Jan. 2, 1989
TEMPE — Combining a knock-’em-in-the-dirt style of defense with a timely passing game set up by the pounding Irish running attack, Notre Dame did it all in putting the finishing touches on its first national championship since 1977.
The Irish got on the scoreboard early, made life miserable for West Virginia star quarterback Major Harris and methodically dismantled the only other unbeaten team left in the country. The result in this Fiesta Bowl battle of perfect records – the 13th in bowl history – left Notre Dame with a 34-21 victory that actually was more convincing than the score indicated.
Michael Stonebreaker and Jeff Alm bashed Harris’ left shoulder into the Sun Devil Stadium turf on the third play of the game and West Virginia’s quarterback was never the same.
With Harris’ effectiveness – and, thus, West Virigina’s – reduced almost from the start, it was Irish quarterback Tony Rice who played like a Heisman Trophy contender. Shrugging off the nagging doubts about his passing ability, Rice first went about establishing Notre Dame’s relentless ground game by calling for rushes on 16 of Notre Dame’s first 17 plays.
Every time West Virginia was poised to stop the Irish option, Rice took advantage of single coverage in the secondary to throw for big yardage. He attempted only 11 passes, completing seven, but averaged more than 30 yards per completion on his way to the offensive MVP award.
“This is a great football team because nobody proved otherwise,” said Holtz.
It took Notre Dame hardly any time at all to prove that to the 74,911 fans in attendance. Sending West Virginia’s offense to the sideline after three downs, Rice scampered 31 yards around left end on third and seven. That set up a 45-yard Billy Hackett field goal just 4:35 into the game.
Three more plays netted only six yards, and Notre Dame took over again at their 39. Rice connected with Derek Brown for 23 yards but otherwise stayed on the ground all the way to first and goal from the three. West Virginia put up a fight at that point, but Anthony Johnson finally carried for the last yard on fourth down.
West Virginia went two more possessions without gaining first down yardage and the Irish capitalized again. On third and 11 at his own 48, Rice again found Brown wide open over the middle and Notre Dame’s rookie tight end sprinted to the five. Rodney Culver scored on the next play to make it 16-0, 5:19 into the second quarter.
The Mountaineers finally found the scoreboard on a 29-yard Charlie Baumann field goal, but two of the three first downs on the 52-yard drive came via Irish penalties. And the Irish came right back with an answer. Rice hit Johnson for 19 yards, then zipped one to Raghib Ismail for 29 yards and six points for a commanding 23-3 advantage. Only a 36-yard pass play with four seconds left from Harris to Reggie
Rembert put West Virginia in position for a 31-yard field goal to close the half.
Notre Dame got those three points right back after Pat Terrell intercepted Harris on West Virginia’s initial third-period offensive thrust. This time, it was Reggie Ho connecting from 32 yards after Rice’s 35-yarder to Mark Green had picked up the largest chunk of ground.
Next came the only opportunity the Mountaineers had to get back in the game. After Harris had led his team 74 yards for a touchdown to make it 26-13, Willie Edwards intercepted a Rice pass to give West Virginia the ball back at the Irish 26. Notre Dame’s defense proved equal to the challenge. On first down, Flash Gordon hemmed in Harris on the option for a loss of two.
On second down, Stan Smagala made a spectacular deflection in the end zone of a Harris pass.
On third down, Frank Stams – who earned defensive MVP honors – and Arnold Ale stormed Harris for a loss of 12, knocking West Virginia completely out of field goal range. The Mountaineers had to punt, and Notre Dame promptly drove for another touchdown.
Offensive Most Valuable Player
Tony Rice, Quarterback
Defensive Most Valuable Player
Frank Stams, Defensive End