Lou Holtz arrived at Notre Dame for the 1986 college football season, and even though the Irish finished the season 5-6, the close losses to several top teams seemed to indicate that Holtz had the program on the way back. The 1987 Notre Dame football season confirmed those indications, as the Irish reached their first major bowl game since 1980.
Tim Brown was the star of the show. The wide receiver and punt returner had a huge buildup—even by Notre Dame’s PR standards—for the Heisman Trophy in the summer leading up to the 1987 season.
It might be a stretch to say Brown as good as advertised—because no one can good enough to live up to that kind of hype. But he was as good as any realistic person can expect, again having a big year catching the ball, returning it and fulfilling the Heisman prophesies in a landslide victory.
Brown’s achievements—846 receiving yards, 144 more rushing and three punt returns brought back to the house—are even more impressive when you consider there wasn’t an elite group of talent around him. The quarterback to open the season was Terry Andrysiak, a game-manager college quarterback, not destined to go any higher. The running game had nice balance, with Mark Green leading the way. But most of the best players on the roster were still fairly young.
Notre Dame was ranked #16 to start the season and they traveled to Ann Arbor for the traditional opening game with Michigan. The Wolverines were coming off a Rose Bowl run in 1986, were ranked #9 and had the usual high expectations of the Bo Schembecler era. Notre Dame caught everyone by surprise, not so much by winning, but doing so easily. Michigan turned it over seven times, Andrysiak was an efficient 11/15 for 137 yards and Notre Dame won 26-7, moving into the Top 10 in the polls.
You could dismiss that result on the grounds that this would not prove to be a vintage Michigan team. But the team that replaced the Wolverines on top of the Big Ten was Michigan State and they were next in line to get beat on by the Irish.
A prime-time game in South Bend began when Spartan return man Blake Ezor took the opening kickoff, stepped out of the end zone, stepped back and knelt down, and ND was rewarded with a safety before a second had ticked off the clock. Brown ran two punts back for touchdowns and Notre Dame rolled to a 31-8 win over a team that would win the Rose Bowl.
Purdue and posted an easy 44-20 win, and the Irish were now fourth in the polls. Then things came undone at Pitt. The Panthers were on their way to an 8-3 season behind a big 265-pound running back, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, who would have himself a nice NFL career. Pitt jumped out to a 27-0 lead and though Notre Dame made the final respectable, at 30-22, it was never a game.
The Irish dropped back to #11 in the rankings, but the bigger problem was that Andrysiak had broken a collarbone. It turned out this was a case of an injury just meaning an opportunity for the right backup.
Sophomore Tony Rice got the job. Rice was a runner and that meant the offense would shift strongly to the option, something Holtz already favored. The quarterback would eventually lead a national championship team in 1988 and finish fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1989. It was mid-October of 1987, when Notre Dame was still 3-1 and hoping their season wouldn’t unravel, that Rice got his career started.
Four consecutive wins got Holtz’s team moved back up to #7. Notre Dame easily beat an Air Force team that was en route to nine wins and also knocked off USC. The Trojans were Rose Bowl-bound themselves, although their push would come late and they were unranked at the time of their October visit to South Bend.
The record was now 7-1 and a visit from Alabama was next. In 1986, a visit to ‘Bama had been the only game Notre Dame did at least stay competitive in. The Irish had a score to settle with the 10th-ranked Crimson Tide and settle it they did.
After a slow first quarter, with the game tied 3-3, the Irish ground game took over. They finished the game with 348 yards rushing. Rice ran for a second-quarter touchdown and passed for one more. Notre Dame got two long touchdown runs in the fourth quarter. The game ended 37-6, Notre Dame was up to #7 in the polls and national title talk was back in the air in South Bend.
There was a long row to hoe for the national championship, but a path did exist. The #1 ranked team in the country would be the winner of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game coming up on November 21, with the Big Eight powers ranked 1-2 in the polls. Miami had the inside track for spot opposite the winner of that game in the Orange Bowl.
But…Notre Dame would get the chance to play Miami on the road. The Irish also had to play at Penn State on November 21. If Notre Dame won those two games, could they vault all the way to #2? You would certainly put them past Miami and #4 Florida State, who had lost to the Hurricanes.
The Irish would realistically, and deservingly, move past #5 UCLA, a one-loss team (and UCLA would be upset by USC in any event). Notre Dame would also push past the loser of the Nebraska-OU game, though the Orange Bowl would not have created a rematch in either case.
That left #6 Syracuse. The Orange were undefeated and would finish the regular season as such. Could ND have gone past Syracuse? My guess is the Irish probably would have. It wouldn’t have been fair—Syracuse had beaten Pitt, the one team ND had lost to—but late Notre Dame road victories over Penn State and Miami would have been hard for a voter to get past.
Here’s the problem with that scenario—it’s all well and good to talk about the marquee and political value of beating Penn State, the defending national champion on the road and then doing the same to Miami. It’s another thing to step on the field and make it happen. And that’s where Notre Dame’s 1987 story finally runs out of steam.
Notre Dame committed two key turnovers at Penn State and trailed 21-14 with four minutes left. Rice led a 70-yard drive for the tying touchdown, but the Lions sniffed out the two-point conversion and sacked the young quarterback before he began his sprint-out to the right.
The 21-20 loss in Happy Valley ended the national title dream, and then Notre Dame crashed with a thud in Miami, losing 24-0 to a team that was simply too fast and would ultimately defeat Oklahoma to win the national championship.
Notre Dame would be rewarded with a Cotton Bowl bid and in the schedule break, Brown picked up his Heisman. The Cotton Bowl had been the site of ND’s last national title in 1977 and of an epic Joe Montana comeback in 1978. It would also be where Notre Dame returned to the New Year’s stage in 1987.
The game against Texas A&M didn’t go well. The 13th-ranked Aggies had a speed advantage and they ended up routing the Irish 35-10. The three straight losses were a disappointing way to end the season. But after two straight years of sub-.500 play, Notre Dame had finally made its way back. And there bigger wins in their immediate future.