Longtime Longhorns fans were calling it the most compelling game to come to Austin in decades, the one I hat could at last return Texas to the top echelon of college football. When Notre Dame arrived last Saturday, it found a confident, veteran Longhorns team whose attitude was best articulated by junior noseguard Chris Akins, who said a few days before kickoff, "We can win and we will win. We're ready for this."
No, replied Notre Dame. Not yet.
At the end of a riveting contest decided in the final seconds by a freshman placekicker, it was Notre Dame that emerged victorious, 27-24. It was the Irish who vaulted from their No. 9 ranking into the national-title picture. And it was the Longhorns, No. 6 going into the game, who were left searching for explanations.
"We had this game," said Texas flanker Mike Adams, staring vacantly. "Then we gave it away."
Perhaps Notre Dame took it away. Three plays swung the game, and the Irish made them all. With 6:47 to go in the final quarter and Texas up 24-17, Irish linebacker Lyron Cobbins picked off a tipped pass at the Longhorns' 33-yard line. It was the only turnover in a game that, Irish coach Lou Holtz later said, "had as much back-and-forth-momentum as any I've been involved in." Notre Dame, which had trailed by 11 points in the second quarter, wrested the momentum for good with less than three minutes remaining. Sophomore tailback Autry Denson, breaking right on Holtz's beloved option, scored on fourth-and-goal from the six, making it 24-24.
So it was, after a stand by the Irish defense and two big gains by the offense, that the game came down to a field goal attempt by 19-year-old Jim Sanson, three months out of high school, who, with five seconds left, lined up for a 39-yard kick and visualized palm trees. At home in Scottsdale, Ariz., Sanson would practice kicking footballs through a pair of swaying palms. Now, before 83,312 fans, the largest crowd ever to attend a Texas home game, he was, he would say later, "picturing the tops of the trees and trying to kick it high."
Sanson, blue-eyed and boyish, addresses reporters as sir or ma'am and says he is "always nervous...really nervous" before he kicks. Yet the pressure of this game wasn't nearly as bad, he admitted, as the stress of kicking in practice under Holtz's critical eye. Sanson had been so erratic in the summer that the coach had dubbed him Foul Ball and relegated him to second string. Rattled, Sanson called his parents and said maybe he should turn in his gilded headgear and come home. Instead, he heeded encouraging words from his father and went to Vanderbilt for the season opener. After kicker Scott Cengia missed a 37-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter, Holtz put Sanson in, and he connected on kicks of 33 and 32 yards. Even though Sanson sent a 30-yard attempt way foul the following week against Purdue, Holtz called on Sanson with the Texas game on the line. "Just because I call him Foul Ball doesn't mean I was worried about having him kick," Holtz said afterward.
The ball split the south-end uprights, where Longhorns kicker Phil Dawson's 50-yarder had beaten Virginia in the final seconds last Oct. 21. That kick, coming after a 55-27 loss at South Bend and a tie with Oklahoma, seemed to signal a Texas revival. The Longhorns won the rest of their regular-season games, and after two easy victories this year, the same ornery Texans who a couple of seasons ago were calling up coach John Mackovic's radio show and saying "We've got to fire you" believed Notre Dame could be beaten.
After all, the Irish had troubles of their own. They had not made a run at a national title in two years; they were trying to ignore suggestions that their much-touted quarterback, Ron Powlus, is merely mortal; and they were hobbled by the aching right leg of their other stud tailback, Randy Kinder. "This is the team's first true test," Irish defensive coordinator Bob Davie said before the Texas game.
The early results were not promising for the Irish. With Texas quarterback James Brown leading Mackovic's pro-style offense, the Longhorns scored on two long drives to take a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter. But a few large men can solve a lot of problems, and Notre Dame's offensive line is, well, very large. The starting guards and tackles average a tidy 6'7", 304. That gargantuan group shoved the Longhorns' young defensive front out of the way time and again on a nine-play second-quarter drive that Holtz termed "our most critical in two years." At the-end of that march, Irish tailback Robert Farmer scored from 18 yards out on an option, making the score 14-10. "It's encouraging to look up and see those guys in front of you," says Denson, who ended up with 158 yards on 24 carries. "You pretty much know they're going to handle things."