In one of my first posts on this site, I mentioned that the 1991 Notre Dame game, better known as The Miracle at South Bend, was a huge influence on my development as a Tennessee fan. The video replay I had broke, and until recently, I had never seen the game since I was a young kid. Well, through the wonders of technology, I now own the DVD version. I’ve decided to do a Miracle at South Bend Notebook for you fans who were around then. I’ll simply follow the game as if it were live, and jot down my thoughts as they happen. Check it out:
The video starts with a cool introduction by none other than Bob Kesling. This was long before he replaced the great John Ward in the booth, and he’s looking pretty slim. Anyways, he’s walking around Notre Dame’s campus; it’s November and there’s snow everywhere. It’s a nice little intro with Bob setting the stage with all the Irish history. There’s even a blurb from then-Notre Dame coach “Thhhuffferin Thucccotash” Lou Holtz. This is ridiculous, even the production’s generic pump up music is giving me chills…
Tennessee kicks to Notre Dame to start the game. John Ward’s voice is music to my ears. Chris Mims blows up the first play, a handoff. The Vols had a mean front seven in ’91 with guys like Mims, Shazzon Bradley, Darryl Hardy, Chuck Smith and Ernest Fields. Sadly, Chris Mims died last year after struggling with his post-football life. You can read a good San Diego Union-Tribune article about it here.
“The Bus” Jerome Bettis gets his first carry from fullback. Ward’s call: “and this is he, and this is Bettis, POUNDING the right side.” The next play is an incomplete pass to Bettis and eventual Titan great Craig Hentrich punts it away to Dale Carter. Carter proceeds to do his best Eric Parker impression and refuses to call a fair catch in a crowd, muffs the punt, and Notre Dame recovers. HUGE play. This game probably doesn’t become The Miracle at South Bend if this doesn’t happen, and Carter will redeem himself later on.
Between Bettis, Tony Brooks, and Rodney Culver, Notre Dame had an unbelievable backfield. The Irish are now in the red zone; some great shots of some VERY 90’s UT cheerleaders.
Brooks breaks three tackles and and busts into the end zone for a touchdown. Notre Dame looks absolutely unstoppable. 7-0 Irish early in the first.
Dale Carter has a great kick return to the Irish 30 yard line to set the Vols up nicely. Just as I’m thinking how sweet these orange pants are, Vol quarterback Andy Kelly throws an awful pass that’s picked off by an Irish DB that I can’t identify anwhere on the internet. He returns it untouched for a score and the game is looking really bad at this point. I mean really bad. 14-0 Irish.
Culver, Bettis, and Brooks are absolutely shredding the UT defense, popping off 15 yard gains like clockwork. Tennessee has nothing to show for itself at this point in the game. Ward says it best: “Notre Dame is just POUNDING Tennessee with these big, strong, rotating running backs.”
The immortal Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer makes his first mark on the game with a 10 yard option keeper for a score. Hornung, Theismann, Montana, Mirer…that works, right? UT defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell (looking like a 65-year old Woody Harrelson) has a brief interview about how bad his defense was getting dominated at this point in the game. 21-0 Irish (yes, it’s still the first quarter).
As the first quarter ends, Aaron Hayden is beginning to find some running room; It’s the first sign of life from UT’s offense. Hayden was a very nice college tailback that I wish had made a bigger mark in the pros. After showing some promise his rookie year, when he started 4 games for the Chargers, he bounced around in Green Bay and Philly the next few years. He finished with only 784 career rushing yards.
Tennessee finally gets on the board when Andy Kelly delivers a beautiful pass that Cory Fleming catches over his shoulder in the corner of the end zone. What’s crazy about this play is that UT ran it with an empty backfield. Not unusual, except when I remind you that UT’s offensive coordinator was….you guessed it….PHILLIP FULMER. Crazy, right? The man you cursed the past few years for running straight up the middle on third and long was running 5-Wide sets when he was calling plays for Majors. Doesn’t that kind of make you mad? It’s 21-7 Irish. The Vols aren’t dead yet.
Hentrich punches in a field goal to give the Irish a 24-7 lead. James “Little Man” Stewart gets his first significant action on UT’s next series. The Vols had a deep backfield as well. Another empty backfield set, and Fulmer runs a reverse to Craig Faulkner. Where was this when he was head coach?!?!
