Saturday, April 21, 2007

T. Nice | by Jay

A little bit on the other Blue-Gold captain. I was a freshman in 1988, and for me, Tony Rice simply defined Notre Dame football at the time.

Was there ever a better fit between coach and quarterback than Tony Rice and Lou Holtz? It was a near-perfect melding of coach, scheme, and skills, with Rice as the motor that powered Holtz's vaunted option attack. In this era of aerial assaults by ND quarterbacks, it's funny to think that in Rice's time, fifteen passes a game were considered a lot. (In the Fiesta Bowl win for the National Championship, for example, Rice was 7-11 for 213 yards and two touchdowns). But any great quarterback, whether option- or pro-style, is above all a great decision maker, and Rice was one of the very best at knowing when to pitch it and when to tuck it and run. When the Irish got inside the 30 yard line, there was simply no doubt they would score, and it was largely due to Rice. He'd hand it off to AJ or Culver up the middle, or stretch it to the sideline and pitch it to Watters or Brooks or Green, or sprint off tackle and take it in himself, or fake the option, pull back, and lob one to Derek Brown at the back of the end zone. He was so much fun to watch.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.His 65-yard keeper for a score against Southern Cal in 1988 (highlight above) was perhaps the quintessential Tony Rice play: #1 versus #2 in the Coliseum, last game of the regular season, a National Championship season on the line. Rice takes the snap and dashes left on the option. Mark Green is the pitch man, mirroring Rice step for step on the outside. The USC defensive back comes flying up, and for a fleeting moment there's a perfect triangle between the quarterback, the running back, and the defender. Rice does a subtle shoulder dip -- is he about to pitch it? -- and then he's gone, the Trojan defender having bitten on the fake, and Rice sprintng sixty-five yards down the sideline for the score. Beautiful.

A few random facts from the '90 media guide on the other Blue-Gold captain today, Tony Rice:

• His three year record as a starter at ND was 28-3. (And those three losses are more than he ever lost in high school. During his four years at Woodruff high, he lost only two games - both in the state championship.)
• He engineered a 23-game win streak as a starter, which included wins over seven Top 10 teams and twelve bowl teams. That's the longest win streak for a quarterback in Irish history.
• During his tenure he beat:

'87 Alabama (#10)
'88 Michigan (#9)
'88 Miami (#1)
'88 Southern Cal (#2) -- ND ranked #1
'88 West Virginia (#3) -- ND ranked #1
'89 Michigan (#2) -- ND ranked #1
'89 Air Force (#17)
'89 Southern Cal (#9)
'89 Pitt (#7)
'89 Penn State (#17)
'89 Colorado (#1)
(From the end of 88 to the beginning of 89, Rice and the Irish beat #2, #3 and #2 in a stretch of 4 games. Crazy.)

• Won the Johnny Unitas "Golden Arm" Award in 1989 (which is sort of funny, if you think about it)
• Finished 4th in the Heisman voting in 1989
• Holds the record for season rushing yards by a QB (884 in 1989) and career rushing yards by a QB (1,921)
• Won a National Championship in 1988, beating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

Rice's career at ND was birthed in controversy; he was the first ND athlete to fall victim to Proposition 48, and had to sit out his freshman year due to poor testing grades. But he worked overtime in summer school to gain his eligibility back, and eventually graduated Notre Dame with a degree in psychology.

The option, of course, was his bread and butter, and nobody ran it with better instincts and talent than Rice. He was the first QB to lead Notre Dame in rushing since Paul Hornung did it in his Heisman year of 1956. But despite dazzling with the option, Rice always had a little trouble in the passing game, although he improved remarkably during his time as a signal caller. On his very first snap in college, coming in for the injured Terry Andrysiak midway through a game against Pitt, he lined up over the guard instead of the center. He completed only 42% of his passes his sophomore year. Holtz had him throw darts in between starts to improve his accuracy, and he got that completion rate up to 50% his junior year. But he seemed to hit the big pass when he needed it: long passes against Miami in '88 to set up touchdowns; a bomb to the Rocket from his own end zone against USC in '88; going 7-11 in the Fiesta Bowl against West Virginia.
"He proved it when he had to, in prime time," said flanker Ricky Watters, who grabbed a 57-yard bomb from Rice to set up an Irish touchdown. "Bottom line, he's a winner."

"I'm glad we didn't have to play against Tony Rice," Irish safety George Streeter said. "That would be a really big challenge."

