What will be missed the most: those incorrigible Catholics vs. Convicts T-shirts, the angry confrontations between Notre Dame and Miami, or the wrenching drama those two teams produced on the field? A modern football classic ended on a picturesque autumn afternoon last Saturday when Lou Holtz put the argument back in the Fighting Irish and they knocked the Hurricanes out of the national championship race 29-20. The game was a marvelous conclusion to the series—and what a shame that it was over.
And what about those T-shirts? Banned from sale on the campus but seen everywhere, they included the latest variation on the old Catholics-vs.-Convicts theme, a shirt proclaiming the game CATHOLICS VS. CONVICTS III: THE FINAL WAR—TAKE NO PRISONERS. Or how about: HEY MIAMI, BO KNOWS YOUR MOTHER. (Irish students also lampooned themselves: SEX KILLS—COME TO NOTRE DAME AND LIVE FOREVER.) The enmity between the two teams was one reason Notre Dame decided not to renew a 23-game rivalry that dated back to 1955 and had all but determined the national title over the last three years. Still, last week's finale was played out cleanly and honorably on the field as 59,075 fans in Notre Dame Stadium were roused to a constant deep-bass roar by seven turnovers, three lead changes and Raghib (Rocket) Ismail's 94-yard kickoff return for the Irish's only touchdown of the first half, which ended with Notre Dame trailing 17-16.
For decisive points, the Irish relied on Craig Hentrich's school-record five field goals and Rick Mirer's 21-yard scoring pass to fullback Rodney Culver with 6:16 left, on a play called "300 fullback dump," which Holtz had drawn up at the breakfast table only that morning. Meanwhile, Notre Dame summoned an effective defense for the first time all season, one that forced four decisive turnovers from Miami's eloquent offense—the most important ones being a Craig Erickson pass that was intercepted by cornerback Todd Lyght at the Irish eight-yard line with 9:19 left in the game, and a fumble by fullback Leonard Conley, stripped by safety Greg Davis at the Irish five with 4:44 remaining. With that, the Hurricanes' hearts fell to the grass, and the Irish ran out the clock.
Rarely have Miami's fourth-quarter drives ended so desperately and wretchedly. The figure of Conley, lying facedown for a long moment after Notre Dame linebacker Mike Stonebreaker recovered the fumble at the two, seemed to sum up what had been lost. The last word in the most significant rivalry of the '80s belonged to the 5-1 Irish. As Mirer said, "We can talk about this game forever, now." Moreover, the Hurricanes abandoned any hope of a second straight national championship, which until Saturday had been well within their grasp. Miami knew that if it could beat the Irish, all it would have to do to ensure another title run and a major bowl appearance was to "blow the footballs up," as Holtz had put it.
Instead, the Hurricanes are confronting their first regular season with at least two losses since 1984, when they were 8-4 under first-year coach Jimmy Johnson. No team with two losses has ever won the national title. "It's tough," said Hurricane quarterback Erickson. "Our guys haven't been in this position." After contemplating a way to redirect their ambition, Miami coach Dennis Erickson said, "We've got to sit down and talk."
And yet the conclusion of the series was almost anticlimactic, a game devoid of the spitting, tunnel fights, mouthing off, stare-downs and incessant bickering that had so colored much of the rivalry in recent years. It was simply "big on big," as Stonebreaker called it. Notre Dame cited its tradition of rotating national opponents—Florida State will be added to the Irish schedule in 1993—as the chief reason for not renewing a series that was mediocre until the mid-1980s. But recent animosity was also a factor. In 1988 Notre Dame got into a pregame shoving match with Miami at South Bend and went on to a 31-30 victory that was instrumental in earning the Irish the national championship. Last year the Hurricanes declared their intentions in the Orange Bowl by advancing across the field before the coin toss. The Irish, ordered by Holtz to avoid any altercations, retreated to their sideline and went on to a 27-10 loss. The Hurricanes went on to the title.
"It's that the game carried such magnitude that makes it seem a little awkward," Holtz said of the end of the series. He also admitted he wouldn't miss the controversy surrounding the rivalry, nor would he miss the Catholics vs. Convicts shirts. "I deplore them," said Holtz. "For all I know, they come from Miami. I assure you Notre Dame has absolutely nothing to do with them, nor do the students, at least that we know of."
In fact, Notre Dame seniors Alan L. Sorce and Victor J. Bierman III are responsible for the latest version of the T-shirt. The enterprising business majors say they have been selling briskly since August. Sorce and Bierman had grossed an estimated $120,000 by the end of the weekend. "Notre Dame can't like this shirt," Sorce said.
The tensions between the two schools caused Holtz to place a phone call to Dennis Erickson early in the week and suggest that the two coaches organize the comings and goings of both teams on the field. As a result, pregame rituals were meticulously choreographed to keep the players apart. The only controversy was the end of the series itself. It was clear that Miami felt it had been spurned. "It's a travesty that we're not playing anymore," said Dennis Erickson.
So there will be no more arguments about which team has the rudest fans or more irreverent student body—unless, of course, they meet again someday in a bowl game. The Hurricanes invariably suffered by comparison to the supposedly pure-at-heart Irish. "I'll always be the guy trying to burn down the town," said Miami offensive tackle Mike Sullivan. But on the field the rivalry represented something simpler, an annual collision between two gloriously talented and hugely arrogant teams. This was a players' game.
