Photo courtesy of Mari Okuda/Notre Dame athletics
Throughout the course of the 1990 college football season, six different teams spent time as No. 1 in either the AP or the Coaches Poll.
The only one to lose the top spot and then regain it that season was Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish’s run as No. 1 however, came to an end on this day 30 years ago. Notre Dame was unable to hold a pair of 14-point leads as it fell late on a field goal in a 24-21 upset loss to Penn State.
Setting the Stage
Just a season removed from a national championship, Notre Dame entered the season ranked No. 1 in the preseason. The Fighting Irish lost that spot however, with a home loss to Purdue.
Notre Dame managed to circle the wagons and win five straight to sit atop the polls. That’s where it planned on staying as it hosted Penn State for Senior Day on Nov. 17, 1990.
Penn State had started the year 0-2, but had won seven straight games as it arrived at Notre Dame Stadium. Ranked No. 18, the Nittany Lions had yet to beat a ranked team, but that would change with a win over the top-ranked team.
Penn State trailed 14-0 early and 21-7 at halftime, but had drawn even and was in position to win. For much of the night, Notre Dame seemed in control.
The Nittany Lions had cut the 14-point lead in half when quarterback Tony Saaca found Rick Sayles for an 11-yard touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter. By the midway point of the final quarter, Saaca drew Penn State even. His third touchdown pass of the day — a 14-yard strike to Al Golden — tied the contest.
After an exchange of punts, Notre Dame found itself pinned deep inside its own 10-yard-line with just over two minutes to go. The possession ended with a critical mistake by Irish quarterback Rick Mirer.
Mirer’s first interception had set up Penn State’s first touchdown of the second half. His second interception found the arms of Penn State defensive back Darren Perry and was returned 20 yards into the red zone with less than a minute to go.
The Nittany Lions were able to melt the clock. With just four seconds to play, kicker Craig Fayak calmly knocked through the game-winning 34-yard field goal.
Less than nine minutes in, Notre Dame was up 14-0 on touchdown runs by Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks. Watters finished with 114 rushing yards for a Notre Dame team that went for 242 on the ground.
Penn State got on the board just minutes later when Saaca found Terry Smith for a 32-yard touchdown. Mirer pushed the lead back to 14 on a keeper with five minutes remaining in the second quarter. Saaca passed for 277 yards in the victory.
The loss for Notre Dame would essentially eliminate the Fighting Irish from national championship contention. Notre Dame edged USC the following week before losing to No. 1 Colorado in a controversial Orange Bowl, 10-9.
Penn State would move up seven spots following the win before vaulting into the top 10 for the first time after closing the year with a victory over rival Pittsburgh. The Nittany Lions closed the year with a 24-17 loss to Florida State in the Blockbuster Bowl.
As for the contest, Notre Dame became the fifth and final AP No. 1 team to fall during a wild 1990 season. That loss came in heartbreaking fashion on this day three decades ago.