Jan. 1, 1992
NEW ORLEANS – The old maxim that he who laughs last, laughs best, accounts for the roar emanating from the Irish locker room after a stunning 39-28 Sugar Bowl upset of third-ranked Florida.
After surviving two weeks as the collective butt of jokes — including “What’s the difference between Cheerios and Notre Dame? Cheerios belong in a bowl” gag overheard from an anonymous French Quarter waiter — the 18th-ranked Irish responded on game day with a convincing second half rejoinder that silenced the snapping jaws of the heavily favored Gators and the heavily partisan Superdome crowd of 76,447.
Down 16-7 at the half, and outgained 288-142 in total yardage to that point, Notre Dame unleashed a power running game behind a dominating offensive line, a strategy that resulted in 32 second half points including three Jerome Bettis touchdowns late in the contest. Meanwhile, Gator quarterback Shane Matthews and the potent Florida offense jabbed away at the young Notre Dame defense but never landed the necessary knockout punch, instead settling for a record five field goals by Arden Czyzewski on five trips inside the Irish 20.
The criticisms of that makeshift defensive lineup appeared to be well founded after the game’s first series, as Matthews shredded the young secondary for 60 passing yards en route to an 11-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that took over four minutes. That set the tone for much of the first half, although three long Gator drives netted only nine total points.
The Irish, meanwhile, managed just one first down in the first quarter and were down 13-0 before Rick Mirer ignited the offense with three straight completions. The last was a 40-yard strike to Lake Dawson midway through the second quarter, pulling the Irish to within six points at 13-7. Czyzewski’s third field goal of the half, with just 20 second remaining, accounted for the nine-point halftime margin.
The halftime stats harbored little foresight on what would take place on the Superdome turf in the ensuing 30 minutes. Notre Dame entered the game as the nation’s sixth-best rushing team, averaging nearly 270 yards per game, but had totaled just 34 ground yards. Meanwhile, Matthews looked every bit the 3,000 yard passer he was, throwing for 202 first half yards and helping the Gators control the ball for nearly 20 minutes.
Any thought that the Irish would be forced into debuting “Air Holtz” in the second half was quickly buried. Like a prizefighter tiring out an opponent with body punches, Holtz called for an incredible 11 straight running plays into the heart of the renowned Florida line, with the work of Bettis, Rodney Culver and Tony Brooks finally resulting in the first-ever collegiate field goal by Kevin Pendergast.
After the Irish defense held, the burly backfield returned to their ground-eating ways. Bettis and Culver chewed up 41 yards on three carries midway through the drive, and Mirer and Tony Smith saved a third-and-17 with another of their seven hookups. Mirer hit 6-5 Irv Smith for the go-ahead touchdown near the end of the third quarter.
Florida retook the lead 22-17 on successive field goals, though failing to get the TD after Darren Mickell forced a Rick Mirer fumble at the Irish 12. The rest of the final quarter would belong Bettis, the eventual Sugar Bowl MVP. He capped a 14-play drive by crashing in behind Gene McGuire for a threeyard score, with the two-point conversion giving the Irish a 25-22 advantage. After the Gators failed on fourth-and-10 at midfield with under four minutes to go, Bettis took the first handoff and rumbled through a gaping right-side hole for 49 yards and a 32-22 lead.
But no lead is safe when Matthews’ arm is involved, and with well over three minutes still to work with, he eventually hit Harrison Houston with a 36-yard TD strike. But the two-point conversion pass failed, as the Irish led 32-28.
Bettis and the Irish line wasted little time sealing the outcome. After Culver covered an onside kick attempt, the 246-pound Bettis broke loose again on a third down, rolling to his third score from 39 yards out. Those were the last of 245 second half rushing yards by the Irish, with Bettis accounting for 127 and Rodney Culver and Tony Brooks also prime contributors. Though Matthews finished 28-of-58 with 370 passing yards, he had just 11 second half completions against a tightening Holtz-inspired defense. In fact, the Gators went without a touchdown for over 53 minutes between the opening score and Houston’s grab in the waning moments.
Miller-Digby Award – Most Valuable Player
Jerome Bettis, Fullback