In mid-May, Irish Eyes began a series featuring the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last five eras.
We continue that look back with our first installment of the Lou Holtz Era – an 11-season span that will be broken down into two parts: The Reclamation and Championship Era of 1986-1990 and the Reload and Near Miss Era of 1991-1996.
Today’s edition: The Offensive Backfield stars of 1991-1996
Quarterback Kevin McDougal (1993)
His 1993 statistics: 1,626 all purpose yards, 11 total touchdowns (vs. just 4 interceptions) are strong but unspectacular, though his career accuracy and care of the football does rank him first all-time in terms of passing efficiency at the University (Brady Quinn is a distant second).
Kevin McDougal had just one season to lead the Irish offense after serving a three-year apprenticeship behind Rick Mirer. He was originally slated to be replaced late in fall camp by true freshman Ron Powlus (Powlus, McDougal was informed by Lou Holtz, had a distinct advantage entering the final scrimmage of the pre-season).
McDougal’s (now famous) reaction when informed by Holtz of the news: “I think I'm the quarterback that can lead Notre Dame to a national championship this year.”
Holtz, as you might expect, later admitted this witticism: “I thought, 'My goodness gracious. You can't even get us a first down.’”
But Powlus suffered a broken collarbone shortly thereafter, and McDougal was thrust into the role of starter. Luckily for the Irish he was already a leader.
Over the first 11 weeks of the season McDougal, with a 61 percent completion rate for the season, led the (for once) underrated Irish to ten consecutive wins including victories at No. 3 Michigan and over No. 1 Florida State.
In the season’s lone blemish, a 41-39 season-ending loss to No. 16 Boston College, McDougal rallied the Irish from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit, finishing 18-28 for 262 yards and two touchdowns, including the 4th-down game tying touchdown pass to fellow senior Lake Dawson with just over one minute remaining.
McDougal at his best in 1993: For one early September game, McDougal was asked not to manage the game offensively but to win it. Dateline: Ann Arbor and a matchup between No. 11 Notre Dame (the Irish dropped four spots in the polls after an “unimpressive” 15-point win in Week One) and No. 3 Michigan, winners of 20 consecutive regular-season games. The Wolverines entered as 9-point favorites and national title contenders. McDougal put a rest to both fallacies, displaying one of the most complete dual-threat quarterbacking efforts in team history in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a college football game (at the time).
The lightly regarded senior carried nine times for 83 yards and two touchdowns, including a shocking 43-yard option-keeper for the game’s first score. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 208 yards and no interceptions. Ten of McDougal’s completions resulted in Irish first downs.
Holtz later admitted, “I told the quarterbacks, ‘We're going to make Kevin McDougal look like all-world this week.’”
An Irish team that boasted a stout, NFL-laden defense and offensive line now had a playmaker and leader at the quarterback position. Unfortunately, one incredible offensive performance by an opponent, a wobbly kick, and curious voting still separates McDougal and the 1993 Irish from program immortality.
Also Considered – Rick Mirer (1992): Mirer completed 120-234 passes for 1,876 yards and 15 touchdowns (6 picks). He added 158 yards rushing and two touchdowns for a run-heavy Irish offense. Mirer led a final-drive comeback win over Penn State on Senior Day that culminated in a 4-yard TD pass to FB Jerome Bettis followed by a two-point conversion scramble pass to TB Reggie Brooks (highlighted below) for a 17-16 Irish victory. Mirer added two TD passes in a 28-3 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M for the 10-1-1 Irish.
- Rick Mirer (1991): Completed 132 of 234 passes for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns (10 interceptions). Carried the ball 75 times for 306 yards (4.1 average) and nine touchdowns in a pseudo-option attack. Two late season meltdowns and a 10-3 mark drop Mirer's '91 season a notch below those listed above.
- Rick Mirer (1990): Completed 110 of 200 passes, for 1,824 yards and eight touchdowns (six interceptions). Added 198 yards rushing (2.0 average) and six touchdowns for the 9-3 Irish who finished a called-back punt return touchdown away from (at least) a split National Championship.
Tailback Reggie Brooks (1992)
If there was one starting spot entering the 1992 season that gave Irish fans pause it was tailback – a position that had been ably manned (either at halfback or tailback) since Eric Penick burst on the scene in 1972. The Irish offense had the nation’s best fullback in Jerome Bettis, a top tier starting quarterback and a veteran offensive line, including future first round draft pick, tight end Irv Smith. It was unacceptable to many that Notre Dame, a run-heavy offense, would enter a season without a proven commodity at its featured position.
Reggie Brooks was named the starter entering ’92 (over sophomore Lee Becton and junior Willie Clark) after three seasons serving mainly as a depth chart body at both tailback and cornerback. Aside from paying his dues and intercepting an Elvis Grbac pass to seal a 1990 under-the-lights victory over Michigan, Reggie Brooks’ claim to fame was his older brother Tony, star running back from ’87-’91.
