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Rice Finally May Have Won Over His Critics--Including His Coach

The passer of the national champions cannot pass? Can this be possible? Can this be . . . Oklahoma? This can’t be Notre Dame, can it? The same academy that gives us Lujack and Lamonica and Huarte and Theismann now takes a national championship with a quarterback unarmed and not very dangerous? Even Rockne had a quarterback who could throw the football, did Knute not?

Tony Rice, the hunch bet of Notre Dame, the quarterback of college football’s newest lords and masters, the most valuable offensive player of Monday’s Fiesta Bowl, the hurler of 2 touchdown passes and career-high yardage in a 34-21 victory over West Virginia, had scarcely showered and baby-powdered his body before somebody once again reminded him that he cannot pass worth a Notre damn.

The somebody? Lou Holtz. His own coach. Go figure.

“We can’t throw the ball,” Holtz said first thing after the game. Well, OK. Second or third thing. And this, after a 213-yard passing effort in the greatest victory of the coach’s life.

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Holtz did not mean to be cruel. He meant to be honest. He wasn’t unhappy with Tony Rice. He believes in his junior quarterback. He plans to stick with him when he’s a senior quarterback.

“What he says goes,” Rice said with a shrug, after hearing Holtz’s postgame analysis. “If he says I can’t throw the ball, I can’t throw the ball.”

All week long--all season long--Rice had heard the same thing. Holtz harped on that same subject, over and over. He liked his quarterback personally, liked his heart, liked his hustle, liked his work, even. But his arm? Holtz rated his arm somewhere between unsatisfactory and useless. With good reason, too:

Rice vs. Michigan, 1988 season opener: 12 pass attempts, 3 completions, 40 yards.

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Rice vs. Michigan State, the next week: 2 of 9, 50 yards.

Rice vs. Purdue, a week later: 4 of 6, 85 yards.

Three weeks into the season, the starting quarterback of the Fighting Irish had completed 9 passes.

For a team nobody was beating, these statistics were, nonetheless, somewhat disturbing. This was no passing attack Notre Dame had. It was a passing interest. It barely qualified as a threat. Everybody knew Notre Dame had lost its Heisman-grabbing receiver, Tim Brown, but did that mean the Irish would never again pass for 100 yards? Would Troy Aikman or Steve Walsh throw for more yards in one game than Notre Dame would all season? Was Tony Rice a whole quarterback or was he half a quarterback, which would make him sort of an eighthback?

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Rice never got steamed. He swallowed the insults. He came to play. He came, he saw, he conquered. And the Irish kept winning. Against Stanford, Rice finally threw for more than 100 yards. Against Miami, in the game of the season, he threw for a career-high 195. He was getting the hang of this passing thing.

Then he threw it into reverse. Navy held him at bay, permitting 95 passing yards. In Rice vs. Rice, the Houston school’s secondary surrendered to Notre Dame only 3 completed passes, for 80 measly yards. Against USC, in the Game of the Season II, Rice was 5 of 9 for 91 yards. Pretty sad.

Except . . .

Notre Dame’s record was 11-0.

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“All summer, I heard people say we could never be a great team with Tony Rice as our quarterback because he can’t throw,” said Holtz, who himself kept saying, before the Fiesta, that Rice couldn’t throw. “Well, just look at his record. As a starter, his record is 15-2, and that’s with wins against USC, Alabama, Michigan, Penn State and Miami. That’s rather impressive, if you ask me.”

It was even more impressive Monday, after the starting pitcher upped his record to 16-2. Rice was sizzling. He was the game’s leading rusher with 75 yards. He was one of those guys whom the West Virginia coach, Don Nehlen, claimed could “run like the devil.”

Rice also passed for Mr. Lucky numbers, 7 of 11. He completed passes of 57 and 47 yards to set up two other scores. There was a 29-yard rocket to Raghib Ismail for a touchdown and a cute little jump pass to Frank Jacobs for another. Rice was a whole quarterback at last, no matter what his coach said.

“I did tell you all week that Tony Rice was throwing better, " Holtz added, trying to cushion the blow after knocking the kid’s arm again.

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Someone asked: “What’s Tony Rice have to do to become a good passer in your eyes?”

And Holtz replied: “He went a long way toward that today.”

All the Irish chieftain wanted was for his quarterback to run the option that he runs so well. Whenever Rice starts thinking of himself as some fancy passer, Holtz said, “then the sucker doesn’t run the option. He says: ‘We don’t want to run that, Coach. I’m a thrower.’ ”

Rice was, indeed, pleased with himself. Just not totally pleased. Holtz won’t let him be that.

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“I’d say, if I graded myself today, I’d give myself a B,” Rice said.

Someone asked: “What’s it take to give yourself an A?”

And Rice replied: “I don’t think I’ll ever get an A.”

Tony, you don’t need an A.

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You passed.


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