In the gloaming at Notre Dame Stadium, at the end of the most gripping game in one of the most baffling college football seasons in memory, Boston College's fortunes rested in the hands of senior quarterback Glenn Foley—which was perfectly fine with fans of the Irish.
Sure, the red-haired Foley had been brilliant in guiding the Eagles to a shocking 38-17 lead over top-ranked, 10-0 Notre Dame early in the fourth quarter. He had completed 26 of 41 passes for 264 yards and four touchdowns, the last one a perfectly lobbed two-yard toss to tight end Pete Mitchell in the Irish end zone. Mitchell caught the ball just a few yards from some members of the Notre Dame band, whose silence eloquently posed the questions that were on everyone's mind: How could this be happening? How could Notre Dame be losing by so much to Boston College only a week after it had gained the No. 1 ranking by upsetting supposedly invincible Florida State on this same field?
But then, after the Irish had shown signs of life with a touchdown and a two-point conversion, Foley was betrayed by the very hands that had served him so admirably for more than three quarters. He let Notre Dame back into the game by twice failing to complete the shortest pass in football—the center snap. The first bobble led to a Notre Dame touchdown that cut the gap to 38-32 with 4:02 remaining. The second fumble occurred on third-and-nine during the next BC series. Foley recovered the ball, but the Eagles were forced to punt with 2:59 left. The rejuvenated Irish then stormed downfield and scored on fourth-and-goal from the BC four when quarterback Kevin McDougal hit Lake Dawson with a perfect strike in the back of the end zone.
When Irish kicker Kevin Pendergast made the extra point, putting his team ahead for the first time, 39-38, with a scant 1:09 left on the clock, the crowd of 59,075 erupted in a kind of mass catharsis. After all, hadn't Notre Dame saved its top ranking and its national-championship hopes? Wouldn't the Eagles, who lost to the Irish 54-7 on this same field last year, be content to go home with such a redeeming near miss? And wasn't Foley more likely to fumble another snap than to drive the Eagles into field goal range?
Clearly the crowd wasn't aware of some important things about Foley. Such as his uncanny ability to forget his mistakes. And his intense determination to pay back Irish coach Lou Holtz for rolling up the score in last year's game. And—most important—the crowd was unaware of Foley's mastery of the two-minute drill.
Since Tom Coughlin became BC's coach in 1991, virtually every Eagle practice has included work on the two-minute drill. Usually the challenge is this: Go 90 yards with 1:10 left on the clock and only one timeout. At Notre Dame, Foley said, "When I looked at the clock and saw that 1:09 was left and we had three timeouts, I felt good. I have all the confidence in the world in our two-minute drill."
The game was in his hands.
The final home date of Notre Dame's season was supposed to be a party, a celebration of an unbeaten record and Holtz's big-game coaching. Although Holtz had cautioned that the BC game was more than a "victory lap," nobody paid much attention. The main topic at the tailgate parties was how unfair it was that the bowl coalition might force a Notre Dame-Florida State rematch at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
And what about the chance of an upset by Boston College? Naaah. Last season in South Bend the Irish had undressed an Eagle team that came into the game undefeated and ranked No. 9 in the nation. In intradenominational disputes, Touchdown Jesus always favors the Irish. How else to explain that Notre Dame had never, not in 106 fabled years of football, lost to another Catholic school?
Boston College's loss in South Bend last November was the beginning of a slide in which it dropped three of its next four games, including a 38-23 whipping by Tennessee in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Then the Eagles began this season by losing their first two, 23-7 to Miami and 22-21 to Northwestern. But just when BC fans were beginning to wonder if Coughlin should have accepted the New York Giants' offer last January to become their coach, the Eagles beat Temple 66-14 and began a seven-game winning streak that they would ride into their return bout with the Irish.
During that streak Boston College's offense emerged as one of the most prolific in the nation, averaging 42 points per game. But did a 33-29 win over Syracuse or a 48-34 victory over Virginia Tech mean that the Eagles could play with a Notre Dame team that had whipped Florida State? Yes, thought Foley. "Last year we came in here and thought they were larger than life," he said. "This year it was different. It wasn't going to be enough just to play well. We wanted to win."
The Eagles came out fearlessly and outplayed the Irish on both sides of the ball. The BC offensive line gave Foley terrific protection, allowing no sacks and enabling the quarterback to sort through his options with computerlike precision. And whenever Foley saw the Irish gearing up to stop the passing game, he gave the ball to fullback Darnell Campbell, who pounded out 115 yards on 24 carries.
"We showed a few things that we hadn't shown before," Coughlin said after the game, "passing out of our running formations and running out of our passing formations. Sometimes we'd make things look like they were going one way, then go the other way." The Notre Dame defense was duly confused. "They kept us off balance," said Irish defensive tackle Jim Flanigan. "They ran in odd situations. They found a lot of seams in our defense, and it was tough to find the ball."
BC's defense, for its part, concentrated on containing the Irish running game. The Eagle D was led by outside linebacker Mike Mamula, who had two sacks and two tackles for losses, and inside linebacker Stephen Boyd, who blocked a kick and recovered a fumble. "Until the fourth quarter we had a sense of being under control," said Coughlin. "But then, by virtue of sloppy tackling and some great running by [Irish tailback Lee] Becton, it didn't appear that our defense was as courageous or as committed as it was earlier in the game."
