Holtz was right that wasn't Notre Dame going through motions at Penn State

Phil Jackman

November 18, 1991|By Phil Jackman

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The game itself came down to two plays. Yet in the overall scheme of things, it's what transpired before the two-deep zones and curl-pattern passes that probably determined the outcome. One might say it represented all that is good and bad about college football.

Despite its relative youth, Penn State vs. Notre Dame has become a noted rivalry, drawing huge crowds and producing fiercely competitive games. In little more than a decade, the Nittany Lions have taken their place right up there with annuals Michigan State, Michigan, Pitt and Purdue on the Irish's vaunted schedule, right behind Southern Cal.

For its home finale Saturday, the Lions were sky high as were the 96,672 who caravanned in to watch and party. The Irish, well, they showed up.

There was a time when Notre Dame played every game as if it couldn't have been more important, whether it be against outmanned Navy, the team leading the polls at the time or some team it picked up just to grab some exposure in a certain part of the country.

Then, after a 35-year abstinence, the decision to play in bowl games came down in 1970. Unfortunately, it appears, that now has become the focal point for all seasons: the biggest and most lucrative New Year's Day appearance and, hopefully, a shot at the national championship.

A worthy goal indeed, the mythical title. But, in the long run, is it a case of all or nothing?

Since missing a field goal on the last play and suffering a one-point defeat at the hands of Tennessee on Nov. 9, it was as if famine and pestilence had swept across northern Indiana and the famed statues and buildings on the Notre Dame campus had crumbled to dust.

Combined with an earlier loss to Michigan, it meant the Irish would no longer be in the jockeying for No. 1 at season's end. Perhaps worse,they wouldn't even have a say-so in who eventually finishes as champion.

Surely, two losses in but 10 games was probably a bitter pill for many of the schoolboy hotshots from around the country to accept. And if it wasn't, there was coach Lou Holtz to lend his doubtful perspective.

Straight from the teachings of the late George ("Losing is like dying") Allen, Holtz said, "The problem [after the Tennessee loss] is, when something dies, the burial is not immediate, and that's my concern." The team, the coach was all but predicting, might well fall flat on its schnozz.

Maybe the power of suggestion was overwhelming, because that's exactly what the Irish did while getting smeared, 35-13.

They started weakly, State taking the opening kickoff and rumbling 73 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown, then the Irish really slackened. One-two-three and out Notre Dame's offense replied after Lions coach Joe Paterno had spent the week comparing Rick Mirer & Co. favorably with the 1940 Chicago Bears.

Penn State next went 73 yards in five plays. Irish: one-two-three and out. Lions: 53 yards, 10 plays. The score stood 21-0 with four seconds remaining in the first period and folks were asking who was this listless bunch, Notre Dame's dorm-league all-stars?

Lightning-like addition revealed that the Lions had picked up 199 yards total offense and 10 first downs in just 26 plays. Conversely, slow, meticulous subtraction divulged the Irish had picked up 3 yards in six plays, all of it in the air.

Was this Paterno's "superb offensive team, a team that can run over you, around you, trap you with many great backs who run, block and catch the ball extremely well?"

Everybody has a bad day sooner or later, but save for fullback Jerome Bettis and a few others, the Irish were having a non-participation day. Few looked as if they cared much, as if the season had already ended and this was opening day of spring drills next March.

Then ND, behind battering ram Bettis, drove to a score. A ballgame was in prospect, especially when the Irish charged down the field again just before halftime. Strangely, Notre Dame let 18 seconds go off the clock before calling timeout. A completely predictable play was followed by another timeout before the Irish chose to forsake sure points and grant the Lions a huge high in the form of a goal line stand.

Holtz's halftime oration obviously didn't work. State got its fourth touchdown on a reverse play that took about 15 minutes to develop in the third period. It went 91 yards for a score in the fourth quarter before Paterno took the air out of the ball. If Notre Dame adjusted in any way, shape or form, it escaped detection.

Holtz says he told his wife before the game, "This could get ugly," thus qualifying for this week's Jeane Dixon Award.

Losing to Penn State is certainly no disgrace, the Irish have done it in eight of 11 meetings since 1980.But the manner in which they just rolled over has to disturb a team that has another game to play (in Hawaii), then a date with SEC champ Florida at the Sugar Bowl.

Something Holtz also said last week lingers as a haunting refrain: "If we can't get up for Penn State, then our players don't belong in Notre Dame uniforms, and I don't deserve to coach here."

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