Aug 29, 2013
The following is an excerpt from the recently released book by 1999 University of Notre Dame graduate Jerry Barca. Barca’s book is available in the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore. He is on campus this weekend for a book signing.
Inside linebacker Wes Pritchett made the call in the huddle. The first- team defense lined up against the scout squad. Clear skies topped the 75- degree scene on the Wednesday of Michigan State week.
The ball snapped; the play went off, and a scout team guard tried to put a cut block on Pritchett. The 6-4. 251- pound defender didn’t take kindly to a lineman trying to take out his legs. Pritchett got into it with the guard, and the scout squadder didn’t back down. They started fighting.
Senior Corny Southall, the starting free safety, came up to stop the fight and protect the offensive player. Michael Stonebreaker, Pritchett’s inside linebacking mate, started in on Southall.
“We’ve got a free- for- all,” Holtz said.
The defensive coaches broke it up, but coordinator Barry Alvarez questioned his unit’s bond. Holy smoke! Do our guys like each other? he thought.
Pritchett probably gave the offensive lineman a kiss on the cheek after practice, but on the field it was football, and the fisticuffs were part of it.
“Football is not a nice-person sport . . . Football players are mean. It’s not supposed to be pretty,” Pritchett said. “It was the way we were.”
Mistakes filled the rest of practice. Quarterback Tony Rice continued to have trouble throwing the ball. Holtz sent him to play with the scout team. Four days before the Irish played the returning Rose Bowl champions, the starting quarterback called the signals for the practice squad.
Rice remained unruffled when Holtz put him through a meat grinder of scrutiny every day in practice.
“Hey, Ricky. Hey, Ricky,” Holtz said, calling to Rice in practice. “Yes, sir,” Rice answered. Rice knew Holtz was referring to Rickey Foggie, an option quarterback out of South Carolina Rice played against in high school and Holtz started at Minnesota.
On Thursdays, with no defense in their way, Rice had to lead the offense on a flawless 99- yard drive. Any imperfections reset the drill. An incompletion on third down sent the ball back to the 1- yard line. Missed assignments signaled a restart.
Players had to hustle. If they didn’t, the team would hear from a coach. “He was lollygagging. Put it back. Start over again.”
Back they ran, huddling in their own end zone to start the march again. Just as Rice drove the team within striking distance, a coach interrupted the rhythm.
“Holding on the offense.”
Even though there was no one to hold, no one argued the call. They trotted backward and started the drive again. In the midst of the action, Holtz quizzed Rice.
“What does your receiver do on this play?”
“What is your guard’s assignment?”
“What’s the tackle’s technique?”
Holtz wanted Rice to think like the coach.
“If your quarterback is on the same page as you, you’re going to be fine. The offensive line may not show up one week. The receivers might not. But your quarterback better show up each week and you better know what to expect. I want to know what to expect when we snap the ball. If I call this play and you’re going to throw an interception one time and you’re going to throw it into the stands the next time, a completion the next time, I can’t live with that. If you’re going to throw an interception, that’s great. Throw it every time because I ain’t going to call it then. But I have got to know what to expect, and the only way I know what to expect is to put pressure on you. I put on tremendous pressure,” Holtz said.
Six plays into the Michigan State game, Tony Rice dropped back to throw his first pass. Michigan State’s Kurt Larson intercepted it and returned it seven yards to the Notre Dame 43- yard line. The Spartans used the turnover to take a 3-0 lead.
No. 8 Notre Dame went to the half up 6-3 against unranked Michigan State. The Irish had managed just 50 yards rushing. Notre Dame quarterbacks had completed as many passes to Michigan State as they had to their own team. Tony Rice and backup Kent Graham were 2 of 9 for 50 yards and 2 interceptions. Rice’s 2 completions were near-lateral passes: a swing pass to Mark Green in the flat that went for 38 yards and a quick throw along the line of scrimmage to Ricky Watters, who ran with it for 12 yards.
