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Unclaimed Glory: The 1990 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Team

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They don’t deserve the title based on record, but a quick look at their roster and accomplishments makes it clear that the ‘90 Irish were championship-caliber, without question

Notre Dame v Navy Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

As part of our on-going series with SB Nation this week about the best teams not to win a championship — and in most cases here it’s about championships that are unclaimed — we take a look back at yet another Lou Holtz team that was absolutely elite enough to win it all, the 1990 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

At first glance, the 1990 Irish squad is certainly not a group you’d say was championship-caliber. They finished the season 9-3, landed outside the top 5 in the final AP Poll, and even incurred a loss to the unranked Stanford Cardinal, which one would assume would not happen to a championship-capable crew.

Stanford v Notre Dame Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images

However, when you dive into the details a bit more, it’s clear that the 1990 Notre Dame team — like Holtz’s 1988 and 1989 teams before it and a couple teams after it — was exceptionally talented and remarkably accomplished, especially for a 3-loss team.

Let’s probe a bit further — especially for those of you like myself, who were not yet born during the 1990 season — to understand why that particular year should have ended in another trophy for Lou and his program, at least on paper.

The Case

The 1988 national champion Notre Dame team finished its 12-0 season having beaten the #2, 4, 5, and 7 teams in the final AP Poll. Clearly, they were deserving National Champions.

The 1989 team, which Nick Bitting has now established as a championship-caliber group, managed to defeat the #4, 7, 8, 15, 16, and 17 teams in the final AP Poll en route to going 12-1 and finishing 2nd in the country. Those guys were elite as hell, too.

In 1990, the Irish finished a relatively-mediocre 9-3 and 6th in the country, but not without mowing down an extremely impressive list of opponents themselves. Lou’s 3rd consecutive top-tier squad managed to topple the teams that finished #3, 7, 8 (on the road), 16 (on the road), and 20 in the final AP Poll, with two of their three losses also coming to top-12 opponents (#1 Colorado and #11 Penn State).

Also, their three losses came by a total of 9 points, which is TELLING about how close this team was — probably just a few plays in those games going the other way — from winning Notre Dame’s 12th consensus national championship.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The team’s lone embarrassing blemish came against an unranked Stanford team that managed to steal a 5-point win in Notre Dame Stadium and made sure that the Irish likely wouldn’t have a national title at stake when they met the #1 Colorado Buffaloes in the Orange Bowl (although ND would certainly have had somewhat of an argument at 10-2 and having beaten all the opponents they did, plus the undefeated, #1-ranked Buffaloes).

Of course, we all know that Orange Bowl didn’t end happily for the Irish anyway — Raghib “‘Rocket” Ismail pulled off the most clutch, electrifying 91-yard punt return touchdown possible in the waning moments of the game, notching what should have been a legendary go-ahead score, if not for a phantom clipping penalty that called the play back, deflating Notre Dame and effectively ending their chances at the upset.

Let’s not dwell on that play, though, because I promised myself I wouldn’t cry so early in the week, and I want that punt return to have counted so badly and be a part of official Irish lore that it actually makes me emotional — which is wild, considering I wasn’t alive when it happened. Quarantine is doing weird things to me, you guys.

Looking back at that 1990 team, it’s wild the amount of talent that roster held. The offense, especially, had a TON of talented guys, with Rick Mirer starting at quarterback (backed up by Kevin McDougal) and with an unreal backfield consisting of Rodney Culver (710 yds, 4.7 ypc, 5 TD), Ricky Watters (579 yds, 5.4 ypc, 8 TD, a captain of the team), Tony Brooks (451 yds, 4.3 ypc, 6 TD), and a few freshmen you might have heard of named Jerome Bettis, Dorsey Levens, and Jeff Burris, who combined for 198 yds on 5.8 ypc and 4 TD in their limited action, considering the upperclassmen ahead of them on the depth chart.

