A FULL HOUR before kickoff, the quarterbacks jogged through a
tunnel at the north end of Notre Dame Stadium and into last
Saturday's raw autumn drizzle, where Ron Powlus felt a chill
that had nothing to do with the weather. As the crowd roared a
passionate welcome, Powlus turned to his backup, junior Tom
Krug. "The Florida State game must have been like this in '93,"
Powlus said, recalling Notre Dame's last meaningful victory,
which he watched from the press box as an injured freshman.
This was a sensation Powlus had heard about but never
experienced, not as a star-forever-in-waiting, 19 games into a
career that began with so much promise but stalled--with his
team--in mediocrity. "It had to be at least something like this,"
Powlus said to Krug, hoping that this would be the kind of
afternoon he had waited three seasons to experience. And one
that he would never forget.
The script could not have been more clearly written. Southern
Cal came to South Bend ranked No. 5, undefeated, loaded with
talent and in pursuit of a national championship. Notre Dame
already had lost to Northwestern and Ohio State and just one
week earlier had avoided a loss to Army only by stopping a
two-point conversion with 39 seconds to play. The Irish hadn't
lost to the Trojans in 12 years, but that inexplicable streak--in
the oldest and most storied intersectional rivalry in the
country--seemed certain to end now. "I've seen too many
fifth-year seniors sit here and say they've never beaten Notre
Dame," said USC center Jeremy Hogue, himself a fifth-year
senior, before Saturday's game. But Notre Dame wasn't really a
rival for the Trojans this autumn, it was no more than a hurdle
on the route to greater things. "I wasn't hired to win the Notre
Dame game," said Southern Cal coach John Robinson. "I was hired
to win them all."
But much of this college football season has been a riddle that
remains unanswered (what to make of Kansas? of Northwestern? of
anyone's prospects of winning the Heisman?). Even the road to
greatness never leads where we expect. So it only makes sense
that Notre Dame beat USC 38-10, destroying the Trojans' title
hopes and creating this scene in the Irish locker room: "Hey,"
said offensive guard Ryan Leahy, another fifth-year senior, to a
fifth-year teammate, flanker Charles Stafford, "we never did
lose to those guys, did we?"
Never did, never will. An accounting of the grim, cold afternoon
leaves credit and blame spread in a thin, wide blanket across
the entire field. "That's what makes this so sweet; everybody
had a part in it," said Irish senior defensive back Shawn Wooden.
One part was played by Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, whose
big-game efficiency remains a force (and who is 0-1 coaching on
the field this fall but 4-0 coaching from the press box since
his Sept. 12 neck surgery). Another part went to the Irish
offensive line, which schooled Southern Cal's talented defensive
front while opening the way for Notre Dame's 216 yards rushing.
"They didn't physically dominate us, they fooled us," said USC
defensive tackle Darrell Russell, failing to recognize merely
another form of domination. And another part belonged to the
Irish defense, which three times stopped the Trojans inside the
Notre Dame five-yard line, forced four turnovers and didn't let
Southern Cal wideout Keyshawn Johnson (six catches, 122 yards)
win the game by himself. Why, there was even a part for the
Gipper--in this case, pilot Scott O'Grady, the son and brother of
Notre Dame graduates, who was shot down over Bosnia in June and
who served as inspiration for the Fighting Irish. O'Grady spoke
at Friday night's pep rally, and he visited the Notre Dame
locker room after the game. USC's dressing room, meanwhile, was
graced by the presence of former slacker quarterback Todd
Marinovich, among others.
Don't forget the part played by the Trojans, who failed to
convert on those three chances deep in Irish territory: late in
the first quarter, when tailback Delon Washington fumbled at the
three-yard line after a huge hit by Kinnon Tatum; just before
halftime when, trailing 21-7, USC failed to score on four
chances inside the five; and with 1:14 left, when Washington
fumbled at the seven. But there was no defining moment. "The
turning point," said Robinson, "was that their football team
came out and executed, and ours did not."
