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Irish in the Right Places at the Right Times, 34-29 : Notre Dame: Seniors step forward in beating Tennessee. Smith's interception near goal line thwarts comeback.

November 11, 1990|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Neyland Stadium scoreboard flashed the obvious: No. 1-ranked Notre Dame 34, No. 9-rated Tennessee 29.

But those are numbers, not reasons. What the lights couldn't do was detail the moments--all significant, some not obviously so--that preceded the Irish victory.

Take last week. Little-used cornerback Rod Smith, exiled to the bench after the season opener against Michigan, noticed Coach Lou Holtz watching a hand-held television as the team bus left Giants Stadium after the Irish's lackluster win over Navy.

"Any scores, Coach?" Smith said.

Holtz turned around and quickly forgot about the postgame shows.

"Rod Smith--just the man I wanted to see," Holtz said.

Holtz told Smith that another week's worth of good practice sessions would earn him a starting assignment against Tennessee.

"Yes, sir," answered Smith, who floated back to his seat.

On Saturday, Smith intercepted a last-minute pass at the Irish two-yard line that sealed Notre Dame's victory.

"I wasn't really supposed to be in that position," he said.

As if Holtz cared.

And what about tailback Ricky Watters, seemingly banished after fumbling balls away to Stanford and Miami?

So low was Watters that flanker/tailback Raghib (Rocket) Ismail offered a pep talk. "Things will come around," Ismail said that day. "It will come back to you."

Little moments.

A week ago, Holtz had told his seniors that they alone would determine the fate of this team. Watters, a fourth-year guy, didn't know if that meant a return to the starting lineup.

Now he does, as do the Volunteers and a sellout audience of 97,123, who saw Watters leave cleat marks on undersized defenders. He ran for 174 yards, including a 66-yard dash that saw the field littered with three would-be Tennessee tacklers. In all, Notre Dame gained 316 rushing yards.

"Earlier in the season, I was trying too hard," Watters said. "Thing was, I was hurting this team. (Today) I just said, 'I'm not going to stop.' "

Evidence? Watters averaged 10.2 yards per carry.

Then there is nose tackle Chris Zorich, who limped around the Notre Dame campus last week. A partially dislocated right kneecap was to blame.

Zorich, a senior and captain, was sidelined against Navy, but he had no intention of missing the game against Tennessee.

First he had to convince Holtz, who granted Zorich's wish to play after watching him in pregame warmups. Zorich, who played every other series, recorded only one tackle. But it was the thought that mattered.

"Every time I put my right foot down I was in pain," he said.

Asked to measure his playing capacity, Zorich didn't hesitate.

"About 5%," he said.

Notre Dame's much-maligned defense played better when Zorich was on the field. And Zorich, along with linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, administered the sideline fire-and-brimstone lecture to his teammates when there were hints of a premature celebration.

"We were very upset," said Zorich. "This was for everything. But everybody was unbuckling their chinstraps."

Not for long, they weren't. Shortly after Ismail's 44-yard touchdown run put Notre Dame ahead, 34-23, with 3:33 remaining, Tennessee staged a frenzied comeback.

It started with a 10-play drive that began at the Volunteer 32-yard line and ended with quarterback Andy Kelly finding wingback Alvin Harper open in the end zone. The defender? Rod Smith.

"He got fooled a couple of times," Stonebreaker said.

Kelly, who completed 35 of 60 passes for 399 yards, a Tennessee record, then tried for the two-point conversion. His pass to Vince Moore failed.

An onside kick came next. Notre Dame sent out its "hands" team, made up mostly of receivers and defensive backs. Tennessee hoped for a minor miracle.

It got one when the ball took a hard, unpredictable bounce and was recovered by Tennessee's Carl Pickens at the Volunteer 46.

Five plays later, with about 50 seconds left to play, Tennessee had first and 10 at the Notre Dame 20. Kelly dropped back, looked for Harper, who already had caught two touchdown passes, and threw. Harper was open--or so it appeared. But the ball was slightly underthrown, Smith intercepting.

"If I had gotten the ball a little higher, (Harper) would have scored," Kelly said. "But there's no question that the defensive man made a good play breaking on the ball."

After the game, Orange Bowl officials scurried to the Notre Dame locker room and extended yet another unofficial invitation. Colorado, which will probably be ranked second after this week's poll, awaits.

The Irish (8-1) said they would need to sleep on it.

"It's up to them to say yes or no," said Arthur H. Hertz, Orange Bowl president. "But when you're No. 1 and driving the bus, you can drive it any way you want."

Which is bowl-speak for: Notre Dame still might be considering a trip to the Sugar or Cotton Bowl. Doubtful, but slightly possible. Also, the Fiesta beckons.

Tennessee dropped to 5-2-2 but remained in the chase for the Southeastern Conference championship and a Sugar or Fiesta Bowl appearance. Compared to the national championship that the Irish pursue, it isn't much consolation.

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