Holtz fretted that all the controversy swirling around him would hurt a Notre Dame team that had untested players at quarterback, on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary. Of course, on the positive side, the Irish would again have the services of All-America linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, defensive tackle George Williams and tailback Tony Brooks, all of whom missed last season—Stonebreaker for disciplinary reasons, Williams because of academic deficiencies, Brooks for both.
By the eve of the Michigan game, however, Holtz seemed to have shed his misgivings about his team. Speaking to a crowd of 6,000 at a rally in the Joyce Center, Holtz introduced his defensive starters by saying, "This is as fine a defense at this stage of the game that we've had since I've been at Notre Dame." Then, after introducing his offensive regulars, he said, "We've never had a bad offense at Notre Dame, and we won't have one this year."
This was mostly interpreted as an expression of faith in Mirer and his linemen, whose ability to weather Michigan's defensive pressure would be crucial. If Mirer seemed unusually cool about stepping into what may be the most glamorous position in college football, it was at least partly because he got a jolt of perspective from the fact that his older brother, PFC Jeff Mirer, 21, is an Army paratrooper currently on duty in Saudi Arabia. So far the Mirers—Ken and Karen Mirer also have a daughter, Julie, 16—have gotten only two letters from Jeff since he departed for the gulf on Aug. 13. Jeff still is not able to receive telephone calls. "You learn not to make a football game bigger than life," Ken said.
Unlike Rice, who threw only twice against Michigan last year while carrying the ball on 18 occasions, Mirer has such a strong arm that he runs only when necessary, which on Saturday was just eight times, not including two plays on which he was sacked. His passing totals were 14 for 23 for 165 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Mirer gives Notre Dame a new look, one that in time could be even more explosive than the Rice-led attack, especially if Mirer is able to get the ball to Ismail or one of his other fine receivers in the open field. Said Moeller admiringly, "Mirer's accuracy is going to get only better, and he's going to be a good quarterback, no question."
The same might have been said for Grbac, who filled in admirably for Michigan last year—4-0 in four starts—when senior starter Michael Taylor went down with an injury on the opening series of the second half against the Irish. Like Mirer, Grbac is a drop-back passer with a good arm. He got off to a bad start this time against Notre Dame when he had what Moeller called a "miscommunication" with tailback Jon Vaughn, leading to a lost fumble at the Wolverine 26-yard line that the Irish quickly converted into a 7-0 lead, the touchdown coming on a two-yard option keeper by Mirer, who rolled right and pranced into the end zone.
Before the end of the opening period, the Irish had another touchdown and a 14-3 lead, which is how it stood until late in the first half when Michigan recovered a fumble by tailback Ricky Watters and then shocked Notre Dame with a 44-yard touchdown pass from Grbac to flanker Desmond Howard. All at once, the Wolverines were rolling; they seemed able to move at will by mixing Grbac's passing with slashing, against-the-grain runs by Vaughn, who would end up with 201 yards rushing. "We had no clue he was that good," said Notre Dame nosetackle Chris Zorich. "He was fast, elusive. He almost looked invisible." The Irish, meanwhile, were suddenly sputtering against the veteran Michigan defense.
Early in the second half, it looked as if the Wolverines might take command. Leading 17-14, they recovered a Notre Dame fumble by Brooks, and Grbac immediately hit Howard in the fiat for a 25-yard touchdown. The score culminated a 16-second, two-touchdown explosion by Michigan and left Notre Dame Stadium so quiet you could almost hear the wheels spinning in Holtz's cranium.
On the other side of the field, though, the Wolverines' celebration was subdued. Moeller said he "couldn't feel good" about the 10-point lead. "Maybe if there were two minutes left...."
"I just wanted to keep pounding them," said Vaughn. "I knew they weren't out of the game."
Indeed, Michigan never gained control, in part because of a decision Moeller made late in the quarter when the Wolverines found themselves fourth-and-one at the Irish 19. Instead of going for a virtually certain first down behind Michigan's huge line, he elected to have J.D. Carlson try a 36-yard field goal, which sailed wide left. "I just figured I've got to come away with some points," Moeller said afterward. "Sure, I'd like to go for it now."