The most important play of last Monday’s Fiesta Bowl, in which Notre Dame and West Virginia battled for the national college football championship, took place in the third quarter. The Fighting Irish led 26-13, but the Mountaineers had just completed their first touchdown drive of the day and then intercepted Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice deep in Irish territory. Notre Dame had dominated the football game in all facets all afternoon, but this appeared to be West Virginia’s chance to get back in it and steal the title. On the first play, West Virginia quarterback Major Harris–expecting the Irish defense to be suddenly roused and overemotional in combating the threat–faked left with a step and then dashed right in an option-play variation of what’s commonly referred to as the naked bootleg. The play is designed to exploit overintense reactions, to get the entire defense moving in one direction by moving the entire offense in one direction–at which point the quarterback goes the other way. When the play works, the quarterback is the only man on his side of the field, and he runs until he gets tired. On this play, however–as in every play of that day–the Notre Dame defense stayed home. Harris immediately encountered a rushing lineman. He spun wide and outran him to the sideline, but two more Irish defenders swarmed in. They snuffed Harris for a small loss. Facing second down and long yardage, Harris first threw a prayer into the end zone, which narrowly missed its well-covered target, and then he was sacked on third down, not only ending the Mountaineers’ drive but pushing them out of field-goal range. Notre Dame drove for a touchdown on the next series of downs to put the game out of reach.

And so it is, after all, three cheers for the Irish. Miami crybabies to the contrary, Notre Dame was clearly the best team of this college-football season. The Irish were solid, they played a tough schedule, they lost to no one–not even Miami. The Hurricanes are quite right to claim that they might well have defeated the Irish if they had played them at their home, rather than at South Bend–where Notre Dame got all the breaks, was allowed to attempt to physically intimidate the Hurricanes (if such a thing can be done), and, finally and most important, got the benefit of the calls–but such claims, while justifiable, are no more justifiable than claims that Florida State would have been national champ had it beaten Miami in the first game of the year, or, on a more abstract level, that if life were fair we’d all be millionaires. The team with the best record wins, and Notre Dame was impressive in its victory–not only in Monday’s Fiesta Bowl but for the season. Notre Dame was and remains a strong team of marvelous athletes; but more important–especially on Bowl Day–it was well prepared by an excellent coach.

Lou Holtz has done a little bit of everything as a football coach, working terms with Arkansas and Minnesota and even a short time in the pros with the New York Jets. He had reached the high point where he had an ironclad contract with the Golden Gophers with one small exception: that if he were offered the job to coach at Notre Dame he could accept. He received that offer three years ago. He is a small, bespectacled man, with hair that appears to have been combed with buttered toast and with a penchant for wearing shirt collars that jut out from under his sweaters so high that they might well lift him off the ground if pointed into a stiff head wind. In short, he would look like a small-town grocer if he weren’t so jittery and driven. This is perhaps the best and most appropriate time to remember that three years ago he inherited a football program that, if not crippled, was at least brain dead. Gerry Faust proved to be a fine recruiter but a lousy coach, and the Notre Dame teams under his tenure had all the traits of severe retardation: they were big and strong, but they couldn’t figure what to do at any given moment. More than once a Gerry Faust team that was highly regarded in the preseason wound up struggling to finish with a winning record.

Holtz turned the program around by reinstilling Notre Dame’s traditional values off the field, and by serving as the same savvy coach he has always been on the field. It was not a great season for the traditional college-football favorites–Nebraska and Oklahoma had relatively weak teams, and Penn State and Ohio State were weak outright (Michigan’s annual battle for the Rose Bowl bid turned out to be not with the Buckeyes but with Illinois)–but out on the west coast, UCLA and USC staged a yearlong battle for supremacy that harked back 10 and 20 years, and of course on the east coast there was the decade’s new, tough kid on the block, Miami. Notre Dame won out over them all, in every way, right down to the very end. While Miami coach Jimmy Johnson was egging his team on to run up the score against Nebraska in the waning moments of the Orange Bowl Monday night (in some misguided effort to convince wire-service voters that his team really was the best), Holtz, at the same stage of his game, was reining his team in, running onto the field to calm his defensive players and all but demanding that they allow West Virginia a face-saving final score.

Holtz brought back tradition to the Irish, but he did so not with a lot of (Gerry) Faustian or Tommy Lasordian bluster–one simply can’t imagine Holtz saying his players bleed Notre Dame gold–but with an emphasis on good, basic football. That Notre Dame had better athletes than West Virginia is one thing, but that they played a better game, that they were better prepared, and that they played up to the game’s importance without going over the top is something else again. That’s good coaching. While I was rooting for the ‘Eers all day, in the end the Irish won me over. They are a great team.

Notre Dame simply played a sterner game of football than did the Mountaineers Monday afternoon. Like the Bears’ defense, the Irish illustrate the football principle that when the players are superior to those on the other team all they have to do is play within themselves–and not beat themselves–to win. That was Notre Dame’s defense all game long; player by player, role by role, they stayed home and quietly defeated their West Virginia opponents man on man. West Virginia, on the other hand, facing a team of superior players, had to count on a highly emotional game from its players, and it got such a game. The Mountaineers’ coach Don Nehlen had his team emotionally ready to play; they committed no terrible mental errors throughout the game. Yet two things went awry in the Mountaineers’ scheme: first, on offense, quarterback Major Harris was injured early on, and while he struggled through the game he was never the emotional leader he had been during the season, and second, on defense, the Irish offense was ready to exploit the very overexcited state that the Mountaineers required of themselves to remain in the game.

The Mountaineers’ defense dominated the Irish offense in their first series, with one exception: they rushed the passer wildly on one play, and quarterback Tony Rice scrambled Notre Dame into position for a field goal. The play was symptomatic of too much energy and too much intensity on the part of the ‘Eers, and in the second series the Irish went to work to exploit this evident weakness. They used misdirection to lure the highly impressionable Mountaineers out of position, then ran the other way. Notre Dame running backs exploded through large holes on trap plays, and in Notre Dame’s trademark ploy of the afternoon Rice sprinted out on an apparent option play and then, suddenly, dropped back into a well-designed and ready-made pocket of blockers, where he looked downfield to receivers in single-zone coverage. This play worked all afternoon, as Rice threw only 11 times but completed seven of those passes for over 200 yards, an amazing efficiency for which he was named the game’s most valuable player.

On defense, as we said, the Irish played within themselves and waited for West Virginia to find weaknesses that, in the end, simply weren’t there. No one, not even West Virginia’s massive and experienced offensive line, was able to run between the tackles against Notre Dame this year. Meanwhile, with Harris ailing, the Mountaineers were unable to use the option play to spread the Notre Dame defense out and add some variety to their offense. What developed was a predictable pattern of run twice, pass downfield once, and kick. West Virginia’s game plan could have been a little more ornate, but then again maybe with Harris’s injury the game plan had to be simplified, or, as I prefer to think, perhaps with the calm, workmanlike Notre Dame defense a healthy Harris wouldn’t have made any difference.

All hail the Irish. In the wake of such a victory it’s easy to forget that these are 20-year-old near-kids playing the game of their lives for the right to be called National Champions. Lou Holtz knew what that would dictate for the emotional state of the West Virginia Mountaineers, and he exploited that knowledge, and he knew that somehow he had to keep his own team players within themselves, and somehow he did so. They looked like champs. I don’t believe they’re the last ones he’ll have at Notre Dame.