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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Hangs on to Beat Tennessee

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Irish in the Right Place at the Right Time

1990 #1 Notre Dame at #9 Tennessee

It’s pretty easy to find a “Throwback Thursday” game to highlight when Notre Dame is playing one of their rivals, but Vanderbilt? ... well, this week was a bit challenging. And so in lieu of highlighting a Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Vanderbilt Commodores moment, I’m going to focus on another Tennessee school ... the University of Tennessee.

When I was a junior at Notre Dame, Tennessee dashed Notre Dame’s National Championship hopes with a late season upset at Notre Dame stadium. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Today I’m going to look back to the previous Notre Dame vs. Tennessee match-up in which Notre Dame beat Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, 34-29.

When the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (ranked no. 1) headed to Knoxville to face the University of Tennessee (ranked no. 9) ... merely by their rankings you would have assumed that Notre Dame would be able to pull off the win; but everyone knows how big the home field advantage is at a school like Tennessee, and nothing is guaranteed. The Irish had quite a battle on their hands when they took the field that Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

The Fighting Irish hadn’t had an easy go of it, in this 1990 football season. Senior Ricky Watters was in the middle of a rough patch, fumbling balls against Stanford and Miami in previous weeks. In fact, he was in such a slump that fellow teammate, Rocket, had to give him a pep talk. “Things will come around,” Rocket told him before the game. “It will come back to you.”

How did Ricky Watters end up performing that day? Here’s an excerpt from New York Times writer, Gene Wojciechowski, “A week ago, Holtz had told his seniors that they alone would determine the fate of this team. Watters, a fourth-year guy, didn’t know if that meant a return to the starting lineup. Now he does, as do the Volunteers and a sellout audience of 97,123, who saw Watters leave cleat marks on undersized defenders. He ran for 174 yards, including a 66-yard dash that saw the field littered with three would-be Tennessee tacklers. In all, Notre Dame gained 316 rushing yards. ‘Earlier in the season, I was trying too hard,’ Watters said. ‘Thing was, I was hurting this team. (Today) I just said, I’m not going to stop.’ Evidence? Watters averaged 10.2 yards per carry.”

But as the final score shows, it wasn’t a game monopolized by the Irish, the Tennessee Volunteers came to play. In the moments following a 44-yard touchdown by Rocket Ismail, which put the Irish ahead 34-23 (with 3:33 remaining in the fourth quarter), the Volunteers came roaring back.

It started with a 10-play drive that began at the Volunteer 32-yard line and ended with quarterback Andy Kelly finding wingback Alvin Harper open in the end zone. The defender? Rod Smith.”

As a Notre Dame fan, you may have been surprised to see Rod Smith as the defender on the play that day. In fact, Rod Smith himself might have been surprised himself to be the defender covering Alvin Harper in the end zone on that play. Lets flashback to the previous week.

Little-used cornerback Rod Smith, exiled to the bench after the season opener against Michigan, noticed Coach Lou Holtz watching a hand-held television as the team bus left Giants Stadium after the Irish’s lackluster win over Navy. ‘Any scores, Coach? Smith said. Holtz turned around and quickly forgot about the postgame shows. ‘Rod Smith--just the man I wanted to see,’ Holtz said. Holtz told Smith that another week’s worth of good practice sessions would earn him a starting assignment against Tennessee. ‘Yes, sir,’ answered Smith, who floated back to his seat.”

On that following Saturday in November of 1990, Smith intercepted a last-minute pass at the Irish two-yard line that sealed Notre Dame’s victory. With a mere 50 seconds remaining in the contest, Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly dropped back, looking for Harper, who had already caught two touchdown passes earlier in the game, and set the ball sailing towards him. Harper was open, or so Kelly though, but the ball from Kelly was slightly under thrown, setting up the perfect interception by Smith.

I wasn’t really supposed to be in that position,” Smith said. Had Coach Holtz not granted Smith a starting assignment that week, the Fighting Irish may have had a different game outcome.

If I had gotten the ball a little higher, (Harper) would have scored,” Kelly said. “But there’s no question that the defensive man made a good play breaking on the ball.”

Do you have two hours and forty-eight minutes to kill? Rewatch the game here:

After the game, Orange Bowl officials scurried to the Notre Dame locker room and extended yet another unofficial invitation. Colorado, which will probably be ranked second after this week’s poll, awaits.”

And all I want to say about that is ... there was no clipping, and Rocket got robbed. But that’s another story all together.

Cheers, (bring on Vandy) & GO IRISH!

*Game recap excerpts taken from New York Times staff writer, Gene Wojciechowski, and his NYT article from November 11th, 1990.