Fleming makes a catch then takes a helmet to the ball, and it pops out as Notre Dame recovers. Such a momentum killer. Bettis would go on to plow into the end zone on a third down conversion. It’s 31-7 Notre Dame, and they are soon AGAIN threatening to score with under a minute to play in the half.
After Chuck Smith sacks a scrambling Mirer, the Irish line up for a field goal on the last play of the half. The Vols come up with a huge play as Darryl Hardy blocks Hentrich’s kick, and cornerback Floyd Miley picks it up and runs it in from 75 yards away as Johnny M gloriously holds up one finger for the extra point. Play of the game probably. As the half ends, the Irish take a 31-14 lead into the locker room, but UT owns the momentum of the game. Ward: “DARRY HARDY BLOCKS, FLOYD MILEY PICKS!!!”
Carl Pickens makes his 100th career reception as Tennessee marches down the field early in the third quarter. Former walk on and one of my personal favorites J.J. McCleskey also has a nice catch as the Vols continue to move the ball. After a Hayden sets UT up on the four yard line, Kelly hits tight end Von Reeves on a boot for a score. It’s now a ball-game as the Vols all of the sudden are within 10 points.
Notre Dame threatens to score but the Vols come up with a huge stop on the 4 yard line. First time UT’s stopped the Irish in the red zone yet. Hentrich comes in for another chip shot field goal to make it 34-21 Irish. A Kesling voiceover lets us know that Hentrich reinjured the leg he hurt on the blocked field goal before halftime, and is out of the game. Hmmmm, could that be a problem for Notre Dame later, I wonder??
One play after a gutsy fourth down conversion, Hayden gets spun around and backpedals into the end zone for a nice touchdown. It’s now 34-28 Irish, but Tennessee still has the momentum. The Irish are getting away from the Bettis, Culver, Brooks combination that was shredding UT earlier. The Vols are within striking distance.
Down 6 points, Tennessee again goes for it on fourth down in the red zone. Kelly throws an incomplete pass to Pickens, and Notre Dame takes over. Midway through the fourth, Notre Dame needs to eat some clock.
Dale Carter picks off an awful Mirer pass and the Vols take over at midfield. Carter’s jawing to the camera on the sideline. I guess he’s redeemed himself from the fumbled punt in the first quarter.
On 2nd and 3 from the Irish thirty, Kelly throws a beautiful screen pass that Hayden pulls down and goes untouched into the end zone. It’s one of the most brilliantly executed screen passes I’ve ever seen. Notre Dame blitzed everybody, Kelly just dumped it over their heads, and Hayden runs into Carl Pickens’ waiting arms in the back of the end zone. Glorious. Vols take the lead with the extra point, 35-34. Ward: “Tennessee anticipates the blitz, and there, untouched, streaks the freshman from Detroit City, and Tennessee has tied the game at 34.”
Tennessee’s defense makes its best attempt at a choke job, letting Notre Dame methodically move down the field with what little time the Irish had left. They make it all the way to UT’s 17 yard line, and with 4 seconds left, Holtz sends in Hentrich’s back up, Rob Leonard. Leonard is a sophomore walk-on from Georgia, and has never kicked in a game before. I’ll let Ward take it from here: “Holding will be Sexton, snapping will be Johnson, attempting the field goal, it will be…uhh…right at…uhh…27 yards. This will be Rob Leonard. The kick is up, the kick is…GOOD! NO, IT IS NO GOOD! IT IS NO GOOD! IT IS NO GOOD! TENNESSEE BEATS NOTRE DAME 35-34! Tennessee goes home victorious; Notre Dame goes with a sophomore replacement kicker and it is no good!”
Absolutely phenomenal game. Maybe my favorite of all time. This game featured every aspect of football. Momentum, the come-back, the last second field goal attempt. There was an interception return for a touchdown and also a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. Plus, there were quite a few good players in the game. It just all blended together to make one great contest. If you’ve never seen it and you call yourself a Tennessee fan, the first thing you should do after reading this is find someone with a copy. If you can’t, I’m going to bail you out and let you watch the cliff notes version here. Just watching this makes me glad to be a Volunteer fan. Go Vols.