Lou Holtz had the Notre Dame football program at one of them many high points of its history in the period from 1987-90. The Irish made a major bowl game each of those four years and won a national championship.
The 1991 Notre Dame football team was on a pace to continue the incremental trend downward until a startling reversal at the Sugar Bowl sent the message that the Notre Dame stock was back on the upswing.
Notre Dame was ranked #6 to open the season. They had good weaponry at the skill positons. Junior quarterback Rick Mirer was in his second year as the starter. Jerome Bettis rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and senior Tony Brooks wasn’t far behind, as they led a balanced rushing attack. Tight end Derek Brown, a gifted athlete and pass-catcher got All-American recognition, as did offensive lineman Mirko Jurkovic.
It’s the defense that was the problem. The Irish weren’t as talented on this side of the ball as they had been in the halcyon years of 1988-89. Tom Carter was a nice player at corner and safety Jeff Burris would one day be a first-round NFL draft pick. But Burris was only a sophomore and there were no All-Americans on the ND defense.
The offense was more than enough in the season opener against Indiana. The Hoosiers were a consistent bowl team at this time and the 1991 team would turn out to be one of head coach Bill Mallory’s best. Mirer and the offense dropped 49 points on IU and won easily.
Michigan was next. Holtz had beaten the Wolverines four straight years, but this year’s Michigan team was ranked #3 in the nation and had a Heisman hopeful at receiver in Desmond Howard. Notre Dame was in the game with a chance to win at Ann Arbor, trailing 17-14 in the fourth quarter. Michigan faced a 4th-and-1 just inside the Irish red zone.
UM head coach Gary Moeller opted to go for it. Howard ran up the right sideline and stretched his entire body out to make a touchdown catch. It sealed a 24-14 win for Michigan, the Heisman for Howard and dropped Notre Dame to #11 in the polls.
Over the next several weeks, it looked like the Irish were back on the upswing. They rolled over Michigan State, consecutive road games at Purdue and Stanford, and then blasted 12th-ranked Pitt by a 42-7 count. Victories over USC and Navy pushed the Notre Dame record to 8-1.
A run at a national title was still in the cards. Miami and Florida State were both undefeated, but they would play each other and Notre Dame could still hope to meet the winner in the Fiesta Bowl, which had no conference commitments and could pair up two independents. If Notre Dame won out, they would just need undefeated Washington lose in the Rose Bowl.
The schedule the last two games would be a challenge. Tennessee, ranked #13 in the country, came to South Bend. Notre Dame jumped all over the Vols early, building a 31-7 lead in the second quarter. Then the defensive shortcomings came home to roost.
Tennessee pulled off a stunning rally and won the game 35-34, ending the national title dream (Washington ended up going undefeated and sharing the #1 vote with Miami in either case). Then Notre Dame went to eighth-ranked Penn State and gave up 35 more points, losing 35-13.
In spite of it all, the Irish were still invited to play in the Sugar Bowl. They were down to #18 in the polls and a public outcry wondered why Notre Dame got the bid, while sixth-ranked Cal was left out of a major bowl slot. Actually no one “wondered” at all as to the reason—the Irish were clearly getting some special treatment.
Cal lost to Stanford which reduced the outcry a little bit, but another terrible defensive performance by Notre Dame in a 48-42 win over a bad Hawaii team didn’t have anyone excited about watching the Irish on January 1.
Holtz would get a stiff challenge in New Orleans. Florida had won the SEC title and this was their first appearance on the national stage under Steve Spurrier. The Gators had won the conference in 1990, but due to an NCAA probation that Spurrier inherited, were ineligible for the Sugar Bowl. Now, they had their chance.
Notre Dame’s defense still had its flaws—Florida quarterback Shane Matthews threw for 370 yards and an early touchdown pass. But after falling behind 7-0, the Irish began to stiffen at critical moments. The Gators might have blown the game open on two scoring drives, but they had to settle for field goals. With the deficit a manageable 13-0, Notre Dame began to come back.
Mirer hit Lake Dawson with a 40-yard touchdown strike. Another Florida drive bogged down with a field goal and it was 16-7 at the half. Mirer threw a short touchdown pass in the third quarter and also led a field goal drive that gave Notre Dame a 17-16 lead.
Matthews and a Gator offense that produced over 500 yards drove two more times…and again settled for field goals. Now, trailing 22-17, it was time for Bettis to take over.
The big Notre Dame running back who would go on to a great NFL career, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers, simply ran over Florida down the stretch. He ran one touchdown in from three yards out. Then he bolted 49 yards and put the Irish ahead 32-22. After Florida scored a touchdown to make it 32-28, Bettis took over one more time, scoring from 39 yards out. Bettis finished with 150 rush yards, 91 of them of these three scoring runs in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame’s 39-28 win arrested the negative momentum that had seeped into the program, and it set the stage for another two years of national prominence. The Irish finished in the top five in 1992, and had a 1993 season that should have ended with a national title, if not for a terrible vote. The seeds were planted with some timely defensive stops and the bulldozer that was Jerome Bettis, to end the 1991 season.