clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Football VS Tennessee in Knoxville 1990

Notre Dame escapes the unfriendly confines of Knoxville, Tennessee with a thrilling 34-29 victory over the 9th-ranked Volunteers  

NCAA Football: USA TODAY Sports-Archive
Nov 10, 1990; Knoxville, TN, USA; FILE PHOTO; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quaterback Rick Mirer (3) in action against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

We’re almost there ... just over a week until Notre Dame faces off against Navy in Ireland. Next week I’ll throwback to the first Notre Dame VS Navy game in Ireland, but this week I thought I’d look back at one of my favorite games as a student: Notre Dame VS Tennessee in Knoxville, in 1990.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have played the Tennessee Volunteers a total of eight times, with each team winning four times. Notre Dame’s largest margin of victory is 41-21 in 2005, and Tennessee’s largest margin of victory is 38-14 in 1999. Notre Dame’s longest win streak is two (2004-2005), and Tennessee’s longest win streak is three (1991-2001). Notre Dame’s all time record is 938-335-42 (.729), and Tennessee’s all time record is 867-410-53 (.672). Note Dame has had 107 consensus All-American’s to Tennessee’s 41. Notre Dame has had seven Heisman Trophy winners, to Tennessee’s zero. Notre Dame has had 525 NFL Draft picks to Tennessee’s 360. And Notre Dame has had 70 first round NFL Draft picks, to Tennessee’s 47.

The follow excerpt of the 1990 match-up between Notre Dame and Tennessee is from the Scholastic Magazine’s 1990 Football Review (Vol 132, #12), written by Andy Hilger.

Road Warriors

Notre Dame escapes the unfriendly confines of Knoxville, Tennessee with a thrilling 34-29 victory over the 9th-ranked Volunteers

November 10, 1990, Knoxville, TN-
Knoxville, Tennessee, is nothing if not an exceedingly hostile environment to take a football team into. Football is a religion and the Tennessee Volunteers are gods. Opposing teams have been known to be shaken to their very souls. Notre Dame held strong though, and escaped with a win, their number one ranking and a ticket to Miami.

Rod Smith’s fingertip interception silenced the crowd and stunned an explosive Tennessee football team, preserving the victory for the top-ranked Irish. The Volunteers had roared back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit only to watch Smith, starting for the first time since the Michigan game, drift back and snag Andy Kelly’s pass five yards away from an uncovered Carl Pickens. Smith, who had been burned by Alvin Harper on a similar play moments earlier, correctly read the route and adjusted his coverage. “I wasn’t really supposed to be in that position,” said Smith, “but I knew he was trying to go deep towards the corner of the end zone.” The two teams treated a crowd of 97,123 to “a tremendous college football game,” in the words of Lou Holtz. “We deserved to win the game. Tennessee could say the same thing.”

The victory locked up a second straight trip to the Orange Bowl for Notre Dame who, although top-ranked, were slight underdogs against the Vols.

Ricky Watters’ discovery of a tough running style helped propel the Irish to victory. In addition to his own touchdown carries of ten and 66 yards, the senior captain from Harrisburg, PA, threw a key lead block to spring Raghib Ismail for a 44-yard run which made the score 34-23 late in the fourth quarter.

Watters, after fumbling twice in the loss to Stanford, had seen reduced playing time in the four games since. Meanwhile, after a shaky outing against Michigan, Holtz revamped the secondary, landing Smith a spot on the sidelines. “We were both on the outs,” said Watters, although both their silenced critics with with fine performances that day.

But there was more than critics to be silenced. The second largest crowd in Neyland Stadium history erupted during every Tennessee uprising. The tremendous throng in attendance, accompanied by blaring loudspeakers, continuously rained down the chorus of “Rocky Top” upon the visitors.

The Irish were prepared for just such a reception. ‘’The crowd was loud and all over us, but we practiced all week in this environment,” said Holtz, referring to a recorded simulation of Knoxville crowd noises which shook the Loftus indoor facility during practices.

By week’s end, muffling the Tennessee faithful served as added incentive for the Irish. The play which would have Rick Mirer drop to one knee to end the game was renamed “Rocky Top” during practice.

The Volunteers, however, were determined to make such a scenario impossible. After a conservatively played first half ended with the Irish in front 10-6, Tennessee exploded on their first possession of the second half. Pickens, who ran through the Notre Dame secondary all afternoon, caught three passes and drew a pass interference penalty to bring the ball to the visitor’s ten yard line. Following an incomplete pass, quarterback Andy Kelly read blitz and called a draw play to Tony Thompson, who skirted into the end zone, giving Tennessee a 13-10 lead.

It was gut-check time for the Irish. Three weeks earlier, Tennessee broke a 3-3 halftime tie with Florida with a kickoff return for a touchdown. They went on to tally 42 unanswered points.

On the next possession, though, Ricky Watters made it abundantly clear that Notre Dame would not suffer a similar fate. Twenty-four seconds after Thompson scored, Watters raced 66 yards into the opposite end zone to reclaim the lead for Notre Dame. Often criticized for his soft running style, the tri -captain ran over three would-be tacklers on the way to his longest run since his freshman year.

The see-saw battle continued on the next series. Kelly, who had a record setting day, guided the offense on a nine play, 80-yard drive which culminated with a 32- yard scoring strike from Kelly to Alvin Harper, who was closely defended by Todd Lyght.

The action did not stop there. “Effective but sloppy” became watchwords for the Irish. With a chance to put the game out of reach, Notre Dame moved inside the Tennessee five yard line on two occasions but generated only three points.

Want more? Keep reading the story here, on page 37.

Next week I start doing throwbacks on each of Notre Dame’s 2023 opponents.

What game are you most looking forward to?

Cheers & GO IRISH!