Notre Dame vs. BYU 1992: Lou Holtz’s Headlock

In their first-ever meeting, Notre Dame defeated BYU 42-16, highlighted by Coach Lou Holtz's on-field outburst.

Garbage time in any football game usually won’t create any memorable moments that are still remembered decades later. That wasn’t the case for Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Lou Holtz on October 24, 1992. It was on that date that he offered up an animated way to express his displeasure with the game’s officials.

In the first-ever meeting between the Irish and the visiting BYU Cougars, 10th-ranked Notre Dame improved its record to 5-1-1 on the season with a 42-16 pounding of the Cougars, who entered the game with a mediocre 4-3 mark, The end result wasn’t a surprise since the Irish entered the game as 20-point favorites.

The Coaches: Clash of Titans – Holtz vs. Edwards

Lou Holtz was in the middle of his seventh season in charge of the Irish program. During the 1988 and 1989 seasons, Notre Dame captured its 11th national title and then finished second, respectively. After the Irish went 19-6 the next two years, Holtz was hoping to be in contention for another title by the time the season ended.

When LaVell Edwards took over the BYU program in 1972, he arrived at a school that was an afterthought in college football circles. By the time he left after the 2000 season, he had created a high-powered offense that regularly sent quarterbacks to the NFL and led his teams to 257 wins. The pinnacle of that success came in 1984 when the Cougars captured the national championship.

The Key Players: Another loaded Notre Dame backfield

Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer spread his passing options around during the 1992 season, throwing for 1,876 yards and 15 touchdowns, with just six interceptions. His main forces of attack lined up behind him, with Reggie Brooks and Jerome Bettis combining to end the year with close to 2,200 yards rushing and 23 scoring runs to their credit. The Irish defense had blown hot and cold thus far, with 64 of the 109 points allowed coming in just two contests.

BYU signal-caller Ryan Hancock was the latest Cougar quarterback to put up big numbers, finishing the 1992 campaign with over 2,600 through the air. Jamal Willis and Kalin Hall combined to rush for over 1,700 yards that season for BYU, with the pass-catching tandem of Eric Drage and Byron Rex served as Hancock’s favorite targets. The major problem for the Cougars was their defense, which had allowed an average of 31 points in the first seven games of the year.

The Game: A Notre Dame blowout with a classic Holtz outburst

Even though it was the BYU defense that was struggling, it was the Cougar offense whose mistake allowed Notre Dame to score first. Craig Hentrich’s 55-yard punt pinned BYU back at their own six after each team had failed to put points on the board. A high snap on the first play led to a fumble that squirted into the end zone, which was recovered by Demetrius DuBose for a touchdown and a 7-0 Irish advantage.

The Cougars managed to chip away at that deficit with a field goal. However, they missed a golden opportunity to knot the score after Hancock’s 33-yard pass to Bryce Doman gave BYU first-and-goal at the Irish four-yard-line. The Cougars only managed to pick up three yards and settled for an 18-yard three-pointer.

Keeping the BYU offense off the field was one part of the Notre Dame gameplan, with its second score indicative of that philosophy. The Irish chewed up nearly seven minutes and scored early in the second period on Irv Smith’s two-yard pass from Mirer. Notre Dame nearly turned the ball over on downs before Mirer converted on fourth-and-nine at the Cougar 20 by finding Ray Griggs for 16 yards.

For the remainder of the first half, the Irish offense went into hibernation. Meanwhile, the BYU offense again whittled away what had become an 11-point margin but still had to settle for a pair of field goals to make it 14-9 in favor of Notre Dame at the break. The latter tally was set up by Hentrich’s poor punt that gave the Cougars possession at the Irish 35.

Notre Dame continued to have issues in trying to expand its lead after first scoring on its opening drive of the second half. Over seven plays, the Irish moved 80 yards, with Griggs again delivering another important catch. His 54-yard grab from Mirer began as a screen pass with Griggs maneuvering himself down the Notre Dame sideline and into the end zone to make it 21-9.

That cushion would again dip back down to five points on the next series when BYU took nearly four minutes to move 78 yards. Cougar wide receiver Tim Nowatzke caught a five-yard pass from Hancock to make it 21-16 entering the fourth quarter and offered the visitors visions of a possible upset.

That potential scenario never materialized as Bettis scored twice for the Irish before Jeff Burris capped the Irish scoring explosion with a one-yard run at the 5:04 mark. On the latter two scores, interceptions by Burris and Tom Carter, respectively, helped lay the groundwork for the scores.

At that point, Holtz channeled his best WWE impression after watching Notre Dame linebacker Pete Bercich getting held with under four minutes left. Holtz flung his headset, slammed down his hat and began walking on the field to scream at officials. When he began speaking with referee Tom Thomert, he put the official in a headlock to show what he’d missed.

Thomert awkwardly moved away from Holtz, who was flagged for the entire outburst. The penalty moved the ball into Irish territory but the Cougars were unable to score again and the Irish had its 26-point victory.

The Aftermath

Instead of the Notre Dame win getting top billing, Holtz’s breach of on-field protocol became a hot topic of conversation as well as jokes. He spoke by phone with Thomert and clarified that his action wasn’t technically a headlock, since he applied no pressure to the official. Yet the lore surrounding it continued, with fans asking for autographs that included an inscription he included on one: “Hope we wrestle some time.”

Holtz’s team ended up winning its last four 1992 regular season matchups, including the Snow Bowl thriller against Penn State. They then capped a 10-1-1 campaign with a dominating 28-3 Cotton Bowl win over the previously undefeated Texas A&M Aggies.

Since Holtz ended his tenure at Notre Dame after the 1996 seasons, all of his successors have wrestled with the issue of capturing another national championship. Given the high-stakes battle that gets raised every year, grappling with that struggle goes on.

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