Notre Dame, a 5 1/2-point underdog that many critics said didn't deserve a major bowl invitation, proved it did, rallying from a 16-7 halftime deficit to defeat the Gators, 39-28, before 76,447.
Shane Matthews, Florida's junior quarterback, launched a record passing attack against the nation's 73rd-ranked defense, but this time the beleaguered Irish bent but didn't break.
Five times, a Sugar Bowl record, the Gators were forced to accept field goals by senior Arden Czyzewski, who became only the second player to kick that many in a game against Notre Dame.
Czyzewski connected on kicks of 26, 24, 36, 37 and 24 yards, but the Irish, who gave up 111 points in their last three regular-season games, took heart from the fact it was 15 points and not a potential 35.
"We didn't put a lot of pressure on Matthews," said Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz, who had the additional duties of defensive coordinator because Gary Darnell resigned Dec. 3 to join the Texas staff, "but we tightened up inside the 20, changed our coverages and came away feeling very good when they were only able to get the threes."
Matthews set Sugar Bowl records for passes (58) and completions (28), throwing for 148 yards to flanker Willie Jackson and a total of 370 yards, but Coach Steve Spurrier said: "We left the door open. We should have scored 50 points."
Fullback Jerome Bettis and fellow Irish running backs Rodney Culver and Tony Brooks powered through that door in the second half, the Irish using their bigger and stronger offensive line to wear down a defense that had been sixth in the nation against the run.
The Gators had restricted opponents to an average of 100.3 rushing yards, but Notre Dame gained 279 on the ground, with Bettis, who set a school record with 20 touchdowns during the regular season, tying a Sugar Bowl record with three.
Bettis, who was selected as the most valuable player of the highest-scoring Sugar Bowl ever, rushed for 150 yards in 16 carries and put Florida away with touchdowns of 49 yards with 3:32 left and 39 yards with 2:04 left.
"We were having some success at the end of the first half and felt we could come out and pound them in the second," Bettis said.
Said Holtz: "We were largely out of sync in the first half, so we decided to go to more power, more ball control in the second. We felt we had some size and strength in our favor."
A Notre Dame offense that set a school record with 426 points during the regular season produced four second-half touchdowns and a field goal despite only eight passes by quarterback Rick Mirer. Mirer was completed 14 of 19 overall, throwing for two touchdowns and 154 yards in what may have been his final game at Notre Dame.
The junior quarterback might opt for the NFL draft, which has Holtz concerned. "It would be a catastrophe," Holtz said. "We lost Rocket (Ismail) last year, but a wide receiver is a hubcap. A quarterback is the engine."
Matthews, the Florida quarterback, still had his team within reach until his 58th and last pass was intercepted in the end zone by Jeff Burris with 24 seconds to play.
"Shane threw a lot of good passes and some he wished he hadn't thrown," Spurrier said. "Coming out at halftime I felt we needed to keep out offense on the field, to put the ball in the end zone, because I knew they could run the ball effectively with their size if they every got it going."
The Irish did, and Florida emerged 10-2 and probably will lose its No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press poll. The Gators went in with an outside shot at No. 1 Wednesday, but a convincing victory by No. 2 Washington in the Rose Bowl erased that hope, and the victory by No. 1-ranked Miami in the Orange Bowl put an exclamation mark behind it.
"Our only goal was to beat Notre Dame tonight," Spurrier said. "Too many things had to happen for us to win a national title. This doesn't ruin our season, only what we had hoped to do here."
It was redemption for Notre Dame, whose own national championship hopes had been buried by late-season losses to Tennessee and Penn State. The Irish finished 10-3, and Holtz said: "There were people who didn't think we should be here, but the kids never gave up on themselves. We had some problems on defense, but we're a pretty good team with a very good offense."
The criticism provided the Irish with a stimulus Wednesday night, but Holtz didn't take chances. He called on some old-fashioned mystique. The Irish came out with green socks and green numerals on their white jerseys for the first time since the USC game in 1987, but it didn't seem to help during the first half.
Florida set the early tone by taking the opening kickoff and embarking on an 85-yard scoring drive that consumed 11 plays and almost 4 1/2 minutes. Matthews was five for seven, shredding the Notre Dame secondary for 60 yards, the last 15 on a touchdown strike to Jackson. It marked the 15th consecutive game in which Matthews has thrown at least one touchdown.
The Gators also put together first-half scoring drives of 71, 75 and 51 yards, but it was only 16-7 at halftime, and it was Notre Dame that did the driving during the second half.