Notre Dame players look back on 1993's 'Game of the Century'

Notre Dame players look back on 1993's 'Game of the Century'
October 18, 2012, 5:00 am
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Tune in to Comcast SportsNet Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. for a Notre Dame football classic: The 1993 "Game of the Century" which pitted No. 2 Notre Dame against No. 1 Florida State in South Bend.

On an unseasonably warm, windy mid-November day, No. 1 Florida State began filing out of the visitor's locker room at Notre Dame Stadium. An unwelcome sight greeted them: Lou Holtz and Notre Dame's coaches holding the Irish back. There was jawing, but no fight -- as there was in the tunnel for 1988's "Catholics vs. Convicts" game. While there was speculation Notre Dame wanted to try to psych out Florida State, senior safety Jeff Burris offered up a different explanation.

"We were just cooped up," Burris, currently the cornerbacks coach at UMass, told CSNChicago.com. "We were so ready to play, the game couldn't get there fast enough...We could have played at 6 that morning, we were so ready to play because that moment had finally reached us and we were so excited to get on the field. It wasn't anything that was pre-meditated, it was really just let's go, let's play. We had gotten to that point as a team."

The college football world had, too. Bob Costas and O.J. Simpson were on campus, as was College GameDay for the first time in the show's history. Quarterback Kevin McDougal started to notice that things were a little bit different the Tuesday before the game.

"I had never seen so many fans coming in to tailgate and coming on campus so early," McDougal, who now runs a transportation company in Florida, recalled. "Reebok at the time spent all week with us, I remember them testing out shoes and things like that. Even before seeing Bob Costas and O.J. Simpson and those guys, the whole week was a big week."
It was more than No. 1 vs. No. 2.

It was presumptive Heisman winner Charlie Ward and explosive freshman Warrick Dunn facing Lou Holtz's stout defense, led by Burris and defensive tackle Bryant Young. It was whether McDougal and running back Lee Becton could succeed against a defense front-lined by all-world linebacker Derrick Brooks.

And, of course, there were serious national championship implications. Bobby Bowden hadn't won it, while Lou Holtz was seeking his second.

What followed was 60 minutes of football that Notre Dame fans voted as one of the best ever played at Notre Dame Stadium.

Ward asserted his will early, leading FSU on a lengthy scoring drive. Despite a rib injury that kept him out of FSU's previous game against Maryland, Ward looked every bit like the runaway favorite to win the Heisman Trophy in the first few minutes.

"When you talk about poise and just precision at that position -- just, you name it, he did it," Burris said. "If they needed 10 yards to run, he could scramble and look like, okay, he only went five yards but he probably went 20. He was that smooth with the ball in his hand."

But Notre Dame punched back, albeit in about as improbable of a way as possible: a reverse to punter Adrian Jarrell (who did play wide receiver in the past, too).

"My main focus on that play first was 'really? Alright, (expletive), let's go do this, we still have a job to do,'" offensive lineman Aaron Taylor, now an analyst with CBS College Sports, said. "And Holtz's mantra was there are no trick plays, even if it's a quote-un-quote special or trick play, you still have to execute. I think the fact that we scored a touchdown on it indicates that we did execute, everybody did what they were supposed to do."

The surprises didn't stop there. Burris, a great two-way player in high school who played as a defensive back in college, rushed for a pair of touchdowns against an FSU defense that only allowed two rushing scores in its previous nine games.

"He was a captain, he had more than proven himself on both sides of the ball and with his character on and off the field," Taylor said. "It's a really unique situation in a game that big, to have a guy to come in on your side of the ball that doesn't normally play there. It's like, you don't call that and think you're going to get a one-yard gain. You're calling that because you think you need a touchdown, and he's the guy to do it."

Notre Dame was up 17 at the half, the product of an offense firing on all cylinders and a defense that was able to give Ward more fits than any other opponent. The FSU quarterback entered the game on a streak of 144 pass attempts without an interception, but that was broken at 159 -- and it couldn't been sooner, had Burris not dropped a few golden opportunities for a pick.

But FSU mounted a comeback in the second half, something McDougal attributed to Holtz's tendency to dial things back instead of pouring it on when the Irish were up by a wide margin. As the momentum shifted, though, Taylor and Notre Dame's leaders had a message.

"I think the feeling on our side was we're not going to lose this game, not on our watch," Taylor explained. "We're going to protect this baby, and it's up to us as seniors to find a way to make plays. Not the juniors, not the sophomores, not the freshmen -- look around, boys, this is one of our last go-arounds, it's one of our last few games ever in this stadium with a lot on it. Let's go get it done."

Burris scored the second of his two touchdowns to put the Irish up by 14, but FSU answered right back. That set up the final drive, with FSU needing a touchdown to tie things up.

Before getting into the final play, though, there was plenty of analysis around the game that figured FSU would clobber Notre Dame on a neutral site or in Tallahassee, that things would've been different if the game wasn't played in South Bend. But that's a notion Burris wasn't buying.

"Just kind of jokingly, when I went to Buffalo, I wound up playing with Kevin Knox, the receiver from Florida State. And his thing was, 'Oh, if we were playing at a neutral site we would've beat you guys,'" Burris recalled. "And there's no way possible. We just knew at that time we were the better team that day. Regardless of where we were, that's the mentality coach Holtz instilled in us in that game. And it was kind of our mantra that we lived by."

And when Shawn Wooden batted down Ward's pass to end the game, that mantra materialized into a victory. Students rushed the field, reveling in the glory of waking up Sunday to a No. 1 ranking. And for the Notre Dame players, those post-game moments are among the greatest they experienced while in South Bend.

"We felt like we were on top of the world," Burris recalled. "That moment, and going over the student section. My roommates ran on the field, I remember, my old roommates from freshman year and came and gave me a big hug -- just those small things that you're just like man, we did it.

"It wasn't a team thing. It was a school thing at that moment."