This is the eighth post of a weekly series that will take us up to the 2012 season. In each post, we will recount two defining moments from the last 25 seasons in Notre Dame football history, starting in the present and working back to 1987, when the Irish went 8 and 4 under 2nd-year head coach Lou Holtz before heading into their last undefeated season in 1988, their eleventh and last national championship.
The occasion for this series is the 125th anniversary of the Notre Dame football program in 2012. The last 25 years, on which we will focus, have seen Notre Dame rise with dominance to the top of the football world and plunge to what many have called irrelevance, to the losingest four-year period in school history from 2007-2010 and to a time when Notre Dame is struggling to regain its identity, cast its roots again in the fundamentals of the game, in true talent and depth and excellence, and learn how to win consistently week after week, season after season.
And while we look forward, hoping, even with confidence, that the Irish under Coach Brian Kelly are indeed on that arduous path back towards sustained success, we look back now over some of those moments that have defined Notre Dame football over the past 25 years.
"Things are never as good or bad as they seem." Lou Holtz
When we first began organizing this series of posts this was the one installment that I knew I had to write. Over the course of one week in November of 1993 I experienced my highest high and lowest low as a Notre Dame fan.
15. November 13th 1993: #2 Notre Dame defeats #1 Florida State 31-24
To this day it remains my favorite Notre Dame victory. The excitement surrounding this game had been building since September and reached a fever pitch in the final two weeks leading up to the game. College Game Day took the show on the road for the first time ever and set up shop in the JACC. Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Craig James were all on the set. Fittingly all three of them picked Florida State to win.
Florida State and Bobby Bowden had been ranked #1 since the preseason and after six seasons of Top 5 finishes it looked like the Seminoles were finally on track to pick up their first National Title. Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward had been outstanding all season and was the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy which would also be a first for Florida State.
After years of living in the shadow of the Miami Hurricanes the Seminoles had fully emerged in 1993. In the process the Seminoles replaced Miami as my new favorite team to root against. Florida State had amazing athletes like Ward, Warrick Dunn, Tamarick Vanover, Kez McCorvey, Derrick Brooks and Devin Bush. They were fast. They were athletic. They were intimidating. They oozed swagger. And they also appeared to be riding the wave of destiny towards a National Championship. Their last major obstacle would be Notre Dame.
Notre Dame was well into the Lou Holtz era in 1993. Quarterback Kevin McDougal had taken the reins after freshman phenom Ron Powlus had broken his collarbone during fall camp. Expectations were high but I don't think anybody was expecting a title run. McDougal and the Irish left much to be desired in a 27-12 victory over Northwestern in the opener. Things felt better the next week after a 27-23 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor. Then it started to click. The team hit their stride and ripped off seven straight very comfortable victories by an average margin of 26 points. The Fighting Irish were officially in the hunt.
Notre Dame was idle the week prior to the Florida State game which only fueled the anticipation and excitement for Notre Dame fans. This was it. Win this game and the Irish would jump to #1 and be one victory away from playing for their 12th National Championship.
NBC played the game up for all it was worth and produced an intro for the game that remains a classic. Once the game itself finally kicked off it lived up to the billing for Notre Dame fans. Charlie Ward and the Seminoles scored on the opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. Notre Dame roared right back and the offensive line started blowing up holes for Lee Becton who was ripping off yardage in big chunks. Ray Zellars was also pounding it from the FULLBACK position! Holtz was even lining up in a full house backfield in the red zone with TWO FULLBACKS paving the way for two Jeff Burris touchdowns!!!
The turf was an issue for the Seminoles. It seemed like Florida State All-American Linebacker Derrick Brooks missed almost the entire second quarter changing his cleats. Florida State was being physically beaten and looked out of sorts. Notre Dame dominated the half and took a 21-7 lead and all of the momentum into the break.
The second half was initially more of the same. The Fighting Irish took a 31-17 lead deep into the 4th quarter before Charlie Ward started putting together a comeback. A late TD made it 31-24 and the Seminoles got the ball right back. The margin was still 31-24 when Charlie Ward's last pass was batted down by Shawn Wooden prior to reaching the end zone.
It was done. The Fighting Irish and the mystique of Notre Dame Stadium had done it again. Everything about it was glorious. Notre Dame was #1!
*If you haven't watched them in a while the highlights of the game are definitely worth a review.
Following the victory a National Championship shot for Notre Dame felt like a sure thing. But who would Notre Dame play? In the aftermath Notre Dame moved up to #1 and Florida State only dropped to #2. Would there be a rematch? Could there be a rematch? Big 8 Champion Nebraska and sophomore quarterback Tommie Frazier were waiting in the wings at #3.
16. November 20th 1993: #1 Notre Dame loses to #17 Boston College 41-39
One week later on the exact same field the dream ended in gut wrenching fashion on a 41 yard Boston College field goal as time expired.
The year prior Notre Dame had beaten the Eagles 54-7 and filmed "Rudy" at halftime. Boston College had a pretty good team that fall and Notre Dame had difficulty getting focused in the wake of the huge victory over Florida State. It all set up perfectly as a trap game.
The game itself is too painful to talk about in any kind of detail. After a sloppy first half McDougal and the Irish fought back to take the lead late in the 4th quarter. It looked as if the Irish would escape with a victory. But it didn't play out that way. Boston College was left with just enough time to set up kicker David Gordon with a 41 yard attempt. Gordon made the most of it and squeezed a wobbly kick through the uprights as time expired. It was over.
In the aftermath the #4 Fighting Irish were matched up against #7 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day. Notre Dame looked relatively flat but won the game 24-21.
#1 Florida State went on to play new #2 Nebraska for the National Championship in the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles escaped with an 18-16 victory over the Cornhuskers to claim their first National Championship. Notre Dame would finish at #2 in the final AP Poll behind Florida State.
Last week Murtaugh talked about the 1994 collapse and the end of the Holtz era. He alluded to this but one could definitely argue that the beginning of the end was the 1993 loss to Boston College.
The end of the Holtz era seemed a million years away after the win over Florida State. One week later, everything changed.
In November of 1993 Everett Golson had yet to celebrate his first birthday. Today he is competing for the starting quarterback job in a Notre Dame program that is still fighting to get back on top. Will Notre Dame ever contend for another National Championship? Will Coach Kelly be on the sidelines? Will it happen while Golson is still on campus? We will find out soon enough.