The 1988 season started in dramatic fashion, included a thrilling last-minute win in the middle of the season and culminated with a convincing 34-21 win over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl that combined to give third-year head coach Lou Holtz a national title – the 11th in Notre Dame’s storied history.
An unrelenting defense was the order from Holtz as the season began and seniors Frank Stams and Wes Pritchett, junior Michael Stonebreaker, and sophomore Chris Zorich heeded the call. On offense, quarterback Tony Rice led an attack that featured flanker Ricky Watters and freshmen Derek Brown and Raghib Ismail. The season started with the 13th-ranked Irish pulling out a heart-thumping 19-17 win over ninth-ranked Michigan as the stars of the day were Watters, who returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown and unheralded walk-on kicker Reggie Ho made four field goals. When the Wolverines missed a field goal as time expired, the Irish were on their way to an undefeated season.
That undefeated road included dramatic wins over then No. 1-ranked Miami, who came to South Bend with a 36-game regular season unbeaten string. The dramatic, see-saw game featured seven Hurricane turnovers and a Notre Dame defense that limited Miami to just 57 rushing yards in the game. A last-second two-point conversion by Miami quarterback Steve Walsh was knocked down by Notre Dame’s Pat Terrell to preserve the win. The drama continued in Notre Dame’s final regular season game when the top-ranked Irish traveled to the Coliseum to take on No. 2-ranked USC. Again, it was defense that led the way in the Irish 27-10 victory. Notre Dame capped the season by beating third-ranked West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Defense again led the way, holding a talented Mountaineer offense in check.