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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football VS Michigan, 1998

Declawing the Champs

Kory Minor
Sept. 5, 1998; South Bend, Indiana; Kory Minor #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish waits for the ball to be snapped during a game against the Michigan Wolverines at the Notre Dame Stadium. The Fighting Irish defeated the Wolverines 36-20.

In light of Tom Brady’s (second) retirement last week, I thought I’d look back at Brady’s one and only trip to South Bend for the Notre Dame vs. Michigan game in 1998. The Notre Dame defense sacked Brady three times during the match-up (Kory Minor, Deveron Harper, and Joe Thomas), didn’t allow a touchdown until 23 seconds remained in the first half, and dominated the second half, holding Michigan scoreless until freshman Drew Henson led the visitors to a worthless touchdown with two minutes left. Linebacker Jimmy Friday also provided one of the day’s biggest thrills, blocking a 40-yard field goal attempt and setting up Denson’s second touchdown.

The following walk down memory lane is an excerpt is from the Scholastic Magazine 1998 Notre Dame Football Review, written by Andrew Nutting. I hope you enjoy it!

Declawing the Champs

The defending National Champs fell to the Irish in the season opener.

by Andrew Nutting

“I think everyone had written Notre Dame off,” said senior running back Autry Denson after the Irish smacked Michigan 36-20 to open the season. “But we knew good things were going to happen.” For the first time since the Gerry Faust regime, the Irish indeed had been written off as a national title contender. The 1997 season’s bitter conclusion, a 27-9 mauling at the claws of LSU, had negated the year’s biggest win. The final regular-season game had been an embarrassing one-point, last second edging of the perennially irrelevant Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. A new quarterback handling the snaps and a second-year coach who hadn’t showed any particular genius in his first season led cynics to predict a painful year.

It didn’t help matters that the Irish were lining up against the Michigan Wolverines, whose shiny 1997 national championship trophy had yet to collect dust and whose defeat of the Irish last year remained fresh in all fans’ minds. The Maize and Blue returned nine starters from a defense that allowed just 9.5 points a game, featured one of the top recruiting classes in the country and had the confidence of a 10-foot-tall Philistine.

But, as Denson said, good things happened. Not good things, actually, great things. A combination of stalwart defensive play in the first haIf, brilliant second half offensive execution and some timely Wolverine mistakes enabled the Irish to saunter off the field after the game back at the top of the world of college football.

The Irish didn’t systematically destroy Michigan. Denson kicked the season off with a bang, taking the first Irish play up the middle for 58 yards before being caught at the Michigan 14. After the electrifying opening, though, the offense died. The next two plays netted minus-1 yards, and third down was wasted when, in the end zone, Malcolm Johnson dropped a pass from Jarious Jackson. Jim Sanson’s 32-yard field goal tied the game at 3-3.

In the entire first quarter, the Irish ran just five plays and held the ball for only three minutes. Denson’s opening blast was more than half of the team’s 114 first half yards.

Jackson, the redshirt junior making his first start at quarterback, struggled in the first half. He missed numerous open receivers, completing only one of six attempts. His 33-yard completion to Raki Nelson did set up a second quarter field goal by Sanson, but only after Jackson badly overthrew to Johnson in the end zone.

“We felt like we didn’t get enough plays to get in a rhythm,” said senior tackle Mike Rosenthal of the first half. The defense, on the other hand, was on the field long enough for a full game.

The Blue and Gold’s defense was not as inept as its offense in the first half and eventually let Michigan cause its own downfall through a series of missed field goals. Michigan’s Iong opening drive encompassed 15 plays and swallowed 5:23 off the clock, but the Wolverines were forced to settle for a 36-yard field goal after Irish defenders stopped Michigan at the 19.

Michigan’s drive following Sanson’s first field goal racked up another 66 yards before A’Jani Sanders dropped Justin Fargas at the ND 16, one yard short of a first down, forcing the field goal. Baker’s 33 yard chip shot attempt was wide left. Baker would miss again in the first half, coming up a few feet short of the crossbar from 43 yards in the middle of the second quarter.

“We have no excuses,” said Michigan Head Coach Lloyd Carr after the game. “We had a lot of opportunities we didn’t the other hand, take advantage of.”

Michigan finally got a few more points on the board when kicker Craig Baker was benched in favor of Jan Feely. Feely’s 21-yarder capped a 54-yard Wolverine drive initiated by Travis Knight’s phenomenal reception. In midair, Knight outmuscled the ball from Irish cornerback Deveron Harper, falling to the ground with pigskin for a 42-yard gain.

Despite their problems, the Irish defense didn’t allow a touchdown until 23 seconds remained in the first half. On second and goal from the one, Michigan’s offensive line allowed enough space for quarterback Tom Brady to break the plane. The extra point put the Irish behind 13-6 going into the half. In the locker room, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison expressed frustration with the Irish tendency to let Brady and running back Clarence Williams steadily drive deep into Notre Dame territory. “I told our players that it was their own fault they were on the field so long.” Mattison said, “We had them in third down so many times and we didn’t get off the field.”

