There was something special about Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian’s and Dan Devine’s third years as Head Coach; each won national titles; Brian Kelly reached the BCS National Championship Game in his third season also; while Lou Holtz led his 1988 Notre Dame football team to capture one as well in just his third season.
Holtz had taken over a program facing difficult times and struggled to a 5-6 record against a challenging schedule in 1986. Notre Dame made strides forward the following season by earning a Cotton Bowl bid, although losses against Miami and Texas A&M suggested more work had to be done before reaching national elite status; preseason polls in 1988 reflected that sentiment by ranking Notre Dame #13 overall.
Notre Dame employed the option offensive style, and their powerful running attack used junior quarterback Tony Rice’s average passing skills while remaining error-free as a team leader in rushing. Mark Green and Tony Brooks provided a balanced backfield, with future NFL star Ricky Watters often being one of his targets out of the backfield. On occasion, big plays could go to explosive sophomore receiver Raghib Ismail.
Notre Dame was at its defensive best. Led by Barry Alvarez – later to become one of Wisconsin’s legendary head coaches – Chris Zorich, an NFL talent himself, was playing defensive tackle. Pat Terrell provided solid corner coverage. And, of course, there was the “Three Amigos” — Frank Stams, Wes Pritchett and Michael Stonebreaker!
Stonebreaker was an appropriate name for a defensive football player.
Michigan would arrive in South Bend as one of the nation’s top teams and begin its year under the bright lights. Ranked ninth nationally, Michigan would eventually win the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl. Watters made an early statement with an 81-yard punt return touchdown before defenses and kickers settled down into their roles.
Notre Dame never scored an offensive touchdown, but diminutive kicker Reggie Ho kept knocking field goals through. With 1:13 remaining, Ho hit his fourth field goal to give Notre Dame a 19-17 edge; Michigan then stormed downfield and got an opportunity but, in the end, came up short; it was a massive victory for Notre Dame to start the season with.
Holtz’s team ran through Michigan State 20-3 to advance to number #4 in the polls before facing Miami at South Bend for their showdown game a month later. Notre Dame continued winning convincingly, beating Purdue, Stanford, and Pitt before meeting #1-ranked Miami in South Bend for its showdown match-up.
Notre Dame still held a grudge from 1985, when they believed Miami ran up the score during Gerry Faust’s final game as head coach (although Faust does not hold Miami responsible).
Miami was well known for its aggressive play and trash talk, leading to iconic T-shirts on the Notre Dame campus reading “Catholics vs. Convicts”. This battle became one of college football’s many “Games of the Century” and indeed played out accordingly on the field.
Notre Dame received a key interception from Terrell, who took it back for a touchdown to put Notre Dame ahead 21-7 early in the second quarter. Steve Walsh led two consecutive scoring drives led by Miami tight end Rob Chudzinski, which resulted in scores–though one touchdown may have been disproved as it appeared to have been recovered by Notre Dame, but officials ruled it as an incomplete pass thus sending it into halftime tied 21-21.
The Irish defense was relentless, collecting six turnovers by the fourth quarter when they held a 31-24 advantage. Walsh completed a pass to running back Cleveland Gary near the goalline; according to officials’ ruling, he fumbled, and Notre Dame recovered it; however, replays revealed Gary had actually been down, and Miami should have had first down and goal instead.
Notre Dame returned the ball immediately, leading Miami into a fourth-and-goal situation in the closing minute. Walsh lofted a pass to Andre Brown in the front-right corner of the end zone – an eventual touchdown pass was successful!
The Hurricanes decided to attempt a two-point conversion to win the game. Running back Leonard Conley was thrown to in the endzone but Terrellbatted it away and secured Notre Dame victory 31-30 in one of college football’s greatest matches.
Notre Dame was still #2 in the polls behind UCLA with Troy Aikman at quarterback, having recently defeated Air Force and Navy while UCLA suffered an upset loss against Texas A&M. Notre Dame rose to #1 while USC rose to #2; both teams would eventually meet on Thanksgiving weekend in Los Angeles for an epic clash of titans.
Irish delivered on their promises by defeating Penn State 31-3 for an undefeated 10-0 record, while the Trojans took care of UCLA to secure a Rose Bowl bid was another Game of the Century on tap?
Notre Dame got off to a rough start this time- not on the field but before kickoff. Despite multiple warnings, Watters and Brooks arrived late for team meetings; Holtz suspended both players as punishment.
Holtz had been charged with similar actions after leading Arkansas against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl following the 1977 season and won, paving the way for the Razorbacks upset win in the Orange Bowl. Could history be repeating itself here?
Notre Dame was dominant against USC, with Rice running an option play for a 65-yard touchdown early on and defensive back Stan Smagala intercepting Trojan quarterback Rodney Peete for a Pick-6. By halftime, the score had increased to 20-3; Notre Dame eventually won 27-10 to seal its perfect regular season record.
Only West Virginia stood between the Irish and a National Championship. Their dominance by getting short touchdown runs from fullbacks Anthony Johnson and Rodney Culver, and throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Ismail from Rice for a 23-3 lead at halftime. West Virginia quarterback Major Harris’ immense talent could not get anything going until finally making things interesting in the third quarter with a touchdown pass to make things 26-13.
Once Harris was injured, any chance for West Virginia was gone. Notre Dame added an insurance touchdown while West Virginia scored one last minute without significance, giving Notre Dame a 34-21 win.
Notre Dame won its most recent national championship since Holtz took over, though other bowl teams assembled under him (e.g. 1989 and 1993) also made compelling cases for winning it all. But 1988 remains Notre Dame’s golden moment on the football field for Notre Dame in the last 45 years.
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