1988: The Quest for Perfection, Part I

Monday, August 11, 2008

Note: This article was originally written for Here Come the Irish, the 2008 version of a great Notre Dame preview magazine at Maple Street Press. Instead, Jim Walsh was able to land a wonderful interview with Coach Holtz about the 1988 team. Go buy your copy of Here Come the Irish 2008 right away.

Former Notre Dame head football coach and College Football Hall of Famer Lou Holtz writes, “Championship teams play for things larger than themselves—the history and tradition of the institution, the quest for perfection, or the love of their teammates and their coaches. I wanted every member of [the 1988] team to internalize all of those motivators.” In the months between the Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M at the end of the 1987 season and the opening of the 1988 campaign against Michigan, coach Holtz attempted to instill a sense of urgency and a drive for perfection in the Notre Dame football program. Several changes took place in the Irish coaching ranks as Joe Moore (offensive line), Barry Alvarez (defensive coordinator), John Palermo (defensive tackles), and Chuck Heater (defensive backs) either changed roles or joined the staff. Besides the assistant coach changes, there were plenty of questions for the 1988 Notre Dame football team: How would an inexperienced offensive line perform? Would option quarterback Tony Rice develop as a passer? Were the young players still a year or more away from greatness?

Perhaps the largest question for the Fighting Irish, however, was how the team would handle the loss of the 1987 Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Brown. Among Notre Dame’s top incoming freshmen for the 1988 season were Derek Brown, a tight end from Florida who was Parade Magazine’s player of the year; Mirko Jurkovich, a defensive lineman from Illinois; and Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, a speedster from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Expectations were especially high for Ismail, the Pennsylvania state high school champion in the 100-meter dash, to make an immediate impact for Holtz’s team. Both Ismail and Brown would play major roles as freshmen for the 1988 Irish squad.

In many ways, junior quarterback Tony Rice was the key to a successful 1988 season. An athlete from a small town, Woodruff, in South Carolina, he was thrust into a starting position as a sophomore in 1987 because of an injury to Terry Andrysiak. Rice lined up under a guard instead of a center on his first play. Holtz did not hesitate to criticize him or to confront him to make him better. On one occasion, when Rice went the wrong way in practice, Holtz jumped on his back from behind, wrestled Rice to the grass, and howled at him. Rice was amazed and began laughing, “I couldn’t believe this little man was holding me down.” Commenting on the growth and maturity of Rice, Holtz said, “He’s not an athlete playing quarterback. He’s a quarterback.” Rice’s relationship with Holtz and his ability to lead the Irish offense, particularly in big games against Michigan, Miami, and Southern Cal, would decide the outcome of the 1988 campaign.

Losses in the final three games of 1987 served as motivation for the #13-ranked Fighting Irish as they headed into a nationally televised night game at Notre Dame Stadium against the #9-ranked Michigan Wolverines. Holtz said, “I think the adversity we ran into at the end of last season taught us a few things and showed us where we needed to be if we wanted to have a chance against the better teams in the country.” The Irish upset Michigan for the second year in a row. The Notre Dame defense, led by linebacker Michael Stonebreaker’s 19 tackles and defensive end Frank Stams’s 2 sacks, held Michigan to just 13 first downs and 213 total yards. Walk-on kicker Reggie Ho decided a game between special teams units when he booted a 26-yard field goal, his fourth of the night, with 73 seconds left in the contest. Then Mike Gillette, who had given the Wolverines the lead earlier in the fourth quarter by kicking a 49-yard field goal, missed from 48 yards as time expired and the Irish survived, 19–17. The lone Notre Dame touchdown came during the first quarter on an electrifying 81-yard punt return by Ricky Watters, replacing Tim Brown in those duties.

The next week, in East Lansing, Michigan, the Fighting Irish took on Michigan State, the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions, before a sellout crowd of 77,472. The Notre Dame defense shut down the Spartan offense while the Irish offense attempted to score from scrimmage for the first time in 1988. Two more Reggie Ho field goals gave Notre Dame a 6–3 halftime lead. As the Irish opened the second half in Spartan Stadium, the offense had gone six quarters of football without a touchdown from scrimmage. On Notre Dame’s first possession of the half, Rice marched the Irish 71 yards, capping the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run. The extra point by Ho stretched the Irish lead to 13–3. Stonebreaker, who would finish the game with 17 tackles, picked off another McAllister pass in the fourth quarter and returned it 39 yards for a Notre Dame touchdown. Notre Dame’s 20–3 victory over Michigan State avenged the 20–15 loss in Holtz’s first trip to East Lansing as Notre Dame’s coach in 1986.

