“To me, the mystique of Notre Dame is faith in belief. The biggest problem with this team, I thought, was getting them to believe.”
That was Lou Holtz after his No. 2 Irish topped No. 1 Florida State, 31-24, back in 1993. Always the master motivator, Holtz had taken a reverse psychology approach to try to get Notre Dame to believe ahead of time.
“Florida State is the best college football team I’ve ever seen,” Holtz said before the top-two matchup. “I’ve been in the game a long time. They’re an awesome team. They’re capable of beating anybody in the country by 40 points.”
The oddity of the dichotomy is, plenty of others clearly believed in Notre Dame. The early November contest would not have been preemptively deemed “The Game of the Century” if no one thought the Irish could beat eventual-Heisman winner Charlie Ward and the Seminoles. Notre Dame would not have had to issue 810 media credentials (compared to 20-some this week) if the result was predetermined. ESPN would not have broadcast its first on-site College GameDay if there was no reason to debate that day’s outcome.
“You had these two high-profile programs in a classic setting at a time when there was no national playoff,” NBC Sports’ Bob Costas said on the 25th anniversary. He anchored the NBC desk on the field in 1993; suffice it to say Costas could feel the atmosphere. “So this game could very well determine the national championship. … It had all those elements. It was one of those times where the hype and anticipation were equaled by the reality of the game, … if not the game of the century, certainly a game on that list.”
Plenty of games are hyped as the Game of the Century. Few live up to it. Even fewer end with a hobbled defensive back knocking down a potentially-winning pass at the goal line with no time left on the clock.
Immediately after Shawn Wooden sent Ward’s pass to the grass — and then suffered a torn ACL as teammates jumped on his back in celebration, a knee first tweaked recovering an onside kick minutes earlier — Holtz told the NBC broadcast, “That was one game that lived up to the hype.”
Ending the way it did, a fundamentally-sound defensive play denying Ward a heroic, two-touchdown comeback, gave the Irish a rarified air of bragging rights, if not also misguided moral superiority. Campus had been clad in “Catholics vs. Creminoles” t-shirts, after all.
“They didn’t know what Notre Dame was about, and after being here, I hope they do,” defensive back Jeff Burris said.
The campus student magazine, “Scholastic,” credited Notre Dame’s win to the mystique Holtz mentioned and a lack thereof elsewhere.
“Mystique is the force that hovers around the Irish football team when it somehow overcomes powerful foes. … Mystique doesn’t mean as much in Tallahassee, Florida.”
Newly-minted No. 1 Notre Dame relied on that mystique a week too long, robbing more than Irish fans. Sports Illustrated wishfully described the win against Florida State as “Round 1 to the Irish.” If both teams won out, remaining Nos. 1 and 2, a bowl matchup was likely. (A 2020 parallel, not including the Seminoles, might come to mind by a similar November date.)
Instead, Boston College and David Gordon happened. That same night, Florida State demolished North Carolina State, 62-3. Though only the dramatic, game-winning kick is remembered, Notre Dame was lucky to avoid a drubbing similar to the Wolfpack’s. Trailing 38-17 in the fourth quarter, it took a manic Irish comeback to give the Eagles kicker his chance at mythological status.
“I am very proud of our team,” Holtz said after that 41-39, national championship-costing loss. “This was one of the great comebacks that I have been associated with. Our players hung in there.”
But they, more than anybody, knew the top-ranked team in the country can lose as time expires at Notre Dame Stadium on NBC. Mystique and belief can cut both ways.
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