NEW ORLEANS -- Pulling out all the motivational stops, Notre Dame's football team wore green (socks and numbers) for the first time since 1985 when it took the field last night to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
"We're fighting for Fighting Irish pride," coach Lou Holtz said.
The Irish regained pride lost from a horrendous defensive collapse that led to two defeats in their last three regular-season games. They did so in glorious fashion, recovering from an early 13-0 deficit and rallying to crush the favored Gators, 39-28.
The loss put a damper on what had been a dream season for Florida, winner of its first Southeastern Conference championship. The Gators, making their first Sugar Bowl appearance since 1974, now are 0-3 way down yonder.
It wasn't only the fact of the loss but the way it happened that grated the Gators. They came in with a fine record of defending against the run but left with cleat marks all over their battered bodies. The Irish played elemental, brutal, smash-mouth football in the second half. They won the war in the pits, breaking the spirits and wills of Gator defenders.
Did you get the license plates of those Irish backs as they barreled through gaping holes? The 18-wheeler bearing No. 6 is named Jerome Bettis, a 5-11, 247-pounder nearly as wide as he is tall. All Bettis did was gain 150 yards on 16 carries and score three touchdowns, all of them in the game's final 4:48. The last two went for 49 and 39 yards, with Bettis bursting through the line and scoring untouched against an obviously dazed Gator defense.
"We knew we could pound them inside," Bettis said. "The last few plays of the first half went well, so we stayed upbeat and positive for the second half."
Tailbacks Tony Brooks and Rodney Culver also beat up unmercifully on the Gators, who were thin on defense to begin with and missed two injured starters, end Harvey Thomas and linebacker Tim Paulk, a Butkus Award semifinalist. But it's doubtful the Gators could have won even with those two. Not the way Notre Dame was firing off the ball.
"I didn't think we were in sync in the first half," Holtz said. "We needed to go to more power and ball control. We needed to get into our rhythm."
Irish quarterback Rick Mirer also chipped in judiciously with his passing. It was a superb effort by an excellent Notre Dame offense that got lost in the hand-wringing over the team's defensive woes.
The Gators can look back on some missed opportunities early, when they might have had a chance to gain a big-enough lead to force Notre Dame out of its brutal ground assault. Florida reached the Irish 9- and 8-yard lines in the first half but had to settle for field goals. Thus, though the Gators dominated the first half statistically, they were only able to take a six-point lead, 13-7, into intermission.
The second half opened with a 12-play Irish drive, all on the ground. They had to settle for a field goal, but the ease with which they moved the ball did not portend well for the Gators. Given their defensive woes and the high-scoring Gator offense, the Irish said they had to play ball control to have a chance. Did they ever!
And the Florida offense did not operate with its usual precision on the occasions it did get the ball. Quarterback Shane Matthews, two-time SEC Player of the Year, finished with some gaudy stats -- 28 completions in 58 attempts for 370 yards and two touchdowns -- but he was not accurate or sharp.
And the outstanding Irish secondary played a wonderful game. Matthews was not heavily pressured often, yet many times was unable to find an open receiver and either had to scramble or throw the ball away.
"We're proud of ourselves and grateful to the Sugar Bowl people," Holtz said. "People were saying we didn't belong here, yours truly among them, calling us Cheerios and all, but the Sugar Bowl people went above and beyond to make us feel welcome."
And the Irish returned the favor with a terrific performance, one that will go a long way toward getting rid of the bad taste with which they came into New Orleans.