To be the best you have to beat the best. This maxim has been plenty true for Penn State football. Their first national championship squad in 1982 beat No. 1 Georgia. Their second beat No. 1 Miami.
Paterno’s teams had faced eight No. 1 teams when they traveled to South Bend, Indiana, in 1990. Victorious just three times in such matchups, Penn State had recently been victimized by Lou Holtz’s dynamo the past two seasons as they held the No. 1 ranking in the midst of a 23-game winning streak. Traveling to Notre Dame—which was ranked No. 1 yet again—didn’t seem like the way to break that trend.
The offense fared well behind junior quarterback talent Tony Sacca, but the defense knew how to dictate a game. And if the Nittany Lions ever needed them to play above their ability, it would be against the otherworldly scoring machine Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and the stellar Notre Dame offensive assault. No one had stopped Ismail all season long, and the Heisman front-runner knew that exploiting the Lions’ defense would get his team one step closer to another national title.
Notre Dame didn’t invent the game of football, although their fans love it like they did. The school’s first two decades weren’t inspiring, but a high-profile win over Army in 1913, featuring end Knute Rockne, launched them into the nation’s eye.
Rockne took over as head coach in 1918, and his famed offensive attack, led by the famous “Four Horsemen,” was known coast-to-coast. During the three “Four Horsemen” years, Notre Dame lost just two games and won a national title in 1924. Rockne’s fiery inspiration (his locker room speech imploring players to “win one for the Gipper”—a former Irish player who died in 1920—is famous in football lore) helped his team win two more titles in ’29 and ’30. Tragically, after the 1930 season, Rockne died in a plane crash at age 43.
Frank Leahy, also a former Notre Dame player, began his legendary span in South Bend in 1941 after enormous success at Fordham and Boston College. In Leahy’s 11 seasons he had four national championships (’43, ’46, ’47, and ’49) and four Heisman Trophy winners. The 1946 game with Army in baseball’s historic Yankee Stadium is one of college football’s most memorable events. Over 74,000 came to see the nation’s top two teams duel to a 0-0 draw in a game that boosted college football’s popularity. Leahy retired with the second-highest win percentage in history.
Following a less successful decade—although one that featured 1956 Heisman winner and Green Bay Packer icon Paul Hornung—the next coaching legend entered the scene in 1964—Ara Parseghian. Like Rockne and Leahy, Parseghian amassed a win percentage of over .800.
After a forgettable tenure by coach Gerry Faust, Notre Dame’s next coach—Lou Holtz—won with a different kind of quarterback. The mobile Tony Rice revamped the Irish fortunes in 1987 (despite losing on a frigid day in State College 21-20 at the hands of Blair Thomas) with the help of Notre Dame’s seventh (and last) Heisman winner, wide receiver Tim Brown. The Irish’s seven different Heisman Trophy recipients is more than any other school.
Notre Dame won its first national title in over a decade in 1988 on the merits of its controversial win against Jimmy Johnson’s Miami in South Bend (the first “Catholics vs. Convicts” game which also ended Miami’s 36-game regular season winning streak) and their Fiesta Bowl victory over running quarterback Major Harris and No. 3 West Virginia. In 1989, Miami got its revenge at home, knocking the Fighting Irish from the No. 1 spot that they’d held all season and ending a 23-game winning streak (the longest in school history).
Carrying the pre-season No. 1 ranking isn’t an easy thing though; top-ranked Miami fell in their season opener to BYU, making room for the Irish on top. The Irish didn’t fare much better, losing a stunner to Stanford 36-31 in week five (without an injured Raghib Ismail). Nevertheless, by the time the Penn State game rolled around on November 17, Notre Dame regained the No. 1 position, even with the one loss.
Penn State—like most teams in 1990—knew that keeping the ball from Ismail’s hands was key in beating Notre Dame. PSU quick-kicked the opening kickoff to the ND 34. The Irish passed just once on the drive, overpowering Penn State repeatedly at the line of scrimmage. On 3rd and 2 at the 22, Harrisburg-native Ricky Watters eluded the stacked line of scrimmage and sprinted to a score. Notre Dame Stadium rained down oranges on the field, thrilled about the impending bowl invitation to Miami. Despite exhortations by Holtz to stop, the fans did it again on Notre Dame’s next drive when RB Reggie Brooks found the end zone on a 12-yard run. A 14-0 deficit just eight minutes into the game wasn’t the way to start a road game against the nation’s No. 1 team.
