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The final minutes of last Saturday's game reaffirmed that notion. They also underlined the fact that Notre Dame Stadium is the spookiest arena in the country, a place filled with ill luck and crowd noise so disconcerting it can create major foul-ups—such as the audible that Miami flanker Lamar Thomas didn't hear, a slip that caused Thomas and wideout Randal Hill to break their patterns on third-and-seven at the Irish 33, and led Erickson to loft the ball directly into Lyght's hands at the Irish eight.
Notre Dame took over after Lyght's interception, leading 22-20, and did what it had failed to do all game long: score a touchdown on a Miami defense ranked No. 2 in the country against the rush. The Irish were fired by Ismail, who gained 50 yards on three carries during the 77-yard drive, 28 on a key reverse from tailback Tony Brooks.
Just as significant was Ismail's 94-yard scoring return with 1:30 to go in the first quarter. Ismail slipped, looked up, "and I saw a small tunnel," he said. "I just went with it." Ismail headed straight upfield, then outside to the left, and streaked up Miami's sideline with not a single Hurricane laying a hand on him.
That play, and his career-high 268 all-purpose yards, kept the Irish in the game because their offense otherwise floundered: Culver fumbled on the first play of the game, Mirer threw only his second interception of the season on their third possession, and tailback Ricky Watters spoiled a potential scoring drive when he fumbled at the Miami 20 with little more than a minute to go in the first half. If it wasn't turnovers bedeviling the Irish, it was penalties—Notre Dame had six of them for 51 yards, all in the second half.
With every stalled drive, Hentrich's field goals became more valuable. His longest was a 44-yarder with 11:48 left in the first half that gave the Irish a 13-10 lead. His 36- and 35-yarders in the third quarter put them ahead 22-17. "It was kind of discouraging when we were counting by threes instead of touchdowns," Mirer said.
Notre Dame was finally galvanized by Lyght's interception. The Irish are burdened with a young secondary; Lyght is the only returning starter, a senior chaperoning two true freshmen, cornerback Greg Lane and safety Tom Carter. The Irish had surrendered an average 23.4 points a game, putting first-year defensive coordinator Gary Darnell under some heat for changing to an attacking scheme rather than the containment style favored by former defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez, now head coach at Wisconsin. Holtz spent the better part of the last two weeks on the defensive end of the practice field, where he reverted to containment, ran ruthless tackling drills and sometimes ordered two players at a time to the sidelines, forcing the defense to run plays with nine men. "Take it over there," he shouted at those who displeased him, gesturing to the sidelines.
The result was a mixed package of blitz, zone and man coverage that shook Miami out of its passing rhythm. The Hurricanes scored just once in six second-half possessions, on Carlos Huerta's 25-yard field goal with 14:01 left, which brought them to within two points of the Irish, 22-20.
Lyght's interception came when Thomas missed the crucial directions and hand signals from quarterback Erickson on third-and-seven at the Notre Dame 33 and ran a streak instead of an out. As Irish defensive end Andre Jones and nose-tackle Chris Zorich closed on Erickson, he threw an ill-advised prayer into a covey of defenders.
"I missed the check," Thomas said about it afterward. "If I had run that way, I would have had him beat."
There were a lot of ifs in the game. Like, what if Holtz hadn't been struck by inspiration at the team breakfast Saturday morning and hadn't outlined the "300 fullback dump"? Holtz thought that Miami had a tendency to over-pursue on the blitz and could be burned. As the Irish faced third-and-four at the Miami 21 with 6:16 to go, Holtz smelled blitz and inserted the play. Miami brought the whole front at Mirer, who calmly flipped the ball to Culver at the 15. Culver made the end zone with safety Darryl Williams dragging at his collar. "I think they brought just about everybody they could afford to bring," Mirer said.