SOUTH BEND, IND., SEPT. 16 -- About three weeks ago, immediately after a preseason scrimmage, Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz and new starting quarterback Rick Mirer had a long chat.
Things had not gone well that day. "I don't recall us making a first down in the last 50 plays," Holtz said last week in his usual unexaggerated fashion. "I think half the plays lost yardage." In any case, it certainly was not a good sign with Michigan awaiting in the season-opener.
"It was obvious the leadership and confidence were not there," Holtz said. So he spoke with the sophomore about those qualities.
"We're not asking him to win the football game," Holtz said. "We're just asking him to play quarterback. Our realistic objective is to get him to just calm down and be himself."
In his first collegiate start, he led Notre Dame from a 10-point deficit to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns -- the last on an 18-yard pass to Adrian Jarrell with 1:40 remaining that gave the top-ranked Fighting Irish a 28-24 victory over the fourth-ranked Wolverines.
Mirer's effort (14-of-23 passing, 165 yards) overshadowed those of Michigan junior tailback Jon Vaughn (22 carries for 201 yards), junior flanker Desmond Howard (6 receptions, 133 yards, 2 touchdowns), and the Wolverines' offensive line.
But Mirer, a native of nearby Goshen, Ind., who grew up a Michigan fan, was the story.
"People talk about that void, you know, that Notre Dame is a great team, but their quarterback . . . ," Fighting Irish junior fullback Rodney Culver said. " I don't think people will worry about our quarterback position anymore."
On the decisive drive, Mirer put on a display that had fans thinking about another wearer of Notre Dame jersey No. 3 -- Joe Montana. Amidst the frenzy of sold-out Notre Dame Stadium, where the Fighting Irish now have won 18 consecutive games since November 1986, Mirer completed his last five passes for 52 of the 76 yards Notre Dame covered in a little less than three minutes. Making it more impressive, Notre Dame's previous possession ended when, on a second down and 11 from Michigan's 35-yard line, Mirer overthrew an open receiver and safety Vada Murray intercepted.
"He had confidence all the way through the game," Culver said. "Even after the interception, he just said, 'Okay guys, we have to put some points on the board.' Then, he led us down and we did it."
As a senior at Goshen High School, he led a 99-yard drive that clinched a victory in the state championship game. It was yet another demonstration of why many considered him the nation's top high school player that year.
"It's the poise he's exhibited basically all through his athletic career," said Mirer's father, Ken, formerly Goshen High's football coach.
For Michigan, it meant yet another bitter loss to Notre Dame in a season-opener. This is fourth consecutive year the Wolverines have started with a loss to the Fighting Irish.
"It just hurts," said Gary Moeller, whose debut as Michigan coach was highlighted by the Wolverines' frequent and effective use of a decidedly un-Bo-Schembechler-like no-huddle offense. "A couple of calls by me probably didn't prove to be very good calls."
The first was on a fourth and one at Notre Dame's 19 with a little less than three minutes left in the third quarter and Michigan leading, 24-14. Although his offensive line had been controlling the line of scrimmage, Moeller opted for a field goal. J.D. Carlson hooked it wide left. Notre Dame took advantage with an 80-yard touchdown drive that made the score 24-21 with 13 minutes to play. The Fighting Irish benefited from good fortune when Mirer's downfield pass on third and 15 from his 15 glanced off Rocket Ismail's hands and into those of Lake Dawson, who continued to Michigan's 40.
On the ensuing possession, the Wolverines used six running plays to move from their 18 to a first down at Notre Dame's 11. Moeller called for a pass. Sophomore quarterback Elvis Grbac short-armed the ball into the end zone, and linebacker Michael Stonebreaker intercepted.
Grbac sealed Michigan's fate with another poor pass. After Notre Dame's go-ahead touchdown, Howard returned the kickoff to the Wolverines 41. But on first down, Grbac was intercepted by cornerback Reggie Brooks. For the fourth quarter, Grbac was two of seven for three yards and the two interceptions.
It just made Mirer stand out that much more -- not that he was having problems keeping things in perspective. His older brother, Jeff, is in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and stationed in Saudi Arabia.
"I think the pressures he has on him are much more intense than the ones I had on me," Mirer said. "He's defending the country. I was just trying to play quarterback for Notre Dame."