Notre Dame and Michigan have played some big college football games over the years. But none was bigger and perhaps none was more anticipated than the one the Irish and Wolverines played in September of 1989, when they were ranked 1-2 in the country.
You can read more about the season-long journeys of each team and about their key players. This post focuses specifically on the events of the 1989 Notre Dame-Michigan game that went down on September 16th in Ann Arbor.
The Big House in Michigan was artificial turf in 1989 and television viewers saw puddles throughout the carpet, fruits of some hard rain prior to kickoff. The Notre Dame offense was conservative by nature anyway, but the field situation undoubtedly made it more so. Irish quarterback Tony Rice only threw two passes the entire game—and, as it turned out, one of them would be for a touchdown.
On the flip side, the Wolverines had to put the ball up. Their starting quarterback, Michael Taylor, was an option-oriented runner, but when he was injured, freshman Elvis Grbac came off the bench. Grbac was only a freshman, but he had a good future—both here at Michigan and later in the NFL. Grbac went 17/23 for 134 yards and threw a pair of touchdown passes, keying a statistical edge for the Wolverines on the afternoon.
But that statistical edge had a big caveat to it. The reason Notre Dame didn’t amass more yards is that their special teams did the work for them, not once, but twice. Specifically, return man Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail was the story of the afternoon.
After the cautious first half, the Irish held a 7-6 lead and were set to get the ball to start the second half. Ismail’s speed and explosiveness were renowned, but Michigan had not allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in over three decades. Perhaps that, along with the value of field position in a game like this, was why Wolverine coach Bo Schembechler decided to kick it deep to the Rocket.
Schembechler’s decision was understandable, but it had disastrous consequences for Michigan. Ismail went 88 yards to the house and gave Notre Dame a 14-6 lead. Grbac responded with a TD drive, but the missed two-point conversion kept the score at 14-12. Worse, it meant the Wolverines had to kick off again. This time, Ismail went 92 yards for a touchdown.
The Irish won 24-19, sealing the game with a 4th-and-1 conversion at the Michigan 30 with just under two minutes to play.
Notre Dame stayed undefeated and atop the polls all the way to Thanksgiving weekend before they lost at eventual national champ Miami. The Irish finished the season at #2 in the country. Michigan won out the rest of the way and were in the top 5 nationally before a close Rose Bowl loss to USC left them #7 in the final rankings.