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No. 1 With a Bullet

Notre Dame is the tops after beating West Virginia

By Rick Telander

Sports Illustrated FlashbackIt's as if the Four Horsemen -- this time accompanied by a nervous, lisping, sandy-haired groom -- were at it again. Like a gang of highwaymen, Notre Dame trampled previously undefeated West Virginia 34-21 in Monday's Fiesta Bowl, in Tempe, Ariz., to finish 12-0 and win its eighth national championship, the most for any school in history. Notre Dame came out running and smoking and talking more trash than the cast of that old Gipper movie. Behind junior quarterback Tony Rice's game-high 75 yards rushing and career-high 213 yards passing -- he completed seven of 11 throws and had two touchdowns and an interception -- the Irish rolled up 455 net yards while holding the erstwhile explosive Mountaineers to just 282 yards, their lowest total in 19 games.

The Irish defense prevented West Virginia's offense from making a first down during the first 20 minutes as Notre Dame moved out to a 23-6 halftime lead on a 45-yard Billy Hackett field goal, a one-yard Anthony Johnson run, a five-yard Rodney Culver run and a 29-yard Rice-to-Raghib (Rocket) Ismail pass. Irish defensive stars like end Frank Stams, who was the defensive MVP with three tackles, two sacks and numerous flushings of quarterback Major Harris; nosetackle Chris Zorich; and backs Stan Smagala, George Streeter and Todd Lyght all seemed to be playing at double speed, while the Mountaineers were playing on, well, mountain time. "Sometimes it seemed like they had about 16 players on the field," said West Virginia center Kevin Koken. "They're good, but they need to learn class. That was probably the worst bad-mouth team I've ever played."

Holy Golden Dome, can that be?

"There were definitely words exchanged," shrugged Irish linebacker Wes Pritchett in the locker room. "But it wasn't one-sided."

Maybe not, but Notre Dame was hit with 11 penalties, including a shocking eight personal fouls, to West Virginia's three. At the end, with flags raining down on his players like locusts, coach Lou Holtz himself ran onto the field to try to calm down the members of his defensive unit. Holtz seemed visibly shaken by some of his players' antics, which included taunting, late hits and even the swatting of an official's cap. It was a classless finish to a classy season, and it led Holtz to say after the game, "Our players were completely in the wrong."

What did all this unseemliness mean? Perhaps that football, stripped of all the gloss and glamour, is a primitive sport played by aggressive, unruly boys.

All week long the Irish and the Mountaineers were inspected for all manner of flaws by a huge national press mob. Notre Dame, 11-0 and ranked No. 1 at the close of the regular season for the first time since 1966, was once again depicted as the school of legend and inspiration, the shining beacon of hope for priests, college sports reformers, subway alumni and orphans. The questions Holtz responded to time and again focused on how he had brought the Irish back to the pinnacle.

Munching on a Butterfinger candy bar, his breakfast and lunch, one afternoon last week, Holtz claimed two things: "I am not a workaholic," and "I didn't come to Notre Dame to be compared to the great coaches, because I'll always come out second best -- in looks, intelligence, speaking ability, patience, you name it."

You can buy both of those statements, and you can buy a sauna franchise in Death Valley if you want. Holtz is a driven man who seldom seems to eat or sleep. His career record is now 141-75-5, and 25-10 in three seasons at Notre Dame. As Irish athletic director Dick Rosenthal says, "If somebody had to mold a Rockne and a Leahy, they couldn't have come up with a better man than Lou Holtz. He is Notre Dame." Old newsreels reveal that, at the very least, Holtz is as handsome as Rockne.

For the 11-0 Mountaineers and their coach, Don Nehlen, the pregame questions were quite different. Mostly, they were obliged to defend their state and their right to share the field with Notre Dame. What with Holtz's constant praise for West Virginia's success and the media's one-liners about the alleged backwardness of the state, Nehlen became a little testy. "I'm real confused," he said at midweek. "Half of America thinks we shouldn't be here. And Lou talks like we're the best team since the invention of the jelly bean."

A columnist for The Arizona Republic printed an entertainment guide for the thousands of West Virginia fans descending on the Southwest, advising vacationing hillbillies to avoid desert mirages and French-Mex restaurants. The clumsy gibes finally got to the West Virginia players and coaches.

"I wear shoes," said an exasperated Renaldo Turnbull, the Mountaineers' All-East linebacker. "People in West Virginia wear shoes. We don't have wooden teeth." In fact, Turnbull is from the Virgin Islands and is just one of 97 out-of-state athletes among the Mountaineers. Nehlen has shrewdly looked south -- to the Miami area mostly -- to find "speed" and "skill position" players. Read: black athletes. There were 18 players from Florida on the West Virginia squad, including four starters.

