The Miami-Notre Dame series, while largely dominated by Notre Dame, was full of excitement in the late 1980s.
Whether it was the unforgivable 58-7 humiliation that was Gerry Faust’s last game or the near riot prior to the 1988 thriller, the games were hard-hitting, emotion-fueled, big-play dramas. While games in both 1988 and 1989 largely decided the national championship, the 1990 game was actually ranked #3 by fans for the best games in Notre Dame Stadium in a 2005 poll.
It also played a huge role in propelling the Irish to a #1 ranking that they would hold on two different occasions during the 1990 season. Ultimately, an upset at home at the hands of Penn State and an Orange Bowl defeat would derail the Irish national title dreams. Nevertheless, the Irish win was notable for denying Miami a shot at a repeat national championship and it was the last meeting between the two until the 2010 Sun Bowl.
After locating and dusting off this old VHS gem from my archives, I was immediately reminded of a few things.
First, the ND in the end zone for home games in 1990 looks completely out of place in my book. Much like the critiques of “The Shirt” when it deviates from traditional colors, the end zones at Notre Dame should feature slashed lines…period!
I cannot express how much I miss Notre Dame coverage on CBS from the 80s.
I loved the sideline shots that they always had and the open microphones. After a key stop in the second half, you can hear Scott Kowalkowski exhorting his teammates with “good stop” and a fist pump.
For all the benefits of the NBC coverage we no longer get that close up. Perhaps in an era where coaches have billboard sized play cards covering their mouths, they just won’t let the cameras have that much access.
Finally, Notre Dame Stadium was bedlam in the this game. It was loud and stands appeared wild. For years, I’ve heard the crowds at Notre Dame are pedestrian. In all my trips to the stadium, I’ve never seen a crowd like this particular Miami game. I would argue the night game last year vs. USC seemed like a church gathering compared to this game.
The game itself was a classic and at the same time it shocks me that this particular Notre Dame team went 9-3. The running backs alone on this day for the Irish may be the greatest collective assembled in college football history. Dorsey Levens the listed starter got 0 carries. Nevertheless, he and the remainder of the group – Rodney Culver, Tony Brooks, Ricky Watters, Rocket Ismail (who while not a true running back was second in carries in this game), and Jerome Bettis – all played in the NFL.
The defense which was also much maligned coming into the game also featured a number of future NFL players.
The Irish would enter the game ranked #6 while Miami would enter the game with a #2 ranking. This particular contest dubbed the “Final Chapter” by some (the teams would end their series following this game) was true to the form of the other Miami/Notre Dame clashes in that it featured big plays, great athletes, and a few surprises.
Two of the bigger questions leading up to this game were whether Notre Dame could run the ball effectively vs. Miami and whether their defense – which had struggled to this point – would have any answers for a potent Miami offense.
The Irish answered both questions with a resounding yes. On the day, the Irish shredded a Miami run defense – that had to date yielded just 62 yards per game – for a whopping 315 yards on the ground. The defense, though it gave up 473 total yards, forced four Miami turnovers and held the Hurricanes to 6 points on three trips inside the 10.
The final trip which resulted in a Leonard Conley fumble at the Notre Dame 2 proved to be the final undoing of Miami. Despite the run game and defense, a mainstay of the Holtz era may have been the biggest difference in the outcome.
Special teams play was absolutely brilliant for the Irish on this day as Craig Hentrich booted 5 field goals and Rocket Ismail accounted for 158 yards of kickoff return yardage highlighted by a brilliant 94 yard scamper. The kickoff return tied the score at 10-10 and seemed to stabilize the Irish after their offense had struggled greatly in the early going. On the day, Ismail would account for 268 all-purpose yards on his way to a season that featured over 1700 all-purpose yards and a second place finish in the Heisman race. How he lost the Heisman to a guy who threw 28 interceptions I’ll never understand, but that is a story for another day.
Lou Holtz would improve his record at this point in his tenure at Notre Dame to 18-8 vs. teams in the Top 20, underscoring his greatness in preparing for and playing in big games. In the build up to this game, it was well reported that Lou spent a ton of practice time working individually with the defense. On this day, it paid off as the Irish held Miami to just 3 second half points. When asked about the game and the crowd afterwards, Holtz responded, “There is something special about playing here.” There was something special about playing Miami too.