It’s almost as if you ordered some weird drink in the wee hours, and your head still isn’t quite right.
No. 3 Notre Dame (8-1) and No. 7 Miami (8-0) will reconvene Saturday night in a big-boom football game and, in a word: Really?
It’s a game with considerable oomph regarding the coming four berths for the College Football Playoff, yet it’s a game that cannot possibly run from its own nostalgia. It’s a game with physical teams with identities that have strayed pretty well away from the images of the 1980s, but it’s the 1980s that loom in the brain.
It’s only the fourth Miami-Notre Dame game since 1990, and it’s the first of the four that, thirty years from now, might prove memorable to the nation beyond the extreme Southeast and the mid-Midwest. It will be played by players who haven’t learned to loathe each other, watched by those who remember when the players had learned just that.
It’s also a time to recollect third down and 43 yards to go, because third and 43 always deserves more recollection.
Nobody outside Miami seems to talk very much about third and 43 from 1989; they seem to prefer to talk about Notre Dame’s theatrical 31-30 win over Miami from 1988. That’s an error born of lore, hype and drama, because third and 43 might have been the emblematic play of the college football 1980s.
Third and 43 turns up in Randal Hill’s University of Miami Hall of Fame biography.
Of third and 43, Hill said this week: “It is Miami. It is bold. It is courageous. It is outrageous.”
Or, it was — and “was” is the key word here — for a Notre Dame-Miami match that reiterates that in college football, the games never really end, and the past never stops hollering.
While recollecting, the dizzying game that comes to most minds ended up 31-30 and happened on Oct. 15, 1988, the same date on which the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson hit is famous home run in Game 1 of the World Series. Miami brought to Notre Dame its 16-game winning streak, its No. 1 ranking, its fresh national title. The two of them proceeded to play what The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins called “a game in which everything happened.”
It had a pregame scuffle between teams. Miami committed seven turnovers. The officials committed pretty much a harrowing error when they ruled Miami’s Cleveland Gary fumbled at the goal line with seven minutes left. Miami scored late but missed a two-point-conversion pass. Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson said of his players, “They’re sick,” and of himself, “I’m sick.”
Twenty-four years later in 2012, Johnson reminded Dave Hyde of South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel of his belief that had replay existed to correct the call against Gary, that title would not have gone to Notre Dame. Notre Dame (12-0) finished at No. 1, its most recent national championship. Miami (11-1) finished at No. 2. Johnson also referred to former Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz as “scrawny.” The past still hollered.
Yet though Notre Dame won the most famous game of the decade, Miami won the decade. Notre Dame and Miami played each other 10 times from 1980 to 1990. Miami won six of those games, including five of the last seven after it got itself established in 1983 under Howard Schnellenberger. Miami won three national titles. And so the more telling moment came on Nov. 25, 1989. It came in a 27-10 game mostly devoid of drama.
It came on third down and 43 yards to go from the Miami 7-yard line. Johnson had gone on to the Dallas Cowboys. Dennis Erickson had come in all the way from Washington State. Notre Dame had brought its 23-game winning streak to the Orange Bowl, which would be demolished in 2008 to clear its room for the different sport of Marlins Park. Miami led, 17-10. As would most rational people, and probably all coaches, Erickson called for a draw play.
The players, Hill recalled this week, decided against that draw play, and Erickson possessed the wisdom to allow them such liberties. Somehow, only Miami of the late 1980s would do what came next. Miami would convert the third and 43. Quarterback Craig Erickson would throw it up the right side to Hill, running past two defensive backs. Hill would haul it in over his shoulder for 44 yards.
Who tries that? Who does that? Who goes for that? Of all the teams to show you the only converted third and 43 you ever saw, of course brash, audacious Miami of the late ’80s would be the one. Miami would win that season’s national championship, and along the way, it would go 80 yards in 22 plays in 10:47, during which it converted third and 43, to shoo the spirit from Notre Dame.
As Hill began to speak about that play, he began to reel off what sounded like a poetic campaign speech, unsurprising given he ran for Congress in 2016.
Third and 43, he said, symbolized a Miami that weathered riots during the 1980s. It represented a Miami that knows how to rebound from storms. It exemplified a Miami, he said, where struggling people come from struggling other lands to struggle forward.
“Third and 43,” he said, “represents what Miami stands for as opposed to Notre Dame . . . We looked at it as Notre Dame being born with silver spoons in the mouth, and we were the common, everyday man . . . Think of it: What other school [but Notre Dame] can be independent in one sport, but in a conference [in other sports], and because of its TV contracts?”
Third and 43, in sum, was one of the damnedest football things anybody ever saw.
By the way, we’re about to watch Miami-Notre Dame in the present.
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