Throwing only twice, the Irish pretty much shelved the passing game in the second half. Instead, Notre Dame asserted its dominance on the ground, rushing for 156 yards in the third quarter alone. Both fullbacks, Anthony Johnson and Braxston Banks, went down with injuries. With no preparation, tailback Tony Brooks moved into the position.
“I don’t know of anybody mentally tougher than Tony Brooks,” said guard Tim Ryan. “He got the ball and he ran. If he was banged up, you never knew. That guy was from a different planet.”
Brooks actually had a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal on his left foot, a break in the bone leading up to the pinky toe. He didn’t have much support from the arch in his foot, and the constant running and cuts made by his 230-pound frame caused the break.
Coaches expected him to miss the opener against Michigan, but he played, rushing for 48 yards on seven carries and catching an 18-yard pass on the game- winning drive.
Even with the fracture, he wasn’t going to sit out. The training staff put together an orthotic that reduced some of the pain, and Holtz tried to call running plays to Brooks’s right to limit planting on the left foot.
Brooks relished the physical pounding of the game. He played running back like a linebacker. He ran into collisions. It started back in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Brooks first put on pads in third grade. His coaches cheered the contact, and Brooks enjoyed the bull-in-the-ring drill where one player chopped his feet in the middle, awaiting a charging hit from one of a group of players circling him.
In middle school he broke his ankle. The doctor put him in a cast that ended just below his knee. Tony kept playing tackle football in the neighborhood. Twice he broke the cast. Then his mother had the doctor cast his leg all the way up to his hip.
“His threshold for pain was ridiculous,” said Reggie Brooks, his little brother and an eventual Heisman Trophy finalist at Notre Dame.
On Notre Dame’s first offensive play of the second half, Brooks took a Tony Rice pitch to his right. He cut up field, twisted out of tackles, leaped over his own downed player, and thundered up the sideline for 37 yards. Instead of going out of bounds, he finished the play by lowering his shoulder and running through a defensive back for the final three yards.
Five plays later, Rice kept the ball on the option and streaked 8 yards into the end zone. Ninety-one plays and 437 yards into the season, and a Notre Dame offensive player had crossed the goal line. The Irish led 13-3. The offense continued to dominate on the ground, totaling 245 yards on the day with senior captain Mark Green picking up 125 yards on 21 carries.
Dropping back into pass coverage in the fourth quarter, Michael Stonebreaker put an exclamation point on the defensive play. He picked off a Bobby McAllister pass thrown into his gut and returned 39 yards for the touchdown. Barry Alvarez lifted Stonebreaker off his feet as the linebacker strolled to the sideline having given Notre Dame the 20-3 lead.
The Notre Dame fans in Spartan Stadium began singing, “Nahnah-nah- nah, nah- nah- nah- nah, hey- hey- hey, good- bye.” The ABC-TV announcers filled much of the remaining airtime talking about the upcoming Miami-Michigan game.
After two games, the Irish had two wins, and the defense, special teams, and offense all had one touchdown each. Notre Dame boarded buses in East Lansing, and sixty-five miles south the Miami Hurricanes took their thirty-three-game regular season winning streak into Ann Arbor.
With 7:16 left in the game, Miami had the ball and trailed Michigan 30-14 before a crowd of 105,000 at the Big House. Steve Walsh, Miami’s All- American quarterback, stepped into the ‘Canes huddle.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve been here before. We can get this done,” he said.
The previous season, Miami came from 16 points down to beat Florida State en route to winning the national championship. He looked around the huddle again and noticed no one from the championship team was there.
“Just don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it,” he said.
Without ever using a time-out, Walsh led Miami on a 17-point comeback. College football’s bogeyman survived. Walsh threw for 335 yards and 3 touchdowns. The No. 1-ranked Hurricanes were less than a month away from bringing their winning streak to Notre Dame Stadium.