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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish VS Virginia Cavaliers, 1989

Notre Dame’s awesome display of firepower buries Virginia 

Notre Dame Fighting Irish Throwback Thursday Photo: Lisa Kelly

I’m not sure where the season has gone but we only have three games left. How can that possibly be? This week, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (8-1) travel to Charlottesville, VA, to play the Virginia Cavaliers (6-3). Notre Dame leads the series between the two teams 3-0. Here are some more stats about the two teams.

  • Virginia is the sixth opponent that Notre Dame has faced this season coming off of their bye week. The Irish are 4-1 in those games this season.
  • Notre Dame has won 13-out-of-14 games against opponents coming off a bye week since the start of the 2017 season after the win over North Carolina.
  • Notre Dame has won 10-straight ACC road games dating back to the 2017 season.
  • The Irish have won 22-straight games against ACC opponents during the regular season, a streak that dates back to the 2016 season. 16 of those wins have come by 10 points or more.
  • Notre Dame is currently tied for eighth nationally with 12 interceptions. It is the most interceptions the Fighting Irish have had since 2018 when they had 12 for the season.
  • Notre Dame has won 39-consecutive games against unranked opponents dating back to the 2016 season. It is currently the longest active streak in the FBS.
  • Notre Dame and Virginia have played each other three times:
  1. 9/28/2019 - South Bend, IN - 35-20
  2. 9/12/2015 - Charlottesville, VA - 34-27
  3. 8-31-1989 - East Rutherford, NJ - 36-13

This week I’m going to throw back to the 1989 Kickoff Classic at the Meadowlands: Off and Running, by Andy Hilger (1989 Notre Dame Football Review).

In 1988, Notre Dame was supposed to be “a year away.” Lou Holtz was only in his third year and most of the skill positions were filled with underclassmen. Much to the delight of the Irish fans, the 1988 team responded with the national championship “a year early.”

Now, Notre Dame took a seasoned, talented squad to the field. But true to form, Head Coach Lou Holtz spent much of the week preceding the Kickoff Classic doubting his team’s chance for success.

In the wake of several recent events, it appeared as if Holtz may have had genuine cause for concern. After all, the Irish had graduated Mark Green, Andy Heck, Frank Stams, Wes Pritchett, Reggie Ho and George Streeter - all essential components of the 12-0 team from the previous year.

But these graduations had been expected. In addition to deficiencies resulting from graduation, various difficulties unexpectedly sidelined Michael Stonebreaker, Tony Brooks, Braxston Banks and George Williams. Not only was overall talent depleted, but the surprises were bound to upset delicate team chemistry. How the team would react to such adversity weighed heavily on the mind of the Irish faithful.

By halftime of the contest, the Irish answered virtually all questions. Scoring touchdowns on its first five drives, Notre Dame was well on its way to a 36-13 thrashing of the Cavaliers of Virginia in the seventh annual Kickoff Classic.

“It’s one of those games where you burn the films,” said Virginia coach George Welsh.

After a Todd Lyght interception the Notre Dame offense took to the field. After two plays of negligible gain, Tony Rice, who led the option attack, scurried 10 yards on a keeper for the key play of the drive. A personal foul at the end of the play moved the ball to the Virginia seven yard line. Three plays later, Rice pitched to Ricky Watters for a two-yard touchdown putting the Irish on the board early.

Quickly stuffing the Cavaliers on downs, Notre Dame forced the first of Ed Garno’s seven punts. Watters’ return of 24-yards set up a nine-play drive featuring five Anthony Johnson carries. The final run found Johnson sprawled out in the end zone after a one yard dive, providing the Irish with a 13-0 margin.

In dominating the line of scrimmage, Notre Dame piled up 333 first half yards while limiting the Cavaliers to a mere 60, thus assuring itself of extending the nation’s longest winning streak to 13 games. At the same time, Virginia watched its personal five game streak emphatically approach its end in front of 77,323 people, the largest crowd ever to see a college football game at the Meadowlands.

In the past, playing on astro-turf presented a problem for the Irish. They struggled to get by Navy and Pittsburgh in the previous year and were handed their last loss on the turf of the Cotton Bowl facing Texas A&M. This game would be different. The surface allowed the Irish to showcase its blinding speed.

Quarterback Rice, halfback Watters and flanker Raghib Ismail spent a good portion of the evening blazing through the Cavaliers’ secondary. Meanwhile, Lyght anchored a defense which was nothing short of dominating while the outcome of the game was still in jeopardy

“We just wanted to go out there, have a good time, drive the ball down the field and be the best team we can be,” said Rice who received the Flynn Award as the game’s most valuable player.

For the first twenty-five minutes, the offense appeared to be unstoppable. Rice led the way, finishing the contest with 217 all-purpose yards.

Scoring early and often, Notre Dame appeared content to keep the ball on the ground.

“Before we went out, our offensive line told us, ‘We’re going to run the ball down their throat. No matter what,’” said Rice.

The offensive line was right on the money. All five touchdowns came via the run. Running the option with tremendous precision, Rice tallied 70 yards on just eight carries. If the Virginia defense contained Rice, the pitch man, often Watters, seemed to find his way into the secondary. Watters finished with 80 yards on 12 attempts. By game’s end, eleven members of the Notre Dame team had carried the ball a total of 59 times accumulating over 300 yards.

“We were just a prepared team,” summed up Chris Zorich, Notre Dame’s junior nose tackle.

Zorich led the charge of the defensive line, making several stops and constantly harassing Shawn Moore when he dropped back in an effort to throw the ball.

After an initial 15 plays and 13 points of grind it out, option football, the 1989 Irish squad finally took to the air. The game’s biggest gain came when, following a play fake, Rice found Ismail for a 52-yard strike. One play later, sophomore Rodney Culver scored from two yards out At this point, it seemed safe to say the game was out of reach. Johnson and Rice closed out the first-half scoring with short bursts of one and three yards, respectively. Notre Dame took to the locker room with an insurmountable halftime lead of 33-0.

Lyght, who finished with two interceptions, appeared to be all over the field. The junior dedicated his performance to the players unexpectedly sidelined before the contest.

“I played this game for Michael Stonebreaker, George Williams; Tony Brooks and Braxston Banks,” said the AlI-American cornerback.

All four players missed the entire 1989 season. Stonebreaker was ineligible for disciplinary reasons, Tony Brooks was not re-admitted to Notre Dame following summer school, George Williams was sidelined due to academic ineligibility and Banks suffered a knee injury.

Though the first team did not seem to miss the four projected starters, Notre Dame appeared short on depth. The early Irish dominance allowed Holtz to test several reserves in actual game situations prior to squaring off with highly ranked Michigan. He was less than impressed with the results.

“For the first 25 minutes we were a top 20 team. For the last 35 minutes we were a bottom 20 team,” said the fourth year Irish coach.

Prior to the game, Holtz mentioned the kicking game as one particular concern. Apparently missed extra points from a season ago were still causing him sleepless nights. Holtz hoped the tandem of Billy Hackett and freshman Craig Hentrich could help cure his insomnia.

The two eventually turned in a solid campaign, but on this occasion gave Holtz cause for concern. Both had quite a workout. Hentrich connected on one of two field goals and his seven kickoffs reached the ten yard line on the average. Meanwhile, two of the Irish touchdowns resulted in six points following conversion attempts. Hackett missed one, and Rice was stopped on a two-point attempt after the next touchdown.

Even an impressive win failed to erase genuine concern from the mind of Holtz.

“We won’t be a good team until we are a dominating defense.”

Cheers & GO IRISH!