Onward Notre Dame: 1993 Game of the Century

Onward Notre Dame: 1993 Game of the Century

Relive the hype, mystique, and stories of Notre Dame's storied matchup against Florida State in the 1993 Game of the Century. Hear exclusive interviews with Bob Costas, Chris Fowler, Charlie Ward, Shawn Wooden, Marc Edwards, Bertrand Berry, Derrick Mayes, Lee Becton, Kevin MacDougal, and Jack Nolan. Narrated by Reggie Brooks.

Relive the hype, mystique, and stories of Notre Dame's storied matchup against Florida State in the 1993 Game of the Century. Hear exclusive interviews with Bob Costas, Chris Fowler, Charlie Ward, Shawn Wooden, Marc Edwards, Bertrand Berry, Derrick Mayes, Lee Becton, Kevin MacDougal, and Jack Nolan. Narrated by Reggie Brooks.

On the Monday before the biggest game of the year, a Game of the Century, Notre Dame quarterback Kevin McDougal never expected to hear the words Lou Holtz spoke to him.

McDougal had been getting ready for practice when he was asked to meet with Holtz in the head coach’s office. McDougal said Holtz told him he planned to start freshman Ron Powlus in the 1993 showdown between No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Notre Dame.

“I was devastated,” McDougal said.

Coming out of high school, Powlus was the No. 1 recruit in the country. After watching Powlus in summer practices, Holtz — a coach typically reserved in his praise for players — said that Powlus’ ancestry must trace back to Krypton. He named the collegiate rookie Notre Dame’s starting quarterback for the ’93 season.

McDougal, a senior, had already sat behind Rick Mirer for three years. With Powlus’ ascent on the depth chart, McDougal would be relegated to the sidelines again. But the plan never launched. Powlus broke his collarbone before the season started. McDougal and Paul Failla battled it out early in the season before McDougal fully secured the first-string role.

McDougal was under center as Notre Dame won its first nine games. As far as passing efficiency, he was having one of the best seasons in Notre Dame history. How could you do this to me? he thought leaving Holtz’s office. As he moved through the locker room and to the practice field, he kept it to himself. He had no intention of undermining Powlus. As McDougal was still getting taped on the sidelines, there was a commotion. While making some throws, Powlus had re-injured his collarbone.

“Right then, it goes from not playing, my season is done. Right back to, I’m the starter. For me, personally, it was one of the craziest weeks of my life and people don’t know this.”

The near-demotion to second-string wasn’t the only odd occurrence for McDougal in the days leading up to the one-versus-two matchup. This weekend McDougal and about three-dozen of his teammates plan to return to campus for a reunion of that ’93 campaign.

That year, the biggest game in college football was Seminoles visit to Notre Dame Stadium. It still ranks as one of the best, and most hyped, games in the history of the sport. Forty million people tuned into the NBC for all or part of the game. The broadcast opened with Bob Costas’ poetic “Around the Corner from Main Street” monologue playing over the score to Rudy, which had been released the previous month. O.J. Simpson was added to the broadcast team as the game’s second sideline reporter for NBC.

? Main Street, USA

In 1993, No. 2 @NDFootball hosted No. 1 Florida State in the Game of the Century and NBC aired one of the most captivating intros on television.

On Saturday night, a new chapter in the rivalry is born.#GoIrish #BeatSeminoles pic.twitter.com/grEKpiqEns

— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) November 8, 2018

Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee went to the game. Golfer Paul Azinger, who had won the PGA Championship two months earlier, came to Notre Dame to watch the tilt. Al Gore wanted to go, but by the time he made the decision to attend proper security for the vice president couldn’t be arranged. Gore had to watch on TV.

College GameDay left ESPN headquarters for the first time ever. Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Craig James hosted the special edition that emanated from the concourse of the Joyce Center. “This is not just a football game. This is a happening,” Fowler said during the broadcast.

As much as Notre Dame players tried to pretend this was just another game, as much as they tried to tone down the media frenzy, they couldn’t help but notice this was definitely different when the recreational vehicles arrived on campus early in the week. People camped out in RVs for days waiting for kickoff.

For the entire season, Florida State had been billed as a team of the century. Finally, after six consecutive years of finishing in the top four, Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden would get a national championship.

