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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football vs SMU, 1989

A Merciful Mauling - The Mustangs suffer severe growing pains at the hands of the Irish, who take measures to hold the score down 

Denver Post Archives Denver Post via Getty Images

In some ways my freshman year at Notre Dame (1989) seems like it was just yesterday and is crystal clear, and in other ways it is just a total blur. This week is week nine in my series of the “unclaimed” Notre Dame Fighting Irish football national championship seasons, and this week I’m taking a look at the 1989 season. The game I’m going to look at this week is the SMU game, which I clearly remember as being FREEZING cold. I also remember my friends picking me up and starting the momentum of my getting passed up through the crowd to the top of the stadium and then being dropped on a bench when I reached the last row (ouch). Thankfully multiple layers of clothes softened my fall.

The following excerpt is from the Scholastic 1989 Notre Dame Football Review.

A Merciful Mauling

The Mustangs suffer severe growing pains at the hands of the Irish, who take measures to hold the score down

by Kevin Sproule

After an intentional delay of game penalty late in the third quarter, Irish reserve tailback Rusty Setzer took a pitch right and broke free toward the Southern Methodist end zone. Before scoring, though, Setzer purposely stepped out of bounds at the eight.

The scenario was typical of this game. Notre Dame’s scoring opportunities were so frequent and easy to come by that Head Coach Lou Holtz was forced to take unusual measures to keep the score down.

“I wanted to score and I could have,” explained Setzer. “Coach Holtz told us that we could run up and down the field but he didn’t want us to score.”

The 59-6 blowout came as no surprise to anyone, though. Notre Dame came in at 9-0 and ranked number one in the country while SMU was 2-6 and trying to rebuild after an NCAA imposed two-year probation. Consequently, the Mustangs brought nothing that could combat the Irish arsenal.

This Notre Dame-SMU match-up wasn’t exactly what players and fans wanted as the last home game of a memorable 1989 season. Most wondered not if Notre Dame would win; rather, by how much.

Notre Dame began its scoring barrage midway through the first quarter. Starting on its own 21, Notre Dame drove to the SMU 35 on six running plays. Ricky Watters then took an option pitch right; broke one tackle and scored a touchdown. Watters’ 35-yard run would be the longest run of the game.

SMU was forced to punt on their next possession. Raghib “Rocket” Ismail fielded the punt at the 35, broke loose, and returned it for an apparent touchdown. What would have been Ismail’s second punt return for a touchdown of the season was called back for clipping.

After scoring only once in the first quarter, the Irish were a ticking bomb. That bomb detonated furiously in the second, scoring 32 points offensively, defensively, and through special teams.

On the first play of the second quarter Ismail swept around the right side for a 26-yard gain, getting knocked out of bounds at the one. Holtz then inserted Pete Graham at quarterback, allowing him to score his first career touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak.

SMU bounced back, scoring a touchdown with a little help from an Irish miscue. After forcing SMU to punt, Ismail tried to catch the punt with his facemask. The ball bounced away and SMU recovered on the Notre Dame 19. Three plays later quarterback Mike Romo threw five yards to a diving Andy Bergfeld in the comer of the end zone. It was the Mustang’s first and only score of the day.

After the touchdown the Irish defense decided to take matters into its own hands. Nick Smith blocked the extra-point and Andre Jones returned it 91 yards for two points. Jones’ return marked the first-ever defensive extra point conversion in Notre Dame history.

Leading 16-6, Notre Dame received the kickoff and started at their 34. Rick Mirer entered the game at quarterback and completed his first pass to Watters over the middle for a 31-yard gain. After failing to convert a first down after that, Billy Hackett kicked a 34-yard field goal.

The Notre Dame defense once again stopped the Mustangs’ Run-and-Shoot offense and forced a punt. The punt sent Watters backpedaling inside his own five yard line and left fans wondering why he would field a punt so deep in his own territory. Watters answered quickly by breaking three tackles en route to a spectacular 97-yard touchdown run. The punt return gave him two touchdowns for the game to go along with 69 rushing yards on seven carries, a team best for the day.

Notre Dame drove 64 yards on its very next possession for a touchdown. A 29-yard pass from Rice to Ismail keyed a drive that Anthony Johnson finished with a four-yard plunge up the middle.

On the ensuing kickoff SMU fielded the ball and attempted a lateral inside their own five. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, Jones was there to make the stop at the three. Three plays later Notre Dame’s defense scored again when SMU punter Casey Clyce stepped out of the end zone for a safety.

Notre Dame received the free kick and started at its own 25. With Graham at quarterback the Irish came out throwing. Graham completed two passes to William Pollard, the first good for 10 yards and the second for 37. Walter Boyd completed the drive with a 14-yard touchdown run up the middle with 15 seconds left in the half.

The 42-point first half may have showed off Notre Dame’s offensive power, but the defensive unit was equally if not more dominant. Through the first half the Irish defense had allowed only one touchdown, and that occurred after a turnover deep in their own end. The pass defense was unyielding, holding Romo and the Mustang Run-and-Shoot offense to merely 70 yards passing. They also held SMU to -1 yards on the ground.

The second half saw a change in the face of the game. The domination continued but the scoring and high-powered offense was toned down. Holtz took advantage of the large lead to clear his bench, allowing his younger players a chance to shine. Notre Dame’s defensive unit didn’t let up at all as freshmen, walk-ons and other reserves recorded three interceptions in the second half.

The Irish still managed to score two touchdowns and a field goal by game’s end. Setzer scored on a two-yard run, Billy Hackett kicked his second field goal of the game from 32 yards out and Rod West blasted into the end zone from one yard out to finish the day’s scoring.

Four Irish players scored their first career touchdowns in this game. While sophomores Boyd and Setzer scored on runs of 14 and two yards, respectively, senior role players Graham and West took advantage of this game to score the first and only touchdowns of their collegiate careers.

Though watching reserves finish a game usually isn’t very exciting, it was most fitting in a game of this nature. Not only was it a show of the future for Notre Dame football, but also a deserved chance for many older reserves who paid their dues for four years.

Said senior D’Juan Francisco, “I am very happy with today’s game not for myself, but that some of the people who have been here since I got here got the chance to show themselves out on the field today.”

Even this game, so dominated by the Irish, was not perfect. Notre Dame fumbled seven times, losing three.

Said Holtz, “It was a good game because we got to playa lot of people. It was a bad game because we made some mistakes and got away with them.”

Perfect or not, Notre Dame was a convincing winner. They moved their record to 10-0 and retained their number one ranking. The Irish also finished a third consecutive undefeated home schedule.

As Johnson summed up, “It’s still great to go out with the win.”

I might share one more story from the 1989 season next week, as we’ve reached the end of this series ... unless one of you has a request of a game for me to look back at. I hope you all are having a fantastic week!

Cheers & GO IRISH!