AND WE’RE BACK!
After a brief break spent rewatching a fresh batch of games from yesteryear, Football Film Room has returned - and have we got a good one for you today.
The year is 1992. The place: Notre Dame Stadium. Two storied programs met in South Bend for one last time, in a match-up that promised a hard-fought battle between two of the sport’s giants.
What it delivered, was one of the best regular season football games of all time - with a finish that no one would ever forget…
Where our story begins…
By the mid-90s, college football had changed dramatically. Increasingly varied offensive styles (including a more robust passing game) had revolutionized the way the game was played, Florida’s “big three” (no, not that one) began to dominate the sport and, perhaps most importantly, conferences were quickly growing and realigning to set the stage for an objective, unified championship system by the end of the decade (sort of).
And of all the conference moves throughout the country, the Nittany Lions’ move to the Big Ten - solidified in 1990 with the Nittany Lions playing their first conference schedule in 1993 - arguably felt the most seismic. PSU had been an independent dating all the way back to 1892, and along the way had become one of the winningest programs in history behind longtime coach Joe Paterno. Paterno had helmed the program since 1966, and had amassed 22 bowl appearances and 14 victories heading into the school’s final year as an independent in 1992. And even leaving aside their independent status, this year would be a weird one - as coming off of their 11-2 record and final ranking of 3rd in the country a year ago, they were shut out of the new Bowl Coalition and were forced to sign a preseason deal with the Blockbuster Bowl.
To make matters more difficult, they were losing their senior QB Tony Sacca along with his top receiving target Terry Smith, leaving sophomore Kerry Collins left to make up the 2,488 yards through the air (good for 19th in the country) that helped make the Nittany Lions the 9th ranked scoring offense in 1991. There were still plenty of playmakers - including Richie Anderson (who would go on to have a sensational 1992 season with 900 yards rushing for 18 touchdowns) and OJ McDuffie (977 yards receiving for nine touchdowns), but with four of their five starting lineman gone when 1992 kicked off, there were far more questions than answers for this team offensively.
Still, the offense’s turnover paled in comparison to the defense, which needed to replace much of the core that made up the 5th ranked rush defense, 5th ranked pass defense, and 9th ranked total defense in the country in 1991. Of course, much of that hinged on linebackers Mark D'Onofrio, Keith Goganious, and Andre Powell - all of whom had been drafted following the 1991 season. Even for “Linebacker U”, that was a tall order.
All of this combined to make 1992 a forgettable year overall in State College - at least in relation to the years that surrounded it. After starting the season ranked 8th in the country, Penn State lost three out of four October match-ups - including one to an unranked BYU squad on the road - and stumbled to 22nd by the time they arrived in South Bend for this match-up.
Meanwhile, Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame squads were nearing the end of arguably the greatest period in program history. From their national championship victory in 1988 all the way through 1993, the Irish finished no lower than 13th in the country, notched 10 wins every year but one (in which they still went 9-3), and lost just five games in the friendly confines of Notre Dame.
They were led by QB Rick Mirer, who, when we last checked in, was winning his first career start with nothing but guts and the skin of his teeth against the 4th-ranked Michigan Wolverines back in 1990. Now Mirer, a senior, had three years of starting experience under his belt, and would end 1992 as Notre Dame’s all-time offensive leader - a mark he would pass during this game with the Nittany Lions.
But while Mirer was a key part of this team, the talent that mattered most was in the backfield, where the two-headed rushing monster of Reggie Brooks and Jerome Bettis was absolutely dominant throughout the 1992 season.
And then there was the Notre Dame defense, which was in the midst of quite a turnaround from the 1991 season. First year defensive coordinator Rick Minter was tasked with getting this unit into shape after a year in which they ranked just 72nd in total defense - including just 82nd in rushing yards allowed per game - and 55th in scoring. Minter’s tenure certainly didn’t get off to the best start, as the Irish gave up 31 points to an unranked Michigan State team, then 33 points in their loss to Stanford at home just a few weeks later.
But after that Stanford game, the Irish would begin to get themselves back on track - culminating with a resounding 44 point victory over 9th-ranked Boston College in which the defense gave up just seven points.
It was the right time for the Irish to hit their stride, too, as Penn State was coming in looking to get a win to get their own season back on the rails… and as this was the final match-up of this rivalry, both teams wanted the win all the more.
How it happened
At kickoff time, the conditions of this game were, in a word, wild.
Snow flurried throughout Notre Dame Stadium, the wind chill put the temperature into the teens, and Rick Mirer had spent the entire morning in the infirmary with flu-like symptoms - but given the way he played early on, you wouldn’t have had any idea.
He hit Irv Smith twice for two huge gains on the opening drive to really get things rolling for the Irish. And while they had to settle for a field goal to end the drive - it was the kind of early push that seemed to put Notre Dame in the driver’s seat.
As Penn State took the field, it should be worth noting that Kerry Collins would go on to have a tremendous career with the Nittany Lions (more on this later). But much like Rick Mirer’s first game in the Michigan match-up, the way he played in this game wouldn’t exactly be a sign of things to come for him.
