It’s been a long time since Notre Dame has won a Fiesta Bowl game ... almost 33 years to be exact. Today I’m going to look back at that glorious 34-21 victory over the West Virginia Mountaineers that propelled Notre Dame to a national title. The following is an excerpt from Kevin Boughal’s detailed game recap in the February 9, 1989 issue of the Scholastic/1988 Notre Dame Football Review.
Mountaineers into Molehills
This year’s Notre Dame football team was haunted by images of the past. Last year, the Irish had been expected to walk allover the hapless Texas A&M Aggies in the 1988 Cotton Bowl and had been convincingly defeated 35-10. But the Fiesta Bowl was different. Unlike last year’s team, the 1989 Irish team was mature and used to winning. They were not happy to simply be at a major bowl (no pun intended), they expected to win it. The Irish were in Tempe, AZ to get a job done and the star of the game would not be a towel and thief thereof.
Ironically, the Mountaineers had contracted the same disease that the Irish had the year before. The Mountaineers were just happy to be in a January bowl and they were in awe that they were playing a traditional football power like Notre Dame for the National Championship.
Even though the Mountaineers were 11- 0, they really had not played against any highly ranked teams. The Irish were as accustomed to playing in big, media-hyped games as they were to winning them during the 1988 season. At least three of the games the Irish played were labeled “the game of the decade” and one was touted as “the game of the century.”
But where had this Irish team come from? Everybody could see greatness on the distant horizon, but almost nobody saw it happening this year. The schedule was too tough. Only a few of the players were experienced at their positions. Hey, this team didn’t even have a rap video.
Every critic in the country had reasons why the Irish could no longer be a football powerhouse. The coach played according to the rules established by the NCAA, and to top it off, the school was stupid enough to put academics over football. Some critics took that argument even further and proclaimed that Notre Dame was de-emphasizing football. So much for that argument.
Typical of big games like the Fiesta Bowl, the media took great delight in matching up the quarterbacks, Major Harris versus Tony Rice.
Throughout the season, Rice had been criticized because he did not throw the ball very often. If the choice was there to run or pass, he would run. Yet somehow, Rice had continued to win the games. The wins were a team effort, but the games were being won.
Rice had continued to improve his passing game throughout the entire season. Holtz had given him darts to throw in his room to practice getting the touch on the ball. But even with his improvement, many still questioned his ability to throw the football. Improved or not, coming into the Fiesta Bowl, many critics still felt there was only one quarterback on the field, and Notre Dame didn’t have him. Listening to the media hype that came out of Tempe, one would think that Major Harris could walk on water and then tum it into wine.
But in the end, the savior from West Virginia could not resurrect his offense. It was Tony Rice who walked away with a 34- 21 win, the award for the offensive Most Valuable Player of the Fiesta Bowl, a national championship, and a shot at the Heisman next year. To top it all off, he had done it through the air, breaking his own passing record and finishing the day with eleven attempts, seven completions for 213 yards, one interception, and two touchdown passes.
To be fair to Harris, he led the Mountaineers, at times singlehandedly, to their first crack ever at a national championship. His speed and agility, as well as his ability to make a broken play into a big play, made him feared by every opponent that West Virginia faced this year, including Notre Dame.
Despite his talent, Notre Dame’s defense managed to sack Harris three times, intercept him once and hold him to only 166 yards passing. Notre Dame’s defense also added Harris’ name to their list of quarterbacks that they injured. During WVU’s first possession, Harris took a hit from Irish linebacker Mike Stonebreaker and dislocated his left shoulder.
“Major bruised his shoulder on one of the first plays of the game,” said West Virginia Head Coach Don Nehlen. “He was tentative after the injury and so we didn’t run him like we usually do. Major never lost his confidence though. He’s not that kind of guy.”
Because of his injury, the West Virginia coaching staff was tentative about letting Harris run the option, and the injury proved costly to the Mountaineers in the end.
Meanwhile, it was Rice who ended up impressing everybody with his passing ability.
“For a guy who supposedly couldn’t throw, he (Rice) looked like he could pass to me,” said Nehlen about Rice’s passing ability.
Notre Dame Head Coach Lou Holtz was also impressed at the way that Rice passed during the game.
“Tony Rice threw the ball better than he has in the past,” said Holtz. “I told everyone earlier this week that Tony was throwing the ball better.”
Although Rice had a good day passing the ball, he did not get the opportunity to show it in the first quarter. For the most part, Holtz played conservatively and kept the ball on the ground.
Notre Dame won the toss and elected to defer. West Virginia’s first drive went four downs and then the Irish got the ball back.
On their first possession, Notre Dame could only drive 35 yards and get one first down so they had to settle for a Billy Hackett 45-yard field goal. The score was Notre Dame 3 - WVU 0.
After another unsuccessful set of downs for the Mountaineers, Notre Dame got the ball back. It was during this possession that Rice completed his first pass of the game to freshman tight end Derek Brown for 23 yards. Eight plays and three first downs later, junior fullback Anthony Johnson dove into the end zone for six. The extra point was botched, so the score at the end of the first quarter was Notre Dame 9 - West Virginia 0. WVU finished the first quarter without gaining a single first down.
The second quarter was a good news-bad news quarter for the Mountaineers. They good news was they scored every time they touched the ball, which was twice. The bad news was that Notre Dame did too, and to make the news worse, the Irish scored two touchdowns to WVU’s two field goals. As an added embarrassment to Coach Nehlen, both of the Irish touchdowns were scored by true freshmen.
Freshman tailback Rodney Culver capped an eleven-play, 84-yard drive when he scampered five yards for a touchdown.
Later in the quarter, Rice had his fourth completion of the game, this time to freshman speedster Raghib “Rocket” Ismail for 29 yards and a touchdown. The score at the half was weighted 23-6 in favor of Notre Dame.
This game was certainly not developing into the game that everybody had predicted. It seemed that the game was not being decided by who had the better quarterback as expected, but instead, who had the better defense. To put it simply, Notre Dame was showing the Mountaineers why some had labeled their defense as the best in the country. Holtz had stated time and time again that the key to winning is having a good defense, good team speed and a team effort and he was proving his hypothesis.
Continuing reading this 1989 Fiesta Bowl recap here on page 7.
So ... do you think this is the year we break the Fiesta Bowl losing streak? I think so. I also think a Fiesta Bowl win would be the perfect start to the Freeman Era. What say you?
Cheers & GO IRISH!