Notre Dame football was on a high coming into the fall of 1994. The program had reached a major bowl game under head coach Lou Holtz every year since 1987, had a national title in 1988 and in 1993 they finished #2 in the final polls—behind only a team they had beaten head-to-head in Florida State.
The 1994 Notre Dame football team was ranked #2 in the nation to start the year, and had one of the country’s most highly touted quarterbacks in sophomore Ron Powlus. Unfortunately, all this only served to add the disappointment that would build up as the fall went on.
Notre Dame opened the season with a Saturday night game in Soldier Field against Northwestern. It looked like all would again be well with the world—Powlus went 18/24 for 291 yards and threw four touchdown passes. ABC play-by-play man Brent Musberger went over the top, asking “how many Heismans can he win? Two, three?”
It was the 1990s equivalent of LeBron James’ infamous 2010 pep rally when he said “Not two…Not three…Not four…” in response to a question of how many titles he would win. The words would haunt Powlus and unlike James, the quarterback hadn’t even brought it on himself.
Powlus’ first home start came the following week againstMichigan. He didn’t play a great game—15/27 for 187 yards, but when he hit Derrick Mayes for a touchdown pass that put Notre Dame up 24-23 with 52 seconds left, it looked like a moment add to the legend. And at that point, the 1994 Notre Dame football season started coming apart.
Michigan rallied for a 42-yard-field goal on the final play and a 26-24 win. Notre Dame was able to respond with consecutive wins over Michigan State, Purdue and Stanford, though all three were headed for sub-.500 seasons. A trip to Boston College was supposed to bring revenge and instead brought down humiliation.
Boston College’s 41-39 stunner in South Bend the prior November had cost the Irish an undisputed national title. This one wouldn’t come down to the final play. The Eagles ran a fake field goal early in the second quarter was to get a 7-3 lead. They sacked Powlus four times and forced him into a miserable 5/21 for 50 yards performance. BC running back Justice Hunter finished with 147 yards and Notre Dame took it on the chin, 30-11.
The loss sent the Irish down to #17 in the rankings and a week later they fell out of the rankings completely with a 21-14 home loss to BYU.
Not only had Notre Dame lost three games, but none of them were to teams headed for particularly noteworthy seasons. Michigan would have an uncharacteristic year and lose four games. BC would do the same, while BYU finished the year with three losses. All were good teams to be sure, but Notre Dame was completely off the national radar without having played a single outstanding team.
Holtz had three weeks to get his team ready for an outstanding opponent—a rematch with Florida State, this one in Tallahassee awaited. The Irish beat up on Navy 58-29 and the surrounding weeks off before going south.
The defense had started to show leaks in the latter part of the 1993 season, and those leaks were sinking the ship in 1994. There were no All-Americans on either side of the ball for this Notre Dame team, but the crisis of defensive talent was most obvious.
Florida State, as expected, moved the ball up and down the field on November 12. To Notre Dame’s credit, they hung in and made key red zone stops, giving themselves a chance. It still wasn’t enough, and the Irish lost 23-16.
Notre Dame got their best win of the year the following week over 8-4 Air Force, hanging 42 points on the board, even if the defense did allow 30. The record now at 6-4, there was a lot of talk about where the Irish might go bowling.
There were rumors of the Sun Bowl, but the ND hierarchy was not interested. They were interested in a major bowl and unbelievably—even given Notre Dame’s considerable prestige—they were being enabled in this interest. Both the Cotton and Fiesta were in play.
Holtz took his team west to face USC, with the Trojans having completed a year that saw them finish second in the Pac-10. Notre Dame played well, led 17-10 with five minutes to go and was lined up for a field goal that would clinch it. It was fitting for this rough year that USC blocked the field goal and ran it all the way back for a touchdown. This was still two years prior to the institution of overtime, and the game ended 17-17.
Even with the record at 6-4-1, even being unranked, Notre Dame still got the call to play in the Fiesta Bowl and against 10-1 Colorado, who had Heisman Trophy-winning Rashaan Salaam in the backfield, All-American wide receiver Michael Westbrook on the outside, and a talented dual-threat quarterback in Kordell Stewart.
It was a complete mismatch, and what makes the Fiesta Bowl’s decision even more bizarre is that Alabama was available, with only one loss. The Notre Dame-Colorado game had a predictable result—the Buffs jumped out to a 31-3 lead before the Irish made the final deceptively tolerable, at 41-24.
Even from the perspective of a Notre Dame fan, the Fiesta Bowl invite was unfortunate. If the Irish would have taken the Sun Bowl slot, they could have played a marquee opponent in Texas and had a reasonable chance to win.
Instead, Notre Dame fans were subjected to six weeks of constant griping over their bid and then three hours of on-field humiliation. College football fans lost the chance to see a good Alabama-Colorado game in the Fiesta. Nobody won except the Notre Dame athletic department.
Holtz would coach at Notre Dame for two more years and the Irish never again tested the depths of 1994. But nor did they reach the heights of the 1987-93 glory years. And save for a 2012 run to the national championship game, the program itself has never come close to those years. 1994 proved to be more than an unfortunate aberration in South Bend.