It had been 11 years since Notre Dame won the 1977 national championship, but Lou Holtz was in his third year in South Bend, and had restored the program to contention. Miami was the defending national champion, had finished #1 twice in five years and lost another winner-take-all battle at the goal line in 1986. Their 1988 battle, legendary for its Convicts label, was one of the greatest college football games ever played.
The battle got its nickname from T-shirts reading “Catholics vs. Convicts” that were a hot item on the ND campus. A pregame brawl broke out in the tunnel when the teams crossed paths. Miami’s public reputation left them perceived as guilty, but Notre Dame defensive tackle Chris Zorich freely admitted the Irish had picked the fight.
Miami had the superior talent and with Steve Walsh at quarterback, always seemed on the move offensively. But the Notre Dame defense was opportunistic. They forced seven turnovers, including an interception brought back to the house, and the Irish led 31-17 in the fourth quarter.
Walsh brought Miami back and on fourth down, trailing 31-24 in the final minute, completed a pass to the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Hurricane coach Jimmy Johnson opted to go for the win, and another pass went to the same spot. This one was batted away and Notre Dame prevailed.
Miami continued to win against an exceptionally good schedule, hammering a good LSU team and then surviving a tough fight from Cotton Bowl-bound Arkansas. The ‘Canes desperately wanted a rematch, but West Virginia was also undefeated.
No one really believed the Mountaineers, and their electrifying quarterback Major Harris could beat Notre Dame or that they were better than Miami. But given that the Irish and ‘Canes had already played, how could you deny West Virginia their day in court?
Thus, the Fiesta Bowl matched up Notre Dame and West Virginia, while Miami went to the Orange Bowl and played Nebraska. Both games were mismatches, with the Irish rolling 34-21 and the Hurricanes cruising 23-3. Notre Dame and Miami ended up 1-2 in the polls. The real national title game had been October 15 in South Bend and it had been played to a virtual draw.
That October afternoon remains one of the greatest college football games of all time and the high point of the Catholics vs. Convicts rivalry that really only had four noteworthy games (from 1987-90), but generated such heated emotions that it seems to have lasted for decades.
You can read the season-long narrative of both teams, along with West Virginia, at the links below…