Notre Dame was coming off two of its best years of the Lou Holtz era, having won a national championship in 1988 and finishing #2 in the nation in 1989. The 1990 Notre Dame football team looked like it might be a worthy heir in that line of succession before a gutwrenching regular season loss ended their title hopes and an equally anguish-ridden bowl loss finished the season.
Rick Mirer had been one of the top quarterback recruits in the country and as a sophomore he stepped into the starting job. Mirer had a deep backfield, with Rodney Culver and Ricky Watters leading the way. Raghib Ismail, the explosive receiver and return man, who also lined up in the backfield, finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Even with a young quarterback, the pollsters ranked Lou Holtz’s Irish #2 in the nation to start the season.
Before Notre Dame even played a game they were moved up to #1, as top-ranked Miami was upset at BYU. The Irish opened the season at home, under the lights against #4 Michigan on September 15. Notre Dame moved out to an early 14-3 lead, but Wolverine quarterback Elvis Grbac brought his team back. He threw one touchdown pass to Desmond Howard, then threw another and then ran for one more.
The score was 24-14 in the fourth quarter, when Mirer began to do the stuff of legends under the Golden Dome. He pulled the Irish to within three points and then got the ball on his own 24-yard line. A 76-yard drive was capped off with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Adrian Jarrell with 1:40 left and Notre Dame had a 28-24 win.
More magic was in the air the next week at East Lansing when Notre Dame visited #24 Michigan State. This time they trailed 19-7 in the fourth quarter. Again, Mirer led one touchdown drive to get his team in position and then began another drive for the win. The Irish reached the Spartan 26-yard-line with less than a minute to play.
Mirer rifled a pass toward the goal line that should have been intercepted. Instead, it hit the chest of Michigan State’s Todd Murray, bounced into the air and was snagged by an alert Jarrell. One play later, Culver plunged over for the touchdown. The key play of the 20-19 win would be remembered as “The Immaculate Deflection.”
Two weeks later, after a win over Purdue, luck turned against the Irish though. They played a bad Stanford team at home and trailed 36-31 at home with time for one more play. Mirer appeared to have found freshman tight end Derek Brown in the end zone, but Brown, on the run towards the pylon, let the ball fall through his arms. With the upset loss, ND dropped to #8 in the polls
Notre Dame rebounded by blowing out Air Force and now it was time for the battle all of college football lived for in the years of 1988-90. It was time for Notre Dame and Miami.
The teams weren’t ranked 1-2, as they had been in the preseason poll, but in a chaotic year in college football, the Irish were still #6 and the Hurricanes at #2, even with a loss. There was every reason to assume the winner would be in good shape for a national championship run.
On a beautiful sun-drenched day in South Bend, the two teams played another great game. Ismail’s dominance in the return game this season was mostly muted, as teams avoided kicking too him. Miami decided they would test the Rocket. He took a kickoff and 94 yards later wound up in the end zone. It was the key play that had Notre Dame ahead 22-20 late, when Mirer sealed the deal with a touchdown pass to Culver. The 29-20 win put Notre Dame at #3 when the next polls came out.
A competitive 31-22 win at Pitt followed, and then the Irish went to the Meadowlands and buried Navy by three touchdowns. It was time for the next big battle, a road trip to ninth-ranked Tennessee.
It was a back-and-forth game against a team that would eventually be in the Sugar Bowl, and Notre Dame led 27-23. When Ismail took a handoff from Mirer and exploded around the right side for a 45-yard touchdown run and a 34-23 lead with 3:44 left it looked over. Except that for a brief moment it looked like the real luck of the Irish on this day might belong to Vols quarterback Andy Kelly.
Kelly led one quick touchdown drive to cut the lead 34-29, got the ball back and had Tennessee in position to pull the game out. Then an interception in the end zone finally saved the day for the Irish. They were back at #1 in the polls with just two games left in the regular season.
Penn State came to Notre Dame for the season’s final game in South Bend and the Irish looked ready to give the fans an appropriate sendoff when they took a 21-7 lead into halftime. But Ismail bruised a thigh and when he left the game, the offense bogged down. The Irish only gained 75 yards in the second half and the Lions kept plugging away and eventually tied it, 21-21.
With two minutes left, Joe Paterno punted the ball away, leading fans and even his own players to think he was okay with a tie. But Paterno knew that Notre Dame had no choice but to throw the ball and try and win—at #1 in the country, a tie might as well have been a defeat. And the Lions were ready, intercepting a Mirer pass and kicking the winning field goal. The 24-21 heartbreaker dropped Notre Dame to #7 in the polls.
The season finale at #18 USC was a defensive battle. The Irish sacked Trojan quarterback Todd Marinovich six times, and then used a 69-yard/15-play drive to get the game’s only touchdown in a 10-6 win. Notre Dame would go into the Orange Bowl against top-ranked Colorado ranked #5, but any chance at a national title was a longshot at best.
More drama ensued in South Beach. Trailing 10-9 in the final minute one of the most debated plays in bowl history took place. Notre Dame’s punt returner was Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, a return man so electric that he’d finished second in the Heisman balloting primarily on his ability to return kicks.
At this stage of the game it seemed unthinkable that Colorado coach Bill McCartney would kick to him. But perhaps concerned that ND needed only a field goal and worried about a shank if he broke up his punter’s normal rhythm (that’s my speculation, as it’s the only logical reason for punting to the Rocket), McCartney rolled the dice. Ismail took the punt, broke to the right sideline and got the edge. He found his way to the end zone.
But the play was called back for a clipping penalty. The replay showed it was close. Greg Davis tried to get his head out in front of the pursuing Colorado player and may have come in a little bit behind him. It was near the play, and there’s a 50/50 chance the Buffalo cover man might have made the tackle.
We emphasize “might” because this was the Rocket we’re talking about. But from the standpoint of the official, it was close enough to the action that you can’t put the flag in your pocket if you believe it’s a penalty, regardless of how close. It was a tough way to decide a major bowl game, but it did result in a one-point loss for the Irish.
It was an exciting season, but in an era where Holtz had Notre Dame competing for the national championship every year, a three-loss season, including a major bowl defeat, qualified as a disappointment.