Even though Notre Dame had blown a 24-point lead in South Bend—something that had never happened in the 103 colorful and historic seasons of Irish football—you just knew that destiny's eternal darling would pull it out last Saturday. Didn't you? The game had all the makings of another Notre Dame legend, another of those remarkable stories about which Hollywood used to make sappy movies starring actors like Ronald Reagan, if you remember him.
Here was the deal. Notre Dame, trailing Tennessee 35-34 with four seconds remaining, was lining up for a 27-yard field goal try by sophomore Rob Leonard, a backup kicker who was out there only because the regular kicker, Craig Hentrich, had left the game with a sprained right knee. Leonard had never attempted a field goal in a college game. Before he went onto the field, Irish coach Lou Holtz put a hand on either side of Leonard's gold helmet and gave him some encouraging words. So touching. So perfect. So, well, Notre Dame.
But this was to be a day when fate had a Southern drawl and danced to the tune of Rocky Top, the Tennessee theme that the Volunteers' band plays a zillion times a game. Almost as soon as Leonard's foot hit the ball on the kick that would propel him into Irish immortality, Tennessee's Jeremy Lincoln got just enough of it—with his butt, of all things—to knock the ball off course. Nobody could believe it, least of all Lincoln, a senior defensive back from Toledo. "I went up to my mom after the game," he said, "and thanked her for giving me such a big behind."
Behind is where the Vols had been for most of the afternoon. The Irish took a 7-0 lead on tailback Tony Brooks's 12-yard run early in the first quarter, went ahead 14-0 when cornerback Tom Carter intercepted Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly's second pass and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown 34 seconds later, and increased their lead to 21-0 when Irish quarterback Rick Mirer scrambled 10 yards for a TD near the end of the quarter. After the Vols finally got on the board one minute into the second quarter with a 21-yard pass from Kelly to wide receiver Cory Fleming, Notre Dame made it 31-7 on Hentrich's 24-yard field goal and fullback Jerome Bettis's two-yard run.
November 18, 1991
Then came the play that changed everything. Near the end of the half, Holtz called on Hentrich to try a 32-yard field goal that would have pushed the Notre Dame advantage to 34-7. The kick was blocked by Tennessee's Darryl Hardy and scooped up by teammate Floyd Miley, who returned it 85 yards for a touchdown.
"We thought all week that Darryl Hardy could block a field goal, because Notre Dame is soft on his side," said Miley. "I don't think we could have won without that play. It shifted the momentum and made us feel as if we had a chance."
The most important part of the play, however, was that one of the Vols fell on Hentrich's kicking leg in the scramble for the loose ball. Although Hentrich returned to make a 20-yard field goal in the third quarter, his knee tightened up so much that he wasn't available to punt or placekick in the final quarter, when Notre Dame needed him the most.
At halftime, Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, whose team had dropped a 34-29 thriller to Notre Dame last year in Knoxville, ending the Vols' national title hopes, made some adjustments in his defense, which had given up 233 rushing yards in the first half. "We ganged up at the line," said Majors after the game. "You have to start doing something."
When asked what the Vols had done differently in the second half, a puzzled Mirer said, "Every series they were doing something else. They came out of their 4-3 defense. I've never seen some of the things they were doing."
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Holtz overreacted to the changes and ordered the Irish to abandon the running game that had been so good to them and go to the air. After Tennessee had narrowed the gap to 34-28 with 9:03 to go—on a four-yard run by freshman tailback Aaron Hayden, who had been recruited by the Irish—Mirer threw three consecutive incompletions. The Irish got the ball back by stopping the Vols on downs at the Notre Dame 25, but the offense promptly turned it over when Vols free safety Dale Carter intercepted a Mirer pass with 5:09 left. "All I could see," said Brooks, who had 126 yards rushing in his final home game, "was that we were running the ball well, and he [Holtz] must have wanted to open up the run with the pass. Our offense kind of choked."
Tennessee's didn't. On the third play after the interception, Kelly, a senior, flipped a screen pass to Hayden, who carried it 26 yards for the game-tying touchdown. "To be truthful," said Hayden, "I didn't know if it was going to work. I didn't think it was a very good call. Then I got the ball and it was perfection."
That completion was Kelly's 24th in 38 attempts and made him the Vols' career leader in touchdown passes (33) and yardage (5,947). The successful extra-point attempt by freshman John Becksvoort gave Tennessee the lead and sent the sellout crowd of 59,075 into shocked silence. This couldn't be really happening, could it? To Notre Dame? In South Bend?
Ah, but the Irish weren't finished. Returning to their ground game—Mirer was particularly effective running the option—the Irish roared back and put themselves into position to win. Trouble was, Hentrich, who had converted five of eight field goal tries this fall, was on the sidelines in street clothes. Let the record show, though, that Leonard didn't choke. "I hit the ball well," he said. "As soon as I hit it, I thought it was good. Then the guy [Lincoln] got a piece of it."
The ultimate explanation came from Tennessee guard Tom Myslinski. "If he had been kicking toward Touchdown Jesus [the mural on a building overlooking the stadium at the opposite end], he probably would have made it."
The comeback was special for Majors, and not only because he became the first coach to beat the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium while at two different schools (his Pitt team won in 1976). When Majors was the star single wing tailback for the '56 Tennessee team that went 10-0 in the regular season, he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung, even though the Irish went 2-8 that season. Since then, Majors has taken a ribbing from Hornung every time they have met. Now Majors has the last laugh. "I don't think there will be a bigger win as long as I live," he said. "This may be the greatest comeback in Tennessee history."
It also salvaged a season that was rapidly going south for the Vols, who had lost back-to-back games to Florida and Alabama after winning their first four. The defeat took Notre Dame out of the national championship hunt. Holtz, who may have only himself to blame for it, called it "the most difficult loss I've ever been associated with." He also said that "it's the most disappointed I've ever been in my life."
Sometimes, even for Notre Dame, the close ones go the other way. As Tennessee tackle Shazzon Bradley said, "They say there's a Notre Dame god. Well, there must be a Tennessee god too."