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A decade later

Joe Hettler | Friday, October 31, 2003

It was the Game of the Century.

No. 1 Florida State, led by eventual-Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Charlie Ward took on No. 2 Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium in mid-November 1993. ESPN had its first GameDay show at the matchup and 11,000 fans came to the game but couldn’t get a ticket.

The Seminoles entered the game two-touchdown favorites and scored on the opening drive to take an early 7-0 lead.

But over the next two and a half quarters, Notre Dame dominated in a fashion that no one had against Florida State that season.

The Irish tied the game when flanker Adrian Jarrell broke a 32-yard run on the ensuing Irish possession following the Florida State score. Running backs Lee Becton and Jerome Bettis scored the next two touchdowns for Notre Dame and the Irish went into halftime with a 21-7 edge. It was the first time in 23 games the Seminoles trailed at half.

After the Irish extended their lead to 31-17 late in the fourth quarter, Ward led his team back with an 80-yard drive to cut the Notre Dame lead to 31-24.

Florida State got the ball back and moved deep into Irish territory. After having a pass batted down, Ward and the Seminoles had three seconds to run one last play. Ward took the snap, rolled to his left, couldn’t find a receiver and fired a pass toward the end zone. Irish defensive back Shawn Wooden’s eyes lit up as he batted the ball down to seal the Notre Dame victory as thousands of fans rushed the field in pandemonium.

It’s been 10 years since that memorable game in Notre Dame history. But in the present, the Irish football program finds itself in a very different position than in 1993. From 1988 to 1993, Notre Dame teams had a combined record of 64-9-1, won 10 games or more five times, went to 6 bowl games, winning five of them, and won a national title.

But in the 10 years since that game, Notre Dame has combined to go just 70-44-1 since, had only one 10-win season in 2002, two losing seasons, no bowl victories and zero national titles.

Now 2003, the Irish are a mere 2-5 and will face No. 5 Florida State at home for the first time since that 1993 game. It’s a far cry from the “Game of the Century” that took place a decade ago.

Remembering the game

Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz and current Florida State coach Bobby Bowden remember very different aspects of the ’93 game.

For Holtz it was being an underdog and an errant Ward pass. For Bowden it was a crowded end zone and the atmosphere in Notre Dame Stadium.

“We were No. 2 in the country at that time but we were a two-touchdown underdog,” Holtz said. “I thought that was sort of a lack of respect for our program.”

But the most vivid memory for Holtz was a 4th-and-10 for Florida State at their own 20-yard line with two minutes left in the game and the Irish holding a 31-17 lead.

“They throw a pass and it hits our strong safety in the headgear and bounces up and their guy catches it and all of a sudden we’re fighting for our lives at the end of the game.”

With the score 31-24 Notre Dame, the Seminoles had one last shot with the ball inside the Irish 20. Bowden remembers thinking there were too many people in the back of end zone, which made it difficult for Ward to find an open receiver.

“I’ve never played a team that crowds the end zone like [Notre Dame does],” Bowden said. “I mean it’s nearly unfair. If the end zone would have been open, it’s not unlike Ward to have spotted [an open Tamarick Vanover] – there’s a body over there, instead of 1,000 bodies. That’s the thing I’ll always remember about that doggone game.”

Bowden also said the feeling during that game was unbelievable.

“Greatest atmosphere I’ve ever been in,” he said. “That was the most electrifying one I’ve ever been in. I mean, man, was it thick. You could feel it.”

1993 Notre Dame quarterback Kevin McDougal remembers what it felt like during those final few seconds of the game.

“On the last play, it was a feeling of, ‘I hope they don’t get lucky,'” McDougal said 10 years later. “[After the final play], we celebrated like crazy. It was great because very few kids get to be ranked No. 1 in the nation.”

Holtz had downplayed Notre Dame’s chances of winning the game all week while Bowden admitted he did everything wrong in the days leading up to the game and his players showed little knowledge or respect for the Notre dame mystique. Seminole wide receiver Kez McCorvey even mistakenly called Irish coaching great Knute Rockne “Rock Knutne” before the game.

“I did nothing right that week. I tried to downplay their spirit,” Bowden said. “I knew [Notre Dame] thrives off that. But they made us eat everything that was said.”

Bowden also said he made the mistake of having his players wear green hats with the Florida State name on them before the game.

“I thought that would be a nice gesture for them. ‘We’ll wear Notre Dame’s colors with Florida State on them. That’d be nice,'” Bowden said. “Well, [Notre Dame] jumped all over that thing. You have to hand a lot of that to Lou Holtz. He was a master at getting his team up for you.”

Holtz said the biggest difficulty was keeping his players’ excitement under control in the week leading up to and before the game.

“We were loose and had great preparation so all you had to do was keeping the players from getting too excited too early and that’s when you really know you’re home with your program,” Holtz said.

A fall from grace

After that game, few if any Notre Dame players or fans could have imagined the Notre Dame-Florida State game would be the last great victory for an Irish team for at least the next ten years. Three coaching changes and 44 losses since that November day, the Irish have fallen far from their prominence in college football.

While each year Irish fans eagerly awaited another football season and a another chance to change the losing trend, each year a different Notre Dame team found basically the same result – no bowl wins, no championships and one double digit win season.

Irish coach Tyrone Willingham believes Notre Dame can get back to that prominence of 1993. But to reach that peak, as well as beat Florida State this season, the team must use the same formula the great Notre Dame teams used to win so many games and dominant their opponents. It is a formula that could help the Irish regain the consistent excellence it once had in football.

“It always takes great leadership, great coaching, great playing to get [Notre Dame] back to its height,” Willingham said. “As you relate it to the ballgame, you have to execute – and I keep harping on that, but that’s something that you can’t say enough because it’s true – everything you do, if you execute it, you got your best chance of being successful.”

As the current team prepares for Florida State, many of the players haven’t put a lot of thought into the happenings of ’93.

Freshman offensive lineman Ryan Harris was just eight years old in 1993. He said the team respects the history of that game, but is concentrating more on beating the No. 5 team in the nation this week.

“Obviously, tradition means something to all these players,” Harris said. “But our main focus is beating Florida State this year, in 2003. We know the tradition of the game, we know the closeness of the games in the past. We just want to come out with a win for Notre Dame.”

Quarterback Brady Quinn grew up a Notre Dame fan, but doesn’t remember too much about the 1993 game and doesn’t think it bears much impact on this year’s game.

“I can’t really recall that game real well,” Quinn said. “But it is not really a factor this week.”

Notre Dame senior wide receiver Omar Jenkins wasn’t even a teenager when the two teams met in 1993. But he said that game’s significance could be in the back of the players this week as they prepare for Florida State.

“I haven’t watched the game. But I’m quite sure it’s in the back of some players’ heads this week,” Jenkins said.

Ten years after one of the highest points in the history of the storied Notre Dame program, the Irish must find a way to regain the championship form of the late-80s and early-90 teams. In 1993 Notre Dame was a double-digit underdog but managed to upset Florida State.

For Notre Dame to get back to that 1993 form, the Irish must start defeating highly-ranked teams.

They get another chance Saturday, hosting the No. 5 Seminoles.