The Seminoles hammered opponents. They came to Notre Dame with a 9-0 record and the closest game they had played was an 18-point victory over No. 3 Miami. The defense gave up less than a touchdown a game (6.4 points per game). Quarterback Charlie Ward, who went on to play 12 seasons in the NBA, led Florida State’s “fast break” offense. Today, it would look normal, but back then it was innovative to have Ward stand back in the shotgun and work with four wide receivers and one running back. The offense averaged 44.3 points per game and, even though votes hadn’t been cast, Ward had wrapped up the Heisman Trophy before his mid-November visit to South Bend.

The Notre Dame defense tasked with slowing Florida State was led by future NFL All-Pro and current Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach Bryant Young, along with defensive tackle Jim Flanigan, safety Jeff Burris and linebacker Pete Bercich. On offense, Lombardi Award-winning tackle Aaron Taylor and center Tim Ruddy led the way.

Notre Dame had players. Twenty-four members of the ’93 team would end up drafted in the NFL, but oddsmakers listed Florida State as about a touchdown favorite in a game on Notre Dame’s home turf.

While talking to reporters about the game, Florida State wide receiver Kez McCorvey and linebacker Chris Cowart referred to legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne as “Rock Knuteny.” When the Seminoles arrived at Notre Dame, they wore green baseball caps designed with shamrocks and a gold-embroidered FSU.

“They had an air about them that ‘We’re going to come through here and win by 40.’ They thought, ‘We’re bigger, faster and better than everybody else,'” said Notre Dame fullback Ray Zellars.

On Tuesday that week, Kevin McDougal’s phone rang in his basement dorm room in Morrissey Manor. It was Florida State fullback Zack Crockett and a few of his Seminole teammates on the other end. McDougal and Crockett were high school teammates, but since they were opponents the trash-talking phone call had to happen.

“He told me what they were going to do to us. And I said what we were going to do them. It was a friendly, but furious back and forth,” McDougal said.

The night before the game, in the Loftus Sports Center, Holtz led the Fighting Irish in a meditative visualization session. This practice had been part of Notre Dame’s pregame itinerary since Holtz arrived on campus for the 1986 season.

Lying on his back with his eyes closed, sophomore cornerback Shawn Wooden pictured himself making the game-winning play. It was an interception in the game’s closing moments. “I remember thinking, to win the game, this is what we’re going to have to do: make a big play,” Wooden said.

In the tunnel before the game, Notre Dame poured out of its locker room to wait and watch Florida State leave its locker room. Both teams jawed at each other, their woofing echoed through the tunnel. This was the final simmer before the boil that would take place on the field.

McDougal was nowhere near the verbal confrontation. The quarterback did what he always did before the team took the field. He stayed in the back with running back Lee Becton.

Once the game started, the chatter didn’t stop. “There was quite a bit of talking on the field, which is not something I’m going to talk about now,” Becton said knowing the audience that would be reading his words.

Becton and Zellars replaced future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis and Heisman Trophy finalist Reggie Brooks. “We didn’t have the big household names of the running backs that had come before us,” Zellars said. “There was some doubt. But Lee and I were like ‘It’s us. We’ve been putting in work for the last two years. We’re ready to take the reigns over.'”

For his first two years on campus, Becton carried a football with him everywhere: to class, the dining hall and around his dorm. As a junior in ’93, he set a mark that still stands in the Notre Dame record book — six consecutive 100-yard games.

On Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage against Florida State, Becton took a McDougal handoff on the left side. Seminole linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Derrick Brooks leveled him. “It was nothing,” Becton said. “It just meant it was game time.”

Becton ended up having day against the Seminoles. He alone outgained Florida State on the ground, rushing for 122 yards on 26 carries. His elusive, shoulder-dipping, stop-start, change-of-direction style duped the over-pursuing Seminoles defense.

Holtz knew Florida State’s speed led them to over-commit to plays on defense. He prepped the Fighting Irish for this. He inserted screenplays to Becton into the game plan. It looked like McDougal dumped a check-down pass in the flat, but then Becton shot up field with lineman clearing the way in front of him.

Notre Dame’s first touchdown came on a 32-yard reverse to Adrian Jarrell. When Jarrell turned the corner, there was a wall of Notre Dame blockers ready for all the Seminoles who fell for the misdirection. The highlight block came 25 yards downfield, inside the five-yard line, as Aaron Taylor made sure Jarrell made it to the end zone.

