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A Sinking Feeling : At Notre Dame, Lou Holtz Even Worries When Irish Play the Likes of Rice and Navy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the football coach at Notre Dame there are really only two types of games. There are Monumental-Huge-Gipperesque-Polish The Golden Dome-Get Rockne On The Phone games, and there are merely Big games. Maybe the best way to stay employed is to not notice any difference between the two.

Now, for the Notre Dame football follower, the schedule is like prospecting. You may find a nugget, such as Michigan or Miami or USC, in your pan. Or you may well find a rock, such as Navy or Rice or Southern Methodist. All fans, some reporters and possibly even a few alumni have the ability to tell gold from rubble.

However, it is also true that many coaches have completely lost their sense of reasoning in this regard. Take UCLA’s Terry Donahue, who can’t bring himself to say anything bad about anybody, no matter how sorry a team they are--especially if he’s going to play them on Saturday. For instance, if UCLA ever found itself playing a team of nuns from Sacred Heart Convent, he would say they look nice in their uniforms.

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This brings us to Notre Dame’s Lou Holtz. If Holtz were a pro wrestler, he would be the Ultimate Worrier. Long, deep road-ruts of wrinkles creasing his forehead, Holtz would fret about what the dreaded Rice Owls would do if they won the coin toss. Actually, that happened in 1988, a watershed year for Holtz and the Fighting Irish.

Holtz’s soon-to-be NCAA champion Irish found themselves faced with a late-season struggle with a woeful bunch of Rice Owls, frantically flapping on a journey that was to become an 18-game losing streak.

Here is what Holtz told the Chicago Tribune about being No. 1 and playing Rice: “It just happens to say, well, at the present time you’re ahead. But I tell you right now, we can’t go to the cash window yet and cash our tickets in. We have a tough road ahead of us, and I just hope our football players won’t get all excited about being No. 1, want to play today, want to play tomorrow and then be flat on Saturday.”

Rice was 0-7.

The Owls actually accepted the opening kickoff and took a 3-0 lead, thus confirming Holtz’s worst fears, before they succumbed to Notre Dame by the most narrow of 54-11 margins.

Before the game, Holtz was effusive in his praise of Rice, a private school known mostly for its solid engineering department, its offbeat band and its dreadful football team, which hadn’t had a winning season since 1963. Yet, even after the game, Holtz stopped just short of comparing the Owls to the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

“If you had told me earlier this week this would be the score, I’d never have believed it,” Holtz told the Houston Chronicle. “But we were just a little stronger than they were.”

A little stronger? The best performance by anyone from Rice was by the Marching Owl Band, all 255 members, who traveled 20 hours by bus from Houston to South Bend for the halftime show, then distinguished themselves by wearing sunglasses, donning fedoras and playing “Louie, Louie.”

Holtz was on a roll, just like the Irish. He had already established how he was going to look at the season the previous week when Notre Dame played Navy, which had not beaten the Irish in 24 years. Notre Dame scored on its sixth play, rolled up a 22-0 lead, then got bored and finished with a 22-7 victory.

That margin was enough to satisfy a whole lot of important people in the polls who promptly anointed Notre Dame as No. 1, but it didn’t sit well with Holtz.

“We couldn’t control the line of scrimmage, we couldn’t throw consistently, we weren’t mentally alert,” he said. “Our offensive line got beat up front. We couldn’t run inside. We’re not a very good team right now.”

If not, they got real good in a hurry. From there on, Notre Dame beat Rice by 43 points, Penn State by 18, USC by 17 and West Virginia by 13 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 11-0 and claim the national championship for the eighth time.

For the Ultimate Worrier, there’s nothing like playing Navy to bring out the best in him. In the Holtz Era at Notre Dame, Navy has lost by scores of 33-14 in 1986, 56-13 in 1987, 22-7 in 1988 at Baltimore, 41-0 in 1989 at the Meadowlands, 52-31 in 1990 at the Meadowlands and 38-0 in 1991.

It was a great challenge for Holtz this time around against Navy. Maybe it’s because it’s not that easy building up a team you’re favored to beat by 38 points, someone you have knocked off every season for 28 seasons. After all, how do you make them look good, someone to fear?

Navy, which was 1-10 in 1991 when Notre Dame eased by in its matchup, 38-0, was 0-6 before playing the Irish on Oct. 31 at the Meadowlands. Navy Coach George Chaump had to use six quarterbacks in the first five games because of injuries and was also without his top four returning running backs for the first three games.

Other than that, the Midshipmen looked pretty tough, especially to Holtz, even though Division I-AA Delaware didn’t think so much of Navy the previous Saturday, when it defeated the Midshipmen by 16 points. Still unconvinced, Holtz hunkered down and prepared for battle.

Quite simply, it was the strongest Navy team he had seen since coming to Notre Dame, Holtz said.

“Every time we’ve played Navy in Baltimore or at the Meadowlands we’ve had to fight for our lives,” Holtz said. “I don’t know what Navy’s going to come up with, but they’ll come up with something.”

They came up with seven points, falling only 31 points short of Notre Dame.

Now, Holtz brings Notre Dame into town to play USC, which has lost nine in a row to the Irish and is still reeling from a 38-37 loss to UCLA that ended its hopes to land a major bowl game. Meanwhile, most everything looks pretty good for Notre Dame. Rick Mirer probably can’t wait to take aim at a USC defense that yielded 385 passing yards to UCLA walk-on quarterback John Barnes. Holtz is ready to take the Irish to a very nice New Year’s Day bowl game and next season is right around the corner, with Navy on the schedule again.

There isn’t much to worry about? He will think of something.


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