the game."

Indeed, Michigan never gained control, in part because of a decision Moeller made late in the quarter when the Wolverines found themselves fourth-and-one at the Irish 19. Instead of going for a virtually certain first down behind Michigan's huge line, he elected to have J.D. Carlson try a 36-yard field goal, which sailed wide left. "I just figured I've got to come away with some points," Moeller said afterward. "Sure, I'd like to go for it now."

Still, the night might never have turned in Notre Dame's favor but for a twist of Irish fate. Faced with a third-and-15 at his own 15, Mirer dropped back and, under pressure, tried to reach Ismail 33 yards downfield, only to have the ball bounce off Ismail's fingertips, over the head of cornerback Lance Dot-tin, and into the hands of Notre Dame's Lake Dawson, who rambled for a 45-yard gain before a stunned Wolverine defense caught him at the Michigan 40. "A freak accident," said Dottin. And, for the Irish, a much-needed catalyst. Suddenly the crowd was back into it, almost visibly lifting the Notre Dame offense, which finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge two minutes into the final period. The Wolverine lead was cut to three, 24-21. "I thought we were in complete control," Michigan All-America safety Tripp Welborne said later. "Oh, the luck of the Irish. It just wasn't meant to be."

Instead of ditching his no-huddle attack to slow the pace and eat up some time, Moeller stuck with his game plan. "It seemed like it was working," Moeller said. It was, until Stonebreaker intercepted a Grbac pass in the end zone to squash the Wolverines's next drive. "I read man-to-man," said Grbac. "It was a bad read."

Finally, Notre Dame got the ball on its own 24 with 4:33 remaining. Nearly everybody in the stadium sensed that the Irish were again about to do Michigan in. Nine plays and nearly three minutes later, the clincher came on a Mirer-to-Jarrell pass from a formation known as "Rip" in the Notre Dame playbook. "He [Jarrell] is supposed to run to the corner of the end zone and find a hole," Mirer said. "It's simple."

Michigan's last real hope went down the tubes when, on the first play from scrimmage after the kickoff, Grbac threw his second interception, hitting Notre Dame corner-back Reggie Brooks, Tony's younger brother, right on the numbers. "Anyone who says there isn't a mystique here just needs to look at that play," Reggie said.

"I'm not sure how we won the football game," said Holtz, still stunned minutes after the final horn, "except for the competitiveness of our players, the luck of the Irish and the lady on the Dome."

That about summed it up. The loss put the Wolverines in the familiar position of attempting to keep their all-too-faint hopes for a national championship alive by going unbeaten for the rest of the season, which they could conceivably do, while hoping that Notre Dame, Auburn, Brigham Young, Florida State, Nebraska and several other title contenders stumble along the way. The Irish, for one, are likely to fall at least once, given that they face a schedule that features Michigan State, Miami, Tennessee and Southern Cal.

Afterward, as befits the latest Notre Dame star quarterback, Mirer did a nice aw-shucks routine for the horde of media assembled in South Bend. "I didn't intend to be the hero," he said. "It's my job to be a leader, and I'm just glad that the guys who have been through it all responded so well. I'm glad it started this way, and I hope there will be many more."

O.K., Rick, but please excuse the folks in Michigan for not wanting to think about next year's opener against the Irish, set for Sept. 14 in Ann Arbor. We all know who's going to win, don't we, Wolverine fans? The only question is just what kind of Mirer-cle the Irish can cook up between now and then.

PHOTODAMIAN STROMEYERIsmail rocketed for 123 yards—56 rushing, 42 receiving and 25 on a kickoff return. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWith a no-huddle offense, Mo proved he was no Bo, but a couple of his calls were costly. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERVaughn rushed for 201 yards behind Michigan's huge line. He also caught six passes. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERTony Brooks's two-yard TD flight gave the Irish a short-lived 14-3 first-quarter lead. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERMirer emerged as the latest in the long line of Irish star quarterbacks. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERStonebreaker's end-zone interception cut off a late Michigan drive.
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)