Raghib Ismail, Craig Hentrich and a deceptive Notre Dame defense ended Miami's dream of defending college football's national championship.
Ismail returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, rushed for 100 yards on 13 carries and finished with 268 all-purpose yards to lead the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish to a 29-20 victory over the No. 2 Hurricanes."What can you say about Rocket? He's the best football player in the country," Fighting Irish Coach Lou Holtz said of Ismail. "Rocket was tremendous."
Hentrich kicked a Notre Dame-record five field goals and the Fighting Irish forced three Miami turnovers, two in the fourth quarter. But the key was a Notre Dame rushing game that overwhelmed a Miami defense ranked second in the nation against the run.
Miami had allowed 62 yards rushing a game, but Notre Dame rolled up 276 yards despite Ismail needing intravenous treatment for dehydration at halftime.
"This was a players victory, a team effort," Holtz said. "It all came together. It's a game our players will remember for the rest of their lives. I'll remember it for the rest of my life."
Ismail, a junior, scored the fifth and longest kick-return touchdown of his career with 1:30 remaining in the first quarter. Ismail stumbled as he caught the ball at the 6-yard line, then rushed straight upfield 20 yards before veering left and running the sideline untouched to tie the game 10-10.
"What can you say about Rocket Ismail?" Miami Coach Dennis Erickson said. "You plan against that and work all week to prevent that and suddenly you get into the game, there's a hole and he's gone."
The Fighting Irish remain in the national title race at 5-1, but the Hurricanes tumbled to 4-2. No team with two losses has won the national championship.
"When you focus on a national championship and now you're out of it, you have to sit down and talk about where you're going," Erickson said. "You can still win nine games and go to an outstanding bowl game. We've got to bounce back."
Carlos Huerta's 25-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter pulled Miami within 22-20, but turnovers killed the final two Hurricane drives.
A hurried throw by Craig Erickson was intercepted by Todd Lyght and sparked a 77-yard Irish touchdown drive, capped by a 21-yard screen pass from Rick Mirer to Rodney Culver with 6:16 to play.
"Miami has a great offensive team," Holtz said. "To hold them to three points in the second half is rather incredible."
Mike Stonebreaker recovered a Leonard Conley fumble with 4:44 remaining to end Miami's last threat.
"You just don't make the mistakes we made in the second half and expect to beat Notre Dame," Dennis Erickson said. "We didn't execute when we had to. Not to take away from their defense, but we hurt ourselves more than anything. We just couldn't get any points on the board in the second half. They played defense much better than they have all season."
The Fighting Irish waited until the second half before using many of the plays they developed to challenge the Miami offense.
"We put in more blitzes and man-to-man coverage in the second half," Stonebreaker said. "We held off putting in a lot of things we had practiced until the second half so Miami could make adjustments and still not know what we would do."
Hentrich kicked field goals of 25, 34, 35, 35 and 44 yards, the longest tying a career best for the sophomore. Both 35-yard efforts came in the third quarter and gave the Fighting Irish a 22-17 lead. One-yard runs by Craig Erickson and Steve McGuire and a 23-yard Huerta field goal gave Miami a 17-16 halftime edge.
Representatives of the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Citrus, Cotton, Gator, Hall of Fame, Blockbuster and Holiday bowls watched the final scheduled game in the emotional rivalry.