Round 1 to the Irish

Notre Dame upset Florida State in a nail-biter in South Bend that set up a possible rematch on New Year's Day
November 22, 1993

Visitors are requested to conduct themselves in a manner in keeping with the sacred character of this place.
—PLAQUE BY THE DOOR OF THE BASILICA OF THE SACRED HEART ON THE NOTRE DAME CAMPUS

Somebody should put that on a postcard and send it to football teams that have to play at Notre Dame Stadium. Florida State showed up there last Saturday with nine wins, no losses, a No. 1 ranking and a decided lack of reverence for the Notre Dame mystique. Before making the trip from Tallahassee, two Seminole players referred to "Rock Knutne," another to "the Three Horsemen." Wide receiver Tamarick Vanover asked, "What's the Gipper?" And quarterback Charlie Ward announced that he wasn't going to South Bend for a history lesson.

Instead he became part of one: And this is where Charlie Ward's pass was batted down on the last play of our 31-24 win over Florida State in '93. Charlie won the Heisman. We won the game.

Pages 361 to 365 of this year's Notre Dame football guide are devoted to "The Big Games." Included are Knute Rockne's 12-6 win over Army in 1928, the 7-0 shutout of Oklahoma in '57 that broke the Sooners' 47-game winning streak, and the 31-30 victory over Miami in '88 that cleared the way for Notre Dame's most recent national title.

Time to expand that section. This game was Big, and, to the delight of NBC, Notre Dame's in-house network, it was tight. Despite a shocking loss of composure during the second quarter, despite being dominated for long stretches on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and despite the fact that their coach, Bobby Bowden, was outfoxed by his Notre Dame counterpart, Lou Holtz, the Seminoles were in a position to score a touchdown on the game's final play and then try for a two-point conversion and a 32-31 win.

With three seconds to go Florida State was 14 yards from the Notre Dame end zone. Flushed out of the pocket, Ward scrambled left, looking for Vanover and then for flanker Kevin Knox. Neither was open. Finally Ward spied tailback Warrick Dunn deep in the end zone and let fly. Two things happened almost simultaneously, neither felicitous for the Seminoles: Irish cornerback Shawn Wooden, who had recovered a Florida State on-side kick a couple of minutes earlier, batted the ball to the ground, and delirious Notre Dame players, fans and musicians bolted onto the field. In that instant a reshuffling took place at the summit of college football.

You knew Saturday's showdown would be a mondo game when Spike Lee, a fan of Ward's, and Phil Donahue, a Notre Dame alum, decided to put in appearances. By Friday the South Bend exit off the Indiana Tollway had become a bazaar for scalpers and seekers of tickets. Motorists simply pulled onto the shoulder and commenced haggling. By game day scalpers' prices for end zone seats had stabilized at $400, and better seats were going for $1,000.

Fast-buck artists couldn't resist. One took out a classified ad that prompted David Walsh of Springfield, Pa., to send $1,400 in cash to an address in South Bend. Stunningly, Walsh never received his promised 14 tickets. Don't feel lonely, David—there's one born every minute. On Saturday security personnel at Notre Dame Stadium confiscated several hundred counterfeit tickets and 40 bogus media credentials, for which gullible fans had paid an estimated total of $50,000.

On campus the second-most popular T-shirt on sale (after the one that read CATHOLICS VS. CREMINOLES) was prophetic. It read: NOVEMBER 13, THE DAY THE NUMBERS CHANGED. Indeed, the day after the game, the bowl-coalition ranking—which combines the AP and the USA Today/CNN polls—gave Notre Dame the No. 1 spot and dropped Florida State to No. 2. As a result, the Seminoles will likely get a second crack at the Irish on New Year's Day in the Fiesta Bowl.

Notre Dame's ascendancy was as surprising as it was deserved. After all, this is an Irish team that saw nine players leave for the NFL after last season; a team whose coach entered this season embattled, beleaguered, in need of a hernia operation and complaining of chest pains; a team so denuded of marquee guys that its best player, arguably, was an offensive lineman; a team that was supposed to lose a handful of games and point to '94.

Instead, Holtz turned in the coaching performance of his career, and the Irish. now 10-0, continued their unlikely march toward the national title. Against the Seminoles, Holtz took chances, but he chose his moments well. He blitzed sparingly but effectively. He used misdirection to exploit Florida State's overpursuit. He conscripted Adrian Jarrell—a senior punter-flanker who had carried the ball exactly three times in his college career—to run a reverse pitch that scored Notre Dame's first touchdown. He used Jeff Burris, an All-America candidate at safely, in two red-zone runs that produced Notre Dame's last two touchdowns. That's right: A punter and a safety scored three of the Irish's four touchdowns.

