It began as a mantra, a couple of catchy iambic feet the Stanford players could repeat to themselves to keep the butterflies at bay. "Let's shock the world," the unranked, thrice-defeated visitors implored one another Saturday in the dressing room at Notre Dame Stadium. It ended as the theme of the most stunning upset of the college football season, for the Cardinal did just that—plundering Notre Dame's secondary, exploiting its Keystone Kops punt-return team, then finally hanging on for dear life to upend the previously undefeated and top-ranked Irish 36-31.
Of course, bellowing a wishful slogan into your teammates' ears is one thing. Turning slogan into reality, especially in South Bend, where the Irish had not lost in 19 games—had not lost while ranked No. 1 since 1954—is an altogether different story. But a different story was precisely what Stanford was due. Two of the Cardinal's three defeats this season—to Colorado and UCLA—came in the final 12 seconds. Notre Dame, meanwhile, had twice cheated the hangman, stealing last-minute wins from Michigan and Michigan State, before sailing gratefully—or so Notre Dame may have thought—into the safe harbor of its schedule: Purdue, Stanford and Air Force.
Was someone—or Someone—looking out for the Irish? Reflecting on his team's two narrow escapes, Irish coach Lou Holtz told the Notre Dame sports magazine, Blue & Gold Illustrated, "I believe there's a spiritual feeling at this school...a spiritual feeling of peace. I think this school's very lucky, and I think good things happen to this school and the people who attend it."
Alas, the luck of the Irish proved to be susceptible to late scratches and strong winds. In midweek, Raghib (the Rocket) Ismail aggravated a thigh injury suffered on Sept. 22 against Michigan State. Before the game he had regretfully informed Holtz that the injury would prevent him from returning punts or kickoffs. The Rocket's absence was compounded by winds up to 25 mph that turned every punt return into a high adventure. Returner Ricky Watters fumbled two punts, and his sidekick, Adrian Jarrell, dropped another. The Cardinal recovered all three and cashed in two of them for 14 points. Then, with that same wind at his back, Irish quarterback Rick Mirer lofted a last-chance pass that landed just beyond the long-but-not-long-enough arms of tight end Derek Brown.
October 14, 1990
Afterward Cardinal coach Dennis Green declared that the win was not "all that surprising." Stanford, after all, prides itself on its reputation as a giant slayer (it beat Ohio State and Michigan in successive Rose Bowls in 1971 and '72 and No. 1 Washington in '82). All week the Cardinal had the notion that Notre Dame was ripe for a fall. The coaches showed the video of last season's 24-17 loss to the Irish, in which, as offensive coordinator Ron Turner put it, "We lost by a touchdown without even playing that well." Senior cornerback Kevin Scott, who often shares the field with eight sophomores, delivered a pregame message, the gist of which was borrowed from Public Enemy's Don't Believe the Hype. "We came here two years ago [a 42-14 loss] and were in awe of everything—the image, the crowd, the closeness of the stands," says Scott. "This time I just told the guys, 'Don't be awed, just take 'em on.' "
The Irish certainly looked awe-inspiring 24 minutes into the game. They had just blocked a punt and scored to make it 24-7. "I thought, uh-oh, here it goes, the rout is on," recalls Turner. "But our kids wouldn't let it happen."
The Cardinal defense sealed the leaks, giving up one more score the rest of the way, and redshirt junior quarterback Jason Palumbis began hammering at the weak link in this Notre Dame team—its secondary. Playing a two-deep zone and giving up the short pass, the Irish would yield 256 passing yards by the time the clock ran out. "We can't become a good football team if we play defense like that," groused Holtz. "And I know one thing. We'll be working on punts next week." More specifically, punt returns.
The three bungled punts notwithstanding, Stanford wrested this game from the Irish more than the Irish gave it away. With the score 24-13 in the second quarter, Green demonstrated admirable brio by electing to go for a two-point conversion. That decision paid off, and the Cardinal trailed 24-15 at halftime. Asked why he did not try a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half, with the ball on Stanford's 45-yard line, Green explained that he had not wanted to appear "desperate." Then he added, "We came here to control a game, not to take foolish risks. At no time did we think we were out of it."
It didn't hurt that Palumbis was about to turn in the best half of his career. If, as he completed 15 of his 17 second-half passes, Palumbis reminded many of the Irish faithful of the young Joe Montana, there's good reason. Green was the San Francisco 49ers' receivers coach from 1986 to '88, and he incorporated much of what he learned on that job into the Cardinal air attack, which is designed to chip away at the defense with short- and intermediate-range passes.
Palumbis missed last season because of a debilitating condition in his right, or throwing, shoulder. After an operation to clean out calcium deposits in his shoulder, Palumbis won back his old job in spring practice. One problem remained: At 235 pounds, Palumbis struck the coaches as a trifle hefty. So he dropped 20 pounds to improve his mobility.
That mobility came in handy with 3:27 left to play on Saturday. On fourth and two on the Notre Dame 38-yard line, he dropped back, found nobody open and squirmed—barely—for a first down. Five plays later Tommy (Touchdown) Vardell, the Cardinal's 232-pound designated plunger, capped the winning drive with his customary one-yard thrust off left tackle—his fourth one-yard touchdown of the day.
Talk about role reversal. Notre Dame is usually the team that announces to its opponent, "Here we come, now try and stop us." Yet here was Vardell scoring four times through the same hole—one opened by left guard Brian Cassidy and left tackle Bob Whitfield. To Vardell, it didn't seem that remarkable. "When play started," he said, "we realized they were only 19- and 20-year-old kids, like us."
So the Irish were left with 36 seconds to salvage their undefeated season. They fell a mere manicure short. With :06 left, Mirer took the snap at Stanford's 23-yard line, dropped back and threw a rainbow to Brown—who, with four catches in his team's four games, is the most underutilized major talent in college football. Brown made a slight, awkward adjustment and watched in dismay as the ball grazed his fingernails and fell to the turf.
The excitement of it all was too much for Stanford cornerback Albert Richardson. As that last pass hit the ground, so did he, and for a few scary moments, he lay in the end zone, semiconscious. "I thought we were going to lose again," he said later, sheepishly. "I yelled so much that when he missed it, I kind of fainted."
The shock had been that great.