There was something magical about the third year of a Notre Dame football coach’s tenure. Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine had each won a national championship in Year Three. Brian Kelly reached the BCS National Championship Game in 2012. The 1988 Notre Dame football team is a part of that third-year magic, winning a national title for Lou Holtz.
Holtz had taken over a program that was on hard times, and against a tough schedule, he struggled to a 5-6 record in 1986. The 1987 season saw a big step forward, as the program earned a Cotton Bowl bid. But decisive losses to Miami and in the bowl game to Texas A&M, seemed to suggest that Notre Dame still had work to do in order to reach the national elite. The preseason polls in 1988 reflected that sentiment, ranking ND #13.
The option was the offensive style, and Notre Dame had a powerful running attack. Junior quarterback Tony Rice was an average passer, but he stayed clear of mistakes and was the team’s leading rusher. Rice had a balanced backfield, including Mark Green and Tony Brooks. One of the favored pass targets also came out of the backfield, future NFL star Ricky Watters. And the occasional big passing play could go to explosive sophomore receiver Raghib Ismail.
Defensively, Notre Dame was even better. The coordinator was Barry Alvarez, who would eventually bring the Wisconsin program to life as one of the game’s best head coaches. Chris Zorich, a future NFL talent, was at defensive tackle. Pat Terrell was solid at corner, and there were the “Three Amigos” of Frank Stams, Wes Pritchett and Michael Stonebreaker.
The former was a defensive end, the latter two were linebackers, with Stonebreaker having the most appropriate last name for a defensive football player since Mike Hammerstein played defensive tackle for Michigan in the mid-1980s.
It was Michigan who would come to South Bend to start the year under the lights. The Wolverines were ranked ninth in the country and would eventually win the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Watters made a big special teams play early, returning a punt 81 yards for a touchdown and then the defenses and the kicking game settled in.
Notre Dame never scored an offensive touchdown, but diminutive kicker Reggie Ho, kept knocking field goals through. With 1:13 to play, Ho hit his fourth field goal to give the Irish a 19-17 lead. The Wolverines stormed down the field and got a chance for a 48-yarder to win it. The kick just missed.
Holtz’s team efficiently won at Michigan State 20-3, the team that had won the Rose Bowl the previous season. Notre Dame blew out bad teams in Purdue and Stanford, and they went on the road to beat bowl-caliber Pitt team 30-20. The Irish were up to #4 in the polls and it was time for the game the nation was awaiting—the showdown with #1-ranked Miami in South Bend.
The Hurricanes were the defending national champions, and Notre Dame felt like they owed Miami. Bad blood still ran high over 1985, when it was believed the ‘Canes had run up the score in Gerry Faust’s final game as ND head coach (something Faust does not hold Miami responsible for). The 24-0 loss the prior November rankled Holtz.
Miami’s reputation for trash-talking had made them the villains of college football, and T-shirts that have since become legendary circulated the Notre Dame campus. They read “Catholics vs. Convicts.” The matchup was one of college football’s many “Games of the Century”, and this one really played out that way on the field.
Notre Dame got a big interception from Terrell, who took it to the house and the Irish were ahead 21-7 in the second quarter. Steve Walsh, Miami’s efficient quarterback led two consecutive drives for touchdowns, though one was disputed by the Irish—it was believed Hurricane tight end Rob Chudzinski had fumbled, and the ball recovered by Notre Dame. Officials ruled it an incomplete pass. The game went to halftime tied 21-21.
The Irish defense kept getting turnovers, and had already collected six when they held a 31-24 lead in the fourth quarter. The seventh would be hotly disputed. Walsh completed a pass to running back Cleveland Gary near the goal line. He fumbled, or at least the officials ruled he did, and the ball was recovered by ND. Replays indicated that Gary was down, and that Miami should have had first-and-goal.
Notre Dame ended up giving the ball right back anyway, and Miami eventually faced a fourth-and-goal in the closing minute. Walsh lofted a pass to Andre Brown in the front-right corner of the end zone. Touchdown.
The Hurricanes decided to go for two. They went back to the same spot, this time with running back Leonard Conley. Terrell was waiting and he batted the ball down. Notre Dame had prevailed 31-30 in one of college football’s greatest games.
Notre Dame was still #2 in the polls behind UCLA, which had Troy Aikman at quarterback. The Irish beat Air Force and Navy, while the Bruins suffered an upset loss. ND was #1, while USC was now in the #2 spot and the two teams were on a collision course for a battle in Los Angeles on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The Irish upheld their end of the bargain, blowing out Rice and beating an uncharacteristically poor Penn State team to get to 10-0. The Trojans took care of UCLA and clinched a Rose Bowl berth. Was another Game of the Century in store?
This one got off to a rocky start for Notre Dame—not on the field, but in the days leading up to the game. Watters and Brooks were late to a team meeting, something they had been repeatedly warned on, and had no valid excuse for. Holtz suspended both players.
The head coach had done something similar (albeit on charges much more severe) when he coached Arkansas against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl that followed the 1977 season. That night, Holtz’s team won and it paved the way for an ND national championship. Could history be, in a roundabout way, repeating itself?
Notre Dame dominated USC. Rice ran the option for a 65-yard touchdown run early on, and defensive back Stan Smagala intercepted Trojan quarterback Rodney Peete for a Pick-6. The game was 20-3 by halftime and it ended 27-10. The unbeaten regular season was complete.
All that was left was third-ranked West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami had not lost since that October afternoon in South Bend and there were some minor rumblings for the second-ranked Hurricanes to get a rematch. No one really believed that unbeaten West Virginia was better than Miami, but if the Mountaineers could actually beat Notre Dame—something Miami already had its chance it doing—didn’t that change the equation? The right matchup in Tempe took place.
Notre Dame again dominated. They got short touchdown runs from fullbacks Anthony Johnson and Rodney Culver. Rice threw a 29-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Ismail, and the lead was 23-3. West Virginia’s immensely talented quarterback, Major Harris, couldn’t get anything going until a third quarter TD pass that briefly made the game mildly interesting at 26-13.
But any faint hopes of a WVA comeback were gone when Harris injured his shoulder. Notre Dame tacked on an insurance touchdown, West Virginia scored a meaningless one in the closing minute and the final was 34-21.
Notre Dame was national champions. It’s the most recent title for the school, though Holtz continued to put together major bowl teams, and in 1989 and 1993 had very good arguments for the title. But there’s no question that 1988 was the big high point of an era that is the school’s last Golden Age in football.