This is the ninth 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.
17. November 14, 1992. Notre Dame Defeats Penn State in Infamous "Snow Bowl."
There are many great memories associated with this 1992 victory over Penn State, yet its important to remember that this was a national championship-level Irish team that lost big time to Stanford earlier in the season. Also, record-wise this was the worst Penn State team of the 1989-2000 era and they had just lost by 13 to BYU the week prior---so there's a couple notes that tend to get lost in this game.
Nevertheless, a 5th straight major bowl game was on the line, the seniors wanted to win their final home game, and this contest was one of the more entertaining of the decade---thanks in large part to the weather and dramatic finish.
The game was a tight physical battle played mostly on the ground but also featuring two future NFL quarterbacks in Rick Mirer for Notre Dame and Kerry Collins for Penn State. The Nittany Lions held a lead late in the fourth quarter but the Irish engineered a late touchdown drive on a screen pass from Mirer to fullback Jerome Bettis to get within one of Penn State.
The snow had been coming down intermittently for a couple hours and the field was painted with light swaths of white as Lou Holtz decided to go for the two point conversion and win in the days before overtime.
Mirer was pressured and rolled out of the pocket, heaving a prayer toward the right corner of the end zone. The ball was placed perfectly as running back Reggie Brooks snatched it out of the air, keeping his feet in bounds for the victory.
That's how one of the best games in modern history ended. After this game, Notre Dame went on to beat Southern California in Los Angeles and Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl for the programs second straight 10-win season.
18. August 28, 1993. Nation's Top Recruit in Ron Powlus Breaks Collarbone in Freshman Season
Nearly 20 years later it's difficult to appreciate just how big of a recruit Ron Powlus was in the class of 1993. Today there's a lot of derisive talk about Powlus, from both fan and foe, about how he never won a Heisman like Beano Cook predicted, how Notre Dame struggled under his leadership, and how he ultimately never lived up to the hype.
However, that hype was through the roof (as we often fail to understand, that's usually not the fault of the athlete) and the hype was deserved---at least to a certain point. As a senior in high school Powlus led his team to a 15-0 record and the top national ranking. He was smart, comfortable with a complex playbook, and had a great combination of passing skills, arm strength, and overall athleticism.
As the number one recruit in the country and the top quarterback out of high school, something would have been wrong if there wasn't hype for Powlus heading to Notre Dame.
What really pushed the hype machine into overdrive was Powlus' performance in August camp shortly after arriving on campus as on official member of the team. He wowed nearly everyone around the program, most importantly the coaching staff, with a dominant performance in the team's first two scrimmages. Powlus ended those two exhibitions with 436 yards passing on 36 attempts, 23 completions, and 5 touchdowns to zero interceptions. Behind closed doors, Lou Holtz was saying this was the most polished freshman quarterback he'd ever seen, perhaps the best freshman overall he'd ever seen.
In addition, as fall camp wore on there were serious discussions about Powlus starting as a true freshman over upperclassmen Kevin McDougal and Paul Failla. Whether that would have seriously happened remains to be seen as injury struck Powlus during the team's last scrimmage before the season started.
One week before the season opener, Powlus was hit by Jim Flanagan and Bryant Young and broke his collarbone. Less than two months later, Powlus re-broke the bone again while throwing in a non-contact drill after trying to come back too soon from the injury.
Senior Kevin McDougal started the 1993 season and put together one of the most efficient seasons for a quarterback in school history, along with a 11-1 record and perhaps Notre Dame's greatest non-title winning season.
That strong 1993 season only added to the pressure of coming back from an injury in an environment where 2 losses in a season would be deemed a failure.
Powlus struggled with his rehabilitation and the expectations by putting on too much weight and shrinking under the enormous expectations, but he would go on to a fine career in South Bend setting numerous school records in the process. However, in hindsight many are thankful it was McDougal leading the '93 squad, and Powlus obviously could never fulfill the hype that followed him from high school with the Irish program slowly deteriorating from 1994 onwards as an added insult.