Notre Dame-Florida State met the hype in 1993
Lee Becton couldn't bear to watch. His workday was complete — 26 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown — and now it was all on the defense. With Notre Dame leading Florida State in 1993's version of the Game of the Century, one play would determine the outcome.
Notre Dame led 31-24 and, with the Seminoles at the ND 14 and time left for one last play, Becton and quarterback Kevin McDougal sat on the bench together with their eyes closed, too nervous to watch, as eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward tried to rescue the Seminoles.
"All we were waiting for," Becton said, "was the reaction."
Not watching was not an option for Irish defensive tackle Jim Flanigan. Caught up in the mixing and mashing between the lines all day, Flanigan had a front-row seat.
"The only thing I remember about that is kind of fighting, battling on the inside. It's always like a second frozen in time," Flanigan said, choosing his words as he seemed to drift back to the late afternoon/early evening of Nov. 13, 1993. "I kind of remember Charlie Ward releasing the ball and everything just goes in slow motion."
What happened next is one of those Notre Dame moments. Ward had a receiver open at the 5-yard line, but instead looked to the end zone and chose Warrick Dunn as his target. Shawn Wooden, ND's sixth defensive back in the game for the play, jumped in and batted the ball away.
"We heard a roar and we immediately jumped up, looked up at the clock and knew that the game was ours," Becton said.
"After that," Flanigan said, "it was pandemonium."
With No. 2 and defending national champion FSU hosting No. 5 Notre Dame Saturday night in Tallahassee, a lot of rekindling of the '93 game has taken place this week. The hype this week has been heavy, but in '93 it started early and just kept building.
It was No. 1 vs. No. 2. Bobby Bowden vs. Lou Holtz. Florida State's flash vs. old-school Notre Dame. ESPN pounced on the matchup, taking its College GameDay program on the road for the first time ever.
Becton, now a general manager at a car dealership in Chicago, remembers the hype building early, the first indication of just how big this game would be coming courtesy of a vehicle count.
"I remember on Tuesday, the parking lot is already full of RVs," Becton said. "There's people everywhere. By Wednesday, Thursday, we've got TV camera crews everywhere."
The Seminoles didn't exactly do anything to deflect attention. At their Friday tour of Notre Dame Stadium, players wore green caps with shamrocks on them, along with "FSU" stitched into the front.
"They came in with an air of cockiness that they're big, bad Florida State, scoring 50 points a game or something crazy like that," said Becton, who was a little off, but not by much, as the Seminoles entered averaging 44. "I remember them coming in with the Florida State hats on with the shamrocks and all that craziness that they did during the walk-through. I remember all of that stuff. I think that they — and this is just my opinion — I think that they felt that we weren't flashy enough to hang with them."
As big of a stir as the hats created, though, they didn't resonate with everyone.
"Florida State did? I don't remember that," Flanigan said. "If it's something that they tried to do to intimidate us or something like that, it certainly didn't work."
What seemed to work for Flanigan happened later that night, after the Florida State players had left campus. Raucous might be too light of an adjective to describe the Friday night pep rally inside the Joyce Center.
"People talk about the electric atmosphere, but this truly was," Flanigan said. "I remember people just being crammed in around the sidelines of the basketball court and it just seemed like there were 20,000 people in there, and the rafters were shaking and people were going nuts."
During the week, however, as the craziness on campus escalated, the Notre Dame players kept things as normal as possible. Yes, it was two unbeatens, but they treated it like any other week.
"The biggest thing that I remember — I still remember — we never did anything different. We didn't make it out to be anything bigger than any of the other games that we had played during the season," Becton said. "We went into the game with such a level of confidence. Of course you see in the paper how many points they were scoring and how they were beating people and I think they had only been behind for like a minute, or some crazy stat like that.
"And none of that ever fazed us. None of it mattered."
What mattered that day for the Irish was a Becton-led punishing ground game that compiled 239 yards. The lasting memory of Ward from that game is his final incompletion, but he was for the most part brilliant, throwing for 297 yards and three touchdowns, while also leading the Seminoles with 38 rushing yards.
"I think the first thing that jumps out to me is that Charlie Ward was fast," Flanigan said. "We kind of knew that going into it, but once we got into the game we realized that this guy was something different."
What was different afterward was that there was a new No. 1. A few days later, a picture of a celebrating Flanigan with the headline "WE DID IT!" adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated. Flanigan, now an investment manager for an asset management firm he started in 2000 while still playing in the NFL, has a blown-up copy of that cover hanging on his wall in his Green Bay, Wis., office. To this day, he still receives in the mail one or two copies of that magazine each week from autograph hunters.
"I imagine with this game coming up it'll be more than usual," Flanigan said.
Becton has never watched the entire game on tape, but has viewed parts.
"But I'm sure I'll probably end up watching it this week," he said.
When he does, expect him to reaffirm a notion that he's had since Ward's final pass was batted away.
"When I look back now and see how big of a game that that was at that time, it just didn't feel like that at the time," Becton said. "Until the game was over."