By late afternoon the cold rain that had been falling since dawn had gotten inside their ponchos and slickers and was running in rivulets down their spines. Worse, their hip flasks were all but empty and the team they had come to cheer, Michigan, was trailing 24-19. Little wonder, then, that Notre Dame's Raghib (Rocket) Ismail had this to say about the crowd at Ann Arbor's Michigan Stadium last Saturday: "That was 105,000 people? They didn't sound like 105,000 people."
On at least one occasion, they did. It came with 4:08 remaining in the game between the No. 1-ranked Irish, the defending national champions, and the No. 2-ranked Wolverines. A quarterback named Elvis had thrown his second touchdown pass of the day—it also happened to be the second TD pass of his collegiate career—to move Michigan to within five points of Notre Dame. Hope had been resurrected, and the Wolverine faithful rocked the house. More than four minutes remained in which to pull out a win and spare Michigan coach Bo Schembechler the ignominy of three straight losses to the Irish—not to mention the ignominy of three straight losses to any school. Four minutes—an eternity!—to hold Notre Dame on downs, score again and preserve the Wolverines' chances for the 1989 national championship. Four minutes to keep up with the Michigan basketball team.
The decibels mounted. Then, during a TV timeout, the kickoff units trotted onto the field. Suddenly—eerily—the roar abated, dissolving into little more than an anxious buzz. It was as if 95,000 Wolverine fans—there were at least 10,000 Irish rooters present—had simultaneously had the same chilling thought: Oh God, that's right. We have to kick off again.
Their dread was well-founded. Despite limiting the Notre Dame offense to 10 points, the Wolverines were destined to lose by that 24-19 score. The instrument of their defeat would be Ismail, a 5'10", 175-pound sophomore flanker, who had two kickoff returns of 88 and 92 yards for touchdowns. Rocket was equally astonishing off the field. At the press conference after the game, he wondered what everyone was so excited about. "After the season," he predicted, "people probably won't even remember this."
What? You mean the season isn't over? It's just the middle of September? The way the Michigan-Notre Dame match was being hyped—the Game of the Century, the Earliest Encounter Ever between the Nos. 1 and 2, the Revenge of the 'Rines, Schembechler's Last Stand—you couldn't be sure what day it would be when you woke up the morning after the game: Sept. 17 or Jan. 2.
For more than a week it had been clear that the Wolverines considered this game something special. Schembechler's customary pregame paranoia—practices are almost always closed and players are not made available to the press—was even more pronounced. The condition of Michigan quarterback Michael Taylor, who had injured his right (throwing) shoulder on the second day of practice, was shrouded in secrecy. Could Taylor throw? Could he throw without pain? Bo answered all queries with the same stock response: "Michael? Oh, he'll be fine."
By contrast, it was business as usual down in South Bend. The Irish, who had defeated Virginia 36-13 in their opener on Aug. 31, weren't exactly blasé about playing Michigan in Ann Arbor. Nor were they in a lather. "We've played in so many big games the last couple of years, this is just another game for us," said cornerback Todd Lyght. Asked in the middle of the week if the hype had begun to take its toll on him, senior linebacker Ned Bolcar rocked back in his chair and said, "Oh, I don't know. Is the hype getting to you? Go down to the Grotto. Say a prayer."
On Monday, Sept. 11, quarterback Tony Rice called a meeting of the offense after one of the lousiest practices in recent memory. At the meeting it was pointed out that certain players were doing little more than going through the motions. "We said the sign of a great team is that even when you're not feeling good, you still dig down deep," Ismail said. "We said that if we expect to do anything this year, practices like that couldn't continue."
Tuesday's workout was much improved. On Wednesday, coach Lou Holtz treated the troops to an aural bombardment. To simulate conditions in Michigan Stadium, he had the Wolverines' fight song, The Victors, blasted from enormous speakers in Notre Dame's indoor practice facility. At one point, guard Tim Grunhard asked Holtz, "Could you turn that down? It's giving me a headache." Sorry, replied Holtz. On the next play, Grunhard missed a line call and went the wrong way.
Holtz had a rough week. His wife, Beth, had left for Florida to tend to her ailing father. "I have nobody to talk to," complained Holtz. He was sleeping poorly and not eating much. He could not rid his mind of thoughts of Michigan's fearsome trio of backs—Leroy Hoard, Tony Boles and Jarrod Bunch. "Can we tackle them?" he wondered aloud. Holtz was also obsessed by the Wolverines' mammoth offensive linemen, who average 295 pounds from tackle to tackle. "I worry about them pushing us around or beating us up," he said. He was especially concerned about the possibility of having to put backup defensive end Eric Jones, at 220 pounds, over 320-pound Michigan tackle Greg Skrepenak. "I've never had a player give up 100 pounds before," Holtz said. "And Jones missed breakfast this morning. Can you believe that? He should have eaten breakfast three times, under assumed names."