After a botched reverse attempt on PSU’s first play, Collins took a sack on his first passing attempt, then immediately turned the ball over on an interception tipped right into the hands of John Covington. It would be that kind of day for Kerry Collins.
But Notre Dame wouldn’t be able to make him pay, as Mirer promptly turned the ball right back over on the next drive with a floater right over the middle for a pick of his own. Penn State’s offense put the ball on the ground and was able to charge right back down to the Irish goal line, and after a flurry of attempts to break a staunch Notre Dame front line, Richie Anderson, the nation’s leading scorer, was finally able to break through over the top for a touchdown. But Notre Dame freshman Bobby Taylor got a hand on the extra point attempt, leaving the score at just 6-3 - which would, of course, come back to haunt the Nittany Lions later in this game.
From Penn State’s touchdown with 1:26 left in the first quarter, all the way through to the final 10 seconds of the half, neither team would score - and along the way things got sloppy.
First, Dean Lytle fumbled for the Irish, then Collins nearly turned the ball over again on a stalled drive that gave the ball right back to Notre Dame. Then, Jerome Bettis finally entered the game after being kept on the bench with a sprained ankle to start this contest - only to miss a blocking assignment and let Mirer get sacked.
By this point, we were nearly midway through the second quarter and the snow was just absolutely pummeling the field, and on a 3rd and 10 Kerry Collins made a crucial mistake, fumbling the football and giving the ball to the Irish on the 15 yard line…
Still, after a few promising plays to inch closer - Notre Dame again left points on the board (a theme in this one), as Mirer missed Smith high in the back of the endzone on a 4th down attempt… and the score remained 6-3, Penn State.
But after their defense once again stopped the Nittany Lions, Notre Dame would get one more chance, and this time they just kept things simple - relenting to the elements a bit and letting Reggie Brooks and Jerome Bettis handle most of the heavy lifting on the ground. “Thunder and Lightning” - as they were known in South Bend - marched the Irish back deep into Penn State territory, and while they wouldn’t be able to get into the endzone (curiously, they stopped running the football and gave the ball back to Mirer here), they wouldn’t miss a chance at points this time around - evening the score at 6-6 a piece heading into the break.
In the second half, there continued to be variations on the same theme for both squads - the Irish continued a strong running game from Brooks and Bettis, but just couldn’t quite seem to string drives together that would lead to touchdowns.
But Penn State’s luck offensively was equally frustrated. Coming out of the half Kerry Collins was just 2-11 for 56 yards, and with his ineffectiveness, the Irish were able to key in on Anderson to prevent Penn State from getting anything going. What’s more, the Notre Dame defense - now seemingly firing on all cylinders under Minter, were just pinning their ears back and constantly getting pressure on Collins - and the result was that the Nittany Lions' playbook seemed to be getting thinner and thinner.
Eventually, Notre Dame was able to get another three points to go up 9-6 behind Bettis and Brooks. Following Notre Dame’s field goal drive, the snow began to relent a bit… and when the game tightened up, the pace picked up, and suddenly things started to get really interesting...
First, on a desperate 3rd and 20, Collins completed the best pass of the game to Troy Drayton for the first down to set up an eventual field goal to tie the game 9-9 with just 8:35 to play.
Then, Notre Dame got the ball back and began to drive the other way, until Irv Smith - so good all game long - fumbled trying to fight for extra yardage. Following the recovery, in what seemed like the fastest sequence of the game, Penn State took the ball right back the other way behind Richie Anderson and an offensive line that finally found their footing in the slightly-cleared snow. It culminated in just the second touchdown of the game when Brian O’Neil took the ball right up the middle for a 13 yard touchdown to put Penn State up 16-9.
Now, with just 4:25 to play, the Irish took the ball for the game’s final drive…
It began with a good return, which Mirer was able to build on with a 20+ yard completion to Bettis, then a huge scramble for 15 yards all the way to the Penn State 33 yard line. Mirer hit Ray Griggs for a 17 yard completion, and then it was once again up to the running game of Bettis and Brooks to get the Irish all the way down to the four yard line with just 25 seconds to go in the game, 4th down and goal to go.
Then, on a brilliant slip screen, Jerome Bettis found daylight and Mirer hit him in stride for the first Notre Dame touchdown of the day. 16-15, Penn State still ahead by one.
Now, at this point, it’s worth noting that much used to get made of a team’s “two-point” play - the play a team saves for when they desperately need a two-point conversion and want to show the defense something they haven’t run before.
“We always practiced our two-point conversion for the game,” Reggie Brooks said later. “Well, we used our two-point conversion for the touchdown to Jerome (Bettis).”
Yes, the play they had just run for the touchdown was the two-point play they had practiced. Now, down one, there was a bit of irony; sure, the two-point play had worked, but now the Irish actually needed two points to get the victory… so what were they going to run?
According to later recollections, the play for the two point conversion was initially a pass intended to go to one of three players lined up on the left. But Penn State had blanketed that whole side of the field, forcing Mirer out to the right hand side. With the pressure bearing down on him, he threw his final pass in Notre Dame Stadium; an off-balance throw to what seemed like no-man’s land on the right-hand side of the endzone… where out of nowhere, who else but Reggie Brooks made the grab.