Rice had his best statistical performance in a Notre Dame uniform. He hit 7 of 11 throws for 213 yards and two touchdowns. He also had an interception. The 21-year-old junior from South Carolina also ran for a game- high 75 yards. [Major] Harris, by comparison, hit 13 of 26 for 166 yards and a touchdown and ran for 42 yards. He also had an interception.

In the process, Rice made a believer out of coach Lou Holtz, who had doubted Rice's passing ability all fall. "He's just gotten better and better," Holtz said. "I did say (last week) that he's throwing the ball better this week than I've ever seen him."

Rice's biggest pass was a 47-yard strike over the middle to freshman tight end Derek Brown, who was caught from behind at the Mountaineer 5-yard line. The Irish had worked all week on exploiting that weakness in the heart of the West Virginia defense. Notre Dame scored on the next play to take a 16- point lead and deflate the No. 3 Mountaineers. "Our offensive team can score against anybody," Rice said.

The main reason was Rice. He was deadly on the option, as he had been all season. But his passing was a vast improvement over his 5 for 20 in the season's first two games.
Going into his senior season Rice was a legitimate Heisman candidate; even Bo Schembechler called him "the most dangerous quarterback in the country." From a Chicago Tribune article at the time:
This year, Rice not only finds himself to be a highly regarded candidate for the Heisman but he's also found peace of mind. "Last year, he had something to prove. This year, he wants to get better," says Holtz. "I see a more mature Tony Rice, a more confident Tony Rice. His knowledge of football has improved as much as any individual I have ever seen. We've really come to appreciate him as an exceptionally fine quarterback."

Rice was keenly aware of his critics last year and is clearly tired of them now. "I don't have anything to prove to anybody," he says with a characteristic wide smile that takes the sting out of the message. "There's always going to be so many people out there who say I can't pass. "I can't do what they are going to say I can't do. Let it be like that. I'll go and prove things to myself and just have fun on the field and do what counts for the team. "If I pass five times and we win, that's fine with me. "
Rice finished out his career at ND in fine form; the Irish went 11-1, with only a heartbreaking loss in Miami preventing the Irish from capturing their second consectuive National Championship. Rice placed fourth in the Heisman voting. ND went on to play #1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl, beating them 21-6.

A couple other BGSers were in school while Rice was there...

Jeff: I knew Rice fairly well (all of the South Carolina kids knew each other). One of the reasons I'm really looking forward to the BG game this weekend is to say hello.

He was really known for his leadership and his demeanor. He used to crack jokes in the huddle to lighten the mood during tense situations. After the '88 Miami game, he laughed that he had to come to the sideline to wipe off "a big gob of spit of my forehead" and none of it seemed to faze him. Holtz also tells a story of Rice on the sidelines after an opponent had rallied back to take the lead late in the game. Before putting on his helmet to take the field, Rice smiled at Holtz and said, "Good game, huh coach?"

Sean: So many great T. Rice moments.

1988, Miami game. One of the best shots of the day was Tony Rice calmly raising his arms in victory after taking the knee to run out the clock.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.1988, USC game. I remember sitting in the upper reaches of one of the end zones at the Coliseum. Irish ball on their own 35 yard line at the far end of the field, and Tony Rice takes the snap, breaks to the outside. He's into the secondary, and -- HOLY SHIT, he's coming right at us! He... could... go... all... well, you get the idea.

1989, USC game. ND down 24-21 with only a few minutes left. Undeafeted season on the line. Tony Rice calmly marches the team down the field, culminating with an option left from about 15 yards out where he crossed the goal line with a USC defender hanging onto his ankle for the last three yards.

Three (!) Sports Illustrated covers in about a ten week span in 1988 (post-Miami, post-USC, post-Fiesta Bowl). Has anyone (not named Jordan) ever done that?

Off the field, Rice was quite simply the definition of the BMOC, only without all of the ego that usually goes along with that "title". In the few times I was around him, he was the same charismatic, upbeat guy whether he was hanging out with his teammates or whether he was hanging out with other students. Just a really good guy. On a campus that he shared with many future NFL draft picks and even a few NBA draft picks, Tony Rice was, undoubtedly, THE MAN. If you don't believe it, just ask any of the football and basketball players who were there the same time as him.

And in a little known fact that you won't find on Wikipedia or any Notre Dame history books, Tony Rice bought me the shot that put me down for the count on my 21st birthday. CJ's Pub, January 1990. I'm sure he had no idea who I was, just some soon-to-be-deathly-ill loser who was standing in a booth at CJ's. I like to think he did it out of the goodness of his heart. That was Tony Rice: always better instincts and judgment than anyone else on the field.