The Notre Dame offense had scored a single touchdown in two games. That situation changed dramatically during the following two weeks against Purdue and Stanford in Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame, ranked #8 by the Associated Press, scored early and often against Purdue, building a 42–0 halftime lead and an eventual 52–7 victory. After exploding on a 38-yard first-quarter run, Tony Rice completed his first touchdown pass of the year: an 8-yard toss to freshman tight end Derek Brown. Rice’s next touchdown throw was a 54-yard sling to another freshman, Rocket Ismail. In the week leading up to the Stanford game in early October, quarterback Tony Rice announced that coach Holtz had suggested that Rice start throwing darts in order to improve his accuracy and the Irish passing game. The option quarterback went 11 for 14 with 129 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinal. Jack Elway, Stanford’s head coach, was impressed with Rice: “Their quarterback did an excellent job running the option and his throwing gives them another dimension. …Right at this point, I’d have to say they’re the best we’ve faced [including Southern California].” Again, the Irish built a commanding early lead, 21–0, and eased to a 42–14 victory over Stanford.

In October 1987, Notre Dame had played at Pittsburgh; the Irish fell behind in a cold rain and lost 30–22. On October 8, 1988, the #5-ranked Fighting Irish found a way to emerge victorious, 30–20, in a second consecutive soggy sojourn to Pittsburgh. Most national championship runs require a little bit of luck, and the luck was with the Irish on this trip into Pitt Stadium. Two costly turnovers by the Pitt offense—Darnell Dickerson fumbled, recovered, and refumbled into the Irish end zone where the ball was eventually pounced on by cornerback Stan Smagala, and cornerback Todd Lyght recovered a Curvin Richards fumble near the Irish goal line—saved Notre Dame. There was also a visible omen of Irish fortunes: a rainbow over Notre Dame’s side of the stadium. Said one member of the press covering the Panthers: “I’ve heard all about the Notre Dame mystique, but this is absolutely ridiculous.” Another Pitt mistake in the fourth quarter when the Panthers were down just 23–20, this time a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty when they had forced the Irish to punt, allowed Notre Dame to keep the ball. Rice then engineered eleven straight running plays ending in a gutsy 8-yard scoring run by Mark Green. Notre Dame moved to 5–0, and the win over Pitt set up the showdown between the undefeated Irish and top-ranked Miami in Notre Dame Stadium. Holtz addressed the Miami game before even leaving the locker room at Pitt: “You have to believe in your coaches and do exactly what they tell you. You also have to believe in the spirit of Notre Dame. There have been plenty of other games where Notre Dame teams have played number-one-ranked teams and won. You have to believe it will happen again.”

Sources: und.com; Lou Holtz, Wins, Losses, and Lessons: An Autobiography (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); Sally Jenkins, “Imperfect Rice Proved Perfect for Irish,” Washington Post, December 29, 1988, C1and C7; Gordon S. White, Jr., “Young Irish Are Thrown to the Wolves,” New York Times, September 10, 1988, 48; Bill Bilinski, “Rice’s best day is Stanford’s nightmare,” South Bend Tribune “Sports Special” section, January 8, 1989; Scholastic’s “1988 Football Review Issue,” February 9, 1989; Tim Prister, ed., What It Means To Be Fighting Irish (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2004); Jim Langford and Jeremy Langford, eds., The Spirit of Notre Dame: Legends, Traditions, and Inspiration from One of America’s Most Beloved Universities (New York: Doubelday, 2005); Gordon S. White, Jr., “Irish Hang On for an Astonishing Upset,” New York Times, October 17, 1988, C9; Joe Garner, Echoes of Notre Dame Football: Great and Memorable Moments of the Fighting Irish (Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2001); “Notre Dame (8-0) Gets By Navy, 22-7,” New York Times, October 30, 1988, S4.

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