This is the eleventh 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.
20. January 1, 1992. Notre Dame Upsets No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl
The 1991 Notre Dame football team was one in somewhat of a transition, as the Irish were transitioning from most of the playmakers that won a national title a few years earlier, to new blood led by quarterback Rick Mirer.
Mirer was coming into his second season as starter for the Irish, but the offense lost Rocket Ismail and Ricky Watters---two of the most explosive playmakers in school history---and in '91 no one had stepped up and filled their roles to that large degree, with such large shoes to fill.
Moreover, the 1991 team lost 3 games as did the 1990 team. In the annals of Irish history these teams won't go down as some of the best, but they were still extremely talented. In '91 Notre Dame lost by 10 to No. 3 Michigan on the road, by 1 point at home to Tennessee, and a thorough beatdown at the hands of Penn State by 22 points at Happy Valley.
After a 9-3 regular season, most experts thought Notre Dame didn't belong in the Sugar Bowl. Even more so, they believed Notre Dame would be embarassed by the high-flying and SEC champion Florida Gators, led by head coach Steve Spurrier and quarterback Shane Matthews (whose throwing technique and motion in the video below is eerily similar to Jimmy Clausen).
Those experts would be wrong.
This was the game famously dubbed the Cheerios Bowl. As Holtz explains at the end of the video he ran into someone at a restaurant who declared, "What's the difference between Cheerios and Notre Dame? Cheerios belong in a bowl."
Yes, the antagonizing of Notre Dame hasn't really changed much over the years, but this Irish football team came out and played a gem---especially in the second half. It looked like Florida would cruise to a win early on, but Notre Dame stayed close and Jerome Bettis ran wild in the 4th quarter to secure one of Lou Holtz' best victories during his time in South Bend.
21. January 1, 1991. Notre Dame Suffers Heartbreaking 1-point Loss to Colorado in the Orange Bowl
The 1990 season was a bit of a cold reality check for Irish fans. Over the prior two seasons Notre Dame had gone undefeated and won a national championship, and the only loss over 2 dozen months was to a Miami team that was one of the strongest teams of the era.
The '90 season saw the Irish drop a home game against unranked Stanford---truly a terrible loss then and now---plus a tight defeat at home to Penn State. At 9-2, the team accepted an invitation to play Colorado in the Orange Bowl for the second straight season. Following the '89 season the Irish handled the Buffaloes, but the rematch was to spawn one of college football's biggest controversies, as well as one of the most painful losses in Lou Holtz tenure.
The Irish spoiled Colorado's national championship bid the year prior, but a repeat didn't happen in the rematch.
With just over a minute left with the Buffaloes leading 10-9, a 4th down situation came up for Colorado. They wouldn't dare punt the ball to Rocket Ismail would they? As Sports Illustrated wrote after the game:
Why not punt it out of bounds? The answer: hubris. "Remember, our punt team is Coach McCartney's pride and joy," says (punter) Tom Rouen. On this night, the Buffaloes had succeeded in containing Ismail. "Maybe we started to think he was human," says strong safety Tim James, the left end on the Colorado punt team. "Our mistake."
And punt the ball to Rocket they did. It was a booming punt, but Ismail raced back for it and took off. Per Rocket custom, he magically evaded defenders in a tight crowd, made a cut, and raced towards the sideline. Irish safety Greg Davis saw his man get an angle on Rocket.
As Davis recalls, "I had [James] walled off pretty good, but he got inside me. I turned around and saw Rocket stumble and get through the hole. Then [James] started closing on him. He was the last guy-my guy. If he makes the tackle...."
As Ismail broke for the sideline, James had a good angle on him. "That's when I got it," James recalls. "It wasn't a cheap shot or anything. It just wasn't legal."
"I tried to get my head in front of him [James]," says Davis, addressing the key difference between a legal and an illegal open-field block. "I guess I didn't. I haven't seen a replay, but my friends have. They say it was definitely a clip."
That left only Rouen to stop Ismail. As Rouen recalls, "He pulled away from me like I was tied to a tree. But right as he passed me, I saw a flash of yellow, and I thought, Maybe we'll be okay."
Was it really a clip?
Did Davis get enough of James' side to keep the flag in the referee's pocket?
Nevertheless, the yellow laundry was thrown on the turf and one of the most magical endings in college football history was spoiled. That penalty and called-back touchdown also produced a split national championship with Colorado earning half of what is still one of the most debated titles in history.
This tragic moment would also be Rocket Ismail's last touch of the football in an Irish uniform as the Pennsylvania product elected to turn pro after his junior season. It was a sad ending to one of the most electric collegiate careers this game has ever seen.