Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz calls Raghib (Rocket) Ismail his "wild card," a tribute to the flanker's versatility.
Ismail added another dimension to his game Saturday night by returning a punt for a touchdown and even playing briefly at tailback. He had only 10 carries, but made them count for a 9.2-yard average and a 24-yard touchdown on a reverse.
His many skills and top-ranked Notre Dame's power football were decisive as the Irish beat previously unbeaten and 17th-ranked Air Force, 41-27, before a record Falcon Stadium crowd of 53,533.
The final score is deceiving inasmuch as Notre Dame led, 35-14, at halftime and 38-14 after three quarters.
The Falcons lost, though, by a respectable margin with guard Steve Wilson scoring on the old "fumblerooskie" play in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame has won 18 consecutive games, last losing to Texas A&M; in the 1988 Cotton Bowl game.
Dee Dowis, Air Force's quick, resourceful wishbone quarterback, was virtually shut down as a runner. However, he surprised Holtz with his passing ability.
The 5-foot-10, 153-pound Dowis, who is regarded as a Heisman Trophy prospect, completed 15 of 24 passes for a career-high 306 yards and two touchdowns.
He had accumulated only 369 passing yards through six games. However, he came into the game as the nation's fourth leading rusher, averaging 133.6 yards a game. He was restricted to 39 yards rushing.
Moreover, the Falcons had been averaging 449 yards on the ground to rank No. 1 nationally in that category. They had to settle for 168 yards rushing against the Irish, who outweighed the Falcons approximately 30 pounds to a man.
"I thought we'd have more trouble stopping Air Force's running game, but we did a great job with that," Holtz said. "But I didn't think we'd have any trouble with the pass. We even dropped eight people back on pass defense and still he had people wide open."
So Notre Dame (6-0) continues to roll on, while Air Force (6-1) realized a sobering truth. It isn't in Notre Dame's class--and there's plenty of company.
Notre Dame set the tone for the game in the first quarter when it controlled the ball for 12 minutes 46 seconds. The Irish scored on four of their five possessions in the first half and added another touchdown on Ismail's punt return.
Ismail is renowned as a kickoff return specialist. Only a sophomore, he has four touchdowns on kickoff returns in his career, including runs of 92 and 89 yards against Michigan this season.
Ismail had returned only one punt in five games before Saturday night's game. Now opponents will have to be concerned with him as multi special-teams threat.
"There was a big hole," said Ismail, who bolted up the middle and then cut to the sideline on his 56-yard run. "Everybody played their roles and the blocking was great."
USC will play Notre Dame next Saturday in South Bend, Ind. and, for sure, Larry Smith and his staff will be discussing Ismail at length.
When USC was mentioned Holtz said:
"Todd Marinovich throws the ball very well and USC has four All-Americans. If you want to talk about Southern Cal, you'll really ruin my flight home."
Holtz had said earlier that his offense was inconsistent. It wasn't Saturday night.
The Irish drove 80, 69, 69 and 35 yards for touchdowns in the first half. They went into a bit of shell in the second half, getting only two field goals.
"We just wanted to win," Holtz said. "We didn't pitch the ball, or go outside in the second half."
The Irish touchdowns came on fullback Anthony Johnson's one-yard run, a five-yard run by tailback Ricky Watters, Ismail's punt return, quarterback Tony Rice's 27-yard pass to Johnson and Ismail's 24-yard run on a reverse.
On that play, the Falcon defenders were completely fooled as Ismail was escorted to the goal line by three offensive linemen. He didn't even need their help.
Dowis tried to make it interesting, teaming with with halfback Greg Johnson on a 61-yard pass play for one touchdown and throwing a 26-yard pass to wide receiver Steve Senn for another.
With Notre Dame leading 41-14 in the fourth quarter, the pro-Air Force crowd game to life on a gimmick play.
Dowis put the ball on the ground and then moved to the right as the offense and Irish defenders flowed with him.
The ball was apparently hidden by guard Steve Wilson, who then picked it up and lumbered 23 yards to a touchdown against the bewildered Irish.
The "fumblerooskie" play has been used successfully by Air Force's junior varsity team this year. Nebraska scored a touchdown against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl game with the same gimmick.