Great football games, those rare occasions when the play actually corresponds to the importance, do not simply pass into legend. Not even at Notre Dame, where everything seems to be instant lore. But when you add controversy, an upset and bad feelings and mix in national championship ingredients (the weather was sensational, too), you definitely have another chapter in the game’s Big Book of History.
Saturday’s game, in which top-ranked Miami missed on a two-point conversion that would have won it in the last 45 seconds, almost had it all. It did not have flawless football; Miami made an incredible 7 turnovers as its regular-season winning streak ended at 36 games. But there was a brawl (pregame, no less!), there were career days from important players, and there was clutch action in all the big moments.
What’s better is that this is by no means the last of it. A residue of bitterness--which is not surprising, given the importance of this growing rivalry--promises yet more history in years to come, although Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz doesn’t want it just yet.
Referring to the increased heat between the schools, Holtz said, “I think the two schools really and truly need to talk about playing in the future. I am talking about next year. I think we need a cooling-down period.”
The moment belongs to Notre Dame, a 31-30 winner over college football’s most consistently dominating team. The undefeated Irish, fourth-ranked going into this game, now claim the following: Revenge for the last four defeats, one of them a game in which Miami was still passing the ball at the end of a 58-7 sendoff for Gerry Faust; a chance at the national championship, which probably will hinge on a Nov. 26 game with USC, and validation for a program that has struggled out of a sea of mediocrity and is once again worthy of its tradition.
Yet, and people will argue this for weeks to come (at least), Notre Dame may not have proven that it’s a better team than Miami. The Hurricanes, after all, outgained the Irish, 481 yards to 331. Of such games are classics made.
It began under warm blue skies, a tailgater’s heaven. Temperatures were in the low 70s, the leaves around Notre Dame Stadium in their fall glory. The countryside, in all its autumn crispness, was a page from one of those mid-American calenders, the stuff you think about when you think college football.
And then the game itself! Between the pregame melee, when Miami apparently tried to run through a Notre Dame lineup and into the tunnel, and Miami’s last, batted pass in the end zone with its primary receivers all bottled up, a lot more of the unexpected happened. Notre Dame’s Tony Rice, never much of a passer, threw for 195 yards and a touchdown. Miami’s Steve Walsh, undefeated as a starter, matched his season-long mark of three interceptions in one game. And Miami fullback Cleveland Gary, who caught a game-high 11 passes, will be remembered for a fumble, a hotly contested one, at Notre Dame’s 1-yard line.
There was, in addition, a Miami fake punt that didn’t work and turned the ball over to Notre Dame for a quick 7 points in the third quarter, giving Notre Dame a 28-21 lead. There were more traditional mistakes. Notre Dame went ahead, 21-7, in the second quarter, when Frank Stams tipped a Walsh pass to Pat Terrell, who ran it back for a touchdown. And Notre Dame scored its last points, on a 27-yard field goal by Reggie Ho (who had a kick blocked earlier in the day), when tackle Jeff Alm simply stood up and caught a Walsh pass.
But it was hardly a case of Miami falling down on the job. The Hurricanes played some football, too. In the final two minutes of the first half, when Notre Dame was leading, 21-7, Walsh’s completion on 4th and 5 at the Notre Dame 23 went for a touchdown. Then he passed for another touchdown to tie the score at halftime.
And what of Miami’s final assured drive, when Randy Shannon stripped the ball from Rice, and Walsh threw a 4th-and-6 pass to Andre Brown for the touchdown?
It was heroic stuff. But it all seemed to boil down to a couple of, well, incidents.
Miami will certainly remember Gary’s catch/fumble late in the fourth quarter. The confusion about that was never really resolved. The Hurricanes believe Gary caught the ball and landed on the 1-yard line, with the ball squirting out after he crossed the plane of the goal line.
“I broke the plane,” Gary said afterward. “I know I did. But when the ref told me it (the fumble) was a dead ball, I figure great, we’ve got the ball on the 1. But the next thing I know, their offense is lining up across from us.”
The officials confirmed after the game that the ball was indeed a catch and a fumble and that Notre Dame’s Michael Stonebreaker had recovered it. This killed the Miami drive and probably cost the Hurricanes a touchdown, and it certainly cost them time until they could drive again.
Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson contends that the official told him it was not a fumble but that Gary did not make a first down, thus turning the ball over. “But it had to be enough for a first,” he said. “We had the ball on the 1 and it got turned the other way, which is something I don’t understand.”
Stams remembered that Brown had scored on a catch in the first quarter by simply reaching the ball over the line. He thought Gary had gotten greedy and lost it trying to do the same. “And when he reached out,” he said, “he fumbled.”
The replays by CBS were not conclusive. Both sides will argue this for a time to come.
“We may have gotten the short end on that decision,” said Walsh, who seemed to be taking it a lot better than Johnson. But both agreed, as Johnson said, that “it shouldn’t have come down to that. There were just too many mistakes, a ton of them. Although in my mind we still should have won.”
Equally unexplained was the pregame fracas. In Johnson’s words, “we were attacked.” In Holtz’s words, the Irish players were merely “excited,” and they may have been provoked.
It happened with the Irish lining up in the end zone to practice a few punts before returning to the dressing room. The Hurricanes, whose record is now 4-1, may or may not have run through them on the way to their own. In any event, there was a full-fledged battle royale, lasting several minutes.
Everybody protested innocence. The Hurricanes, who were portrayed as “convicts” (to Notre Dame’s “Catholics”) on T-shirts here, may not have been the bad guys in this one. “We were just waiting,” said Walsh, “and they started coming after us.”
This was mildly disputed in the Notre Dame dressing room, although some agreed that the Irish had approached this game with a certain resolve. “This is our house,” said Notre Dame safety George Streeter, happily telling the tale, “not Somewhere, Florida. You don’t come here and try to bully us. That’s the way with national champs, they kind of expect you not to be there.”
Agreed fellow safety Corny Southall: “We knew they’d try something. We all knew something was gonna happen.” This readiness seemed larger than the provocation. In any event, we leave it to Gary to summarize: “It’s not important.”
This was an emotional game, no question. Notre Dame, now 6-0, downplayed past humiliations all week, with Holtz pointing out that it was only a game, not World War II. But Stams, a senior who remembered one particular humiliation, said in an unguarded moment: “It was a bitter pill to swallow. That game really stuck in my throat. Beating these guys was a goal, ever since that game.”
When Holtz came to his side, Stams suddenly changed his opinion on motivation. “Uh, you always like to beat Miami, they’re such a good team,” he said. Holtz said something to him, and Stams said, “yes sir,” and moved on.
It may be better to remember the game from the final moment than the first. There was never any doubt that Johnson would direct his team to go for the win, and not the tie. “We always play the game to win,” he said. So there was no surprise, after the final touchdown, that Walsh would try to pass the Hurricanes over.
But his wide receivers had been held up, and fullback Shannon Crowell, his last resort, was open only for an instant. Terrell easily broke it up to save the victory. Along the Notre Dame sidelines, meanwhile, Rice and a whole chain of Irish were holding hands. “This was a win by the Notre Dame spirit,” said Holtz afterward. Sometimes these things are hard to explain.