The Irish moved the ball at will in the fourth quarter, especially after Foley's two botched snaps. "My center, Tom Nalen, and I have been together for five years," Foley said. "We've probably taken a million snaps together." So the fumbles had to be fated—the luck of the Irish holding again, right? "I've never seen a team rack up that many yards in seven minutes," Holtz said of the Irish juggernaut that turned a 38-17 deficit into a 39-38 lead.
On the BC sideline, meanwhile, Foley paced in the wintry South Bend twilight, trying to keep his hands warm. The prelude to what will be known forever in Boston as The Drive came when the Irish were tagged with a personal-foul penalty on the kickoff after their final touchdown. That gave the Eagles first-and-10 at their 25, instead of their 10, with just 1:01 to get within field goal range. But Foley was confident because, as he said later, "we'd been moving on them all day."
The game was in his hands.
The Drive began shakily with incomplete passes to Mitchell and wideout Ivan Boyd. The second throw was deflected and nearly intercepted by Irish linebacker Pete Bercich, then almost grabbed by safety Jeff Burris. Finally, on third-and-10, with 47 seconds left, Foley found Mitchell for a first down at the BC 37.
On the next play Foley threw a flare to tailback Anthony Comer in the right flat. Comer went out of bounds after a gain of six, stopping the clock at 0:27. Next, behind excellent protection, Foley stepped up and hit Mitchell at the Notre Dame 33. With 0:18 left, BC called timeout.
The noise from the Irish rooters was deafening, but, Foley would say, "I just blocked 'em out. West Virginia and the [Syracuse Carrier] Dome are tougher places to play." On the next play Burris blitzed up the middle; under pressure, Foley threw the ball away. Now, on second-and-10 with 0:12 left, BC had one play to set up a field goal. Foley took the snap and fired to Boyd on a middle screen. Boyd ran to the 24. Timeout, 0:05 left.
"I thought we had to get it inside the 25," Coughlin said after the game. "When I [saw] the ball was in the middle of the field, I was very confident." Eagle place-kicker David Gordon would attempt the field goal, and Foley would be his holder. The game was still in his hands.
Gordon, a walk-on senior from Avon, Conn., transferred to BC after his freshman year at the University of Vermont, where he had played soccer. "He started out with very poor leg strength," said Coughlin, "but he worked like a dog to become a placekicker." Gordon won the Eagles' kicking job midway through last season, and since then he had been erratic. This year he had made only six of 10 attempts and missed a 40-yard potential game-winner in the loss to Northwestern. The longest field goal of his career was 39 yards. Now, against Notre Dame, he would attempt a kick of 41.
The snap was high, but, Foley said later, "I'm actually kind of used to it. I'd rather it be high than low." The same guy who had mishandled two short snaps from center caught this one and quickly got it down for Gordon, who was well into his kicking motion.
"He's a left-footed kicker, but his ball goes right to left," said Foley. "It started way right of the goalpost. But then I saw it dart back toward the inside."
"A knuckleball," said Gordon. "I don't like to talk about it."
As the ball went through the uprights, Foley leaped up and signaled that it was good. "Then I started running around like an idiot," he said. The players on the BC bench swarmed onto the field while the Irish crowd sat in stunned silence. One of the most dramatic comebacks in Notre Dame history had been ruined by Foley's hands—and, oh, yes, Gordon's foot. "Hey," said Foley, "David Gordon is a good kicker. He's gotten a bad rap, but he deserved to be there."
And Foley deserved to have the game in his hands. Of all the fine quarterbacks Notre Dame has faced this season—guys such as Stanford's Steve Stenstrom and Southern Cal's Rob Johnson and Michigan's Todd Collins—none of them, including probable Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward of Florida State, had riddled the Notre Dame defense quite the way Foley did in passing for 315 yards.
"We got beat, plain and simple," said Notre Dame's All-America offensive tackle, Aaron Taylor. "There's no woulda, coulda, shoulda about it. We were prepared. They were just better."
Because of The Drive, Notre Dame was no longer undefeated, no longer No. 1 and no longer likely to play for the national championship on Jan. 1. On one of the wildest Saturdays of any college football season, three of the Top 5 teams had lost: No. 3 Miami (beaten 17-14 by West Virginia), No. 5 Ohio State (28-0 losers to Michigan) and Notre Dame. And the Irish, who would drop to No. 5 in the bowl coalition poll behind Nebraska, Florida State, West Virginia and Auburn, seemed to have lost the most.
Leaning against a wall outside the BC locker room, Foley wrapped one of his hands around a can of soda and listened as a reporter said that Notre Dame's loss had moved Burris, the Irish safety, to tears. The good-hands man allowed himself the pleasure of a smile. Could he have been thinking about 54-7? "That's a shame," he said. "A damned shame."
After Gordon's climactic kick, the Eagles were elated, the Irish deflated.
Save for two fumbles, Foley (13) was sure-handed in dishing to Campbell (32) and on passes like this 36-yard TD toss to Boyd.
Dawson's touchdown catch was big, but, sadly for the Irish, Gordon's kick was bigger.
[See caption above.]
After two stunning reversals of fortune, it was, in the end, Eagle fans who celebrated.