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Legend of a fall: Holtz, Howard recall '91

9/12/2011

"You are a legend because your team wasn't tough enough to run the ball."

"I'm a legend because your defensive backs weren't coached well enough to stop me."

-- Smack talk between Lou Holtz and Desmond Howard, both members of the College Football Hall of Fame, in advance of a notable anniversary.

Twenty years later, a surprise call and brilliant catch define one of college football's most storied and heated rivalries: Notre Dame vs Michigan.

For Holtz, who is the last man to lead Notre Dame to a national title, and 1991 Heisman winner Howard, a simple phrase -- fourth and inches -- conjures up conflicting emotions.

"Fourth and inches means a huge smile," Howard said.

"Fourth and inches and they throw a fade ... no way!" Holtz countered.

While some younger fans may see the Notre Dame-Michigan matchup and say, "What's the big deal?" the late 80s and early 90s marked the halcyon days for two of college football's winningest programs. Today, Holtz's predilection for hyping his opponent seems completely devoid of false praise when describing the matchups with Michigan: "great, emotional, well-played and almost always two Top-10 teams. Games played with great class and great execution."

Long-time college football play-by-play man Brent Musburger describes the rivalry at the time as, "simply one of the best in all of college football."

To bring the rivalry up to date, if Notre Dame-Michigan were a Twitter feed, the hash tags today would be the same as they've been for decades.

  • #Playlikeachampiontoday

  • #Thosewhostaywillbechampions

  • #HerecometheIrish

  • #Hailtothevictors

  • #TouchdownJesus

  • #MichiganMan

    The 1991 game in Ann Arbor marked the third consecutive matchup with both teams in the Top 10. Notre Dame won the previous two games in notable fashion. In 1989, in a 1-vs-2 showdown at Michigan Stadium, Rocket Ismail stole the show with two kick returns for touchdowns. In the postgame press conference, Bo Schembechler screamed, "Special teams killed us!" as he pounded his fist on the table. Holtz remembers Bo saying: "I will never kick it to Rocket as long as I coach," and added "Bo was all class."

    It was the last time the men coached against one another.

    The legendary "Michigan man" who coined the rally cry "Those who stay will be champions" and who became a fixture in millions of Michiganders' and Midwesterners' lives left the game for health reasons at the end of the year.

    The following season, Notre Dame came into the game ranked No. 1 with Rick Mirer making his first career start in South Bend. Mirer led a comeback that culminated in the game-winning TD with less than two minutes to play.

    Holtz's teams had beaten Michigan four straight times. The lowest ranking for either team in those games was No. 16. The combined margin of victory in the previous three games -- 11 points.

    Holtz, naturally, chalked it up to something that the Irish are known for. "Lucky I guess," he said. "After 1987, we always expected to win. Didn't always win, but we thought we would."

    Musburger called the 1991 game for ABC. "It was very important for the Wolverines to win this game. After all, if you're going to have a rivalry, the rival has to snap back and win one".

    "They were a thorn in our side," Howard said. "I wanted to beat them so bad, I could taste it."

    The third-ranked Wolverines hosted the seventh-ranked Irish on a September day on the new natural-grass turf at the Big House.

    Michigan went up 17-0, stoked by a 29-yard TD on an end-around by Howard. But the Irish stormed back, trailing 17-14 heading into the fourth quarter.

    With 9:02 remaining, the Wolverines faced fourth and inches at the Notre Dame 25-yard line. Gary Moeller, in his second season as head coach at Michigan, called a timeout.

    Howard, who had already been dubbed "The Magic Man," knew he was a serious option.

    "There's no hiding that either I was going to get the ball or (quarterback Elvis Grbac) was going to hand it off, if he saw something else. That was it", Howard said.

    When Grbac, Howard's high school teammate, came to the line, more than 100,000 fans expected a conservative play call.

    "They were in a very tight I-formation. It looked like a power running play, but then that quick pump fake ..." Musburger said.

    Bobby Bowden, Jimmy Johnson, or maybe LaVell Edwards might have had the gumption to call such a play, but this was Michigan -- an uber-conservative offense predicated on strength up front and good backs. The Wolverines defined three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football.

    Even two decades later, Holtz gets heated talking about it. "What in the world are you doing?" he asked. "You got to be kidding me!"

    Grbac floated the ball to the corner, and Howard, in double coverage, laid out to make a spectacular catch. The Big House, which can be especially quiet for the population of a sizable small town, erupted.

    "This is just one of those plays that people recall in college football," Musburger said. "Desmond had to stretch out and make an almost unbelievable catch in the end zone. "

    It took a while for the play to sink in for Howard.

    "It wasn't until after the game that we realized the magnitude of that play," Howard said. "And then, later in that week -- when the Sports Illustrated came out and I was on the cover -- is when it really hit everybody."

    Holtz couldn't believe the call. "Fourth and inches, their offensive line averages over 300 pounds a man and they throw a fade to Desmond into double coverage. We helped them make Desmond a legend."

    Moeller, a long-time Schembechler assistant, doesn't get his due for the play, according to Musburger.

    "Throughout the great rivalry between the Midwest schools, this was one of the great play calls of all time," Musburger said. "Fourth and inches, don't try to get a first down, don't attempt a long field goal, let's go for the touchdown. Man, that took some guts and Moeller made the call."

    Howard appreciated Moeller's gamble in the 24-14 victory.

    "I was just so grateful to coach for giving us the opportunity," Howard said. "He could have just chose to run the ball and everyone in the stands would have been happy, whether we made it or not. It seemed like the logical play in that situation. But he chose to roll the dice, and he gave us the opportunity to do something great, and we capitalized on it."

    While Holtz acknowledges the brilliance of the catch, the moment evokes emotions of a rivalry predicated upon the hatred of losing to a respected, but reviled foe. "I felt from that time on, Michigan lost its Bo Schembechler toughness," he said.

    Years later, the picture of Howard's catch is a staple in many a "Meechigan" fan's office or basement. You can find paintings on eBay and the "Hail, Hail" cover of Sports Illustrated is still featured prominently in the recruiting lounge at Schembechler Hall (home of UM's football facilities). The play is also run, seemingly on a loop, every September when the rivals meet again.

    Twenty years later, as a man who gets paid to analyze the game that made him famous, Howard says: "That play never gets old. I could never get tired talking about that play. To be able to contribute the way I did and leave lasting plays, I don't really think there are words to describe just how special and significant that is."

    Significant enough, in the Midwest at least, to make Howard a legend.

    Scott Turken is a producer with ESPN's Production Migration unit, which powers the video on ESPN's local sites. Send feedback to scott.turken@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter @Turk0219.