EAST LANSING, MICH., SEPT. 22 -- Despite another heart-stopping scare, Notre Dame is still unbeaten and beginning to look almost mystically unbeatable.
For the second consecutive week, the No. 1 Irish were outplayed by a feisty opponent but found a way to win, using a last-minute comeback to edge Michigan State, 20-19.
Notre Dame trailed by 19-14 with just more than a minute left and seemed a cinch to lose when quarterback Rick Mirer's dead-duck pass on second down at the Spartans 36 sailed toward defensive back Todd Murray. But the ball bounced off Murray's chest, hung in the air and then was rescued by Notre Dame's sophomore flanker, Adrian Jarrell.
"I saw the defensive back running toward the ball," Jarrell said. "Rick never saw the guy. I ran straight toward him to make the tackle, but the ball bounced off his chest and I just grabbed it out of the air."
Rodney Culver's one-yard plunge with 34 seconds left sealed matters.
"There is a mystique," said Irish Coach Lou Holtz. "Make no mistake about it. I just think the school is blessed. I believe it at the bottom of my heart.
"We just have to find a way to win each week. Once again we were down by two scores late in the football game but we found a way to win. We have to be lucky to do some of the things we've done. No doubt about it."
Now Holtz has his players believing in divine intervention as well.
"There's definitely someone looking out for us," Jarrell said.
Michigan State has been down this road before. Last season the Spartans lost four games to top 10 teams by a total of 21 points.
"We played our hearts out and Notre Dame played their hearts out," said Michigan State Coach George Perles. "There were a lot of breaks in this game and some went with us and some went against us. But this one hurts, and what we've got to do now is make sure that we don't let it hurt us mentally."
And Murray, whose blocked punt in the second quarter nearly brought about a tremendous upset, had to answer countless questions.
"I saw it all the way," Murray said. "I should have caught it but I didn't. I was surprised not so much at the speed of the ball but at the angle. It came in kind of short and low. And I was surprised I didn't come up with it."
Holtz's decisions to go for it on two fourth-down situations in the second half shaped the game.
Notre Dame opened the second half with a 56-yard drive that put the Irish on the Michigan State 13 with a fourth and two. Holtz elected to go for it, but Culver was stopped by defensive tackle Bobby Wilson and middle linebacker Chuck Bullough. The Spartans then went on a 12-play, 88-yard drive on the strength of quarterback Dan Enos's right arm. Three times the senior converted third-down situations, with a 33-yard pass to Courtney Hawkins, a 15-yarder to James Bradley and a 20-yard toss to Hyland Hickson. Tico Duckett's one-yard plunge gave the Spartans a 19-7 lead.
Notre Dame took the ensuing kickoff and drove to Michigan State's 27, where a fourth and eight awaited. Culver got the call again, and this time cradled Mirer's nine-yard pass for a first down.
Notre Dame at first seemed prepared to blow out the Spartans. The Irish ran the ball almost at will in the first quarter, racking up 65 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Rocket Ismail was the catalyst on Notre Dame's first scoring drive, running 19 yards on a reverse to Michigan State's 38 and catching a crucial 10-yard pass from Mirer on third and nine. Ricky Watters finished off the seven-play, 41-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0 with 2:43 left in the first quarter.
But the Spartans dominated the second quarter, reeling off 12 unanswered points. It started harmlessly enough, with John Langeloh's 43-yard field goal cutting the Irish lead to 7-3.
Then the Spartans' defense made a stand, with Wilson sacking Mirer on third down at the 20-yard line. Murray then swung the contest Michigan State's way, roaring in from the left side to block Craig Hentrich's punt. The ball rolled out of the end zone for a safety, and the Spartans were trailing by 7-5.
Hentrich's free kick was fielded by Brian Winters and returned to the Michigan State 44. On the Spartans' third play, Hickson burst 32 yards to the 1. Three cracks into the Irish line later, Hickson scored. Langeloh's extra point gave the Spartans a 12-7 lead with 5:06 to go in the half.