1992 Sugar Bowl Notre Dame vs. Florida: The Cheerios Game

Cereal in the evening might be an acquired taste for some but that concept helped fuel the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 1992 Sugar Bowl. The Irish’s 39-28 upset win over the Florida Gators allowed the Irish to end with a 10-3 record and helped silence the many Notre Dame detractors over their presence in the game.

The 1991 edition of the Irish had spent a good portion of that season in strong contention for the national title. After winning eight of their first nine games, those championship dreams died for Notre Dame after consecutive losses to Tennessee and Penn State. That late-season fade saw the Irish defense allow an average of 37 points in their final three regular-season contests, which dropped them to 18th in the polls.

Despite the plunge, Notre Dame was still chosen to face the Gators and quickly found themselves as nearly seven-point underdogs. That status was based in part on the Irish defense allowing an average of 37 points in their final three regular-season contests. It also led to a stinging joke which indicated in effect that the difference between the Irish and Cheerios was that the cereal belonged in a bowl.

The Coaches: Holtz vs. Spurrier

Lou Holtz was finishing his sixth season at Notre Dame and held a 55-17 record entering this game. He had led the Irish to the 1988 national championship but then split a pair of Orange Bowl appearances over the next seasons. For this game, Holtz had the added challenge of working without defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Gary Darnell, who had bolted for Texas.

Steve Spurrier was only in his second season at the helm for the Gators, having already racked up a 19-3 mark at the school before this game. Florida’s two most impressive wins during its 1991 regular season were home victories over Tennessee and in-state rival Florida State.

The Key Players: Jerome Bettis and Reggie Brooks Pace Irish

Rick Mirer was in his second season as the Irish starting quarterback and ended up throwing for over 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns. His main target was wide receiver Tony Smith, who had 42 catches on the year. However, his reliance on the running back duo of Jerome Bettis and Reggie Brooks led to over 1,800 yards gained on the ground, with Bettis finding the end zone 16 times.

Florida quarterback Shane Matthews teamed with wideouts Willie Jackson and Harrison Houston for a combined 84 receptions and 18 of his 28 scoring tosses. However, running back Errict Rhett was a force by himself by rushing for over 1100 yards and catching 40 passes. The Gator defense had given up less than 13 points per game during the regular season and was led by defensive tackle Brad Culpepper.

The Game: The Bus runs over and through Gator defense

Holtz had Notre Dame decked out with green numbers on their white jerseys and green socks, the first time any green had adorned an Irish jersey during his tenure. Yet, any such luck from that wardrobe was absent during the first quarter as Florida jumped out to an early 10-0 advantage. Those struggles no doubt put smiles on any Notre Dame detractors watching.

The Gators then made it 13-0 in the second quarter on the second of five field goals by Arden Czyzewski that followed a 14-play drive. At that point, the Irish finally got on the scoreboard as Mirer needed just five plays to march 64 yards, finding a sprinting Lake Dawson down the right sidelines for the last 40 to make it 13-7. Czyzewski added another three-pointer before the half ended to put Notre Dame down nine at the break.

When play resumed, the Irish had the ball and again put together a 64-yard scoring drive. They needed just under five minutes to put together a 12-play drive that ended with a Kevin Pendergast 23-yard field goal to make it 16-10 in favor of the Gators.

Midway through the third quarter, Notre Dame got the ball back and put together a 14-play, 80-yard drive that gave them their first lead of the game. The Irish appeared ready to settle for another field goal as the drive stalled. However, Mirer found Tony Smith on third down and after moving the chains, Mirer connected with Irv Smith on a four-yard touchdown pass.

That tally set the stage for a wild finish, with the two teams combining for 34 points in the final period. The Gators struck first on a pair of Czyzewski field goals in the first four minutes to give Florida a 22-17 lead. Then came a Bettis scoring explosion in which The Bus found the end zone three times to salt the victory away.

The first of Bettis’ scores came during a time-consuming 14-play drive, with the big back pushing it in from three yards out. That made it 25-22 in favor of Notre Dame, which then stopped Florida at their own 49 with 3:43 left. On the first play of the drive, Bettis romped that 49-yard distance to boost the Irish lead to 10 points at 32-22.

A desperate 64-yard scoring drive by the Gators required just over a minute to make the score 32-28, with a two-point attempt coming up short. Any thoughts of a dramatic comeback by Florida ended after just four plays. That’s when Bettis again broke off another run, this time going for 39 yards to cement the Notre Dame victory with two minutes left. A key block on the play came from fellow back Ryan Mihalko.

The Aftermath

Knocking off the Gators resulted in an ascent of five spots in the final poll for the Irish, with Holtz taking time to note the Cheerios insult in his postgame comments. Before the game, Florida harbored slim hopes of capturing the national title. However, the defeat, coupled with the Miami Hurricanes’ 22-0 shutout of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl quickly shot down that dream.

More than three decades have passed since that thrilling upset, with the Irish only returning to the Big Easy once since that time. That took place on Jan. 3, 2007, when they fell to the LSU Tigers in a forgettable 42-14 defeat. In contrast, Florida has played in six Sugar Bowls since then, with the January 1997 victory helping capture the school’s only national title under Spurrier.

This particular victory serves as yet another example of the power of motivation that’s derived from insulting perceptions about a team. Regardless of whether the comparison is cereal or something else, simply focusing on the game seems to be the best course of action.

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