When I was a student at Notre Dame I truly had no idea how lucky I was, or how extraordinary my Notre Dame experience really was. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish played in four bowl games while I was a student, and I went to three of them, plus the bowl game the year after I graduated. I went to the Orange Bowl in January of 1991, the Sugar Bowl in January of 1992, and the Cotton Bowl in January of 1993 and 1994. Even though this week’s Cotton Bowl isn’t going to played at the stadium where the game was played back in the 1990s, I’m still pretty excited to be returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak.
My first trip to the Cotton Bowl, in Dallas, Texas, was in January of 1993. The Notre Dame backfield was rich, with the “thunder and lightning” combination of Reggie Brooks and Jerome Bettis, and they faced the Texas A&M Aggies, who brought their “wrecking crew” defense. It was a highly anticipated match-up, and one in which the Irish had a chip on their shoulder, still remembering the Cotton Bowl loss to the Aggies in January of 1988. Coach Holtz addressed the media and said the following, “it’s a one game season. You don’t have a mulligan. You don’t get to play the next week. This is something you’re going to live with all year. I read all of this stuff about Notre Dame not belonging at this level. That’s nonsense.” And he was right. On that freezing cold New Year’s Day game, the Notre Dame offense was no match for the Texas A&M defense, rushing for over 290 yards, even though the icy conditions were treacherous for the Irish backs in the first half. After a shoe change by both Bettis and Brooks, the offense picked up the pace in the second half, but it was the dominate Irish defense that set the tone.
At the end of the second quarter, Rick Mirer and the Irish offense polished up their two-minute offense. Mirer first connected with Reggie Brooks on first down for five yards, and then connected with Lake Dawson on second down. Just short of midfield, Reggie Brooks carried the ball for thirteen yards. The Irish wrapped up the drive with a beautiful pass to Lake Dawson and a wide open path to the end zone, sending the two teams to the locker room with the Irish up 7-0.
The Aggie defense came out strong to start the second half, but it wasn’t long before the Irish run game took control. Thanks to the efforts of Reggie Brooks and Jerome Bettis, along with some Rick Mirer tip-toeing down the sidelines, the Irish would start the half off with a ten play drive. The first score of the second half would come on a Mirer to Bettis touchdown pass. And then the running game would take over the rest of the game. The Irish running core, who averaged 281 yards per game, would not disappoint with over 290 yards of rushing, and a final score of 28-3.
In January of 1994, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame once again returned to Dallas, Texas, to play the Aggies on New Year’s Day. The Fight Irish squad was very excited to get back out on the field after their late season loss to Boston College, and to prove to the college football world that they deserved to be crowned National Champions. Even though the final standings didn’t work out as Notre Dame had hoped, the Cotton Bowl game did not disappoint, going down to the wire. It was a much warmer game than the year before, with temperatures in the 60’s, which made it much more enjoyable for fans and players alike.
Junior tailback Lee Becton, who would be the game’s Outstanding Offensive Player, got things rolling with an 11 yard gain on the very first play from scrimmage. Then, junior fullback Ray Zellars converted on a third down, and following an A&M sack, Texas native Mike Miller turned the corner and came up with a 19 yard gain. The drive was capped off by a Kevin McDougal option play, scampering in to the end zone for the first score, knocking nearly seven minutes off the clock (7-0).
On the very first Texas A&M snap, the Aggies botched the snap from center, and at that point the Irish faithful were hoping for an Aggie collapse, but that wasn’t in the cards. Once the Aggies settled down, they embarked upon their own five minute drive, and evened up the score on an eight yard touchdown run (7-7). Penalties stopped the next Irish drive, and the Aggies got the ball back on offense. The Aggies completed a big pass play to get to the Irish 22 yard line, but then Lou Holtz called a blitz play for his defense and a big tackle by Jeff Burris ended the Aggie drive.
On the last play of the first period, the Aggies decided to go for a 39 yard field goal, and Texas native Bobby Taylor (along with Jeff Burris) came up big, blocking the field goal. It was the third blocked field goal of the season for the sophomore All-American. The Aggies managed to be the only team to get points on the board in the second quarter, on a touchdown pass by Corey Pullig, and the two teams headed to the locker room with the Aggies up 14-7. At half time Coach Holtz had some important words for his team. “I told the players at half time, ‘I’m going to give you a chance to win. We’re going to go back to Notre Dame football’ and we just challenged our players a little bit more at half time. We didn’t do anything really special, we probably came after them a little bit more, but I didn’t think we played very inspired football in the first half. Give me 22 guys who want to play the game. I don’t care who they are.”
Following those stern words from Coach Holtz and his staff at halftime, the Irish defense came out and set the tone for the second half. Following the lead of the Notre Dame defense, the Notre Dame offense came out in their first possession and marched 51 yards down the field, all of it on the ground, tying the score at 14. But Texas A&M was not going to just roll over and play dead, and they responded with equal intensity, and scored the go ahead touchdown with 6:50 remaining in the third quarter (21-14). And then the Irish counter-punched, Lou Holtz style. Starting from their own 35, Lee Becton started off the drive with a 15 yard run. The ensuing drive would be a series of runs by McDougal, Becton, and Zellars; culminated by a rushing score by Irish fullback Marc Edwards.
Tied at 21-21 at the end of the third quarter, the Irish defense stepped up and reasserted itself. The Aggies punted the ball back to the Irish and left them with their worst field possession of the day. But the Irish weren’t intimated, and dug themselves out. Mid-drive, McDougal’s 37 yard pass to Lake Dawson provided the breathing room Notre Dame was looking for, but the drive stalled out and the Irish were forced to punt the ball back to the Aggies. Brian Hamilton and Thomas Knight brought significant pressure on the young Aggie quarterback Corey Pullig, and then on the next play of the drive Pete Bercich picked off Pullig in a crucial moment of the game.
The Notre Dame offense, however, was not able to capitalize on the defense’s good fortune, and the Aggies got the ball back, calling on the Irish defense once more to save the day. The Irish rose to the occasion. A drive ending stop by Bobby Taylor forced the Aggies to punt to a waiting Mike Miller who raced 31 yards down the field to the 22 yard line where he was pushed out of bounds. On the next play Lee Becton quickly gained eight yards to get to the 14 yard line. With the game drawing to a close, kicker Kevin Pendergast came out to kick a 31 yard field goal, which was good and put the Irish up by three (24-21) with 2:22 on the clock. But the game was far from over. The Aggie offense was unable to hold onto the ball after a hard hit by Jeff Burris and recovery by Bobby Taylor. However the Irish offense couldn’t get any traction on their next drive and had to kick the ball back to the Aggies for one final possession, with 1:10 left on the clock. The Aggies pulled out all of the stops, including a hook and ladder play, but the trickery went awry, and the ball was recovered by Notre Dame’s Jeff Burris, and the Irish secured the win.
I’m incredibly excited to be at this year’s Cotton Bowl game to see the Fighting Irish face the Clemson Tiger’s in the semi-final game of the College Football Playoffs. I hope our offense and defense come out as dominant as Rick Mirer and company did in 1993. What say you? Will Notre Dame be able to dominate the Clemson Tigers as the Irish dominated A&M in the 1993 Cotton Bowl game? Or will it be a battle to the end like the 1994 Cotton Bowl game? Either way, I’m ready!
Cheers & GO IRISH!