On another touchdown, Becton went untouched. He took the handoff out of the I-formation, read his blockers, dipped his shoulders and streaked to the end zone for a 26-yard score. Zellars, who played four years with the New Orleans Saints, had strategized with Becton to read the fullback’s lead block. Zellars would shove the over ambitious Florida State defender in one direction, allowing Becton the space to cut back and head the opposite way.

“At the end of the day, Notre Dame was going to do what Notre Dame did under coach Holtz: get in front of you and smack you in the mouth,” Becton said.

The Fighting Irish controlled the game, leading 21-7 at halftime and 31-17 deep into the fourth quarter. But Florida State made a comeback. With 2:31 left to play, on fourth down and goal from the 20-yard line, a tipped pass in the end zone dropped into the hands of Kez McCorvey. The Seminoles cut the lead to seven.

Shawn Wooden recovered the ensuing onside kick, but the Florida State defense stifled the Irish. A botched Notre Dame punt gave the Seminoles the ball at their 37-yard line. Ward drove Florida State to the Notre Dame 15-yard line. With three seconds left the Seminoles had one more chance.

Notre Dame pressured Ward with three defenders. The quarterback avoided the rush, extending the play by sliding to his left. He looked for a multiple options to throw to. He spotted running back Warrick Dunn in the back of the end zone. He stepped into the throw and let the ball fly.

Shawn Wooden stood at about the one-yard line and watched Ward as the play unfolded. He watched Ward scramble toward him. Wooden’s thoughts raced. He broke contain. Should I run up? If I run, he’ll throw it over my head in the end zone.

“When I saw the ball in the air, it was in slow motion,” Wooden said. “The ball was probably in the air for a second and half and you’d be surprised what your mind can process in that time.”

We just had a guy try to get an interception. That tip ended up a touchdown. I definitely can’t let that happen. Knock the ball down. Is this the visualization I had last night? Maybe, I’ll go for the pick. Just a little. Wait. I don’t want to go to the sidelines and see coach Holtz if that doesn’t workout. Then one abrupt final thought. DUDE. Is he throwing it to me?

Ward drilled the pass, but it was underthrown. Wooden made a small jump and batted the ball to the ground, securing the victory.

After the game, Bowden hoped his squad would get a rematch with the Fighting Irish. “I wish we could win the rest of our games and get a shot at them again.”

That wouldn’t happen. Notre Dame’s time at No. 1 was short-lived. The following week, despite a 22-point comeback in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame lost 41-39 to Boston College.

Notre Dame headed to the Cotton Bowl to face Texas A&M. During warm-ups, before the first bowl game practice, McDougal made his peace with Holtz for the near-benching before the Florida State game.

“Kevin, I’m just going to tell you, I’ll never lose you a lead again,” Holtz said, referencing the McDougal-led the comeback against Boston College.

“It wasn’t a lot, but for me and the situation we had been in and what we’d been through, I took it as such a positive,” McDougal said of the brief interaction with his head coach. “It made everything okay.”

On New Year’s Day, Notre Dame beat Texas A&M. Florida State posted a two-point win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. At Notre Dame’s team hotel there was some celebration. Everything broke the right way for the Fighting Irish to get a piece of the national title. Both Florida State and Notre Dame had one loss and the Seminoles didn’t show enough separation against Nebraska to warrant the title all on their own. Plus, Notre Dame did hold the advantage in the head-to-head battle. After the votes in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls were cast, that logic did not prevail. The Seminoles ended up No. 1 in both rankings.

It takes nothing away from the bond and achievements of the ’93 team, but the absence of the title remains something they wished they had notched in their legacy at Notre Dame. It still comes up in their lives, especially with diehard Notre Dame and Florida State fans.

“For whatever reason we didn’t get a fair shake at the end,” Zellars said he tells people when it comes up in conversation.

Zellars might have come up with the best way to handle the fallout. In the NFL, when he’d come across Derrick Brooks as Zellars’ Saints played Brooks’ Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Zellars had a message for him. “That national championship ring? Somewhere on that ring, my name is in there. You may be wearing it, but I’m on there.”