1988: The Quest for Perfection, Part II

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Note: Again, go buy your copy of Here Come the Irish 2008 right away for Coach Holtz's comments on the '88 season.

The animosity that had developed between Notre Dame players, students, and fans and the University of Miami football team was born of embarrassing road losses to the Hurricanes: a 58–7 drubbing in Miami in 1985 and a 24–0 loss in Miami to end the 1987 regular season. During its run of thirty six straight regular season victories and the 1987 National Championship, the Hurricanes and head coach Jimmy Johnson had played up their renegade image. Hard feelings were out in the open on campus during the week leading up to the contest. Notre Dame students crank-called Johnson. Coach Holtz, very uncharacteristically, predicted an Irish victory at the Friday night pep rally. Student entrepreneurs took advantage and sold underground t-shirts in the dorms with sayings like “Miami sUx,” “Top Ten Reasons to Hate Miami,” and, most famously, “Unfinished Business: Catholics vs. Convicts.”

All that built-up animosity carried over into pre-game warm-ups. Wes Pritchett recalls: “We got in a fight with Miami before the game. We got done with our warm-ups and they came running through the middle of our drill.”

On a perfect, sunny, warm mid-October Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, the #4 Fighting Irish looked to pull off another great upset in the long history of famous Notre Dame victories. The Irish defense set the tone for the game early. On the Hurricanes’ fifth play from scrimmage, Frank Stams came around the back of Miami quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Steve Walsh, and knocked the ball loose; nose tackle Chris Zorich recovered. The turnover was just the first of seven miscues forced by the Notre Dame defense over the course of the afternoon. A 22-yard pass from Tony Rice to Rocket Ismail started a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Rice running the option out of a wishbone formation and scoring from 7 yards out. Miami and Notre Dame then traded turnovers, with D’Juan Francisco picking off a Walsh pass but Rice fumbling away a quarterback–center exchange. Miami capitalized as Walsh hit Andre Brown on an 8-yard pass for the 7–7 tie early in the second quarter. Notre Dame came right back with a 57-yard pass from Rice to Ismail and a 9-yard pass to fullback Braxton Banks coming out of the backfield for the 14–7 lead. On the next Miami possession, Stams pressured Walsh, got a hand on the ball, and tipped the pass into the hands of a streaking Pat Terrell. The Irish safety, making the first of his two memorable plays of the day, raced into the end zone and put Notre Dame ahead 21–7. But the #1-ranked Hurricanes responded with two quick touchdowns. First, Walsh found Leonard Conley on a short pass on fourth-and-four from the Irish 23-yard line that beat an Irish blitz for a touchdown. Then, Walsh found a wide-open Cleveland Gary and tied the score at 21 with 21 seconds left in the half.

In the second half, Rice hit Ricky Watters on a 44-yard strike to the Miami 2-yard line. Then, again working out of a goal line wishbone offense, Rice pitched to flanker Pat Eilers, who gave Notre Dame a 28–21 lead. A Jeff Alm interception of a Walsh pass led to a Reggie Ho field goal, and the Irish stretched their lead to 31–21 late in the third quarter. A Carlos Huerta field goal cut the Irish advantage to 7. In the fourth quarter, Miami committed another turnover as Cleveland Gary fumbled at the Irish 1-yard line and Stonebreaker recovered. Another Miami drive was stopped when Stams whacked Walsh and Zorich fell on the loose ball. A Rice fumble gave Miami the ball back for one last chance. This time, Walsh found Andre Brown in the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

Down 31–30, Jimmy Johnson elected to attempt the 2-point conversion and to play for the win. Walsh dropped back as the Irish fell into coverage and lofted a ball toward Conley in the back corner of the end zone. Pat Terrell, making his second important play of the day, batted down the pass, and the Irish held on to upset #1-ranked Miami. Fan favorite and resolute Irish nose tackle Chris Zorich would recall, “It was like we could feel all those Irish legends out there. I kept hearing those lines from our fight song about shaking down the thunder and waking up the echoes.”

