Today we venture back to Senior Day in 1990 for the last time Notre Dame was #1 in the country during the regular season* for consecutive weeks. This would be just the 3rd loss in 35 games and a bit lost to history because the previous 2 defeats were devastating–and the fourth loss upcoming during the bowl game on New Year’s Day–was among the most heart-breaking of my lifetime and one of my earliest Fighting Irish memories.
*Notre Dame has ascended to #1 twice since. First, in 1993 following the win over Florida State with no need to detail what happened the following week. Secondly, in 2012 for the last week of the regular season versus USC.
Penn State–still 2 more full seasons away from joining the Big Ten and ditching their Independent status–was facing the Irish for the 10th straight season. The Nittany Lions were 6-3 over that time span but had lost the prior 2 meetings and were lining up against a #1 Notre Dame team for the third consecutive matchup.
This would be one of the better JoePa teams (finishing #11 in the AP), their best since the 1986 National Championship team and one which laid the foundation for the ’91 team that finished #3 in the land. They lost their two opening games to Texas and USC (ahh, Independence!) only to win the rest of their regular season games.
The Notre Dame team was absolutely loaded and 100% talented enough to win a title. Rodney Culver, Ricky Watters, Tony Brooks, and a young Jerome Bettis at running back. Future 1st round pick Derek Brown at tight end. Center Mike Heldt picked up some All-American nominations. A young Rick Mirer in his first year of starting. A trio of 1st-team All-Americans (Chris Zorich, Michael Stonebreaker, Todd Lyght) on defense. Plus, future NFL punter/kicker Craig Hentrich.
Oh, and Rocket Ismail playing in his final game inside Notre Dame Stadium.
The future Walter Camp Player of the Year was seemingly the Heisman favorite even this late in the year. It was a truly odd year for the Heisman too, featuring a Virginia wideout, Houston quarterback, Virginia quarterback, Colorado running back, and BYU quarterback in the Top 6 of voting with Rocket.
BYU did beat Miami in the Canes’ opener which put Ty Detmer squarely in the spotlight. Apparently this poll for only 95 cents didn’t have the right pulse of the nation!
8-year-old me voted 74 times.
Ty Detmer threw 28 interceptions, lost to Hawaii by 31 points in the final week of the regular season, and still won the Heisman. It’s quite the story.
Back inside Notre Dame Stadium the tragedy for Rocket Ismail was that he missed the second half against Penn State. In the first half we witnessed some hot fire classic Rocket. On 9 touches he totaled 102 yards from a counter, punt return, 3 receptions, a couple pitches, and a couple reverses.
Notre Dame dominated the first half going +127 in total yardage, converting 12 of 13 first downs, but as often happens the 21-7 lead at halftime didn’t match the feeling of the Irish completely controlling things.
Rocket aggravated his thigh injury on the last play in the above GIF and didn’t come back to the game. That same injury also kept him out except for one play of the Stanford loss earlier in the year, too. It’s tragic. Rocket had 268 all-purpose yards against Miami earlier in the year–there’s no way Notre Dame loses to Stanford and Penn State if he was healthy.
Hentrich would miss the field goal set up by the Rocket screen near the end of the half. He’d also miss a 53-yard attempt earlier in the game. Notre Dame would go the final 35 minutes of the game without scoring a point.
Unfortunately for Rick Mirer he really burned the Irish in the second half when the offense ground to a halt. He threw an interception that was brought back to the Notre Dame 11-yard line leading to a Penn State touchdown. The Nittany Lions even punted from the Irish 37-yard line with 2 minutes remaining and a tie game! Even worse, Notre Dame picked up a first down only to follow that up by a 3rd down interception from Mirer that led to Penn State’s game-winning field goal.
In a weird twist, the loss to Penn State almost didn’t matter. Earlier in the afternoon on New Year’s Day 1991 had Georgia Tech lost the Citrus Bowl and Miami lost the Cotton Bowl (neither did, they won by a combined 67 points) the Irish would’ve been playing #1 Colorado that night in the Orange Bowl for a possible consensus National Championship–or as consensus as things could’ve been back then. Notre Dame could’ve been the first 2-loss National Title winner since 1960 and just the third team ever to do that to date.
Find me a better TV graphic from 1990. pic.twitter.com/h0ayy6MBRm
— 18 Stripes (@18stripes) June 30, 2018