The longest winning streak in college football still belongs to Notre Dame. The top-ranked Fighting Irish beat No. 17 Penn State, 34-23, in the chill of Beaver Stadium Saturday.
Notre Dame has won 23 in a row. The 34 points it scored were twice as many as anybody else had this season against the Nittany Lions, who came into the game with the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense.
And all this offense came as a surprise to Lou Holtz, the worrywart who coaches the Irish.
“I never expected this to be an offensive game, not in my wildest dreams,” Holtz said. “If you had told me Penn State was going to score 23 points, I’m not sure we ever would have gotten on the airplane.”
Earlier this year, Holtz threatened to resign if his players couldn’t refrain from picking pregame fights with opposing players in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel. Later he said he wasn’t sure his players wanted to go to a bowl game. Something to do with final exams, he said.
Running back Blair Thomas led the Nittany Lions with 133 yards in 26 carries, prompting Holtz to say he was “disappointed” with a defense that will have to play better to beat Miami next week in Notre Dame’s season finale.
Better unless, of course, the Irish run the ball the way they did against Penn State. Their rushing total was 425 yards. Quarterback Tony Rice had a career-high 141 yards in 26 carries. Tailback Ricky Watters added 128 yards in 16 tries, and flanker Raghib Ismail gained 84 in nine.
Holtz had a line for that, too: “I wouldn’t expect to run for that many yards if I was in a marathon.”
Rice’s assessment was more to the point. “We just run where they ain’t,” he said. “We play smart ball instead of dumb ball.”
Even though Penn State led, 7-0, on a two-yard touchdown run by Thomas and 10-7 on a 38-yard field goal by Ray Tarasi, Notre Dame dominated.
The Irish hadn’t won at State College since 1913. And at times it looked as if it might be another 76 years before anybody beats the Irish.
“They’re pretty much flawless,” Thomas said.
“Notre Dame is a fine football team,” said Penn State Coach Joe Paterno. “No question about it.”
There is very little question that the Irish (11-0) will meet unbeaten and second-ranked Colorado in the Orange Bowl. Bids aren’t officially extended until next week, but Notre Dame already has made its hotel arrangements in Miami. And Orange Bowl officials were passing out credential requests to Notre Dame beat writers in the press box.
Penn State (6-3-1) probably will have to settle for the Holiday Bowl in San Diego against the Western Athletic Conference champion.
Notre Dame answered Thomas’ first touchdown with a five-yard keeper by Rice in the first quarter. The Irish took their first lead on a 12-yard run by Watters in the second quarter. And it grew to 21-10 by halftime when fullback Anthony Johnson scored from the one.
Penn State’s best opportunity to gain momentum came early in the second half. Notre Dame had cruised to the Penn State four, but defensive tackle Jim Deter deterred the Irish by intercepting a Rice pass lobbed over the middle intended for Johnson.
Penn State turned the ball back two plays later when tailback Gerry Collins fumbled on his first carry of the game. Cornerback Stan Smagala recovered at the 14.
The Irish needed six plays to increase their lead to 28-10 on a one-yard keeper by Rice, his second touchdown.
Penn State rallied briefly with a 79-yard, 10-play drive led by backup quarterback Tom Bill, who was inserted late in the second quarter when starter Tony Sacca failed to impress Paterno.
Sacca had completed four of six passes when he departed. But, Paterno said, “Tony got a little confused.”
The highlight of the drive was a 20-yard scramble by Bill. He also completed passes of 15 yards to flanker O.J. McDuffie and 17 yards to wide receiver Terry Smith.
Thomas, who had rushed for 214 yards against Notre Dame two years ago in the last Irish loss, finished the drive with a three-yard touchdown run off right tackle.
A 22-yard field goal by Notre Dame’s Billy Hackett made it 31-17 early in the final quarter.
Hackett added a 19-yarder and Bill connected on a five-yard scoring pass play to Smith to close out the scoring.
Notre Dame has won 11 consecutive games against teams ranked in the top 25.
“Actually, I don’t think we have to prove anything to anybody,” Rice said. “Can we get better? Yes, that’s a given. But I think we can run the ball against anybody.”
After Saturday it is hard not to believe him. Even if your name is Lou Holtz.
The wind-chill factor at game time was zero, 33 degrees Fahrenheit, winds gusting to 25 m.p.h. Nevertheless, 86,025 people attended. . . . Penn State running back Blair Thomas’ 133 yards rushing was the first time a back had gained more than 100 against Notre Dame since Thomas did it two years ago against the Irish at Beaver Stadium. In that game, the wind chill was 20 below zero. “This time it wasn’t that cold out there,” said Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice. . . . Notre Dame’s Raghib Ismail returned three kickoffs for a total of 40 yards. His longest was 23. His shortest was zero when he mishandled the ball and placed his knee on the ground while scooping it up.