Notre Dame's more significant difficulties this season—those of manpower and morale—are not so easily resolved. Ten starters from a year ago were drafted by NFL teams; in all, 15 players were signed. Those losses, plus injuries, have left the Irish green on the offensive line and at quarterback, running back and kicker.
Holtz could not have anticipated that four offensive linemen would miss time with injuries or that starting running backs Lee Becton and Ray Zellars would sit out seven games between them, returning at less than full strength for Florida State. But it's clear Holtz put too much faith in Powlus, whose potential blinded Holtz to his inexperience. So when senior Paul Failla, who clearly had soured on Holtz, signed a professional baseball contract, Notre Dame was left without any experienced quarterbacks. Powlus will be good someday, but thus far he has often looked like the rookie he is. "I've learned some things about football this fall," he says. "Like, it's harder than you think it is." At running back, though, Holtz has enough recruiting power that, even with injuries, he should never be caught short, and the same is true of kickers.
Moreover, this team has never become a unified bunch. "I'm not going to say there's no cohesion," says Goheen. "But I've been on teams where there was more." To make matters worse, on the Monday before the Florida State loss, senior flanker Michael Miller, a sometime starter, left school; three days later he was charged in connection with a check-forging scam. Miller, once touted as the second coming of Rocket Ismail, was troubled through much of his career: He left school for a semester in his freshman year and was suspended last spring when stolen property was found in his apartment (charges were never filed, and he was reinstated to the team).
"I can give you a million excuses, but no reasons [for the team's mediocrity]," Holtz said. "Some seasons things just don't fit."
The loss to Florida State was like a condensed version of this ill-fitting season. Despite the return of Becton and Zellars, Notre Dame rushed for only 138 yards, a statistic in which FSU defenders took great pride. "Last year they manhandled us," said Seminole linebacker Derrick Brooks. "Guys like [tackle] Aaron Taylor and [center] Tim Ruddy treated us like little kids." Powlus was pressured heavily, completed just nine of 22 passes for 83 yards and often reverted to his worst habit, trying to force balls into coverage. Even when Powlus threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mayes to tie the game at 16-16 with 5:17 left, freshman Scott Cengia clanged his PAT off the left upright.
(The score was tied only because, when Florida State had gone ahead 15-10 at the end of the third quarter, Bobby Bowden inexplicably decided to kick the extra point and not go for two. His explanation: "I knew they were going to miss their extra point." Bowden's explanation II: "Six is better than five." Hard to argue.)
When it was over, the Irish were 5-4, which even Holtz had foreseen. "If somebody's going to pound us, they better do it now," he had said earlier in the week. "They see we're down, so they'd better jump on us. I think we aren't going to be down very long."
To that end Holtz has hired Bob Chmiel from Michigan as recruiting coordinator, replacing Tony Yelovich. And Holtz has an oral commitment from a prized kicking prospect, Kevin Kopka of Hollywood Hills, Fla. Before next fall arrives, there is one potential embarrassment ahead. With games on Saturday at home against dangerous Air Force and on Nov. 26 at USC, Notre Dame could lose again and finish at 6-5. As a member of the bowl coalition, the Irish are guaranteed a spot in the Orange, Sugar, Cotton or Fiesta Bowl if they go 7-4. At 6-5 Notre Dame can participate in one of those four bowls only by mutual agreement of the bowl and Notre Dame. But, given the scarcity of available coalition teams that can attract a respectable live gate or TV audience—Virginia? USC? Virginia Tech? Duke?—it is virtually certain that at 6-5, the Irish will be invited to a major bowl.
It is also likely that Notre Dame will accept, not only for coalition-alliance brotherhood but also for the $3 million or so that would come with it. (The Irish might decline if they finish with a bad loss at USC; if they go 5-6, they're ineligible for any bowl.) Still, it's not a pretty picture: Notre Dame at 6-5 versus Florida in the Sugar Bowl, or versus Colorado in the Fiesta. "We'll definitely go," says Goheen. "But it would be tough to go somewhere 6-5, because to go at 6-5 is not to go as Notre Dame. If we go under those circumstances, we're just going for the money and so the bowl can have good TV ratings. That's not the way I want to go out."
It's not the way any of the Irish want to go out, sliding downhill into the winter. "There have been so many low points this year," said Nau in the week leading to the Florida State loss. "Every time we hit one of them, you say to yourself, This is not what it's supposed to be like. At Notre Dame they always tell you, 'Expect a miracle.' Well, I expect to find out that this is a dream, and we'll wake up and be 8-1 or 9-0 and have a shot at the national title."