Notre Dame has produced some great running backs in its heralded football history over the years, going all the way back to the days of George Gipp and before him The Four Horsemen. The modern history isn’t quite that dramatic, but what the 1992 Notre Dame football team put out in the backfield was awfully good. The tandem of Reggie Brooks and Jerome Bettis led the way on a season that came out of a midseason valley and finished strong.
Brooks was a shifty runner who would compile over 1,300 yards in 1992 and finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Bettis ran for 825 yards and went on to a decorated NFL career that included being the focal point of some outstanding running games for the Pittsburgh Steelers and ending his career with a Super Bowl win following the 2005 season.
Rick Mirer was the Notre Dame quarterback and the senior was one of the most hyped recruits of the Lou Holtz era in South Bend. Mirer would never become a superstar, and his subsequent NFL career was a flop. But he was still a solid college quarterback and his physical tools were enough that he was chosen second overall in the following spring’s NFL draft.
What’s more, Notre Dame had muscle up front, with All-American Aaron Taylor leading the way on the offensive line. The defensive talent was not great—a reason the Irish lost three games in the 1991 season, an abnormally disappointing season by Holtz-era standards. But the offensive explosiveness, starting with the potent running game, was the reason Notre Dame ended the 1991 season with a big win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl and why the Irish were ranked #3 to open the 1992 college football season.
The Irish opened at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, and pounded Northwestern 42-7 in a tuneup game. Then a home date with archrival Michigan, ranked sixth in the land, didn’t go well much of the day. Notre Dame had to rally in the fourth quarter to tie the game 17-17, with the day highlighted by a Brooks’ touchdown ran where he broke or evaded five different tacklers.
Michigan was driving for the winning points when Notre Dame intercepted Wolverine quarterback Elvis Grbac at the 11-yard line with 1:05 left. It’s fair to say that given the way the day unfolded, a tie wasn’t the worst thing in these pre-1996 days when overtime didn’t exist in college football. It’s also fair to say that everyone in Notre Dame Stadium was upset when Holtz opted to kill the clock and not try for a last-ditch field goal drive. The Irish slipped to #7 in the polls.
Consecutive blowouts of Michigan State and Purdue (neither of whom were anything special in 1992) nudged Notre Dame back up to #6. The opponent on October 3 was Stanford. The Cardinal had a new head coach with a considerable resume—Bill Walsh, the architect of the Joe Montana-era dynasty with the San Francisco 49ers, had come out of retirement to coach Stanford.
Notre Dame built up a 16-0 lead, but Stanford had a defense led by free safety John Lynch, one day to be a part of the dominating 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that won the Super Bowl. Lynch shadowed Bettis all day long, kept the big back under control, and in the second half Lynch forced a fumble and intercepted a pass. Stanford stunned the nation by scoring 33 consecutive points and winning 33-16. The Irish hopes of a national title were officially gone and they tumbled to #13 in the polls.
There was still a major bowl bid to play for, to say nothing of national rankings and old-fashioned Notre Dame pride. Bettis & Brooks, nicknamed “Thunder & Lightning” for their complementary running styles, still gave Holtz the ability to control tempo and Notre Dame turned their season around.
The Irish scored 131 points in their next three games, demolishing Pitt, BYU and Navy. But the biggest and most impressive demolition was still to come. Boston College was under the leadership of Tom Coughlin, and were 7-0-1 when they came to South Bend on November 7.
Coughlin had some great victories ahead of him as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and later as a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants. This day wasn’t a good one for him—Notre Dame hung a 54-7 beating on BC. Holtz ran a fake punt with the game out of hand, a decision that would give Boston College extra motivation when they came back to South Bend a year later and pulled a shocking upset. But in November 1992, Notre Dame was rolling again and back to #8 in the polls.
The final home game of the season would be against Penn State. It was also the final game in a great series between two schools that would not play again until 2006. It was a battle between Holtz and Joe Paterno. To add to the drama, the movie Rudy was being filmed on campus during this weekend.
Notre Dame trailed 16-9 late in the game when Mirer led the team on a final drive. Both of the backs got in on the biggest moments. Bettis caught a touchdown pass that cut the lead to 16-15. There was no playing for a tie on this day, as the snow fell and about an inch covered the field. Mirer threw to Brooks in the right corner of the end zone and he made the catch. Notre Dame won 17-16.
The Irish closed the year with a 31-23 win at unranked Southern Cal. Notre Dame concluded the regular season #5 in the nation and got a Cotton Bowl bid to play undefeated and #4 Texas A&M.
Texas A&M was annoyed to have to play Notre Dame. The Aggies felt they had a national title gripe, although the political reality was that the winner between Alabama and Miami in the Sugar Bowl was going to end up #1 (it would be Alabama). Texas A&M’s beef was legitimate, but their demands to play #3 Florida State instead were misguided. Beating the Seminoles might have looked better, but it wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind and it only served to antagonize Notre Dame.
Notre Dame played like a team that wanted to whip up on somebody. Brooks ran for 115 yards. Bettis ran for 75 more. At one point in the second half, Notre Dame ran the ball 34 straight plays. They completely controlled Texas A&M, winning the game 28-3 and finishing the season #4 in the national polls.
The 1992 Notre Dame football team wasn’t the best of the Holtz era—the national champs of 1988, the #2 team of 1989 and the should-have-been champs of 1993—were all better. But with Thunder & Lightning leading the way in the backfield, they were awfully good and 1992 was a fun season in South Bend.