Irish Surprise: 1988

Editor’s Note: Over the past five seasons, Notre Dame is 32-31, has tied the school record for most consecutive seasons with at least five losses (five) and is one short of tying the school record of six straight seasons not finishing in the top 25.

Tony Rice overcame critics to help lead the Irish to the 1988 national title.

Can the Irish get out of their funk in 2012 and break the spell? At least 10 other Notre Dame teams did. Our criteria include, 1) how long has the program been slumping? 2) how much did it struggle a year earlier? And 3) how dramatic was the turnaround season? At No. 2 is 1988.

Previous Year(s)
In the seven seasons from 1981-87, Notre Dame was a modest 43-36-1 and had not posted a single major bowl victory. It was 30-26-1 under head coach Gerry Faust from 1981-85, and then 5-6 and 8-4 in Lou Holtz’s first two seasons.

In the winter of 1987, Holtz and Co. signed what was generally believed to be the nation’s No. 1 class with future stalwarts such as nose guard Chris Zorich, defensive tackle George Williams, cornerback Todd Lyght, running backs Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks, plus offensive linemen Mike Heldt and Tim Ryan, and Kent Graham, named the national quarterback of the year by the Washington D.C. Touchdown Club.

Then in 1988, another No. 1 class was signed, led by Parade magazine Player of the Year Derek Brown and six tailbacks, including Raghib “Rocket” Ismail.

There was one phrase that was repeated throughout the pre-season of 1988: “Notre Dame is making strides .. but it’s a year away.” In 1988, there was way too much construction and rebuilding that had to take place — even though the program hadn’t been good enough the past seven years to have to rebuild.

• Gone was 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown.

• Gone were the entire offensive (including four fifth-year seniors) and defensive lines from the previous year, although returning junior guard Tim Grunhard did start four games in 1987. Tight end Andy Heck would have to move to left offensive tackle as a senior.

• Gone was 1986 USA Today Defensive Player of the Year John Foley. The defensive end suffered an injury that ended his football career in the 35-10 loss to Texas A&M in the Jan. 1, 1988 Cotton Bowl.

It marked the third straight defeat by the Irish, who also lost 21-20 at Penn State and 24-0 at national champ Miami. Holtz appeared drained after the shellacking against A&M. In its last three games, Notre Dame allowed 252 yards rushing per game, and the Irish would be extremely green in 1988, hence “the year away” mantra.

Still, Holtz did note in the Cotton Bowl press room before departing, “I remember the last time Notre Dame lost badly in a bowl. It turned out to be pretty good the next year.”

He was referring to the 40-6 drubbing the Irish received from Nebraska in the Jan. 1, 1973 Orange Bowl. The following season, head coach Ara Parseghian directed an 11-0 finish that resulted in a national title and stayed true to his vow that “from these ashes, Notre Dame will rise.”

That’s all fine and well … but the 1988 Irish were not championship timber with completely new offensive and defensive lines, no Brown and huge question marks at quarterback.

Junior Tony Rice was a marvelous athlete, which is why a lot of the fandom clamored for him to move to running back, receiver or defensive back. He was the wrong fit at quarterback. As a sophomore, he completed only 35 of his 85 pass attempts (41.2 percent) with only one TD and four interceptions — and that was with Brown as a target.

“He can’t pass, he can’t pass, he can’t pass,” uttered his critics repeatedly. Football is a passing game. This is the 1980s, and option football had become passé. Penn State became the first national champion (1982) to pass for more yards than it ran, Miami emerged as a superpower via a wide open attack, winning national titles in 1983 and 1987 … BYU won the national title in 1984 … Florida State had become a top-5 program with the pass … Doug Flutie’s passing led Boston College to a top-5 finish in 1984 … The passing skills of Rodney Peete at USC made him a top Heisman threat in 1988 …

And now in the spring of 1988, Rice was at it again. He completed only 28 of his 77 passes (36.3 percent) in five scrimmages for 285 yards, three interceptions and two TDs. In the Blue-Gold Game, Rice’s Blue team lost 27-9, and the lone TD by his team was scored by the defense. He was 6 of 19 with two interceptions.

When, oh when, will Holtz learn that he can’t win with the option? When, oh when, will he come to his senses and start Graham — or Steve Belles — at quarterback instead?

Maybe the Irish could be 8-4 again … but it won’t get to the next level this way, especially with a schedule that includes Miami, Michigan and Penn State at home, plus Michigan State, Pitt and USC on the road

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
A month before the opener versus No. 9 Michigan, a local South Bend news station reported Rice would be academically ineligible for the season. This was received with mixed emotions.

On one hand, Notre Dame would have to start anew at quarterback, a fourth new starter in three years. On the other, it might be a blessing in disguise, thereby allowing Graham to take the reins.

The report proved false, and Rice remained at the throttle. He began the season 5 of 21 through the air, but special teams scored all the points in the 19-17 victory versus Michigan, highlighted by four field goals, the last with 1:13 left, by 5-5, 131-pound walk-on and pre-med major Reggie Ho. The next week in a defensive slugfest at Michigan State, an interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Michael Stonebreaker clinched the 20-3 victory.

But a funny thing happened along the way to the showdown with No. 1 Miami on Oct. 15. Rice’s accuracy kept getting better to augment the option game while posting victories over Purdue (52-7), Stanford (42-14) and Pitt (30-20).

Then in one of the epic moments in Notre Dame Stadium history, the Irish never trailed and hung on for a 31-30 victory. Rice’s eight completions in 16 attempts netted 195 yards, fifth-year senior rush end Frank Stams came from nowhere to emerge as an All-America candidate, helping the Irish defense force seven turnovers versus the Hurricanes, and Pat Terrell broke up the attempted two-point conversion by Miami in the closing seconds.

The Irish were routinely starting 10 to 12 sophomores, most notably Zorich and George Williams along the defensive line to join junior Jeff Alm, none of whom had been starters, or even barely played, a year earlier.

When the 10-0 and No. 1 Irish rolled into 10-0 and No. 2 USC, Holtz suspended leading rusher Tony Brooks and leading receiver Watters for repeated tardiness. No problems. The galvanized Notre Dame team responded with a 27-10 victory, with inside linebacker Wes Pritchett a force against the run, Stams applying the heat on Peete and junior cornerback Stan Smagala returning an interception 64 yards for a touchdown to nearly match Rice’s 65-yard touchdown run to open the scoring.

The 34-21 Fiesta Bowl victory over 11-0 West Virginia almost became anti-climactic. Rice threw for 213 yards on only seven completions, and added 75 yards on the ground. The 1988 Irish became the first team in college football to defeat four teams that finished in the AP top 10 — Miami (2), Michigan (4), West Virginia (5) and USC (7) — since the 1945 Army juggernaut.

From 43-36-1 the previous seven years, with a three-game losing streak, to national champs. “Where did that come from?”

Epilogue
Notre Dame was supposed to be a year away, so naturally the thought process was that the Irish would win multiple titles under Holtz, maybe even eclipse the four under Frank Leahy in the 1940s.

The 12-1 Irish came extremely close in 1989 but finished No. 2 despite defeating eight teams that finished in the top 25. It narrowly missed in 1993 at 11-1 despite defeating eventual champ and No. 1 Florida State, 31-24, on Nov. 13. It closed with four straight wins over ranked teams in 1992 and probably was the best team in the country by the end of the year, but a top-5 finish had to suffice. It was No. 1 in November 1990, but couldn’t quite close.

It just revealed again how difficult it is to climb to the summit.

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