History may lead to looking forward
Matt Gamber | Thursday, December 16, 2010
It was all about looking forward the last time the Irish played in a bowl game, in Hawaii on Christmas Eve 2008. Notre Dame’s 49-21 dismantling of Hawaii ended a nine-game bowl losing streak and was supposed to jumpstart a successful 2009 season under Charlie Weis.
So, when the Notre Dame-Miami matchup was finalized Sunday, my first instinct was to look forward, to view the Sun Bowl as a preview of the three-game series between the Irish and Hurricanes that is set to begin in 2012 at Soldier Field in Chicago. I thought we’d see the New Year’s Eve bowl as a chance to enter 2011 with some serious momentum, especially considering Notre Dame’s three straight big wins.
It seems I underestimated what a game between the Irish and Hurricanes still means, 20 years after they last met.
After all, I was 18 months old the last time these two teams played. Until a Wikipedia search Sunday, I couldn’t remember the scores of those fierce showdowns in 1988, 1989 and 1990. Until finding Youtube highlights Monday, I had seen more of Lou Holtz in an ESPN studio than on a college football sideline, and I had watched more clips of Rocket Ismail in street clothes at pep rallies than in an Irish uniform, igniting Notre Dame Stadium the way he did best.
I can’t fully understand the Notre Dame-Miami rivalry that was characterized by genuinely bad blood that boiled over in a 1988 pregame brawl and epitomized by Lou Holtz’s legendary request to “save Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me.” These bitter showdowns are what a previous generation of Irish fans lived for, and what our current generation longs for.
By looking back, especially at the way the Irish beat the Hurricanes in 1988 and 1990, I somewhat surprisingly feel encouraged with where the Notre Dame program is headed. Of course, this isn’t the 1988 or 1990 team, for Notre Dame or for Miami — both are 7-5, the former with losses to Navy and Tulsa, the latter without a head coach.
But, to me, the arrow is pointing up for the Irish. What better way for Notre Dame to finish the season than with a win over a historic rival the Irish haven’t played in two decades, during which Irish championships have gone from an expectation to a pipe dream.
This may be a stretch, but for all the differences between those Notre Dame teams and this one, I couldn’t help but see dashes of similarities, glimmers of hope that indicate Brian Kelly just might be putting the fight back in the Fighting Irish.
While the 1988 national championship team was perfect in record, it wasn’t perfect for 60 minutes every game. Against the Hurricanes that year, the Irish gave up 21 second quarter points after taking a 7-0 lead. Notre Dame took a 31-21 lead into the fourth quarter of that game but gave up a fourth-and-goal touchdown with 45 seconds to play that pulled Miami within an extra point of tying or a two-point conversion of winning.
Perhaps it’s just me, but to hear the praise of those Notre Dame teams and the criticism of their contemporaries, I’d have thought the Irish never surrendered a lead or gave up a fourth-down conversion with a game on the line.
True, the Irish stepped up when they had to, breaking up that two-point conversion and finishing the victory on their way to a national championship.
But consider the tone after Notre Dame’s recent victory over USC, when the Irish nearly gave away their chance to beat the Trojans before rallying late and creating a key turnover in the final minute.
While the level of competition and the level of importance of the games I mention are nowhere near comparable, my point is, maybe we forget what made the Holtz era at Notre Dame special. It wasn’t that the Irish blew out every opponent, big or small, ranked or unranked, without ever having to overcome adversity. Rather, it was that the Irish did overcome that adversity, that they made plays in the biggest situations, that they closed out games the way championship teams do.
When I looked back at the old tape, I thought I’d come away disappointed about the kind of big games I’d never see as a Notre Dame student. Instead, I saw hope that maybe we’re seeing the beginning of something special here.
Unlike a Hawaii Bowl victory, beating Miami — even if it’s not pretty — on New Year’s Eve might just provide the kind of look forward for which Irish fans long.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Contact Matt Gamber at [email protected]