Saturday, August 12, 2006

ESPN Classic Theater: 1986 Notre Dame at USC

For two years, I cut costs in my garden studio apartment in Chicago by forsaking cable television. Every time I felt like watching television, I participated in the ancient and nearly-forgotten art of tuning into a channel and then performing a twenty-minute dance with the rabbit-ears antennae until I was able to obtain a manageable level of static, double-images, and dropouts in audio. So now that I've moved up in the world, I decided to pamper myself with a zillion channels via sattelite and a swanky DVR module which records programming automatically. I know most of my astute readers were on this bandwagon a decade or so ago, but for me it's a pretty cool new thing. Especially because I have it set to automatically record any Notre Dame game that pops up on ESPN Classic. In light of this, I've put together a new feature on tHRB called "ESPN Classic Theater", where I watch and liveblog (in the loosest possible sense of the term) the games that come up. Today's gem is 1986 Notre Dame versus Southern Cal, live from Los Angeles.

The Gerry Faust travesty has just come to a long-overdue conclusion, and the Irish are now coached by a 5'2" charismatic go-getter with a lisp by the name of Lou Holtz. Holtz announced the Irish's return to prominence in his opening game against a stacked Michigan team, taking them all the way to the final seconds. A long potential game-winning John Carney field goal sails wide as time expires to kill the Irish's chances to pull off a shocking upset, but the message is clear. Whereas in the past, Faust's Irish teams had a propensity for giving up and collapsing under pressure, Holtz has shown that he has a team that will play sixty minutes of gritty, hard-nosed football. Sadly, the Irish never seem to catch a lucky break all season, and drop five games by a combined 14 points. In each game, Notre Dame had a chance to pull it out in the final seconds, but each time fell torturously short.

The Trojans are also in a similar situation. In 1983, Southern Cal had the dubious task of replacing a coaching legend in John Robinson, who compiled a career record of 104-35-4 (.741) and a national championship in 1978. Stepping into those large shoes was Ted Tollner, who I can't help but noticing looks identical to George Will. Tollner had an up-and down career which proved to be a big disappointment by USC standards. This game would ultimately prove to be the last regular-season game he would coach for the Men of Troy, after which he would be succeeded by a string of mediocre coaches. For the moderate success Tollner had at USC, he had never beaten the Irish. Little did anyone know at the time, but they were in the beginning of the "Decade of Dominance", where the Irish won 11 straight agains the Trojans and went unbeaten in 14 consecutive matchups.

The ESPN Classic coverage cuts around to a few key plays in the first half, but most of the broadcast is focused on the crucial fourth quarter, where I shall pick up my liveblog.

  • 24:00: Rodney Peete sneaks in over the right guard for a one-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. After the PAT, the Trojans have built a seemingly-insurmountable 37-20 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. It's the beginning of the end for the Irish.
  • 25:00: A sideline interview with an incredibly young Chuck Lennon, the executive director of the Notre Dame alumni association.
  • 27:08: Steve Beurlein flings up a desperation long bomb down the right sideline. Milt Jackson makes an acrobatic leap over the coverage to make an amazing touchdown grab. Ten point game.
  • 38:10: Southern Cal drives the length of the field with fullback runs, milking off precious time from the clock. Facing fourth down and an inch or two inside the Notre Dame 5, Tollner elects to go for it and seal the game. Another Rodney Peete sneak over the right guard, but this time he's jammed at the line. It's Notre Dame's ball, no measurement. USC gets an Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty for their protesting, and the Irish take over on their own 20.
  • 39:20: And it's a new ballgame, folks! Tim Brown hauls in a long bomb and scampers down deep into USC territory. A few plays leter, Beurlein tosses a screen pass for a touchdown, bringing the game within one score.
  • 45:22: Incredibly, Lou Holtz sends out the two-point conversion unit. The Irish are down by four late in the game. This gutsy decision is a reminder of how differently the game was played before overtime was established. Jay over at BGS wrote a lengthy post about how eliminating the tie has ruined college football, and this game makes a strong argument for that point. In today's game with overtime, it is an automatic kicking situation when you can pull the game within three, because it makes it possible to prolong the game with one field goal. However, with the tie still possible, a coach needs to make a decision if they are playing to win or not. The overtime rule effectively encourages conservative gameplay, and has eliminated a lot of the payoff for coaches to take risks on exciting game-breaking plays. As a logical result, regulation ties became much more frequent once the rule was initiated:

    Image courtesy of Blue-Gray Sky

  • 45:12: Beurlein hits the big tight end Andy Heck, who rumbles over three defenders and fights his way across the goal line. Two point game.
  • 50:18: The Irish hold USC to a three and out, and now they have to punt. For some crazy reason, Tollner decides to punt to Tim Brown, who makes them pay dearly. Brown makes two quick cuts and darts down the sideline, rumbling deep into USC territory for a 56 yard return! It's not just a dream anymore, the Irish finally have a chance to actually win a game on a last-second field goal. A hush falls over the crowd.
  • 56:24: Carney comes out for a 18 yard field goal to win the game. SC calls a time out to give him time to think about the Michigan game.
  • 59:20: Are you kidding me, CBS? The game starts while they are still in commercial break! As the coverage returns, we see Notre Dame players in a celebratory mob with no time on the clock. A replay shows the kick is up and in, but it's amazing that they missed the live action. I think it's time to fire that official with the orange oven mitts who signals when the TV broadcast has returned.

And that's ballgame, folks. Final score: Notre Dame 38, USC 37. Better luck next decade, Trojans.