58th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1992
#18 Notre Dame 39 (Final: 10-3-0, #13)
#3 Florida 28 (Final: 10-2-0, #7)
How Notre Dame and Florida Met in the 1992
Seldom have a football coach’s orders been carried out so perfectly.
After the Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame fullback Jerome Bettis reiterated his frustrated coach’s halftime speech: “Coach (Lou) Holtz told us we could move the ball on the ground – and that we WOULD move the ball on the ground in the second half.”
At that point, the Irish were behind 16-7, and had a grand total of 34 yards rushing.
But Holtz did wake up the echoes – or something.
“At the half, I came in and I just didn’t think we were in sync,” said Holtz. “Our defense had been on the field too long so I made the decision to go to more power and control football. We wanted to go back to Notre Dame football.”
And Bettis took Holtz’s orders to heart. In the dying minutes of the game – in an imagination-stretching span of 2:44 – he broke loose for three touchdown runs of 3, 49 and 39 yards, rushed for an even 100 yards, and brought Notre Dame back to a deceiving 39-28 victory.
It was an uphill grind all night for the Irish.
Florida quarterback Shane Matthews guided the Gators 85 yards on their first series, topped by 15-yard touchdown pass to Willie Jackson. Arden Czyzewski then kicked a field goal to put Florida ahead 10-0 at the end of the first quarter, then another to make the score 13-0 with just under five minutes gone in the second.
The only echoes Notre Dame was waking up at this point were those of its ragged regular-season finish.
Still, despite everything, the Irish were winning small battles. Florida’s first two field goals came after a combined 29 plays that covered 146 yards. The Gators were ahead, but a disturbing pattern was building – big drives, no touchdowns. Florida was moving from 20 to 20, but was leaving points on the goal line.
The Gator injuries continued to mount as well. Inside linebackers Carlton Miles suffered a back injury in the second quarter and couldn’t return. Third-stringers Kevin Freeman and Greg Diamond filled in. Until this game Diamond had played strictly on special teams.
The thin Gator defense was beginning to tear. Linebacker Ed Robinson lamented later, “I was trying to do too much.”
Notre Dame finally got on the board on a 40-yard pass from Rick Mirer to Lake Dawson.
Then, however, the Florida bug-a-boo again turned up, as Czyzewski kicked a 36-yard field goal to make the halftime score 16-7. That drive covered 51 yards in 10 plays. Florida was absolutely dominant in the first half, but Notre Dame, with just its 34 rushing yards, so far was very much in the game.
That’s when Holtz gave his halftime ultimatum.
Notre Dame, whose offensive line outweighed the Gator defensive front 35 pounds a man, showed brute strength on its first second-half possession. The Irish drove 64 yards on 11 plays – without throwing one pass. Kevin Pendergast, subbing for an injured Craig Hentrich, kicked his first career field goal, a 23-yarder to draw Notre Dame to within six at 16-10. The Irish went ahead for the first time when Mirer rolled out and passed four yards to 6-5 tight end Irv Smith. Pendergast’s PAT made it 17-16, Notre Dame
Twice more Florida swept down the field. Twice more Czyzewski kicked field goals – 37 and 24 yards (the first after a 10-play, 50-yard sortie, the second after a fumble recovery at the Notre Dame 12) – to give Florida a 22-17 lead with 11:21 remaining.
Twice more that Holtz-drawn defense had bent but hadn’t broken.
Then Bettis and the Irish front line truly came to the fore.
Notre Dame finished with 279 yards for the night, of which 141 came in the fourth quarter. The Gators gained an eye-popping 511 total yards. Still, the major Florida shortcoming was obviously the inability to punch in touchdowns when the Gators got close to the end zone. In the highest scoring Sugar Bowl up to that time, the Gators had the ball inside the Notre Dame 20-yard line seven times and could come away with only two touchdowns and a record five field goals by Czyzewski.
“We had plenty of time to throw,” said center Cal Dixon. “We held them out for five or six seconds – they were only rushing four guys. It’s frustrating. Not getting touchdowns when you have as many chances as we did will usually come back to haunt you.”
Bettis, who led all runners with 150 yards, a 9.4-yards per carry average, had one main comment for everyone within earshot in the locker room: “I never did like Cheerios.”
All week long a “Cheerios” riddle, attributed to a waiter, had been in vogue – “What’s the difference between Notre Dame’s football team and Cheerios?” Answer: “Cheerios belong in a bowl.”
It was Notre Dame and Holtz who had the last laughs.
“We aren’t a bad football tream,” said Holtz. “People say that we didn’t deserve to be here, but I’ve got to tell you, I’m proud of this team. We beat the No. 3 team in the nation, and didn’t have a lot of help — they didn’t fumble; they didn’t turn the ball over.”
The game’s overnight television ratings reached 11.4, a 19-percent share in the nation’s 25 largest cities, a share two points higher than the Orange Bowl game between Penn State and Texas and the Sugar’s best TV showing in six years. Yes, the Notre Dame selection had paid off handsomely.
It was only the Cheerios jokester who didn’t see a payoff. Holtz admitted his team was not just the butt of the puzzle, but that he slipped in a verbal counter-jab for the waiter who made the crack. The coach said he responded with a question of his own: “Do you know the difference between a golf pro and Lou Holtz?”
Answer: “Lou Holtz doesn’t give tips.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.