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The Holy War Preview: Remembering Back to the Kick That Changed Everything

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In 1993 the integrity of the Notre Dame football program was still strong. Led by Lou Holtz — who brought the school its 11th National Championship in only his third season in South Bend (1988) — the team tore through the regular season in 93. In the second game on their schedule the Irish edged a very good 5th ranked Michigan Wolverine squad (at the Big House) 27-23.

The next week they returned home and blasted Michigan State in South Bend 36-14. Cruising through the rest of the season, led by option quarterback Kevin McDougal, star running back Lee Becton, and future Packer wideout Derrick Mayes, the Irish also easily disposed of their historic rival, the USC Trojans (8-5), 31-13 in front of a raucous, sellout crowd at Notre Dame Stadium. Everyone who followed the sport could see that the momentum of the season was building towards a showdown between the two undefeated powerhouse teams, Holtz's Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Bobby Bowden's Florida State Seminoles.

The game itself was epic, with the atmosphere of a Vegas prize-fight. FSU entered the game ranked #1 facing a Fighting Irish team  ranked directly below at #2. And, as previously stated, both schools held unbeaten records. Notre Dame was a gritty team, running a basic, smash mouth, I-formation style triple-option offense and a bruising style of defense while the Florida State offensive attack was a high-octane machine led by future New York Knicks point guard and 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward and future NFL star Warrick Dunn. Despite their differences stylistically, both teams were unquestionably highly dangerous on the field in all facets of the game.

The Irish played beyond their natural ability level that afternoon, leading the majority of the game and fending off a last minute charge by Ward and his Seminoles to win the game 31-24 when the final gun fired. Notre Dame had beaten the #1 team in the nation and found themselves poised in an incredibly advantageous position to make a run at a National Championship.

Notre Dame was obviously elevated to #1 after the win but Florida State was oddly only dropped down to #2. A highly anticipated rematch in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship seemed inevitable. The Irish had only to get through one season ending contest — essentially a tune up game — against a Boston College squad that had, up to that point, never once beaten the Irish.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame the events of the next week did not stick to the intended script. The Irish horribly underestimated their opponent and with only 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter Notre Dame found themselves down 38-17. While in the previous week the Irish mystique had been strong with the team, swirling throughout the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame stadium during the dramatic underdog victory over FSU, now suddenly things were disturbingly different. But the Irish weren't going to go down without a fight.

Sending Notre Dame stadium into a frenzy, the Irish thundered back with 21 unanswered points, giving them a 39-38 lead deep into the fourth quarter. It seemed like the Irish would escape the tenacious opponent with their season intact, but Boston College was far from ready to submit.

Waging a last second drive down the field with just over two minutes to play, Eagles kicker David Gordon eventually lined up for easily the most important field goal of his life. From 41 yards out it was the last gasp of breath from a massive underdog squad that had pushed the top team in the nation to their absolute breaking point.

As the time expired on the clock a vision no Notre Dame fan will ever forget flashed across the cold hard truth of reality. The ball sailed through the crisp, fall air, cutting between the uprights with absolutely sickening accuracy. The scoreboard reflected the horror on the faces of the audience and the players as the Irish stood awestruck, humbled and defeated 39-41. The entire stadium fell into a collective and total shock.

For the first time in many years, the mystique was gone, the echoes were quiet, and the Irish were the victims — rather than the purveyors — of the drama. And while Notre Dame would still go on to the Cotton Bowl and beat Texas A&M 23-21, they would finish second to Florida State (even though they beat them head to head) in both final polls for the National Championship.

From that point — that single field goal — the course of Notre Dame football was changed forever, the program thrust into rapid erosion. The next season Holtz's team, behind blue chip prospect Ron Powlus at quarterback, fell to a 6-5-1 record and finished the season unranked after being dismantled by Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, 41-24 (in a game they had no business being in).

Holtz and Powlus would keep the program legitimate for a little while longer, going 9-3 in 1995 and 8-3 in 1996 (the only season other than his first that Holtz missed a bowl game with the Irish). After that final season in 1996 Holtz stepped down from his position and the downfall of the Fighting Irish began in earnest with the eras of Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham.

While Charlie Weis has taken the Irish to two BCS bowls, his 31-23 record looks a lot like that of his recent futile duo of predecessors. With losses to bitter rivals Michigan and USC this season, a year in which both were extremely vulnerable, history would dictate that Weis' days in South Bend are numbered. While his fate at Notre Dame may already be sealed either way, the game this Saturday against their Catholic rivals Boston College will undoubtedly factor into the decision of his employment somewhat, if such a decision still exists to be made in any form. It is a battle in the long running "Holy War" Weis cannot afford to lose.

Since that first victory in 1993, BC has won eight of the last 13 meetings between the two teams including the last six games in a row. But as the schools play this week, it is interesting to examine their two divergent paths since that one crucial field goal that ruined a season seemingly destined to result in the 12th national championship for the Irish that has still yet come, and prompted the opposing program to immediate national prominence, like vultures growing strong by feeding on the dead giant's bones.

Since that heart-piercing field goal 16 years ago that erased the joy from the Florida State victory far too prematurely for Irish fans, Notre Dame has wallowed in total disarray the likes and length of which they never could have imagined when that seemingly anomalous event occurred. Since that bitter Saturday afternoon the Irish are surviving as barely a factor on the national college football landscape beyond their name that will always hold a certain level of meaning in the sport because of the game's inherent historical ties to the program.

Nevertheless it was that one single point in time, an exact and highly tangible point in history when something as intangible as the "Notre Dame mystique' can be illustrated (with some imagination) as ceasing to exist. And the Irish have not recovered since, while Boston College has rarely faltered in their path of continued legitimacy. While BC is definitely not at the caliber of a USC, Florida or even the Irish in their better days under Holtz, they are a perennially competitive team that have owned the Irish as of late.

This 2009 matchup with Clausen and a highly prolific offense on the attack  may be Weis' best and last chance to fire back in a rivalry that has looked more and more like a massacre in recent years.

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About Anthony Tobis

  • Steve

    It’s easy to point to the ’93 game and say it was a turning point for both programs since the subsequent records speak for themselves. However, the premise that the game or BC played any role in ND’s subsequent downturn is so foolish that it undermines your whole piece. The desire for sports writers to see dependency in otherwise independent events is always amusing. If ND reacted to the BC loss by firing its coach, hiring Tom Coughlin, etc. there would be some logic in your argument. But until you show me show BC figured into Row Powlus’s development as QB, ND’s decision to part ways with Holtz, or its poor decision making in hiring its subsequent coaches, the 93 game will simply remain an upset. PS. ND finished 2nd in the country that year.

  • Tony

    First of all I never said that the game was the cause of Notre Dame’s downturn. I said that from that point on, they have not been successful which they haven’t. That was the first big upset, the first big disappointment, before it all went to hell.

    For BC the win probably did have more impact because it put them in the national consciousness helping with recruiting, ect.

  • Tony

    PS, a quote from page 2: “And while Notre Dame would still go on to the Cotton Bowl and beat Texas A&M 23-21, they would finish second to Florida State (even though they beat them head to head) in both final polls for the National Championship.”

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    “The desire for sports writers to see dependency in otherwise independent events is always amusing.”

    Every sportswriter is built out of the John Nash mold. It looks silly but you should try it sometime; it’s kinda fun!

  • http://davidhouk.com Dave Houk

    I remember hearing about that game many times back when FSU was winning big time – really wish I could’ve watched that game as I was only 10 years old then..