James: Takeaways from watching 1993 ND-FSU for the first time
On Saturday night, I watched the 1993 version of “The Game of the Century” for the first time.
I was certainly familiar with many of the details of No. 2 Notre Dame’s 31-24 victory over No. 1 Florida State and had previously seen highlights of the game, but I never crossed paths with the original NBC broadcast in its entirety.
Give me a break, I was only four at the time.
Thanks to Fighting Irish Media, that changed with Saturday night’s watch party on YouTube. For more than three hours — even with the commercials cut out! — I sat glued to my TV screen. The live stream, which still can still be found on the “Notre Dame Fighting Irish” YouTube page, kept the famous pregame package intact.
If you couldn’t remember all the hype heading into the game, it was made pretty clear during the 18-minute presentation before kickoff.
But as I sank into my recliner to take in the spectacle, I couldn’t help but think about what could come later this year. The date has been circled since the end of last season: Nov. 7, 2020. That’s when Clemson is slated to come to town.
That Notre Dame-Clemson matchup probably wouldn’t receive a Game of the Century billing. But there’s a pretty good chance that Clemson could come into Notre Dame Stadium ranked No. 1 in the country.
The Irish have only hosted the No. 1 team in the AP poll twice since 1993: a 27-24 overtime loss to Nebraska in 2000 and a 34-31 “Bush Push” loss to USC in 2005. For Clemson to become the third, the Tigers would need to win their first eight games of the season. That’s not too far-fetched for a program that’s 69-5 over the last five seasons.
If Notre Dame could run the table in its first eight games of the season, the stakes would be very high on that November day. If not Game of the Century, maybe Game of the Year?
Yet as we live through the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no telling how the college football season will be impacted. As much as talking heads want to debate when this country will be able to hold live sporting events again, we can only wait with uncertainty.
That’s why so many of us have turned to nostalgia to provide us with entertainment. As we hope for life to return to normal, the comfort of our favorite memories is incredibly valuable.
On Saturday night, the number of concurrent live viewers watching the ND-FSU rerun peaked over 3,200. By early Sunday evening, the YouTube video surpassed 12,000 views.
After my viewing experience, I couldn’t help but put together a few takeaways.
Faith in Lou
When Florida State scored first, the Seminoles looked sharp. They entered the game as 6.5-point favorites. Anyone backing the underdog Irish had to be a little nervous after Florida State marched 89 yards in 10 plays on its first possession, capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass from eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward to Kevin Knox.
“I am sure people thought we were going to get crushed after that score,” ND running back Lee Becton commented during the YouTube watch party.
If a similar series happened early in a big Notre Dame game in 2020, Irish fans on Twitter would start chirping instantly: here we go again, fire Brian Kelly, etc.
But that 1993 team had head coach Lou Holtz leading the charge. He earned the benefit of the doubt with a national championship in 1988 and plenty of big wins along the way. Certainly a 7-0 deficit wasn’t an ominous sign of what was to come.
The faith in Holtz was so prominent that day that whenever Florida State’s band started playing its War Chant, the Notre Dame crowd chanted “Lou! Lou!” to drown out the Seminoles.
Fortunately for Holtz, a questionable halftime decision didn’t come back to haunt him. A windy day in South Bend appeared to impact the throwing and kicking conditions with winds of 17 miles per hour reportedly coming out of the southwest at kickoff.
That meant the offenses driving into the north end zone in Notre Dame Stadium had the advantage. Florida State won the coin toss, elected to defer and chose to defend the south end zone. The decision seemed to work when the Seminoles scored its first touchdown of the game heading into the north end zone.
Holtz made the same decision as Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden. But that meant Florida State didn’t have to fight the wind in the fourth quarter.
“I wanted to take the wind in the fourth,” Holtz explained to reporters after the game. “I talked to the (assistant) coaches and every one of them I had to talk out of it. Finally, they talked me into taking it in the third quarter. I wanted to kick off into the wind to start the third quarter. The feeling was, ‘Let’s get as far ahead as we can. Let’s not go against the odds.’”
The plan didn’t exactly work. Notre Dame failed to widen the 21-7 halftime lead by the end of third quarter — though the wind did help Kevin Pendergrast hit a 47-yard field goal to extend the lead to 24-7 before Florida State responded with a Warrick Dunn touchdown reception.
Without the wind in his face, Ward managed to put Florida State in position to tie or win the game on the final drive. The final drive began at the FSU 37 after fill-in punter/wide receiver Adrian Jarrell shanked a five-yard punt. He boomed a 58-yard punt earlier with the wind at his back.
All Irish worries were wiped away when defensive back Shawn Wooden batted down Ward’s final pass intended for the north end zone as time expired.