Equally important, by abandoning his customary midweek gloom, Holtz had sent the message to his players that they belonged on the same field with the heavily favored Seminoles. "Late last week on TV, I saw a special on Dwight Eisenhower," said Holtz after the game. "The one thing Dwight said was, 'If you do not have a positive attitude as the commander, victory is impossible.' "

Still, Holtz could not resist a little sandbagging. All week he and defensive coordinator Rick Minter had moaned that the Seminoles would exploit Notre Dame's lack of speed at inside linebacker. "Play-action passes won't work against us," said Holtz. "Our linebackers are too slow to get out of position." Said Minter, "Our kids play hard, and we love 'em to death, but we could get overmatched."

Overmatched is what the Irish appeared to be when the Seminoles scored with ease on their first possession, a 10-play, 89-yard clinic conducted by Ward. As Knox knelt briefly in the end zone following his 12-yard scoring reception, a hush fell over the stadium. The Irish hadn't played since Oct. 30, when they beat Navy 58-27. With two weeks to prepare, Holtz was supposed to be the equivalent of the Creator with an eighth day, but where was his storied acumen now?

The Golden Domers needed only to "Be patient," which happens to be one of the '93 team's many mottoes. They may not have a player in the Top 10 of any NCAA offensive category, but these Irish lead the nation in slogans. The players are forever prefacing remarks by saying, "At Notre Dame, we have a philosophy..." and "One of our mottoes is...." A sampler: "Count on me." "Always expect a miracle." "What they do doesn't matter."

"Don't flinch" seemed to be the motto on Saturday, and Notre Dame didn't. After that first touchdown Florida State didn't score again until 4:45 remained in the third quarter. Minter, who slept in his office several nights last week, conceived a scheme that called for three and four linemen to pressure Ward, usually without blitzes or stunts. That way Notre Dame's linebackers and secondary could sit back and look for the pass.

The strategy worked. Ward lost his rhythm. Under constant harassment from tackles Bryant Young and Jim Flanigan, he forced passes into coverage. In the second quarter he suffered his first interception in 159 pass attempts, and during the game he threw at least four other balls that should have been picked off.

"Those defensive backs they got back there," said Bowden, "whenever they finish, and I hope it's soon, they'll be NFL." After noting his team's two turnovers, Bowden asked, with irritation, "Did they have any?"

No. Notre Dame has not turned the ball over in four games. The Irish know that they lack just enough talent to be unable to afford errors. On Saturday they yielded no big plays. Seminole wideout Kez McCorvey had 11 catches but none for more than 20 yards. When Ward scrambled he was often greeted by Pete Bercich or Justin Goheen—those poor, plodding Notre Dame linebackers who made 13 tackles between them.

The linebackers, however, had nothing on the offensive linemen. The Irish won because those linemen kicked the tails of their defensive counterparts, whom they outweighed by an average of 39 pounds. Notre Dame answered the Seminoles' touchdown by going 80 yards in seven plays on the ensuing series. Seventy of those yards came on the ground, the final 32 on that flanker-reverse by Jarrell, which nearly faked the Seminole linebackers out of their stylish gold pants.

Jarrell wouldn't have scored without the block he got from All-America left tackle Aaron Taylor, who had sprinted 30 yards for the privilege of clearing a path to the end zone. "He's supposed to fall down on the other side of the field," said Irish right tackle Todd Norman, "but he comes all the way across and makes my block. He was moving pretty good for a man of his obesity."

It is a favorite pastime of offensive linemen across the country to tell one another how fat they are. In fact, Taylor, who is 6'4", 299 pounds, runs a five-flat 40. His body actually has definition.

When fullback Jerome Bettis and tailback Reggie Brooks left for the NFL after last season, you might have expected Notre Dame's ground game to suffer. It did not. This is less of a mystery when you look at who stayed. Norman and center Tim Ruddy are strong pro prospects. Taylor is a sure first-round draft pick. The Irish derive their personality from the offensive line. "That's really the core of the team, right there," says left guard Mark Zataveski of Taylor, Norman and Ruddy. "You can run anything behind those three guys."

Against Florida State the Irish did just that. Junior tailback Lee Becton, who scored Notre Dame's second touchdown early in the second quarter on a 26-yard burst off tackle, turned in his fifth straight 100-yard rushing game, gaining 122 yards—more than all Seminole runners combined—on 26 carries. "When you've got somebody who opens a five-foot hole for you," said Becton, "it just makes things easier." Indeed, on all four Notre Dame TDs the runner was upright when he scored.

Even so, Florida State's defenders had their opportunities. "If we missed 100 tackles," said defensive end Derrick Alexander, "I would not be surprised." Bowden agreed. Asked what he would have done differently, the coach said, "Tackling. But that's nothing I can do. That's something our kids have to do."

Which is not to say that Bowden and his assistants didn't share much of the culpability. They were largely responsible for Florida State's horrific second quarter. when the Seminoles seemed to stand by helplessly as the game almost got out of hand. By halftime the score was 21-7. Twenty of the 25 plays the Seminoles called between their first touchdown and intermission were passes, including a disastrous double lateral between Ward and Knox that lost 14 yards to the Seminole six. On the next play Ward was intercepted by strong safety John Covington.