By season’s end, however, Reggie’s claim to fame would be the greatest single season rushing effort since (you choose: Vagas Ferguson in 1979 with 1,437 yards on a whopping 301 carries, or George Gipp’s 1920 season in which he set the team record with 8.1 yards per carry). Brooks exploded in ’92, finishing with 1,343 yards (the third highest total in team history behind Ferguson and Allen Pinkett) and 8.0 yards-per-carry (second only to Gipp). Brooks produced a team-high 13 rushing touchdowns, added another through the air; and posted one of the greatest single-game rushing efforts in team history (at USC, no less) with 19 carries for 232 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-23 season-ending victory.
After announcing his presence in the season-opener at Northwestern with (an obscene) 9-carry, 157-yard performance, Brooks would go on to either score a touchdown or top the 100-yard barrier in nine of the team’s final 11 games including the Cotton Bowl destruction of Texas A&M (the nation’s fourth-ranked rushing defense).
Two 200-yard games; two more in excess of 150; two separate three-touchdown efforts…and that doesn’t begin to explain Brook’s impact on the 1992 season (see below).
Brooks at his best in 1992: Most players receive one highlighted play or single contest in this section. Brooks demands two: This sublime touchdown run in the 17-17 tie vs. Michigan (highlight No. 1 below); and of course, the game-winning, diving, two-point conversion reception in the Snow Bowl vs. Penn State (highlight No. 2). Brooks had just one reception on the season prior to the game-winner vs. Penn State.
- Lee Becton (1993): 164 carries for 1,044 yards (6.4 average) and six touchdowns. 12 receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown for the 11-1 Irish. 138 additional yards rushing in the 24-21 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M.
- Autry Denson (1996): 202 carries for 1,229 yards (5.8 average) and eight touchdowns. 11 receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns. 18 punt returns (10.9 average) and a touchdown. (No bowl appearance by the 8-3 Irish).
- Tony Brooks (1991): 147 carries for 894 yards (6.1 average) and five touchdowns. An additional 13 carries for 68 yards in the 39-28 Sugar Bowl win over Florida.
- Randy Kinder (1995): 143 carries for 809 yards (5.7 average) and nine touchdowns. Eight receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown. Suspended for the Fiesta Bowl (31-26 loss to Florida State).
Fullback Jerome Bettis (1991)
Bettis and the Irish produced more shining team moments in his junior season of 1992, but its hard to argue against The Bus’s sophomore year as the best of his Irish career.
Bettis set the school’s single-season touchdown mark, finishing with 16 rushing and four receiving touchdowns (while adding three more in the Sugar Bowl victory). He tallied 972 yards on 168 carries (5.8 average) and added 17 receptions for 190 yards (11.2 per-catch). His 20 touchdowns and 120 points both stand as school records. Bettis was the driving force behind an Irish rushing attack that produced 269 yards per game and 37 (rushing) touchdowns – the second highest total of the Holtz Era (behind the ’89 team’s 42 rushing scores). Bettis failed to hit pay-dirt in just two contests (a 49-28 season-opening victory over IU and a 49-10 destruction of Michigan State) while scoring multiple touchdowns vs. Purdue, Stanford, Pittsburgh, Air Force, USC, Navy (a sixe-game mid-season stretch), Hawaii and Florida.
Bettis helped pave the way as a blocker for 1,444 combined yards and seven touchdowns from starting tailbacks Tony Brooks and Rodney Culver and nine more rushing scores via the option from quarterback Rick Mirer, with whom he was honored as the team’s most valuable player. Bettis was named to five post-season All American teams, including a first-team honor from Football News and was named the player of the game vs. Stanford (25 touches for 179 yards and four rushing/receiving touchdowns); USC (24 carries for 178 yards and two touchdowns) and Florida (16 attempts totaling 150 yards and three scores). A true fullback at the time, Bettis lost just five total yards over the 13-game season as a ball carrier.
Bettis at his best in 1991: Other than Joe Montana, Chicken Soup, and the 1979 Cotton Bowl, Jerome Bettis’ three touchdown performance in an upset win over No. 3 Florida ranks as the most famous Bowl Game performance in Irish history. Bettis scored each of his three touchdowns in the deciding fourth quarter on runs of 3, 49, and 39 yards. He finished the contest with 16 carries for 150 yards in the 39-28 Irish win.
Also Considered – Jerome Bettis 1992: 154 carries for 825 yards (5.4 average) and 10 touchdowns. 15 receptions for 239 yards and two touchdowns. Added 20 carries for 75 yards and two rushing touchdowns and a 26-yard touchdown reception in the 28-3 Cotton Bowl win against Texas A&M.
- Marc Edwards (1995): 140 carries for 717 yards (5.1 average) and nine touchdowns; 25 receptions for 361 yards and three touchdowns.
- Ray Zellars (1993): 99 carries for 494 yards (5.0 average) and five touchdowns. 14 receptions for 109 yards and three scores. Zellars added a TD run in the 24-21 Cotton Bowl victory over A&M.
- Note for the avid fan: Irish great Rodney Culver and his 1990 season will be featured as a fullback in the first Holtz Era segment.