Penn State’s offense responded. Mostly fueled by the arm of Tony Sacca, the Lions easily moved downfield. Then, Sacca faked the Irish defense on a reverse play and found Terry Smith at the 3-yard line where he shook future-first rounder Lyght and lunged backwards into the end zone.
RB Leroy Thompson advanced the Lions nicely on the next drive but not far enough. After the Lions’ punt, Notre Dame’s Heisman candidate put his team on his back, finally getting them to the 1-yard line on a nifty 7-yard scoot. Mirer jumped over his center for the score, giving the Irish a 21-7 lead.
A game-altering play happened on Notre Dame’s final drive of the half. On 2nd and long, Mirer threw a middle screen to the deadly Ismail, which he took 27 yards deep into Penn State territory. Safety Willie Thomas tripped up “Rocket” on the play causing aggravation to a deep thigh injury. Ismail jogged off the field, but the injury kept him out of the rest of the game.
Missing his primary receiver Ismail on Notre Dame’s initial second half drive, Mirer got pasted from behind by freshman DB Derek Bochna and then threw an interception to Mark D’Onofrio on the next play. D’Onofrio returned the ball 37 yards, setting up a juggling 12-yard touchdown catch by TE Rick Sayles. Penn State cut the gap to 7 in front of a quiet Notre Dame Stadium crowd.
Nearly an entire quarter later, Penn State started with favorable field position. From his own 42, Sacca gained 23 yards on a wideout screen to Terry Smith, followed by a 20-yard screen to Thompson past the blitzing Notre Dame linemen. Then, on the 13-yard line, Sacca rolled out right and faced the pursuit. Seeing a wide open tight end, Sacca threw across the field and hit Al Golden for the game-tying score. With 7:15 remaining, Notre Dame’s championship hopes were becoming precariously thin.
Both teams traded three-and-outs, giving the young Mirer a chance to lead his team to a championship-saving score. Starting on his own 6, Mirer got a first down on the ground from Brooks. Too much field remained in front of the Irish to stay conservative, so Holtz aired it out on second down. Having overshot his target Tony Smith, Mirer saw his ball easily snagged by Darren Perry and returned to the Notre Dame 19. With :08 on the clock, Paterno sent Fayak out for an upset-making 34-yard field goal. The kick was true, and the scattered Penn State fans in South Bend heard their small cheers echo through the hallowed ground of Notre Dame Stadium.
The Rest of the Story
Penn State couldn’t rest on their laurels as bitter rival Pittsburgh came to University Park the week after the Notre Dame upset. The Lions won 22-17 and accepted a bowl invitation to play No. 11 Florida State in the Blockbuster Bowl. Bowden’s team, about to become the juggernaut of the nineties, defeated Paterno’s 24-17 and finished the season No. 4. Penn State, at 9-3, finished a respectable No. 10.
The Nittany Lions lost very little off the 1990 squad, setting up a ’91 season where they’d finish No. 3 in the land. They would miss the bruising rushing presence of Leroy Thompson though. Thompson, who played an outstanding Holiday Bowl the year before and had a critical part in their upset of Notre Dame, played six NFL seasons. Ironically, the most successful NFL back off of the ’90 team played safety—Gary Brown. A very low draft pick, Brown rushed for 1,000 yards twice in the NFL, played eight seasons, and now coaches in the NFL.
NBC began televising Notre Dame’s home games in 1991, but rather than act as a boon for the Irish, Notre Dame football actually began its descent. Holtz had them in the national title chase in 1992 and 1993, but the No. 4 and No. 2 ranking they’d achieve in those two years were the last top-5 finishes for the Irish. The Irish missed a bowl in the 1996 season, ending Lou Holtz’s excellent tenure there. (Holtz worked again as head coach at South Carolina before becoming a college football studio analyst.)
The proud traditions of Notre Dame football—like the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign in the locker room, the Touchdown Jesus statue, the post-game chorus of “Notre Dame, Our Mother”—cause some teams to buckle when they simply set foot on the Fighting Irish grass. But not Penn State. Penn State won in South Bend in ’82, and then won a national championship. Penn State won in South Bend in ’86, and then won a national championship. In ’90, Penn State didn’t go on to any titles but the Fighting Irish’s championship hopes were decimated on November 17.
“The Games of Our Lives” series is featured every week on the Nittany Lions Den. The series is excerpted from Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Murphy (release date summer 2012 by Father’s Press).