Most coaches use the locker-room blackboard at halftime to make adjustments in their offenses or defenses. Notre Dame’s Lou Holtz used his Saturday in the Cotton Bowl to make one in his team’s attitude.
With the Irish trailing by seven points, Holtz told the players who were ready to accept the challenge posed by a motivated Texas A&M; team to write their names on the board.
“All I need is 22,” Holtz said.
He got all 92 players on the roster, and Notre Dame needed all the extra effort they could muster to win, 24-21, before a heavily partisan Texas A&M; crowd of 69,855. The decisive points were provided by Kevin Pendergast’s 31-yard field goal with 2:17 to play.
Having been so persuasive with the Irish, Holtz started immediately afterward on the voters in the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN polls.
“If there are no undefeated teams, and everybody uses the head-to-head as the first tiebreaker, we beat the only other team up for the national championship that has a loss,” he said, referring to a 31-24 victory over Florida State on Nov. 13.
Seven days later, the Irish lost their No. 1 ranking by failing to take a good Boston College team seriously, and for at least one half Saturday it appeared as if they had not learned from their mistake.
It was almost understandable for them to overlook Texas A&M.; Both teams entered the game with 10-1 records, but the Aggies had padded their record in the weak Southwest Conference. And, when these teams met in Dallas last New Year’s Day, the Irish routed the Aggies, 28-3.
Now, there are thousands of jokes in this part of the country that speak to the Aggies’ inability to learn quickly. But even though it might take them more than 12 months to change a light bulb, it does not take that long for one to switch on in their heads when it comes to football.
Texas is a beef state, but the Aggies realized after last year’s loss that they do not have enough of it to stand toe-to-toe and slug it out with Notre Dame.
So Texas A&M; Coach R.C. Slocum pulled a fast one. In mixing up the offense, he mixed up the Irish.
Although the Aggies try to run over most teams on their schedule, and usually have in compiling a 24-0 record against conference opponents in the last three seasons, they passed on 31 of their 68 offensive plays against Notre Dame. Even when they stayed on the ground, they ran misdirection plays, traps and reverses.
“I’ve been mislabeled conservative,” Slocum said. “I’m not conservative. I like to win. It would have been foolish for us to line up and play smash-mouth football with Notre Dame.”
The Irish showed off their strength after receiving the opening kickoff, picking up where they left off in last year’s game by driving 91 yards in 13 plays with only one pass. Quarterback Kevin McDougal scored from 19 yards out on an option play.
But the Aggies proved that this was a new year and a new game, answering with a 79-yard, 10-play drive that ended with an eight-yard run by tailback Greg Hill.
They threatened again in the opening quarter before Notre Dame cornerback Bobby Taylor blocked a 39-yard field-goal attempt. But the Aggies eventually gained the lead, 14-7, on quarterback Corey Pullig’s fourth-and-one pass to fullback Detron Smith from the Notre Dame 15 with 2:56 to play in the half.
Holtz was hot at halftime, and not only because his jacket was too heavy for the 62-degree temperature.
“Our adjustment in the second half was all mental,” said Taylor, a Texan who made one big play after another despite a sore hamstring that kept him out of the starting lineup.
As at the start of the game, Notre Dame scored the first time it got the ball in the second half, driving 51 yards in 10 plays and tying the score on a two-yard run from a T-formation by fullback Ray Zellars.
The Aggies responded with a 72-yard, 10-play drive, scoring on a one-yard run by tailback Rodney Thomas. Then, Notre Dame answered with a 65-yard, seven-play drive, again setting up in a T-formation for a two-yard touchdown run by fullback Marc Edwards.
Not only on the scoreboard did the teams enter the fourth quarter even.
But before it was over, Texas A&M; took a commanding lead in one vital category: turnovers. Neither team had one in the first three quarters, but the Aggies had a pass intercepted and lost two fumbles in the last 15 minutes to ruin what until then had been a perfectly executed game plan.
The key play for Notre Dame, however, was a 38-yard punt return by Mike Miller, another Texan, to the Texas A&M; 22. Three plays later, Pendergast gave Notre Dame the lead.
Needing a miracle in the final 30 seconds, the Aggies almost got one when Pullig completed a fourth-down pass at midfield to wide receiver Tony Harrison, who lateraled to speedy tailback Leeland McElroy on a hook-and-ladder play. But McElroy would have needed a ladder to catch the ball, which sailed over his head and was recovered by Notre Dame.
The Aggies had reason to be proud. Although it was their third consecutive Cotton Bowl loss, they did not even score a touchdown in the other two. Also, they restored some respect to the host Southwest Conference, which has not won in the Cotton Bowl since Texas A&M; beat Notre Dame, 35-10, in 1988. But Slocum did not consider it a moral victory.
“We’ve won enough games that we don’t get excited about playing close games,” he said. “I’m not at all happy about playing close games.”
Considering that a three-point victory probably did not overwhelm poll voters, Holtz might have felt the same way. But he put his best spin on it.
“All you have to do is win when you go to a bowl game,” he said.
For the second time Saturday, he was convincing to his players.
“There’s no question we deserve to be No. 1 somewhere,” said linebacker Pete Bercich.