The Notre Dame-Miami rivalry from 1988-90 is The Godfather of college football dramas. There was a first edition for the ages—the Catholics vs. Convicts battle of 1988. There was a second edition that was awfully good in its own right. And there was an underappreciated third part released in 1990. Today’s edition of The Notebook Nine hones in on those three years, picking the most memorable moments and storylines, three from each game.
Pat Terrell The Playmaker
Any discussion about the events of October 15, 1988 in Notre Dame Stadium have to come back to Terrell. He made the play of the entire college football season when he batted down Miami’s last-ditch two-point attempt and preserved a 31-30 win for the Irish. Terrell was also a big reason Notre Dame was even in that position to begin with—in the second quarter, he picked off a pass that had been batted at the line of scrimmage and raced sixty yards with a Pick-6.
The Fake Punt Attempt Boomerangs
Miami built their dynasty in the 1980s on being aggressive and taking chances. The game was tied 21-21 in the third quarter, but the Hurricane defense looked like they might be starting to assert themselves. Facing a 4th-and-4 just shy of midfield, Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson decided to try a fake punt. Notre Dame sniffed it out. Irish quarterback Tony Rice immediately made Johnson’s decision hurt, throwing a 46-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Watters. Notre Dame had the momentum back.
Notre Dame’s Near-Disaster
There was 3:30 to play in the game and Notre Dame led 31-24. They had turned back two recent Miami bids to tie it up by forcing turnovers, one of them a hotly disputed play at the goal line. Now the Irish had the ball deep in their own end. But on 3rd-and-17, Rice was strip-sacked by Hurricane linebacker and future head coach Randy Shannon. Miami recovered and scored. Had they converted the two-point play—or even just kicked the extra point and taken a tie, the fumble would live in Irish infamy. Instead, it was forgotten.
Ned Bolcar’s Pick-6
Miami looked like the more motivated team when the rematch came on Thanksgiving weekend of 1989 down in the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes led 10-3 in the second quarter and the Irish needed someone to make a play. That someone would be linebacker Ned Bolcar. He intercepted a Craig Erickson pass, got turned back upfield and made a nifty leap over a potential tackle to get in the end zone. Notre Dame, at least briefly, had turned the momentum and tied the game.
Bernard Clark Picks Tony Rice
It was another interception that swung the momentum back the other direction. The game was still tied 10-10, nearing halftime and Notre Dame had the ball deep in their own end. Rice tried to force a pass over the middle. Clark, playing the middle linebacker spot, made the interception. Miami quickly turned it into a touchdown and a 17-10 halftime lead. Rice, normally very careful with the football and smart in his decision-making, had again tried to force something in the shadow of his own end zone.
If the Clark interception swung the momentum toward Miami, this play early in the third quarter sealed it. Miami was up against it. After converting a fourth down on their side of the field, Erickson had been sacked. The football got away. Notre Dame, rather than simply recover the football, had kicked it. Miami got the ball back, but facing a 3rd-and-44 inside their own 10-yard line, the Irish were about to get field position. Instead, Randall Hill ran a fly rout. A miscommunication between Terrell on the corner and safety Stan Smagala let him get open. An unbelievable first down was gained. Miami went on to the end zone and that was basically your ballgame. The ‘Canes won 27-10.
Notre Dame’s lightning fast Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail was the top Irish threat, at wide receiver, running back and returning kicks. Now in his senior season, the Rocket was a known commodity and most teams didn’t even bother kicking to him anymore. Miami, with great team speed of their own, was less willing to give up field position. They kicked to the Rocket. And paid the price. Ismail took it 94 yards to the house and stopped what was some early Miami momentum.
Rodney Culver’s Race To The End Zone
Notre Dame was holding on to a 22-20 lead and had just turned back a Miami drive with an interception. Ismail ripped off two big runs totaling 44 yards and put the Irish on the 21-yard line. With the game moving deep into the fourth quarter, a field goal would be huge, but a touchdown would be the dagger. Running back Rodney Culver slipped out of the backfield, caught a dump-off pass from quarterback Rick Mirer and then simply outran the Hurricane defense to the left pylon. At 29-20, the Irish were firmly in command.
Greg Davis Closes It Out
Erickson led Miami on a last-ditch drive. Irish defensive back Greg Davis stopped it. He forced a fumble that was recovered inside the 5-yard line. It was the second time this season that Davis had delivered a big defensive play in the red zone. The other had been against Michigan. At season’s end, Davis was on the wrong side of tough clipping penalty call in the Orange Bowl that nullified a game-winning punt return by Ismail. But he deserves to be remembered for closing out the regular season’s two biggest games, rather than a 50/50 call at the end.
These three Notre Dame-Miami games are at the heart of the Lou Holtz era in South Bend—the era that is chronicled in detail in my new book The Last Golden Age. Check it out on Amazon, available in both print and electronic formats.