17-16 Notre Dame. Ballgame.
Instant reactions to the rewatch
Everyone tried to do a little bit too much
Coming into this game, both teams knew this was the final game of this rivalry series - a series, mind you, that was 8-7-1 in favor of Penn State - and boy could you tell. Both teams spent the game doing a little too much.
For Penn State, Collins’ struggles made keeping the ball on ground understandable - but there were just strange play calls made throughout the game. Their opening reverse clearly was meant to catch Notre Dame napping, but a 4th and 12 draw play (not even to Richie Anderson!) had me scratching my head. Then, after getting into the endzone on three straight Richie Anderson runs up the middle, Penn State opted to go away from that in a nearly identical situation later in the game, and put the ball in Collins hands - who was forced to throw it away in the back of the endzone. It felt a bit like they were playing chess with themselves and were just overthinking it ever so much.
But Notre Dame seemed to be even more in their head when it came to playcalling. It felt like drive after drive for Notre Dame would start with promising carries to Bettis and Brooks (who combined for 146 yards but no rushing touchdowns on the day) - only to see points left on the board on failed Mirer passing attempts. Sure, it eventually worked out for them on the final drive, but you do have to wonder if this game doesn’t go Notre Dame’s way sooner if they just commit hard to the ground game in the red zone.
The missed extra point attempt: You hate to see that
Nine out of ten times in a college football game, a missed extra point attempt amounts to a shrug, and perhaps a talking point for the announcers later in the game; rarely is the result impacted.
Welp, in a one-point Notre Dame victory, Bobby Taylor getting his hand on that extra point attempt becomes one of - if not the most - important plays of the game.
So… did that ball hit the ground?
1992 was long before replay had been introduced to the college game - but listen, while we’re here… does the ball hit the ground as Reggie Brooks attempts to make the catch?
I can’t find a good angle on this, so maybe this is all just idle thinking, but there’s no way that play doesn’t get reviewed in 2020, and I can’t say for certain that the ball didn’t hit the grass before it was secured. Lou Holtz even said later, “You wouldn't believe this, but Reggie Brooks has bad hands. He wouldn't be the first guy I'd want to throw to.”
So as Brooks reaches out to make an absolutely spectacular grab, you do have to wonder... well, we'll never know. Then again, Brooks had been so good all game long, it’s only right he came away with the game winner.
What’s stood the test of time
Look, I’ve been hard on Kerry Collins in this rewatch - after all, going just 7-21 for 131 yards and no touchdown passes certainly wasn’t a memorable game for the then-sophomore.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about just how good Collins became.
In his 1994 senior season, Collins ranked 11th in the country with 2,679 yards to go along with 21 touchdowns (to just seven interceptions), and led the country with a 172.9 passer rating. He would get drafted by the Carolina Panthers and went on to play 17 years in the NFL, including two Pro Bowl appearances.
So no, this game in his first year as a starter wasn’t particularly impressive - but it was only the beginning for him.
Jerome Bettis and Reggie Brooks as a tandem
Obviously Bettis who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but we shouldn't forget that in 1992, the backfield he shared with Brooks was one of the most dangerous in the whole country. Watching them in this game, you can imagine how hard it was to gameplan for two such different running styles - Brooks the elusive game-breaking playmaker, and Bettis the methodical power runner - both of which could run over even the best of college football’s defenses that season.
Between the two of them, “Thunder and Lightning” would combine for more than 2,000 yards and 23 touchdowns to help give Notre Dame the nation’s third best rushing offense. Brooks alone accounted for 1,343 yards in this, his senior season, landing him 8th in the country, along with a staggering eight yards per carry to lead the country.
Both would go on to be drafted the following spring, but this remains one of the best - if not the best - backfields the Irish have ever had.
The Notre Dame vs. Penn State rivalry, and conference consolidation in college football
Penn State’s move to the Big Ten, in the end, would result in four conference championships - most recently under James Franklin in 2016 - and nearly three decades later, those not around before the 1990s might be forgiven for forgetting that the Nittany Lions were ever an independent.
And yet Penn State’s move - along with all of those that changed their independent status in the 1990s - forever changed the landscape of college football. Over the course of the decade, 26 college football programs that ended the ‘80s as an independent had joined a conference affiliate. Among those 26, 12 went to major conferences, including Miami’s move to the Big East, Florida State's to the ACC, and, of course, Penn State's to the Big Ten. Conference championships became de facto playoff games for the eventual national championship picture - first under the BCS and now with the CFP system in place - and even in the last ten years, conference shake-ups have continued to consolidate top programs into the “Power 5” conferences from coast to coast.
Today, Notre Dame is one of just seven independent programs throughout the country, and are the last of the major programs in college football to retain that status.
This wouldn’t actually end up being the last time these two played one another, mind you - they had two more games in 2006 and 2007, which they, poetically, split. The series remains even at 9-9-1.
But this game becomes one last snapshot of independent powers in college football - before the sport began to permanently alter in the decades ahead.
What do you remember from this game? Did I miss something on the rewatch? Let me know! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts and questions...