Michigan at Notre Dame
September 15, 1990
Notre Dame: 28 | Michigan: 24
Right after the final whistle to the Michigan vs. Notre Dame season opener on September 15, 1990 Lou Holtz was said to have compared this game to a heavyweight fight:
“If we had played another quarter we might have been behind at the end of that period,” he said. “It's a shame that a game like this had to end."
Smacked right in the middle of arguably the most dominant stretch of Notre Dame football of all time, it’s a game that truly epitomized college football in the late late 1980s as it moved into the 1990s. And no, not just because half the players on the field and well over 80% of the each school’s band were sporting mullets - the style of play was absolutely like opening a time capsule...
Remember when Notre Dame ran an option? Remember when teams ran the I-formation and the wishbone? Remember when crowds would get excited about any pass over 15 yards?
But for all that seems dated about this game in retrospect, one thing is for sure - it’ll still put you on the edge of your seat:
Where our story begins…
As the fifth year of the Lou Holtz era at Notre Dame began, the Irish had firmly climbed back up the ladder and once again cemented themselves as one of the best teams in the country. Gerry Faust - whose 30-25-1 record represented the most losses by a Notre Dame coach in school history up to that point.
When asked about succeeding Faust, Holtz said, “'I hope I can display the same kind of integrity and strong feelings that Gerry Faust did here for five years.” Talking about a football coach and only being able to muster admiration for their “strong feelings” is basically like being asked about how dinner was and saying the silverware was brilliantly shined.
Holtz also didn’t promise any miracles when he took the job (he made a point of it), but with a national championship and back-to-back top-two finishes in 1988 and 1989, it darn sure felt like it.
1990, however, would be the true test at to whether Holtz would be able to make the success last. QB Tony Rice had made himself into a Notre Dame legend by the time he culminated his career the year before. A 31-4 record, huge victories over basically every rival the Irish had, and that national championship in '88 meant that in many ways Holtz had owed much of the success in his early tenure to Rice (along with, of course, one of the best defenses in school history in 1988 - they only gave up 12.4 points per game!).
But Rice was gone - leaving first year starter Rick Mirer to replace him - and while there was talent enough on both sides of the ball to earn the Irish a #1 ranking (including eventual Heisman finalist Raghib Ismail and three consensus defensive All-Americans)… there was cause for concern as the rival Michigan Wolverines walked into Notre Dame Stadium.
Michigan, after all, was hungry to avenge a three-year losing streak to the Irish, and while this would be the first time since before man walked on the moon that anyone not named “Schembechler” would be roaming the Michigan sidelines… with the big-armed Elvis Grbak, future Heisman-winner Desmond Howard, and a top-five ranking of their own, it’s hard to imagine a bigger way to open the 1990 season.
How it all happened
As the game kicked off, everything seemed to go right for the Irish. Michigan RB Jon Vaughn fumbled the ball just a few plays into the Wolverine’s first possession, and Mirer and the Irish took the ball right back the other way for the first touchdown of the 1990 season.
But a few things were apparent right away. First, Michigan’s offensive speed was gonna be a problem, especially for Notre Dame's front line. Immediately you could see that from Howard, to Vaughn, to Allen Jefferson, to Derrick Alexander… Michigan was fast. It felt like early on, every other play for Michigan would get into the second level - and if it wasn’t for the inconsistency of Grbak’s arm… this one actually could have gotten ugly early.
But the Notre Dame defense did a good job of limiting big plays from becoming explosive drives, and their bend-don’t-break offense only gave up three points through the first quarter.
One other thing was pretty apparent, even this early, though: Rick Mirer looked shook.
Mirer, it has to be noted, went on to have a stellar career at Notre Dame: 5,997 passing yards, 694 yards rushing, and 58 total touchdowns in four years with the Irish. But this game? Oof.
Look, 6-9 through the first half isn’t bad, but when you watch it again, you’ll see just how much Mirer owed to his receivers. Everything was low or off-target - and while it did allow guys like Ricky Waters to show off their hands a bit, it certainly didn’t feel sustainable as the Irish went into halftime up just 14-10, having not scored since the two-minute mark of the first quarter.
Of course, you’ll recall that Notre Dame was an option team at that time - so the passing wasn’t a huge deal. But when those shots from Grbak started to hit (including a 44-yard, picture perfect basket toss to Howard), Notre Dame’s slow, methodical pace started to fall behind.
It was made all the worse by the fact that Vaughn made sure to redeem himself for his fumble (and then some), by absolutely going off for 201 yards rushing. I have more thoughts on Vaughn in a bit.
Slowly but surely, Michigan’s defense clamped down on the Irish, challenged Mirer to beat them, and in a disastrous third quarter the Irish gave up 14 unanswered points (including Howard’s second touchdown, this time on a catch in the flats that he turned into a 25 yard scamper to the endzone), and went into the final frame behind 24-14.
In the fourth quarter, however, the luck began to turn for the Irish! First, there was a bizarre, “I can’t believe that just happened moment” when Ismail (who I totally forgot was nicknamed “Rocket” - a name so synonymous with him that at a certain point the announcers just kept calling him “Rocket” and forgot about his real name entirely), let a pass slip through his hands, only to find the waiting arms of freshman Luke Dawson. The drive would eventually end with a one-yard Culver run. 24-21.
