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By now it should be obvious to all you Michigan fans that when it comes to playing season openers against Notre Dame, it doesn't make any difference if your coach is named Bo, Mo or Joe Blow. The Irish are going to find a way to beat you, and you might just as well accept it. For four straight years now, Notre Dame has dampened the Wolverines' debut. It's sort of spooky, really. Even when Michigan has the better personnel, as may well have been the case last Saturday on a cool and crazy night in South Bend, the Irish will reach down into their mystique bag and pull out exactly what's needed.
This time Notre Dame plucked out a Joe Montana impersonator named Rick Mirer. Just as Montana used to do for the Irish in the 1970s, Mirer, a sophomore making his first start, coolly took Notre Dame on a last-gasp scoring drive that erased the last three points of what had been a 10-point deficit and gave the Irish a 28-24 victory before the usual sellout crowd of 59,075. He completed five of six passes on the drive, including an on-the-money 18-yarder to flanker Adrian Jarrell for the winning TD with 1:40 to play.
Mirer had a ballyhooed high school career in Goshen, Ind., 25 miles up the road, and was pursued by both Notre Dame and Michigan. He picked the Irish after watching kicker Reggie Ho make a field goal to give Notre Dame a 19-17 victory over the Wolverines (Michigan's Mike Gillette barely missed a game-winning kick from 48 yards in the closing seconds) in the 1988 season opener. Then, last year, Mirer was on the Irish bench, understudying Tony Rice, when Notre Dame rode Raghib (the Rocket) Ismail's two touchdown kickoff returns to a 24-19 win over the snakebit Wolverines.
This time, Mirer—with plenty of help from a big-play Irish defense that exploited several Michigan mistakes after the wolverines had taken a 24-14 lead in the third quarter—was the answer to Notre Dame's prayers. "I grew up a fan of Michigan," said Mirer, unintentionally rubbing it in during the postgame celebration, "and it was sweet to get my first victory against them."
The latest improbable comeback enabled the Irish to cling to the No. 1 ranking they inherited by virtue of Miami's upset loss to Brigham Young a week earlier. It also ruined the debut of Michigan's head coach Gary (Mo) Moeller, a longtime assistant to the legendary Bo Schembechler, who retired last January and handpicked Moeller as his successor. Mo quickly showed, though, that he's no Bo clone by trying to surprise Notre Dame with a no-huddle offense that called for a liberal amount of passing by quarterback Elvis Grbac. But when the Wolverines had a chance to salt away the victory in the fourth quarter, Grbac disappeared, and Moeller made a couple of play calls that even he admitted were questionable.
"Honestly, when we came in here, we felt we were going to win this game," said a glum Moeller afterward. "It hurts. There's a lot of seniors and veteran players in that locker room who are hurting."
No wonder. The Wolverines have been thinking about Notre Dame ever since the Rose Bowl, which they lost to Southern Cal in Schembechler's final game, thus ending a 21-year career at Michigan, where he had a 194-48-5 record. When Schembechler tapped Moeller, everybody in Wolverine country felt he was just the man to extend Michigan's string of outright Big Ten titles to an unprecedented three, or even get that national title that Schembechler couldn't seem to win. Never mind that Moeller had been 6-24-3 during a three-year stint as coach of Illinois in the late 1970s.
Bo left Mo what may be the best offensive line and defensive secondary in the country. As a symbol of their faith in the new man and of their chagrin at being characterized as "fat and slow" after last year's loss to Notre Dame, Michigan offensive tackles Greg Skrepenak and Tom Dohring shed a total of 52 pounds, Skrepenak going from 360 to 322, Dohring from 290 to 276.
The Wolverines also seemed to like the idea that under Mo their offense would be more flexible than it was under Bo. Or, as senior fullback Jarrod Bunch said earlier last week, "In the past, we were going to run and everybody knew it. We just dared them to stop us. There was no mystery. Now we'll take what they give us."
In the weeks before the game, while Mo grew weary of being asked to compare himself with Bo, Notre Dame's Lou Holtz was also feeling some heat, albeit of a different sort. Much of his time and energy was spent making denials. He denied former Irish lineman Steve Huffman's charges in SI that Holtz had turned his head to anabolic steroid usage by Irish players. He denied allegations from a former academic adviser at Minnesota, Le-Roy Gardner, that he once gave Gardner $500 for a player while he was the head coach there, as well as allegations from another former Minnesota player who claimed to have received $500 from Holtz's secretary during the coach's tenure at the school. And Holtz denied reports that he had sought the Atlanta Falcons' coaching vacancy last winter.