SOUTH BEND, IND., SEPT. 15 -- Like Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown, Notre Dame has done it again to Michigan.
Tonight the top-ranked Fighting Irish invited the fourth-ranked Wolverines to a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter. They then scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last on an 18-yard pass from Rick Mirer to sophomore flanker Adrian Jarrell with 1:40 to play, and defeated Michigan, 28-24, before a sellout crowd of 59,075 at Notre Dame Stadium.
It was Notre Dame's fourth consecutive victory over the Wolverines, who had not lost to the same opponent in four straight years since they lost to Purdue five times from 1962 to 1966.
"There are some senior kids hurt very, very badly," said Gary Moeller, who was making his debut as Michigan coach after replacing Bo Schembechler in January. "They wanted to win for themselves and they wanted to win for Michigan because we haven't done it in quite a while. It hurts."
Wolverines junior tailback Jon Vaughn fumbled on the game's second play -- a turnover Notre Dame converted into a touchdown -- but he came back to gain 201 yards on 22 carries, becoming the first player to reach the 200-yard rushing mark against Notre Dame since Penn State's Blair Thomas ran for 214 yards in 1987. Vaughn also caught six passes for 41 yards. As a team, Michigan rushed for 253 yards on 40 carries.
Said Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz: "I've never seen a team run the ball on Notre Dame like that. . . . I don't know yet how we won this football game. I guess it's the luck of the Irish and the Lady on the Dome. Good things just seem to happen to us."
Mirer, in his first start, was one of those things when it mattered most -- in the fourth quarter. He completed 14 of 23 passes in the game for 165 yards, one interception and one touchdown. But in the final period, he was five of seven for 57 yards.
"I think he can play better," Holtz said, "but he competed well and did a very, very good job."
He keyed the final drive, 76 yards, with an excellent play on third down and six from Notre Dame's 28. Flushed out of the pocket, he scrambled a bit, then completed a 13-yard pass to split end Tony Smith.
The Fighting Irish did not face another third down the rest of the drive, which Mirer concluded by rolling to his right and splitting two defenders with his pass to Jarell.
"It was a great win for us and a great win for me too," Mirer said. "I'm glad it started this way, and I hope there are many more."
Michigan trailed, 14-10, at halftime, but its huge and veteran offensive line had begun asserting itself. The five starters, all of whom started last year, average 6 feet 5, 288 pounds. Behind them, Vaughn, who carried just 10 times all of last season, had 96 yards on 12 carries at intermission. As a team Michigan had 113 yards on 20 carries. In addition, quarterback Elvis Grbac was getting time to throw.
After holding Notre Dame on the first series of the second half, the Wolverines drove 85 yards in 11 plays for a go-ahead touchdown. Grbac passed to junior flanker Desmond Howard for 21 yards, to Vaughn for 10 and to Howard for 19. That put the ball on the Fighting Irish 45. Fullback Jerrod Bunch, a 247-pound senior, bulled inside twice for 14 yards and Vaughn scampered twice for 27. On third and goal from the 1, senior tailback Alan Jefferson swept around left end for the score.
Notre Dame had too many players on the field for the extra point, and Michigan kicker J.D. Carlson used the 15-yard penalty on the kickoff to boot the ball through the end zone. On first down, Wolverines senior safety David Key jarred the ball from tailback Tony Brooks's grasp. Senior defensive tackle Mike Evans won a prolonged scrum, giving Michigan possession at the 26.
On the ensuing play, Grbac passed to Howard in the left flat. Junior cornerback Rod Smith rushed up to make the tackle, but Howard dodged him and sped down the sideline, past two more defensive backs, and into the waiting arms of Michigan students seated on the field behind the end zone. Just like that, the Wolverines were ahead, 24-14.
They held Notre Dame on four plays, and Vada Murray's 22-yard punt return gave them possession at their 38. They swiftly moved deep into Fighting Irish territory, and on fourth and one from the 19, sent Carlson out for a 36-yard field goal. He missed wide left with a little less than three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Fighting Irish took advantage -- with a little bit of luck. On third and 15 from their 15, Mirer fired a pass downfield that bounced off junior Raghib "Rocket" Ismail's hands and into those of freshman Lake Dawson. Dawson, who snagged the ball at midfield, carried it to Michigan's 40. Notre Dame continued to move, and with 13 minutes left in the game, fullback Rodney Culver dove for a one-yard touchdown, making the score 24-21, Michigan.
Michigan came right back, however. Vaughn broke for runs of 22, 9 and 24 yards, and the Wolverines drove to a first down at Notre Dame's 11. But Grbac then shortarmed a pass into the end zone, and senior linebacker Michael Stonebreaker intercepted.
Notre Dame drove from its 20 to Michigan's 35, but Mirer overthrew Tony Smith and Murray intercepted.
The Wolverines had to punt, however, and the Fighting Irish began their game-winning drive.
Notre Dame snuffed out Michigan's next drive when Reggie Brooks intercepted Grbac on the Irish 40 with 1:21 remaining. Michigan got the ball back with 15 seconds left on its own 29, but Grbac was unable to connect on two desperation passes.
On the game's second play, Vaughn burst through a hole on the left side, then fumbled without being touched. Notre Dame safety Greg Davis recovered at the Wolverines 26-yard line, and the Fighting Irish didn't take long to move in front, 7-0.
Culver carried three times for 19 yards as they moved to the 2. Mirer, whose drop-back passing ability is supposed to give Notre Dame's offense a decidedly different look, then did a suitably effective imitation of his predecessor, Tony Rice. He went down the line on an option play, cut back inside right end and sprinted to the corner of the end zone.
But the Wolverines went right back to Vaughn, and he provided the spark for a 56-yard drive that resulted in a field goal by Carlson with seven minutes left in the first quarter. Vaughn handled the ball on the first three plays. He turned a screen pass into an eight-yard gain, then broke a quick-opener for 10 yards and a draw play for 19. Michigan converted a fourth down and one at Notre Dame's 31, but stalled thereafter.
Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for -- a Michigan kickoff with Ismail in single safety. Even though Ismail returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Michigan last year, Moeller had promised he would not have Carlson squib the ball and simply hand the Fighting Irish respectable field position. Sure enough, Carlson kicked the ball deep to the left side, and sure enough Ismail nearly broke away. But just as the crowd drew in its breath for a roar, he was tripped at the 25.
Michigan's defense could not trip the Fighting Irish, though. They drove 75 yards in 11 plays for a two-yard touchdown run by Tony Brooks. Linebacker Chris Hutchinson sacked Mirer for an eight-yard loss on the drive's first play, but senior tailback Ricky Watters made a diving catch for a 17-yard gain on third and 13.