This is the twelfth 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.
The 1988 Notre Dame football season had been fantastic in every way. The Fighting Irish edged Michigan 19-17 in the opener then ripped off four more victories prior to facing Miami in the famous "Catholics vs. Convicts" game. On a magical October afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium the #4 Fighting Irish edged the #1 Hurricanes in a 31-30 thriller. On the momentum of that huge victory Notre Dame never looked back and cruised through the rest of their schedule en-route to their last National Championship.
The following season Notre Dame opened up as the preseason #2 team in the country and started 1-0 with a 36-13 victory against Virginia. The win catapulted Notre Dame back to #1 and set up a huge showdown on the road against #2 Michigan the following week.
23. September 13th 1989: Raghib "Rocket" Ismail returns two kickoffs for touchdowns against Michigan
The game was played in the rain and both Lou Holtz and Bo Schembechler came in with conservative game plans. The game started as a struggle and was knotted at zero until Tony Rice hit Anthony Johnson for a touchdown late in the second quarter. The only other pass that Rice threw that day was an incompletion. Michigan answered just prior to the half but failed to convert the PAT. The two teams went into the half with Notre Dame up 7-6.
Then Rocket opened up the 3rd quarter with a bang. Schembechler decided to kick to him and Ismail made the Wolverines pay with a fantastic 89 yard touchdown return that put Notre Dame up 14-6.
On the following series Notre Dame linebacker Ned Bolcar knocked Michigan quarterback Michael Taylor out of the game. Taylor was replaced by redshirt freshman Elvis Grbac who was making his first game appearance in a Wolverine uniform. Notre Dame expanded their lead to 17-6 with a field goal but Grbac and the Wolverines came roaring back.
Early in the 4th quarter Grbac and the Wolverines scored a touchdown to cut the Fighting Irish lead to 5 with plenty of time left on the clock. Then on the ensuing kickoff Rocket did it again. His second kickoff return for a touchdown covered 91 yards and expanded the lead to 24-12. Michigan was on the ropes.
But the Wolverines weren't going to go down without a fight. Michigan scored again with 4 minutes remaining on the clock which cut the Notre Dame lead to 24-19. Notre Dame recovered the onside kick and Michigan never got the ball back to take a shot at winning the game. Victory belonged to Notre Dame.
Prior to that game it had been 32 years since Michigan surrendered a kickoff return touchdown. Rocket did it twice on the same afternoon.
The Wolverines went on to win their next 10 games and the Big Ten championship. Then Schembechler capped off his Michigan career with a loss to USC in the Rose Bowl. Those who stay will sometimes beat Ohio State!
Lou Holtz and Notre Dame would go on to win their next 9 games setting up a huge showdown with the Miami Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl to finish the regular season.
24. November 25th 1989: Notre Dame loses to Miami snapping a school record 23 game winning streak.
The 23 game winning streak had been one unbelievable ride for Notre Dame and their fan base. When things are going that well it can start to feel like it is never going to end. It definitely felt that way to me.
Jimmy Johnson had moved on to Dallas but the Hurricanes didn't appear to be skipping a beat under new front man Dennis Erickson. The Canes had been right behind Notre Dame at #2 in the polls that season until they got upended by Florida State 24-10 in their 7th game. But the Canes roared back and they were sitting on a 9-1 record and a #7 ranking when Notre Dame arrived at the Orange Bowl in late November.
It was a night game at the Orange Bowl with a ton of national hype. The Orange Bowl was packed and the crowd was wild.
Miami was still smarting from the 31-30 loss at Notre Dame stadium the season prior and looked to exact their revenge on Notre Dame. Then Miami proceeded to do just that.
It was a tight game until the Hurricanes opened the 3rd quarter with an 11 minute drive that included a 3rd and 43 conversion from inside their 10 yard line. That 3rd down pass from Craig Erickson to Randall Hill gave Miami the momentum and the Irish never got it back. The final score was 27-10. The 23 game winning streak was over.
The Hurricanes jumped back up to #2 in the polls and the win over Notre Dame put Miami in a position to win the National Championship with a victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Hurricanes took care of business against Bama and claimed their second National Championship in 3 years.
Notre Dame went on to finish up the season with a 21-6 victory over Colorado in the Orange Bowl and a final ranking of #2 behind the Hurricanes.
It still hurts.