Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What if Joel Williams' TD had counted in 1986? | by Jeff

The situation:

It's 1986, and the opening game of the Lou Holtz era, versus Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium. A talented ND team led by quarterback Steve Beuerlein, receiver Tim Brown, defensive tackle Wally Klein, and defensive end Cedric Figaro is trailing the Wolverines 24-20 at the start of the 4th quarter. Beuerlein tosses a pass to the tight end, Joel Williams, at the back of the end zone. From the replays (and to most everyone in the house except the line judge), he is clearly in bounds, but the official rules him out. Michigan goes on to win the game, 24-23.

Holtz and Michigan coach Bo Schembechler traded quips about the call after the game:
"Even the Michigan ballboy said the ball was caught inbounds," Holtz said. "I've always believed Michigan runs an honest school."

"If they make that call in Notre Dame Stadium," Schembechler said, "he was obviously out."

What if...
the officials had made the right call, and awarded ND the touchdown?

First of all, it is very likely that ND would have held on to win the game. Even without the TD, John Carney kicked a field goal to cut the margin to 24-23, but Carney missed a 45 yard FG with 18 seconds left that would have all but guaranteed an Irish victory. The Irish outplayed Michigan during the game but shot themselves in the foot, never punting but coughing up the ball three times inside the Michigan 15 yard line. With one more break, ND would very likely have won the game.

But what about the impact of winning the home opener for the rest of the season? The '86 Irish were a very talented team, but they didn't really learn how to win until their final game of the season at Southern Cal. The Michigan loss was deflating, and set the tone for a season full of disappointment. The team was soundly defeated by Alabama, and dropped five other nip-and-tuck games by a total of 14 points.

1986 Fighting Irish
W/L/T Score Opponent Rank
L 23-24 MICHIGAN 3
L 15-20 @ MSU NR
L 10-28 @ ALABAMA 2
W 33-14 @ NAVY NR
W 61-29 SMU
L 19-24 PENN STATE 3
L 19-21 @ LSU 8
W 38-37 @ USC 17
It is not hard to speculate on the impact a Michigan win would have had on the team. Indeed, Holtz was later quoted as saying, "Instead of looking at it like, 'Hey, we can do something, we proved that against Michigan,' it was like, 'This is going to be our plight in life.' " A win over Michigan could have propelled the Irish to erase two or three of the other losses that season:
  • @ Michigan State, Loss, 15-20
  • vs Pitt, Loss, 9-10
  • vs Penn State, Loss, 19-24
  • @ LSU, Loss, 19-21
So, what if ND had knocked off Michigan? Let's speculate for a moment. After the big opening win, the Irish come out strong in their road opener at Michigan State, and go on to beat Purdue the following week. Up next is undefeated Alabama, ranked #2 in the country, and the Irish fight hard but still lose. Deflated, they also lose to Pitt. Three straight wins over Air Force, Navy, and SMU rally ND to a 6-2 record going into their home matchup with #3 Penn State. A strong effort rallies the Irish past the Nittany Lions, knocking them from the national title hunt. The Irish then struggle the following week at LSU, but defeat the Trojans at the Coliseum to finish the season at 9-3. Instead of being invited to (and declining) a trip to the Liberty Bowl, as the actual 5-6 team did, this Irish squad gets a nice bowl date and possibly extends its record to 10-3.

At the end of the day, this scenario doesn't mean a lot in the history of ND. Holtz went on to an 8-4 season in '87 and a 12-0 National Championship in '88 followed by a 12-1 campaign in '89. Replacing a few wins with losses in his first year would likely have had little impact on Holtz's career or reputation.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.However, one alternate scenario above would have had a huge impact on the National Championship picture in '86. The Miami-Penn State Fiesta Bowl matchup for the national championship was not only the first ever matchup of two independents for the national championship, it was highest rated bowl game since network deregulation. The game was the definition of contrast: the flashy, brash, fatigue-wearing Hurricanes cast as the nouveau riche of college football facing off against the ultra-traditional, plain-uniformed, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Nittany Lions of Penn State. It was this exciting game that turned the Fiesta Bowl into a major bowl.

Knocking off Penn State would have sent the Miami Hurricanes to the Orange Bowl at the end of the season to face off with Oklahoma, erasing one of the more memorable bowl games in NCAA history.

One bad call reversed, maybe, just maybe, would have stolen the crown that year.