Monday, July 11, 2011

Miracle at South Bend - 20 Years Later

Many of you have heard me tell this story, some of you more than others and still listen to it with polite boredom. I figured the release of the new NCAA football game, and my return to Ohio for my uncle's wedding in May would be a great time to put it online.

We go back to November 4, 1991. My family was living in Perrysburg, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo. Being up in NW Ohio put me right in the middle of Big Ten country. My dad went to Tennessee which of course rubbed off on me and I had been a Vols fan my entire life. Being a kid in second grade at the time I always wore my Tennessee orange on Fridays before games, but being up in Ohio I was surrounded by kids who cheered for Michigan, Ohio State, and independent Notre Dame (other Big Ten schools as well but it was a smaller amount). Of course kids are always so nice to each other when one of them is different (note sarcasm) and the SEC was not the power it has grown into today so I got my fair share of abuse for cheering for a supposedly inferior school to big bad Michigan, OSU and Notre Dame (this btw was when the Irish were a perennial top ten team).

In the previous season #9 Tennessee and #1 Notre Dame went toe to toe at Neyland Stadium. The Vols had one final drive left in them but quarterback Andy Kelly had his pass intercepted at the goal line and the Irish won 34-29. The Notre Dame kids didn't let me forget that and they ratcheted up the taunts and were joined by the OSU and Michigan kids the week prior to the game at Notre Dame Stadium in 1991.

Going into the game the Vols were 5-2 and ranked #13 while the Irish were 8-1 and ranked #5 with the seniors were playing their final home game in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish were coached by Lou Holtz and led by QB Rick Mirer and future Hall of Famer at running back Jerome Bettis while the Vols had Andy Kelly under center, Dale Carter at safety and kick returner, and my favorite player as a kid, Carl Pickens at receiver.

On the first series the Tennessee defense forced a three and out, but Dale Carter muffed the punt. The Irish took advantage and rammed in down the Vols throats to score. Carter made it up by taking the kickoff past midfield, but Andy Kelly threw a pick right to a Notre Dame linebacker and he ran it all the way back for a score. Five minutes into the game it was 14-0 Notre Dame.

Just before the half Notre Dame led 31-7 and lined up for a field goal. Darryl Hardy blocked the kick and Floyd Miley ran the ball 85 yards for the score, drawing a famous "Oh My!" from broadcaster Dick Enberg. That is the definition of a "game changer." Instead of 34-7, Tennessee only trailed 31-14. Once the second half started, Tennessee was a different team. They looked sharper and were not intimidated by Notre Dame, or the aura of their stadium. The Irish could not keep their momentum on offense going and only scored three points in the second half. During the comeback, Andy Kelly passed Jeff Francis to become the All-Time passing leader at Tennessee. The Vols slowly clawed their way back to being down 34-28 in the forth quarter.

On a crucial forth down deep in Irish territory Notre Dame dialed up a safety blitz and stopped the Vols. However the Vols defense stood tall and Dale Carter picked off a pass to swing momentum back to Tennessee. On second and short, legendary coach and now color commentator Bill Walsh saw the Irish were going to bring that safety blitz again. Tennessee head coach Johnny Majors and then offensive coordinator Phil Fulmer saw it too and called the perfect counter to a blitz, a screen pass to the left to freshman running back Aaron Hayden. Hayden had two blockers in front with no one to block and Hayden went untouched into the end zone. After the extra point Tennessee led 35-34 with 4:03 to go.

Those were some of the longest minutes of my young life as the Irish in true Notre Dame fashion marched down the field on a drive to try and win. Now back on the blocked field goal at the end of the first half, the Notre Dame kicker Craig Hentrich got injured. He tried to make a go of it and was barely able to get the lone Notre Dame field goal of the second half over the cross bar. He further injured the leg on a punt and could not continue. Bill Walsh realized that Notre Dame would have to get the ball down where the winning field goal would be the distance of an extra point to make it easier on the backup kicker.

With four seconds to go in the game, sophomore walk-on kicker Rob Leonard lined up from the right hash mark to kick a 27 yard field goal that would give the Irish the win. This is the type of finish that Notre Dame always got, especially at home, and this ending would add to the legend. But it was not to be. Tennessee defensive back Jeremy Lincoln dove in front of the kick and the ball ricocheted off his butt to deflect the ball. The kick fell short. Game over. Tennessee 35 Notre Dame 34.

Everyone watching at my house went nuts. I could not sleep that night I was so excited. I could not wait to see what would happen Monday at school. To rub some salt in the wound I made sure to wear my Tennessee sweatshirt to school so all the kids had to look at that wonderful shade of orange. Of course all the Notre Dame kids blamed me for the Irish blowing a 31-7 lead at home and wanted to punish me for that. Since they were all fat, slow, midwestern kids they could not catch me at recess and I made it through the day unharmed and had a nice wide grin on my face.

I still got my fair share of bullying and abuse for being a Tennessee fan through 1995 when my family moved away, but I never shied away from my love of orange, or the fact that they could never catch me on the playground anyway. The only way I could have enjoyed Tennessee's 20-14 win over Ohio State in the 1996 Citrus Bowl, or their 45-17 drubbing of Michigan in the 2002 Citrus Bowl anymore is if I was back in Ohio and wearing my orange and being a Vol for life.