In 2005, during the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of Notre Dame Stadium, Fighting Irish fans voted on the greatest game in the history of the stadium. The landmark win over top-ranked Miami on October 15, 1988, was selected as the most memorable victory ever. In 1988, with the perspective not of years, but of minutes, Coach Holtz agreed: “When you have a game with this much hype and everybody looking forward to it, it usually disappoints you. …But this was a great football game.” For Pat Terrell, people still stop him on the street to congratulate him on the swatted-down 2-point conversion attempt: “There were fifty-nine thousand at that game that day…and I think every single one of them has told me over the…years…what they did or how they felt when I got that deflection. It gets kind of funny, but it still does mean a lot to me.”

Two service academies were next on the Irish schedule: Air Force at Notre Dame Stadium followed by Navy at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The Falcons wishbone offense under coach Fisher DeBerry was the nation’s leading rushing attack with an absurd 432 yards per game. Led by quarterback Dee Dowis, Air Force kept the game close as the halftime score was 20–13. Notre Dame’s defense clamped down on the prolific Falcon attack in the second half and allowed only 39 total yards. The Irish exploded for big plays in the second half and won 41–13. Coach DeBerry commented, “[Notre Dame] did what the number two team in the country is supposed to do. They took charge of the game.” Penalties, turnovers, and sloppy execution marred Notre Dame’s play in Memorial Stadium in Baltimore against Navy on October 29, 1988. The #2 Irish committed seven penalties for 90 yards, turned the ball over twice, and dropped several passes. A Tony Rice pass to Derek Brown, touchdown runs by freshman Rodney Culver and fullback Ryan Mihalko and a Reggie Ho field goal would be enough for Notre Dame to win 22–7. Navy was unable to capitalize on the Irish mistakes thanks in large part to the play of Notre Dame’s linebackers, especially Mike Stonebreaker’s 18 tackles and Wes Pritchett’s 12 tackles. Holtz explained after the game, “We couldn’t throw consistently. We weren’t mentally alert and that’s my fault. …We’re not a very good team now. We feel fortunate to win.” That “fortunate,” “not very good” Notre Dame team got providential news after the Navy game. On Saturday night, Washington State upset Troy Aikman and the #1-ranked UCLA Bruins, 34–30. Students anointed the Irish as the top-ranked team and lit the large “#1” sign atop Grace Hall on campus that very night. The polls followed suit that week.

Rice and Penn State were up next for the top-ranked Irish. The Rice Owls jumped out to a 3–0 lead, but their advantage vanished on the ensuing kickoff. Freshman Rocket Ismail took the kickoff from the 13-yard line and dashed 87 yards for the Notre Dame touchdown. Ismail later returned a second kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown, and Notre Dame won 54-11 and was 9–0 for the first time since 1973.

On a cold, dreary November day in South Bend, the 5–5 Penn State Nittany Lions came to Notre Dame Stadium to take on the #1 Irish after a bye week for Notre Dame. The Notre Dame defense dominated the Penn State offense and rattled quarterbacks Lance Lonergan and Tony Sacca all afternoon. The two passers combined for only 5 completions in 24 attempts and 74 yards through the air. Meanwhile, Mark Green scored on a 22-yard run, and Tony Rice had a 2-yard touchdown run and a 67-yard pass to Rocket Ismail for the other Irish score. Mistakes, turnovers, and a missed field goal by Ho kept the score close in spite of Notre Dame’s 502 yards of total offense. The loss by Penn State meant the first losing season ever for Joe Paterno, and the first Nittany Lion losing season since 1938. Notre Dame’s 21–3 victory brought with it a Fiesta Bowl invitation to play West Virginia and a chance for the game to have national championship implications if the Irish could beat Southern California on Thanksgiving weekend in Los Angeles.

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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