Maybe Holtz was right and Florida State would have made it an even closer game in the third quarter if it had the wind at its back. Or maybe Florida State’s fourth quarter comeback attempt wouldn’t have found much traction with the wind in its face.
Doesn’t matter. Second-guessing is reserved for the losing side.
Notre Dame 31, National Champs 24.
That’s the clever line Irish fans can cling to as a consolation prize for what came next. The No.1 Irish suffered a stunning loss to No. 17 Boston College the following week in Notre Dame Stadium.
Boston College kicker David Gordon’s 41-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired on a 41-39 victory launched a series of debates with no satisfying conclusions.
Florida State started lobbying for a rematch immediately following its loss to Notre Dame. And the Bowl Coalition seemed ready to make it happen in the Fiesta Bowl if both teams won out. But the Irish wouldn’t get the same benefit of the doubt as the Seminoles following their loss.
By the end of the regular season, Notre Dame dropped down to No. 5 in the Bowl Coalition rankings behind No. 1 Florida State (11-1), No. 2 Nebraska (11-0), No. 3 West Virginia (11-0) and No. 4 Auburn (11-0).
Florida State defeated Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl serving as the Bowl Coalition National Championship. Notre Dame beat Texas A&M 24-21 in the Cotton Bowl to finish No. 2. A rematch sure would have been fun.
If the Bowl Coalition held a four-team playoff, a semifinal rematch would have been the result. Because No. 4 Auburn was ineligible for postseason play, the No. 5 Irish would have matched up with the Seminoles again. Then undefeated Nebraska and West Virginia could have met in the other semifinal.
Too bad the College Football Playoff didn’t come together until 2014. It’s not a perfect system, but I bet we could have convinced some folks to support it in 1993.
Becton the beast
Boy did Lee Becton look the part against Florida State. The Irish tailback racked up 122 rushing yards and one touchdown on 26 carries.
The 6-foot, 201-pound Becton was in the midst of a seven-game stretch in which he rushed for at least 100 yards in each game and totaled 947 yards. The hot streak to end the season landed Becton as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award given to college football’s top running back
Notre Dame’s imposing offensive line of Aaron Taylor, Mark Zataveski, Tim Ruddy, Ryan Leahy and Todd Norman definitely made Becton’s job easier. But Becton, who was more ferocious than fast, stood out against Florida State on a field littered with future pros.
Unfortunately, Becton didn’t find similar success as a senior. In the 1994 season opener, Northwestern limited Becton to 16 yards on 10 rushes. Becton fumbled twice the following week in a 26-24 loss to Michigan. Then in the third game of the season, Becton suffered a groin injury against Michigan State.
Becton missed most of the next five games and eventually finished the season with 100 carries for 550 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But the damage was already done. Even though ND fullback Ray Zellars was drafted in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft, Becton went undrafted. He signed with the Green Bay Packers but couldn’t find traction in the league.
It’s hard to believe how short-lived Becton’s success would be after watching him rumble against the Seminoles.
• I couldn’t help but think of Notre Dame’s burgeoning star safety Kyle Hamilton while watching Jeff Burris fly all over the field for the Irish in ‘93. Burris prevented Ward from connecting on big plays on multiple occasions.
Burris nearly intercepted at least three passes, but he wasn’t unable to secure any of them. Yet his impact was obvious — even if you ignore his two touchdown runs in Notre Dame’s special goalline package.
We might not see Hamilton lining up in Notre Dame’s offensive backfield any time soon, but he has a chance to become a future first-round pick like Burris. Only one other former Notre Dame safety (Harrison Smith in 2012) has been selected in the first round since the Buffalo Bills picked Burris with the No. 27 overall pick in 1994.
• Wooden’s pass breakup wasn’t the only important play he made late in the fourth quarter. He recovered Florida State’s onside kick attempt with 2:24 remaining. Wooden took a licking for his efforts with four Seminoles diving his direction.
Wooden was asked during the Saturday night watch party if he was OK after that hit. His response? “No.”
• It was impossible to not notice how crowded the sidelines were inside Notre Dame Stadium. Fans were right there to celebrate with players after they reached the end zone.
And Notre Dame’s Stadium’s sellout crowd of 59,075 sounded awfully loud on the broadcast. I’m not sure I’ve experienced an atmosphere at ND quite like that in the last eight years on the beat.
• In the live chat accompanying the watch party, some Notre Dame fans argued that the Irish should bring back the gold pants the team wore in 1993. Eric Hansen responded with a feeling we could all get behind.
“Get the pants back?” Hansen wrote. “I’ll settle for getting football back.”