Despite an embarrassment of riches at tailback, with Sean Jackson and Dunn, and a future NFL fullback in William Floyd, the Seminoles were hesitant to run. Why? "I didn't think it was to our best advantage," said offensive coordinator Brad Scott, who calls most of the plays. As the Seminoles fell further and further behind, he said, "it became a little more obvious what we had to do—get the ball downfield. We got behind, so we could hardly waste our time running."

Instead they wasted it passing. More than 32 minutes elapsed between Florida State's first and second touchdowns. "I didn't think we ran enough," said McCorvey. He found an unlikely ally in Holtz, who said, "I did think they'd try to run the ball more."

As the game wore on, the Irish got tired and Ward got hot, and the final four minutes got very interesting. First, with Notre Dame leading 31-17, Ward marched the team 45 yards in 99 seconds. His fourth-down, 20-yard scoring pass to McCorvey was tipped by safety Brian Magee before dropping gently into McCorvey's hands. That score—call it the gift of the Magee—trimmed Notre Dame's lead to seven points. After holding Notre Dame without a first down and partially blocking the ensuing punt, the Seminoles got the ball back on their own 37 with 51 seconds to play. But, because of earlier carelessness, they had no timeouts left. Ward took the team 49 yards before Wooden snuffed out the Seminoles' hopes.

Those two gutsy late drives did accomplish two things for Florida State: They assured Ward the Heisman Trophy, and they prevented the Seminoles from falling further than No. 2 in the bowl-coalition poll. But the drives could not save Bowden from sharp criticism of his game plan. "I'm sure some will say the 'big one' got away," he said. "After six years I finally found out what the big one is—it's the one you lose. The Miami game this year wasn't a big one. This was a big one."

Despite the loss the coach allowed himself a little levity. "I'd like to be Lou Holtz tonight," said Bowden. "He'll have a good time."

Surely, Bobby, you jest. Asked about his plans for the evening, Bowden's counterpart in the bifocals and the Prince Valiant haircut said he would "go home, watch a game on ESPN, look at this game, and start thinking about [this week's date with] Boston College. I'll say hello to my wife, and hope Eleanor, my 74-year-old mother-in-law, will talk to me." Since taking his mother-in-law white-water rafting over the summer, says Holtz, his relations with her have been strained.

Tell us, Lou, how does this victory stack up against your other boffo wins? Is it the biggest? "It was the most recent," he said. As if to apologize for his lack of jubilation, Holtz said, "This is my job. I don't show great emotions or elations."

His lack of elations notwithstanding, Holtz has succeeded, with each win, in putting more distance between himself and the furor raised by Under the Tarnished Dome, an unflattering portrayal of Holtz and Notre Dame football that came out in September. The book has been effectively shelved by two numbers: 10 and zero. The book alleged, among other things, that Holtz once spit in a player's face. Irish senior quarterback Kevin McDougal has a theory about that. He figures the spitting was accidental. Says McDougal, "He has that lisp—he's always spitting."

McDougal is qualified to make such an observation. He cheerfully figures that this season Holtz has yelled at him more than at any other player. On Tuesday of last week Holtz threw McDougal out of practice for making a bad read on a pass play. He allowed McDougal back after a brief exile. This is one of Holtz's pet methods of getting his players to focus.

McDougal is resilient. For three seasons he worked his way up the depth chart. This year, when at last it appeared to be his turn to start, he was beaten out in the preseason by Ron Powlus, the prodigiously talented freshman from Berwick, Pa. Before the final scrimmage Holtz took McDougal aside to deliver the unhappy news: He was going with Powlus.

The freshman broke his right clavicle that afternoon, and McDougal has led the Irish to the brink of a national title. McDougal's response to Holtz's bad news back in August—"I understand why you feel that way, Coach, but I think I can lead this team to a national championship"—was so sportsmanlike that it seems destined to take its place alongside other quotations in Notre Dame lore: Someday, Rock, when the team is up against it, and the breaks are heating the boys....

The Irish didn't catch any breaks Sunday when the Seminoles dropped to only No. 2 in the coalition standings. For McDougal's response to Holtz to be proved prophetic, the quarterback probably will have to lead his team to one of the toughest doubles in football: two for two against FSU. Before their sweat had dried on Saturday, many of the Seminoles were talking rematch. Said Floyd, the fullback, "We're hoping this was just Round 1."

PHOTORICH CLARKSONWith no time left on the clock, Wooden (22) slapped down Ward's pass and the Seminoles' hopes. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSFlorida State defenders went flying as the Notre Dame line blasted gaping holes for Becton. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe Seminoles, unimpressed by Irish tradition, were clearly struck by the Irish defense. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTORICH CLARKSONBurris, the full-time safety and part-time tailback, was hardly touched en route to his second TD, which gave the Irish a 31-17 lead late in the game. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTORICH CLARKSONBowden will hear a lot of second-guessers say he should have run more and passed less. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERHoltz had few occasions to fume as his team committed no turnovers on its way to No. 1. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.]

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)