Jan. 1, 1990
MIAMI, Fla. – Notre Dame made use of its standard weapons — a bend-but-don’t break defense, a rugged running game plus a timely pass completion or two. Those items, plus some uncharacteristic miscues by top-ranked Colorado enabled the Irish to dash the national title hopes of the Buffs with their 21-6 Orange Bowl victory.
The Notre Dame triumph over unbeaten Colorado helped the Irish make amends for their loss to Miami that ended the regular season and marked the only blemish on the record for the last two seasons.
It also lent credence to the pregame speculation that the Irish experience in big games would pay dividends.
That certainly appeared to be the case in the first half when the Buffs — who came in averaging 34 points and 473 yards per game — squandered three golden scoring opportunities. Colorado rolled up and down the field the initial two periods, but putting the ball in the end zone was another matter. First, the Buffs drove to the Irish 35 on their second possession. From there, Eric Bieniemy darted into the clear at the Notre Dame 25, only to fumble as he changed hands with the football. Pat Terrell recovered for Notre Dame at the Irish 19.
On their next possession, the Buffs moved from their own 18 to the Notre Dame five. On fourth and three from there, kicker Ken Culbertson oddly pulled a chip-shot, 23-yard field-goal attempt to the left.
Finally, Colorado ran the ball to a first and goal at the Irish one – only to have Notre Dame pull off what Lou Holtz tabbed as the most impressive goal line stand he’d seen in a bowl game. On fourth down, the Buffs gambled with a fake field-goal attempt, but holder Jeff Campbell had no one to throw to and Troy Ridgley and Stan Smagala smothered him at the one.
Notre Dame’s lone scoring chance in the first 30 minutes ended when Colorado blocked a Billy Hackett field goal try as the first half ended in a rather bizarre 0-0 tie. As it turned out, all the momentum shifted to the Notre Dame side of the ledger from that point on.
The Irish took the second half kickoff and required just over three minutes to score. A 27-yard pass from Tony Rice to Tony Smith and a 27-yard run by fullback Anthony Johnson — who played impressively in finishing with 89 rushing yards — set the stage for Johnson’s two-yard scoring run that made it 7-0.
Notre Dame immediately got the ball back when Ned Bolcar tipped a third down Darian Hagan pass into the air and intercepted at the Buff 46. Twenty-five yards in penalties for clipping and holding calls almost sabotaged the Irish. But Rice threw to Johnson for 13 yards on a third down play, then hit Pat Eilers for 18 on first and 32. Finally, Orange Bowl MVP Raghib Ismail raced 35 yards down the Notre Dame sideline on a reverse for a 14-0 Irish lead. Ismail, who ended up playing tailback most of the night, in part due to an early knee injury to Ricky Watters, finished with 108 yards rushing to lead both teams.
Colorado bounced back on the final play of the third period, accounting for the longest rush against the Irish all season on a 39-yard Hagan keeper that made it 14-6 when Culbertson’s PAT hit the upright. When the Buffs were forced to punt the ball away to Notre Dame at the 10:27 mark, they had no idea they’d nearly never get it back.
Notre Dame promptly embarked on a stereotypical Irish march — 17 runs, none longer than 11 yards, no passes — that knocked 8:55 off the clock. When Johnson negotiated the final seven yards for a clinching touchdown that made it 21-6 with only 1:32 remaining, the Buffs were finished.
For the Irish, the triumph finished off a long season that began way back in August in the Kickoff Classic and featured Holtz’s squad atop the polls throughout the regular season. Then, the one week the Irish weren’t number one after their defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes, they bounced back to beat the number-one team.
They did it by playing mistake-free football — no turnovers for the Irish compared to a lost fumble and pair of interceptions thrown by Hagan.
“Coming away from the first half without any points after controlling the game for a while was too much to overcome,” said Colorado coach Bill McCartney. “Anytime you’re playing a team like Notre Dame, you’ve got to capitalize on your chances. We didn’t. I didn’t think anybody could keep us out of the end zone like they did on the goal line, but they did.”
Most Valuable Player
Raghib Ismail, Flanker