1: There’s No Stopping Notre Dame : Irish and Rice Too Much for West Virginia, 34-21

Times Staff Writer

Notre Dame’s return to glory was accomplished with a minimum of suspense, if not fanfare. The Fighting Irish, in winning their first national championship in 11 years, so thoroughly dominated West Virginia in Monday’s Fiesta Bowl that the event lost all drama. The 34-21 victory became, as in the best of times, perfunctory.

But if the game lacked drama--and there was only a moment in the third quarter when the third-ranked Mountaineers threatened--there was still plenty of story to Notre Dame’s season.

It was just two seasons ago, after all, that the Irish were 5-6 and happy about it. They were mediocre, if still talented, and bowl-less seasons had become commonplace. They were putting distance, season by season, between them and their storied tradition. And now they are 12-0, national champions after beating the current No. 2, 3 and 5 teams, and their excellence is again a fact of college football. “This is what is good and right in America,” said All-American tackle Andy Heck, “Notre Dame being No. 1.”


For the seniors, and never mind the somewhat longer-suffering loyals, the championship was a sweet vindication, a certification of the Notre Dame way. The Irish are often high-falutin’ and can become insufferable to those who are routinely cast as the opponents in their weekly morality plays. But it does seem to work out.

“I always believed this would happen,” said fifth-year senior Frank Stams, who had wallowed through two 5-6 seasons. “Notre Dame breeds winners, and it was just a matter of time. Maybe not my time, but somebody’s.”

Clearly, little Lou Holtz hurried destiny on its way, taking hold of this program in 1986 and enforcing a discipline that had been lacking at South Bend, Ind., during the curious rule of Gerry Faust, a high school coach by profession and temperament. Holtz is known as a master of turnarounds, but what he has done at Notre Dame is scarcely short of amazing.

The historians can puzzle that out. What happened Monday night between these two independents was plain to see. Notre Dame, its pedigree fashioned not so much by tradition but by a tough national schedule, ruled West Virginia (11-1) on both sides of the line, revealing it to be little more than winner of the Eastern draw. The Mountaineers’ mountainous offensive line even failed to protect its quarterback sufficiently; Major Harris was squashed on the third play of the game and was reduced in offensive impact by a bruised left shoulder.

Still, the surprise was Tony Rice, Notre Dame’s quarterback, a leprechaun of sorts, a blithe young spirit in whom Holtz had appeared to invest little significance. Of course, Holtz has been known to downgrade his team’s chances from time to time. But after a week of press conferences, you might have thought Rice was positively scatter-armed. “I did tell you he was throwing better,” said Holtz, defensively.

Rice did throw for 213 yards and 2 touchdowns. His passes over the middle, finding halfbacks in that nether area between safety and linebacker, developed drives that ended in another touchdown and a field goal.

“I mean, we can’t throw the football,” said Holtz, marveling at the way his team found to win.

Of course this is something that only the public can be trusted to swallow. Heck said: “He never surprises me. He’s a born winner. He’ll win the game no matter what.”

Rice, who also rushed for 75 yards in his more customary option duties, probably contributes more to this team with his sheer unflappability. On a third-and-seven play in the fourth quarter, with the Irish leading, 26-13, the junior convened the huddle by saying: “Get your blocks up, boys. I’m going for a first down.”

He gained 15 yards on a quarterback draw and, on the next play, threw a 57-yard pass to Ricky Watters. Two plays after that, he lofted a 3-yard jump pass to Frank Jacobs for the final score. And after all this, he maintained his humility. Of the matchup, which he won in passing numbers, 213 to 166, he said, “Major’s still a major; I’m just a private.”

Harris, the flashier of the two for sure, was hampered by a shoulder that was scrunched by Wes Pritchett on the third play of the game. Although it was not his throwing arm, the disability had impact. West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen said he would have run “10-12 more option plays, 2-3 more quarterback draws.” Yet he insisted that wasn’t the problem with his Mountaineers. “Notre Dame was just better.”

That was quickly evident. Holtz said he was worried sick about facing West Virginia’s offense, a veteran unit that had averaged 43 points a game. If Notre Dame got behind, he said, the game might develop into a runaway. So he won the toss and let West Virginia take the kick.

This may be his idea of psychology. In any event, West Virginia went 3-and-out on its first four possessions. It wasn’t until the second quarter that the Mountaineers made a first down. And when West Virginia did score, on a 29-yard field goal, fully half of the scoring drive had been achieved by Notre Dame penalties.

Notre Dame, which rushed for 242 yards during the game, scored on four of its first five drives to take a 23-6 halftime lead.

West Virginia, which had left the field on the positive note of another field goal, appeared to return with momentum intact. Midway through the third quarter, Harris moved the Mountaineers and uncorked a 17-yard scoring pass to Grantis Bell to close to 26-13.

Two plays later, Rice unraveled and threw a terrible pass that was intercepted by Willie Edwards and returned to the Irish 26. But on a third-and-12 play, with the Mountaineers still in field goal range, Stams and Arnold Ale flew through the line and sacked Harris for a 12-yard loss.

Almost seven, West Virginia.

“That was disaster,” said Nehlen. “That was the turning point. Had we scored then, we’d have had a chance.”

Stams said the blitz had been on several times that night but that he had been hesitant, fearing the draw or the run. “Then I said, hey, if they’re going to keep passing, I’m not going to worry about it. I think that play was key. We showed them, and proved to ourselves, we could control the game.”

The Irish have now controlled most of the top teams this season. They were helped by Miami’s agonizing missed onversion in a 31-30 victory over the Hurricanes, and they more decisively beat USC and now West Virginia. And their return to prominence is unarguable.

“Is this a great football team?” asked Holtz. “I have to say, yeah, because nobody proved different.” This is high praise from Holtz, who has shied from such proclamations. “We’re now the national championship team,” even he had to admit.

Whether this is a team for the ages was not for him to say. It was enough that Notre Dame had reached its 11th national championship and returned from embarrassment, a brief period by all reckonings but Notre Dame’s. Notre Dame was No. 1 for the moment, and that was all that mattered.

What, somebody asked Holtz, if Notre Dame went into next season ranked No. 1? As it surely will, so young is this team.

He laughed. “Oh, my. We’ve really got some problems on our team,” he began.

None, of course, that West Virginia noticed.

NO. 1 AGAIN Since the inception of the Associated Press college football poll in 1936, Notre Dame has finished the season as the No. 1 team eight times. (Note--Final 1988 poll will be released today):

Year Record Coach 1988 12-0 Lou Holtz 1977 11-1 Dan Devine 1973 11-0 Ara Parseghian 1966 9-0-1 Ara Parseghian 1949 10-0 Frank Leahy 1947 9-0 Frank Leahy 1946 8-0-1 Frank Leahy 1943 9-1-0 Frank Leahy