The Mountaineers' offensive line, comprised of beefy (average size: 6 ft. 3 in., 271 pounds) fifth-year seniors, was rounded up closer to home, in Pennsylvania, Ohio and even West Virginia. "If we do have an advantage over Notre Dame -- if there be such a thing -- it's our offensive linemen," said Nehlen cautiously. All five, led by Koken and tackle Rick Phillips, made at least one all-star team this season.

Still, the main pregame concern for Notre Dame, as it had been for all of the Mountaineers' opponents this season, was Harris, who has the speed and agility to scramble for big gains and the arm to hit receivers short and deep. "Football is simple," said Holtz. "Play in rhythm on offense, disrupt it on defense. Nobody has disrupted their offense yet. That worries me."

The Irish disrupted Harris early in the game, however, nearly knocking him out of action with an injured left shoulder on the Mountaineers' first offensive series. Bravely, the righthanded Harris kept playing, but the Mountaineers' option attack suffered because of Harris's inability to extend his left arm to pitch out.

Meanwhile, Rice, who would be named the Fiesta Bowl's offensive MVP, was demonstrating how much he had improved since the beginning of the season. He made correct decisions on his option pitches, hit receivers when he had to and generally looked nothing like the wild and skittish youngster he was back in September. When West Virginia closed to within 26-13 late in the third quarter and then intercepted a Rice pass, returning it to the Notre Dame 26-yard line, it looked like just the time for Rice to become rattled. But after the Irish defense held the Mountaineers on downs, Rice calmly returned to the field and guided Notre Dame on a seven-play, 80-yard drive, which he capped with a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Frank Jacobs. Rice ran for the two- point conversion, and the Irish had an insurmountable 34-13 lead.

It's no longer enough simply to play for the national title in college football; with the state of big-time athletics being what it is, teams must undergo ethical scrutiny as well. Does scandal, cheating or probation lurk on the horizon? Are the players good citizens as well as good hitters? Notre Dame had a good enough football squad, and so, indeed, did West Virginia. But did they pass muster morally? Until game time, yes, certainly.

Nehlen, for his part, was named the winner of the 13th annual Bobby Dodd Award, presented by several large corporations to a coach who holds "a belief that the game of football should be kept in perspective with college life in general." If that's possible.

At any rate, the two teams seemed to respect each other. At the Wednesday night steak fry at Rawhide, a Wild West theme restaurant in the desert of Scottsdale, the players comported themselves with dignity. Harris and Rice met each other and exchanged pleasantries. "He seems like a real down-to-earth guy," said Harris later. Rice, of course, liked Harris. Rice likes everybody.

It was two years ago that Miami's Jerome Brown led a group of fatigue-clad Hurricanes out of their Fiesta Bowl dinner with Penn State. It was a crude gesture that has haunted Miami and, to a degree, the whole college sports scene ever since. "I'm an Irish Catholic born and bred on Notre Dame football," said West Virginia's Koken as he watched both teams mingle while rap music blared. "Miami said they wouldn't eat with the enemy. What kind of bull -- -- is that?"

The specter of the Hurricanes hovered over this year's game in a more tangible way, though. It seems clear now that the Irish's 31-30 win over Miami in October was actually their national championship victory. "You know, I wanted to play Miami again," Holtz said three days before the Fiesta Bowl. "But I want to tell you something: We're better than the Hurricanes. If we played them 10 times, we'd beat them eight."

Well, all right. Maybe it's about time that Holtz the worrier got cocky, just like his team. Notre Dame, No. 1 now, could well be No. 1 a year from now. Holtz will have 17 players with starting experience returning next fall, including Rice, Zorich, most of the offensive line and sensational 18-year-old tight end Derek Brown, who on Monday caught two passes for 70 yards.

During the week the muscular, 6 ft. 7 in. Brown admitted that he still $ hadn't gained back all the weight he had lost earlier in the season when he was knocked out of action by a severe throat infection. "The same thing the Gipper died of," Brown noted with a straight face. He contracted the ailment in the week before the Irish's Nov. 19 game against Penn State, and sure enough, one day in practice Holtz said to his players, "Let's win this one for Brown."

"Even though I was standing there. Alive!" marvels Brown. So? We're talking Notre Dame here, son. Forget facts. What this is all about is lore. And this Irish squad, by gum, will surely be one for the legends. And it even has got the record to back it up.

Issue date: January 9, 1989

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