Towering over all of this was Powlus. His arithmetic in Holtz's
low-risk offense was typically solid, typically unspectacular:
18 completions in 29 attempts for 189 yards and a fourth-quarter
touchdown to tight end Pete Chryplewicz, along with a
third-quarter interception, underthrown into the wind. But what
distinguished Powlus's performance was that he made the game his
own. He traded trash talk with USC strong safety Sammy Knight
and the 320-pound Russell; he gamely ran the option that Holtz
so adores and that Powlus is so ill-equipped to run; he caught a
two-point conversion pass from fullback Marc Edwards; and in the
fourth quarter he sustained a gash in his chin that would
require eight stitches and didn't miss a snap.
If you choose to think of green-tinted glory and wondrous upsets
as a staple of Notre Dame football, your memory is far longer
than Powlus's. "I don't know this feeling from the past," he
said, standing outside the stadium long after the game, in the
darkness and the cold, persistent rain. "This is the first time
I've felt like this here, like I was part of a big-time victory
as the Notre Dame quarterback."
Some days it still seems that Powlus has just arrived in South
Bend, a 6'4", 210-pound high school All-America from a prep
football plant in Berwick, Pa., the quarterback with Joe
Montana's number and surely destined to win lord knows how many
national championships. In fact, it was two years ago that Holtz
was prepared to start Powlus as a true freshman until Powlus
suffered a broken collarbone in the last preseason scrimmage.
And it was last year that Powlus started the season with four
touchdown passes against Northwestern and finished it 6-5-1. He
will graduate in 1997, with a degree in business, and he says
next year will be his last in South Bend.
Already he has been a very good quarterback, with 29 touchdown
passes in less than two years, third in Fighting Irish history,
behind Rick Mirer (41) and Joe Theismann (31). True, he has
thrown 16 interceptions and fumbled the occasional snap, but he
has been at the controls of a team that suffered through several
unsatisfactory recruiting years in the early 1990s and is just
beginning to recover. Yet each weekend Notre Dame's success or
failure is packaged and delivered to Powlus, tied to
pronouncements on his future. Why he has even shrunk; he's
listed now at 6'2".
In the week before the USC game, Powlus betrayed a weariness
that he has stoutly masked through two seasons of emotionless,
gee-whiz interviews. "If I have a good game, then everybody says
I'm going to be great," Powlus said. "If we lose, or we come
close to losing, then I'm the problem and I'm in trouble. It's
as if my entire career is defined from week to week. I
understand it's all part of being here, at least for me, and I
don't know what it's ever going to take to change it. Maybe
winning a big bowl game. Maybe becoming a senior. Maybe it won't
Holtz, however, has never wavered in his praise for Powlus and
has subtly shifted blame away from him. "Ron Powlus won a
national championship in high school," Holtz says. "I believe he
will win a championship in the NFL...." At Notre Dame, of
course, time has grown short, but not because Powlus has failed.
And how badly have the Irish failed? With each week their losses
to Northwestern and Ohio State seem less humiliating. The
Buckeyes are 7-0 and pulling down first-place votes in the
national polls, and the Wildcats are ranked No. 8. Even the Army
escape took on a different meaning after the Cadets crushed
Boston College 49-7 last Saturday. "Yes, sir, I noticed those
scores," said Leahy. "Maybe they weren't all slouches we were
playing, after all."
The celebration that followed the victory over USC, however, had
nothing to do with comparative scores. As students spilled from
the northwest corner of the stadium and danced in the rain,
Leahy swam through the masses, pumping his golden helmet in his
right hand. Edwards, the junior fullback who rushed for three
touchdowns, was hoisted into the air as students reached up to
rub the stubble on his head. "This was to show everybody we're
better than they think we are, that we can still play with the
big boys," said Wooden.
Powlus was the last Notre Dame player to leave, exiting the
locker room through a door that spills into the belly of the
stadium, a concrete labyrinth smelling of stale, spilled beer.
Even there the fair-weather faithful found him and asked for his
autograph. On a program. On a poncho. On a picture. On a seat
cushion. Three times he posed for pictures wearing his white
baseball cap from a produce farm back in Berwick--Zehner Bros.--a
blue blazer and a tie. Finally freed, he turned and dropped his
left arm across his mother's shoulder and walked into the night,
loafers clacking on the cold floor, redeemed. For this week.