The Wolverines got right back on the attack... almost. Vaughn rattled off an unbelievable 26 yard run on fourth down, and Michigan got deep into Fighting Irish territory - before Grbak threw perhaps his most ill-fated pass of the night right to Notre Dame’s Michael Stonebreaker in the endzone.
Everything looked good for the Irish going the other way - and it suddenly seemed like only a matter of time that the game would break for them. Rodney Culver busted a huge run to get the Irish within striking distance… before Mirer *sigh* threw an interception to Van Murray that immediately silenced Notre Dame Stadium.
But the defense did their job, and gave Mirer and the offense one more chance - and this time, he didn’t miss.
The sophomore marched the Irish on a 76-yard game-winning drive that culminated in, somewhat poetically, Mirer’s best pass of the day - an 18 yard bullet right to Adrian Jarrell where only Jarrell could get it. And after the receiver (who had only caught one other pass the entire game) tumbled into the endzone, Notre Dame was back on top 28-24. Ballgame.
Instant reaction from the rewatch
Notre Dame’s secondary was… really really good
Particularly Tony Lyght, who spent most of the game absolutely blanketing Michigan receivers every time Grbak would try to send one deep. There were moments he got burned, but honestly for the most part he and this secondary had a pretty good beat on Grbak’s “all-or-nothing” approach.
Why didn’t they keep giving the ball to Vaughn?
Hey on that note: one of the weirdest parts of this game is the fact that Jon Vaughn has easily one of the best games of his career - one of the best games by any Michigan running back ever… and head coach Gary Moeller kept letting Grbak fire the football?
Vaughn’s 201 yards came on just 22 carries - and especially on some of the short yardage plays, you do have to wonder why Moeller wouldn’t just keep giving him the football. Notre Dame’s defensive line clearly had absolutely no answer for him, while the secondary, as mentioned, didn’t seem to waver - especially down the stretch. The decision to let Grbak throw at any point in the fourth quarter baffled me, and you have to wonder if, hindsight being what it is, that wouldn’t change if they played the game again.
The offensive line for Notre Dame was incredibly impressive
Particularly considering that this unit hadn’t taken a single snap together until this game, the fact that the Irish ended up running for 255 yards with 5+ yards per carry on this defense remains incredibly impressive. There were moments when they gave up some tough losses on Mirer, and it wasn't perfect - but with this being one of the biggest question marks coming into the game, especially for a team that ran the option, this was a performance that needs to be acknowledged.
Jerome Bettis was on the bench
Fun fact: this was Jerome Bettis’ first collegiate game. He recorded no carries, and would go on to carry the ball just 15 times during the 1990 season. That’s it. Just had to toss that in here somewhere.
What’s stood the test of time
Desmond Howard as “Magic Man”
Near the beginning of the broadcast, the announcer mentioned that sophomore Desmond Howard called himself “Magic Man” because, and I quote, “Every time I touch the ball, magic happens.” At the time, it was given to the audience as a factoid with the tongue-in-cheek tone you take when someone who had recorded just nine catches the season before gives themselves a nickname like “Magic Man.”
But this game served as Howard’s coming out party: six catches, 133 yards, and two touchdowns - and he was off and running. Howard would finish the year with over 1,000 yards receiving, setting him up for his 1991 Heisman campaign.
Raghib “Rocket” Ismail
“Rocket” didn’t have his most explosive game in the box score, but if there were a way to quietly get nearly 100 all-purpose yards in this game, that’s what he did.
Of course, the rest of his 1990 wouldn’t be at all quiet. He had over 1,200 all-purpose yards, 5 touchdowns, led the country in receiving yards per catch, and would end up second in Heisman voting. He then went on to have a solid eight year career in the pros that included two 1,000+ yard receiving seasons.
And while he was only involved in one big moment (that ended up being more Luke Dawson’s moment) - you could see how the entire defense fixated on him as a constant threat.
Notre Dame under the lights
The Irish have been no stranger to big time night games in the years since this match-up with the Wolverines, but it’s worth remembering that at the time they needed to bring in temporary lights for this one. It was a novelty, but it became a staple.
Rick Mirer, calm under pressure
Mirer may have gotten off to a rocky start through the first few frames, but beyond his stat line, Mirer would end up leading the Irish to a 29-7 record over his three years as a starter - including countless close games where he showed the kind of cool-handedness you’d expect from the man under center at Notre Dame. It also was a key part of his relationship with Holtz.
In Lisa Kelly’s Echoes from the Endzone, Mirer described his approach to tight games as the following:
“I was never really all that stressed out in all of the close games that I was a part of, but when I’d come over to the sideline and get the one-on-one conversation with Coach Holtz he was a great strength to me. I’m not sure if he knew whether I was OK or not, but we’d always seem to have a little laugh in the middle of a tense moment. We were so close, and in those crucial game moments he never made me feel like they were bigger than life moments.”
Why this game?
This game was going to be a turning point for the Irish, one way or another - and there’s some symbolism in the fact that they were riding a three-game winning streak over the Wolverines at the time this one was played.
With a new QB, playing a team with all the speed and the athleticism and the strength of Michigan, this was a game that it would have been understandable to lose - and to be fair, the Irish would lose a few games down the line throughout the 1990 season, which was one of the few seasons in which Holtz’s Irish won less than 10 games.
But this one set the tone. It was a victory that showed this team - Mirer, this offensive line, this defense, and all - could continue competing with the best in the land, something they would do for years to come in South Bend.
What do you remember from this game? Something I missed? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! And of course, stay tuned for more to come...