Air Force Falcons vs Notre Dame Fighting Irish Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty Images

Oh, and just to add a tiny bit of fuel to that offensive fire, let’s not forget Rocket Ismail, who was just your 1990 Heisman runner-up (he lost to Ty Detmer, which I will address in a second). Ismail finished the year with 32 catches for 699 yards and 2 touchdowns, 537 rushing yards on 8 yards per carry and 3 touchdowns, and 336 kick return yards and a KR TD, all while only playing in 11 of the 12 Irish contests that year. Pretty damn impressive for a team that played, and defeated, such tough opponents.

Detmer, who won the award, put up some gaudy stats in the WAC, throwing for 5,000+ yards and 41 touchdowns while completing 64% of his passes. However, he also tossed a ridiculous TWENTY-EIGHT INTERCEPTIONS and BYU finished 10-3 and ranked 22nd in the final AP Poll. The Cougars only beat one team in the final AP rankings (Miami), and they lost to two unranked teams (Oregon and Hawaii, both blowouts) before losing by FIFTY-ONE to #16 Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl. Does that seem like the most outstanding player in the country to you?

Welp, at least they gave this guy the Walter Camp Award, right?

Rocket fuel: Raghib Ismail; the Toronto Argonauts star quarterback; chows down on some tasty banana Photo by Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Wow, that man deserves to be awarded the Heisman retroactively just based on that picture alone.

Anyway, back to that 1990 Irish roster, I haven’t even mentioned some of the other receiver talent that contributed that season, including Tony Smith (15 rec, 229 yds, 2 TD), Derek Brown (15 rec, 220 yds, 1 TD), Lake Dawson (6 rec, 107 yds), and Rodney Culver out of the backfield (13 rec, 145 yds, 2 TD). We’re talking about a Lou Holtz offense that was extremely run-heavy, and yet when they threw the ball, the defense HAD to take notice due to Ismail and co. running routes and making plays.

Rodney Culver

On the other side of the ball, the Irish may not have had as suffocating a defense as the 1988 or 1989 teams with DC Barry Alvarez having left to coach Wisconsin and a lot of the best defensive talent on the team being freshmen who would develop into stars in 2-3 years, but the 1990 unit was still very good.

New Defensive Coordinator Gary Darnell had plenty to work with, including studs like Chris Zorich (Lombardi Award winner), Todd Lyght (captain), Michael Stonebreaker, Andre Jones (T.J. Jones’s father), Willie Clark, Tom Carter, George Williams, Jeff Burris, Rod Smith, Reggie Brooks (yes, the guy who would finish 5th in Heisman voting 2 years later as a running back), and plenty more.

Zorka Zorich [& Family];Chris Zorich Photo by Kevin Horan/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

I mean, just looking at the team overall and the future NFL talent on the 1990 roster (a good amount were freshmen who peaked in 1993 and 1994, but still...), guys who at least were drafted or had a cup of coffee in the NFL included: Rick Mirer, Rodney Culver, Ricky Watters, Rocket Ismail, Tony and Reggie Brooks, Jerome Bettis, Dorsey Levens, Jeff Burris, Willie Clark, Lake Dawson, Derek Brown, Tony Smith, Chris Zorich, Todd Lyght, Tom Carter, George Williams, Irv Smith, Craig Hentrich, Mike Heldt, Scott Kowalkowski, Tim Ryan, Bob Dahl, Mirko Jurkovic, Gene McGuire, Rod Smith, Lindsay Knapp, Devon McDonald, Demetrious DuBose, Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor, Tim Ruddy, Jim Flanigan, John Covington, Tony Peterson, Pete Bercich, and probably more that I missed.

Purdue University Boilermakers vs Notre Dame Fighting Irish Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty Images

That, my friends, is one helluva list of names to have had on the roster at one time, and so it’s even wilder that that team managed to let another potential championship slip through their fingers, primarily due to a flukey loss to the Cardinal and an Orange Bowl they won, but had taken from them in the end.

So, as we pay tribute to the best-ever teams to not win a title, let’s raise our glasses to the 1990 ND team that brought us plenty of big wins, electric memories (whether they technically counted or not), a Heisman runner-up season, and the chance to watch AN ABUNDANCE of NFL talent play football in gold helmets. That was one helluva team, and they don’t get talked about enough as one of the better teams to have suited up for the University of Notre Dame.