1988: The Quest for Perfection, Part III

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Note: Go buy your copy of Here Come the Irish 2008 for Maple Street Press's interview with Coach Holtz and much more. This is NOT Coach Holtz's interview. This is an article I wrote for HCTI 2008, and it was "bumped" because Maple Street Press landed the Holtz conversation. You should read that interview by finding a copy of HCTI 2008 at your local bookstore as well.

Now 10–0, the #1 Fighting Irish headed west to play favored #2 Southern California before nearly 94,000 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. For the first time in the storied history of the series that dated to 1926, the Irish and the Trojans were both bringing perfect records into the contest. Much of the conversation in the week leading up to the game centered on Heisman Trophy candidate Rodney Peete. That changed on Friday night. Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks were late for the Friday evening meal and meeting at the team hotel in Newport Beach because they were at a shopping mall, not the first offense for either of them. Holtz and the team’s seniors suspended the duo from the game and sent them back to South Bend. That meant that the Irish would go into the game against the Trojans without their leading rusher and their leading receiver. Tony Rice called a meeting of the offensive backs and receivers and told them, “We were going to win with them, and we’re going to win without them.” Rice did his share, and the Notre Dame defense did its part to ruin Peete’s Heisman hopes. Rice opened the scoring with a third-down-and-three option keeper that went for 65 yards—Tony Roberts with the play-by-play on Westwood One radio screaming, “He out legged the entire Southern Cal defense”—and a touchdown.

Notre Dame’s second touchdown, a 2-yard dive by California native Mark Green, grew the Irish lead to 14–0.

As the Irish offense stalled in the second quarter with three punts and a fumble, the Trojans got a touchdown run from Scott Lockwood and cut the Notre Dame margin to 14–7. Then, with 41 seconds to go in the half, the Notre Dame defense turned in the game’s crucial play. With pressure from Frank Stams and the Irish line, Peete tossed a pass down the left side toward John Jackson. Irish cornerback Stan Smagala took the pass on the dead run and ran for a 64-yard touchdown.

Stams delivered a devastating block to Peete on the return.

Peete would end up with no touchdown passes, minus 31 yards rushing, 6 deflected passes by the Irish defensive line, and 2 interceptions. A 1-yard Mark Green touchdown run in the fourth quarter capped the 27–10 victory and the undefeated regular season for Notre Dame. Wes Pritchett later recalled, “It was No.1 versus No. 2, 10–0 versus 10–0, Notre Dame versus Southern Cal in the last game of the season. How could it be any bigger than that?”

Yet the next game was even more important. In the Arizona desert, on January 2, the Notre Dame football program attempted to restore itself to the place it had once occupied with regularity. As in the weeks leading up to the Miami and the Southern California games, much of the pre-Fiesta Bowl conversation centered on the opposing quarterback. Major Harris had guided #3 West Virginia to a perfect season and directed a Mountaineer offense that had averaged almost 43 points per game. The Notre Dame defense, led by Frank Stams, George Williams, and Jeff Alm, harassed the mobile Harris all day and limited him to 11 yards net rushing and 13 completions on 26 attempts for just 166 yards. Harris’s problems began on the third offensive play for the Mountaineers as Alm drove him into the ground at the end of a 2-yard gain and gave Harris a minor bruise to his left shoulder. Under the direction of their less-ballyhooed quarterback, Rice, the Fighting Irish took early control of the championship game. Notre Dame built a 23–3 lead on a 45-yard field goal by Billy Hackett, a 1-yard Anthony Johnson plunge, a touchdown run by Rodney Culver, and a 29-yard pass from Rice to Rocket Ismail.

Late in the third quarter, the Mountaineers had cut the lead to 26–13 and seemed to seize a bit of momentum following a rare interception for Rice as he looked for Tony Brooks over the middle. Starting from the Irish 26-yard line, West Virginia tried to capitalize on the mistake, but, as it had done all year, the Notre Dame defense dominated. On first down, Stams, Streeter, and Zorich tackled a scrambling Harris for a short loss. On second down, cornerback Stan Smagala made a touchdown-saving deflection with great one-on-one coverage in the back of the end zone. The threat ended with a 12-yard sack of Harris by Stams and Arnold Ale that drove West Virginia out of field goal range. Notre Dame immediately extended its lead to 34–13 with an 80-yard drive ending with a play-action jump pass from Rice to tight end Frank Jacobs and a Rice keeper on the 2-point conversion.

The Mountaineers added a late, cosmetic touchdown, and the Fighting Irish won the 1989 Fiesta Bowl 34–21 and the 1988 national championship. Rice, having completed 7 of just 11 passes for 213 yards and 2 touchdowns and having gained 75 yards on the ground, was named Most Valuable Player of the championship game.

After the Fiesta Bowl game, West Virginia coach Don Nehlen summed up the 1988 Irish team: “They’ve got some pretty good football players, number one. They have big football players, number two. And they run pretty fast, number three.” Irish running back Mark Green remembers, “We had a ton of talent. It was a matter of putting yourself second. It was more important to me to help win a national championship with these guys at Notre Dame.” Frank Stams recalled, “That season was the most fun I ever had playing football.” Coach Holtz would be named Coach of the Year by the Football Writers Association of America, United Press International, Football News, and CBS Sports. In his typical use of understatement after the Fiesta Bowl victory and the capstone to a great 12–0 season, Holtz joked, “Maybe I have underestimated this team in a lot of areas.” Perfection.

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.


Blogger Marsh said...

Loved the article. But I loved almost as much (but not quite) the picture of Monk Malloy hogging all the face time with the Gipper, relegating Coach Holtz to a little pipsqueak in the shadows trying to get a word in edgewise.

Saturday, September 13, 2008 8:09:00 PM  

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