SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It was like holding back the ocean. Only seconds were left, but Notre Dame kept coming, and quarterback Steve Beuerlein was throwing straight down the throat of the Michigan defense.
Completion, Alvin Miller, 33-yard gain.
Completion, Milt Jackson, 16-yard gain.
Completion, Pernell Taylor, six-yard gain.
The fans at sold-out Notre Dame Stadium were delirious on their feet, screaming as they haven’t screamed in five years.
“WE ARE (CLAP, CLAP) N! D! (CLAP, CLAP)”
What does that stand for? Notre Dame? New Deal? Well, both today. For these were not the fallen angels of Gerry Faust. This was a new regime, Lou Holtz’s regime, and it was spinning Michigan around and streaking downfield, and now, trailing 24-23 with 17 seconds left, it was sending out its field goal kicker, John Carney, for a 45-yarder that would win it.
Win it? What was going on? Wasn’t Michigan a national champion contender? Wasn’t Notre Dame merely rebuilding? Win it?
Well, strange things happen when programs change hands — especially on opening Saturday. And what a Saturday! Was there ever a better season appetizer? Michigan, determined to survive. Notre Dame, better than anyone expected.
One point separated them when Carney came out for that field goal. One point — after a fourth quarter that included a Michigan interception in the end zone, a Michigan fumble on a crucial drive, and a Notre Dame out-of-bounds touchdown pass that half of South Bend swears was a completion.
The teams lined up. One point. . . . Just a feeling
“What were you thinking on the sidelines?” someone asked U-M quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
“I just had this feeling he was going to make it,” Harbaugh said. “But I turned to my teammate Mike Reinhold and he said, ‘Get that idea out of you right now. He’s not gonna make it.’ “
The ball was snapped. Carney kicked it . . .
By rights it would have stopped in midair. No one deserved to lose this game. Not after the gutsy performances of Beuerlein, a quarterback everybody doubted, and Harbaugh, who actually exceeded his billing. Not after the mixed-salad of an offense Holtz put together in this, his first game as Irish head coach. Not after the dive-bombing of Michigan’s Doug Mallory, who recovered two loose balls in crucial moments to keep the Notre Dame tornado from blowing his team away.
“WE ARE (CLAP, CLAP) N! D! (CLAP, CLAP),” the crowd bellowed.
What did that stand for?
Nothing doing, Notre Dame. The kick flew wide, the crowd moaned, and the whole Michigan sideline went crazy.
Wolverines win, 24-23.
“Were you relieved?” someone asked Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
“Of course,” he said, grinning. “Everything pointed to an upset.”
Indeed, many people here will go on believing the game was actually won by the Irish — on that controversial fourth- quarter catch by Joel Williams, who snagged a pass in the back of the end zone and landed with one foot either in or out of bounds, depending on whom you believe.
“He was in,” Beuerlein said afterward. “When I heard the call, I was shocked. My heart nearly went through my mouth.” No luck for the Irish
But such are the twists of magnificent games, and this was surely one. It belongs to the Wolverines, but they should put it next to their rabbit’s foot, their four-leaf clovers, their horseshoes.
Remember, Notre Dame — not an equal of Michigan in pure talent — had ample opportunity to win this. Its offense racked up 23 points, more than the first five opponents Michigan faced last season combined.
This time, the Wolverines’ offense was their best defense. Credit Harbaugh
(15-for-23, 239 yards) with maybe the brightest game of his college career. Fans will forever remember that third-and-six play deep in Michigan territory in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter; instead of playing it safe and throwing short, he went for a 38-yard sideline bomb to John Kolesar that quite likely saved the game for Michigan.
So there it is. A big opening win. Yet it seems unfair that Notre Dame goes 0-1. To be honest, in many ways, the Irish deserved this game. They rose like a phoenix from the ashes of their immediate past, enough to make Holtz, who has coached six different teams in his career, say, “I’ve never been prouder of any group of players.”
And everybody here knew it. So when the Irish walked off the field in defeat this time, there was no sighing, no head shaking. Instead the crowd rose to its feet and joined in a cheer, a standing ovation for the losers.
“WE ARE (CLAP, CLAP) N! D! (CLAP, CLAP)” Michigan wins, but Nicely Done, Notre Dame.