Mattison was right. In the first half, the Irish were outgained 269-114 in total yardage, ran 32 fewer plays and had possession for 10 fewer minutes. Pure fortune, not efficient football, allowed the Irish to be down by 7 instead of by as much as 28.

Running backs coach Desmond Robinson said, “You can look at plays and say ‘almost.’ We had a lot of plays in the first half that were ‘almost’ plays. But in the second half, we took those ‘almost’ plays and turned them into big plays.”

That they did. The Irish scored 30 points, ran for over 200 yards and capitalized on two early Michigan turnovers in the second half. Jackson, who had rushed 5 times for 12 yards in the first half, ran 11 times for 61 in the second, showcasing the best Irish option attack since Tony Rice was behind center. He also completed three-of-four passes, including two for touchdowns.

“I knew number seven would play better in the second half,” said head coach Bob Davie. “I’ve just seen him in situations before and I knew he could play better - he knew he could play better than he played.” Denson also impressed the coaches with his vigorous running game. After garnering two second-half touchdowns and finishing the day with 163 yards rushing, offensive coordinator Jim Colletto said, “Autry Denson may have had his best day running the football.”

Sanson’s third field goal got things going for the Irish in the second half. On the ensuing kickoff, Clarence Williams had gained significant yardage when he was hit by Irish cornerback Brock Williams. The ball came loose, and safety Tony Driver recovered for Notre Dame.

Williams’ monster hit paid off with a four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dan O’Leary, the first of O’Leary’s career and the team’s first of the 38-minute old season.

And before ushers could tell more students to remove their “Michigan Sucks” T-shirts, Notre Dame had the ball back again. Freshman defensive lineman Anthony Weaver stripped Ray Jackson of the ball in the backfield, and sophomore linebacker Grant Irons, jumped on the ball at the Michigan 35.

“Turnovers, then doing something with them, is a big part of the game,” Colletto said.

Jackson did something with it soon thereafter. First, he dropped back from the center, lost his balance and nearly fell over. Then, he recovered just in time to see two Wolverine linemen mere feet away, and uncorked an on-the-money pass to the wide open Nelson. Jackson’s Tupelo Twist earned a 6.0 for artistic impression, and Nelson’s waltz into the end zone earned six points on the scoreboard. Sanson’s PAT gave the Irish a 23-13 lead; one they would not relinquish.

Davie and the players attributed the team’s improved performance in the second half not to “halftime adjustments,” but to mental focus and execution. “At halftime,” said Davie, “I told the kids to stay positive. I told them I don’t want one negative thought or one negative word on that sideline.”

Denson was equally happy about the team’s second-half turnaround. After putting the game out of reach with two short fourth-quarter touchdowns, Denson said, “We made up our minds that the defense had carried us the whole first half. We just wanted to pull our weight in the second half.”

The Irish resolve to play a perfect second half hadn’t just been a spontaneous halftime decision, though. The summer had been dedicated to bulking up and increasing stamina after last season’s disappointment. “That has been our focus since we lost in Shreveport [to LSU in the Independence Bowl] last year,” said senior fullback Jamie Spencer. “We made a promise to ourselves and to each other that we were going to play 60 minutes.”

New strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti had much to do with increasing the Irish’s brawn. Marotti had players lifting weights and pushing vans all summer. The effects were clear when the Irish appeared stronger than the Wolverines in the trenches as the game wore on. “Notre Dame did an outstanding job blocking us,” acknowledged Carr. “I think our front line got handled.”

Notre Dame’s defense also dominated the second half, holding Michigan scoreless until freshman Drew Henson led the visitors to a worthless touchdown with two minutes left. Linebacker Jimmy Friday also provided one of the day’s biggest thrills, blocking a 40-yard field goal attempt and setting up Denson’s second touchdown.

The Notre Dame student body euphorically rushed the field before time expired, and were ordered back to the sidelines so the gun could officially be sounded. Players and fans marched off the field, making the tunnel the most raucous spot in South Bend since the 1993 defeat of Florida State.

“It’s called playing out of your chest,” said Denson, summarizing the second-half thrashing of the defending national champs. “You play with a lot of heart and soul, and that’s what we were all about today.”

I’ll leave you with the video from the Strong and True series (#31 of 125):


In 1998, Notre Dame opened the season at home against Michigan, the defending co-national champion. Led by future NFL great Tom Brady, the #5 Wolverines fumbled twice in the third quarter, and the #22 Fighting Irish capitalized with touchdowns on each of the ensuing drives. Thanks in part to two touchdown passes from Jarious Jackson (’00) and a pair of rushing scores by Autry Denson (’99), Notre Dame pulled off a 36-20 upset. In this Strong and True moment, look back on the game through NBC’s highlights of the memorable Irish victory, and as narrated by Fighting Irish Digital Media’s Jack Nolan.

Cheers & GO IRISH!