The final minutes of last Saturday's game reaffirmed that notion. They also underlined the fact that Notre Dame Stadium is the spookiest arena in the country, a place filled with ill luck and crowd noise so disconcerting it can create major foul-ups—such as the audible that Miami flanker Lamar Thomas didn't hear, a slip that caused Thomas and wideout Randal Hill to break their patterns on third-and-seven at the Irish 33, and led Erickson to loft the ball directly into Lyght's hands at the Irish eight.
Notre Dame took over after Lyght's interception, leading 22-20, and did what it had failed to do all game long: score a touchdown on a Miami defense ranked No. 2 in the country against the rush. The Irish were fired by Ismail, who gained 50 yards on three carries during the 77-yard drive, 28 on a key reverse from tailback Tony Brooks.
Just as significant was Ismail's 94-yard scoring return with 1:30 to go in the first quarter. Ismail slipped, looked up, "and I saw a small tunnel," he said. "I just went with it." Ismail headed straight upfield, then outside to the left, and streaked up Miami's sideline with not a single Hurricane laying a hand on him.
That play, and his career-high 268 all-purpose yards, kept the Irish in the game because their offense otherwise floundered: Culver fumbled on the first play of the game, Mirer threw only his second interception of the season on their third possession, and tailback Ricky Watters spoiled a potential scoring drive when he fumbled at the Miami 20 with little more than a minute to go in the first half. If it wasn't turnovers bedeviling the Irish, it was penalties—Notre Dame had six of them for 51 yards, all in the second half.
With every stalled drive, Hentrich's field goals became more valuable. His longest was a 44-yarder with 11:48 left in the first half that gave the Irish a 13-10 lead. His 36- and 35-yarders in the third quarter put them ahead 22-17. "It was kind of discouraging when we were counting by threes instead of touchdowns," Mirer said.
Notre Dame was finally galvanized by Lyght's interception. The Irish are burdened with a young secondary; Lyght is the only returning starter, a senior chaperoning two true freshmen, cornerback Greg Lane and safety Tom Carter. The Irish had surrendered an average 23.4 points a game, putting first-year defensive coordinator Gary Darnell under some heat for changing to an attacking scheme rather than the containment style favored by former defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez, now head coach at Wisconsin. Holtz spent the better part of the last two weeks on the defensive end of the practice field, where he reverted to containment, ran ruthless tackling drills and sometimes ordered two players at a time to the sidelines, forcing the defense to run plays with nine men. "Take it over there," he shouted at those who displeased him, gesturing to the sidelines.
The result was a mixed package of blitz, zone and man coverage that shook Miami out of its passing rhythm. The Hurricanes scored just once in six second-half possessions, on Carlos Huerta's 25-yard field goal with 14:01 left, which brought them to within two points of the Irish, 22-20.
Lyght's interception came when Thomas missed the crucial directions and hand signals from quarterback Erickson on third-and-seven at the Notre Dame 33 and ran a streak instead of an out. As Irish defensive end Andre Jones and nose-tackle Chris Zorich closed on Erickson, he threw an ill-advised prayer into a covey of defenders.
"I missed the check," Thomas said about it afterward. "If I had run that way, I would have had him beat."
There were a lot of ifs in the game. Like, what if Holtz hadn't been struck by inspiration at the team breakfast Saturday morning and hadn't outlined the "300 fullback dump"? Holtz thought that Miami had a tendency to over-pursue on the blitz and could be burned. As the Irish faced third-and-four at the Miami 21 with 6:16 to go, Holtz smelled blitz and inserted the play. Miami brought the whole front at Mirer, who calmly flipped the ball to Culver at the 15. Culver made the end zone with safety Darryl Williams dragging at his collar. "I think they brought just about everybody they could afford to bring," Mirer said.
Mirer's coolness under the blitz was typical of his play all afternoon. He completed eight of 16 passes for 153 yards, and proved an adept rusher as well, with 11 carries for 34 yards. All season the sophomore has operated Notre Dame's multiple offensive sets like a veteran—as well he should. When he was in high school, Mirer used to come over from Goshen, Ind., 25 miles away, to study the Irish spring practices. Not that there was anything better to do in rural Goshen. "There's not a lot of entertainment, but, you know, they've got roads, and they're paved and everything," he said.
The Hurricanes still had hope as Erickson drove them from their own 35 to the Irish 25 in just over a minute. On second-and-two, Conley swept right for a 23-yard gain with nothing before him but the end zone. But Davis wrapped an arm around him from behind and jerked the ball loose, and Stonebreaker fell on it at the two. After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, Conley got up and walked to the sideline. "I just wanted to get off the field and try to hold my head up," he said.
The Hurricanes offered no excuses. "It was mental breakdowns," Craig Erickson said. "One guy here, one guy there. I'm one of them." Miami had little to say of the Irish, other than to offer perfunctory congratulations. But Erickson did. "I challenge the athletic directors and the coaches to put this game back on no later than 1992," he said.
That is unlikely to happen. The only consolation is that the game ended with a hint of reconciliation. As Dennis Erickson left his postgame press conference, two players, not his own, stopped him and buried their faces in his neck. They were the Irish's Lyght and Ismail.
"It ended the way it should end," Erickson said.