If you don't know which two teams were playing in this game from the title, maybe you shouldn't read further. Better yet, maybe you don't deserve to read further.
This game pitted the No. 1 Miami Hurricanes and their 36-game regular season winning streak on the line against the No. 4 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish in glorious South Bend, Indiana. There was a great build up to this game, especially on the Notre Dame side, as a 24-0 victory by the 'Canes during the '87 season catapulted Miami to the National Championship. Would this year be different?
Miami was most certainly college football's bully in the 1980's and Notre Dame played the part of 'little brother'. Up to this meeting, the Hurricanes led the 80's series 5-2, with two shutouts and none of their wins coming by less than 18 points. The pride of the Golden Domers was certainly tarnished and confidence lacked in South Bend for, possibly, the first time ever.
The kickoff may have been slated for 2:30, but the action happened well before then. As pregame warm-ups were coming to a close, Punter Jim Sexton booted a ball toward the end zone and the waiting arms of Raghib "The Rocket" Ismail. At the same time, Miami players had already concluded their warm-up and were meandering down the field toward the tunnel. After the Rocket caught the ball, he was knocked to the side by one of the Miami Hurricane players. The entire Notre Dame and Miami squads stood toe-to-toe in the end zone. That's when 'The Brawl' ensued.
It was a gutter war, a no holds-barred brawl in South Bend. Tony Rice, then the Irish starting quarterback, was seen grabbing one Miami player by the facemask and hammering him with a barrage of uppercuts. It was like trying to separate two wild animals from destroying each other. It was shaping into a personal war, and at that point it was anybody's football game.
Coaches were involved, trainers were involved, refs were involved,and the Indiana State Highway Patrol was involved in trying to separate the masses. As Ismail summed it up best, "It was like a scene from Braveheart".
A Notre Dame team that was downtrodden by the Hurricanes for the better part of a decade began to fight back.
Shortly thereafter, Coaches Jimmy Johnson and Lou Holtz pulled their teams into respective locker rooms prior to the opening kick. It was a mood unlike any other in the Irish room. After a few moments, Holtz blew his whistle and began to address his team. "Men, I have no doubt that you will do well today. You'll be fine, you'll be fine. But I have one favor to ask of you... Save Jimmy Johnson's ass for me!"
The Irish took that inspiration to the field and scored first as Tony Rice rumbled for 11-yards off the right side and a score capping a 75-yard 12-play drive in the first quarter. Notre Dame didn't let up, as they were able to jump out to a 21-7 lead in the second quarter, as Rice hit Rocket Ismail for 57-yards and followed it up with a strike to Tony Banks for the score. Then, Safety Pat Terrell intercepted a tipped ball by Frank Stams and scampered 60-yards for the Irish touchdown.
Miami, not to be outdone, managed to tie the game at 21 just before the half, as quarterback Steve Walsh connected on touchdown passes of 23 and 15-yards to Leonard Conley and Cleveland Gary.
Miami received the ball to open the second half. On their first play from scrimmage, they fumbled the ball. Notre Dame, however, was unable to do anything with it.
It wasn't until ND's next possession that Tony Rice, who finished 8 of 16 for 195 yards, hit Ricky Watters for 44-yards to get the ball inside the five yard line. Tossing it to the right side, Notre Dame scored its final touchdown of the game, as Pat Eilers rumbled through tacklers to give the Golden Domers the edge. A Notre Dame team that managed just 20 points in its previous four thrashings by the 'Canes, held firm in the third quarter, by holding Miami's vaunted offense to no points while scoring 10 themselves.
Miami and Walsh, who passed for an astonishing 424 yards on 31 of 50 throwing the football, made a charge in the fourth. Unfortunately for them, the most controversial call of the game did not go in their favor, as it was ruled that Cleveland Gary fumbled the football at the goal line while attempting to stretch for the score. Johnson vehemently protested the call, but it was not to be overturned.
On UM's next possession, Frank Stams knocked the ball loose from Walsh inside Notre Dame territory and it was recovered by Chris Zorich. Interestingly enough, Steve Walsh had yet to be sacked all season until this game. Walsh's final stat line showed three interceptions and two fumbles, as he was harassed by the fired up Irish Defense all afternoon.
At the end of the day, this was still the number one team in the country and the game would not be over till the clock hit triple zeros. Walsh led the 'Canes down the field in the final minutes. With just over 50 ticks remaining and a fourth and seven call, the Miami signal-caller dropped back, fluttered a pass to the front right corner of the end zone where a diving Andre Brown laid out for the score.
While the play could have knotted it up at 31 and the eventual tie, Jimmy Johnson, who later said, "We always play to win", went for the two-point conversion with 45 seconds left. The Hurricanes lined the ball on the left hash and flooded the right side of the field. Walsh pulled out from under center, looked right and then lobbed a pass to the back right corner of the goal. Pat Terrell, who had earlier picked Walsh off for a score, deflected the would-be game winner just enough that it was able to safely fall to the ground incomplete.
Celebration erupted in Notre Dame Stadium that day, as the beloved Irish outlasted the Miami Hurricanes, 31-30, in possibly the decade's greatest game. Finally, Notre Dame, after dismal years under Gerry Faust, was back at the top of college football once again.
The Irish, who beat then No. 2 ranked USC Trojans in the season finale, went on to take the National Championship that year, with a Fiesta Bowl win over the No. 3 ranked and Major Harris led, West Virginia Mountaineers. Miami, on the other hand, finished second in the polls, as they went uncontested the rest of the season and beat up on the Nebraska Cornhuskers 23-3 in the Orange Bowl.
The 1988 season marked the last time Notre Dame won the National Championship trophy.