Rick Mirer knew about the expectations.
Play quarterback at a major university, and expectations are high. Play quarterback at Notre Dame and they go through the roof, or, in this case, the Golden Dome.
Mirer knew because he grew up 40 miles from South Bend, Ind. He was an All-American quarterback at Goshen (Ind.) High, the most sought-after scholastic quarterback in the country in 1988.
Four years later, he is either first or second in all the significant Notre Dame passing categories. He is a team captain. He is a hometown hero. He has quarterbacked the Irish to the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Clearly, he has had a pretty good college career. But he has come up short of the expectations that were laid out for him.
Of Mirer, no less an authority than Stanford coach Bill Walsh once said: "I think when it's all finally packaged together, when he's two or three years older, fully physically mature and more experienced, he can be one of the great quarterbacks of our time."
From such gushing prophecies are disappointments born.
"Being a senior, I expected to play the best I have since I've been here," said Mirer, 22, as the No. 10 Irish (5-1-1) prepared for tomorrow's annual exercise with Navy (0-6) at the Meadowlands.
"I've had good days and bad. It happens at every level. Since the Stanford game, I've done a better job of doing what I'm supposed to do."
The Stanford game -- a 33-16 loss to Walsh's Cardinal in Notre Dame on Oct. 3 -- was the low point of his season. He passed for 195 yards, but missed many receivers (13-for-38) and threw a costly interception on the goal line. That loss signaled the end of a Heisman Trophy candidacy that never really got off the ground.
Mirer was tossed into the Heisman hype after passing for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games a year ago. Through seven games this season, he has matched his per-game passing average of 176 yards, but fallen off in other areas. His touchdowns are down, 18 to nine, and his completion percentage has plummeted, from 56.4 to 48.4. On the positive side, he has cut his interceptions from 10 to three.
Mirer offers no excuses for the drop-off.
"I know how to throw the football," he said. "It's just a matter of getting it to them consistently. Our offense isn't designed to throw for 300, 400 yards. It's designed to get first downs running the ball. . . . It's tough to roll up big numbers when you have so
many weapons on offense."
Indeed, Notre Dame relies more heavily on the running game this season. In fullback Jerome Bettis (91.7 yards per game) and tailback Reggie Brooks (109.8), the Irish have a "Thunder and Lightning" tandem that has been difficult to contain.
Beyond that, the passing game has been affected by the loss of seniors Tony Smith and Derek Brown from last year's team. Smith was the most dependable receiver and Brown, a tight end, was good enough to be drafted in the first round by the New York Giants. This year, split end Lake Dawson was Notre Dame's most experienced receiver, but he didn't play in the spring.
The result is that Mirer has had no go-to receiver this season.
Mirer enjoyed his career-best passing day in a 38-0 romp over Navy a year ago, throwing for 303 yards and three touchdowns despite freezing temperatures and 35-mph winds in South Bend.
"I know they've had their share of problems," he said of the Midshipmen. "It's important for us to treat this like any other game. We have an awful lot to lose if we don't take them seriously. This game counts as much as any other game."
Mirer said he has no regrets about returning to Notre Dame for his senior year instead of turning pro. But he came back with the idea of winning a national championship. And now that isn't going to happen, either, thanks to a 17-17 tie with Michigan and the loss to Stanford.
"Our expectations were to win it all," he said. "A lot of times it takes a little luck to work that out.
"The season's not over. Realistically, winning the championship is probably out of our reach. But three of our next four games are against top 15 teams, and then we have a bowl opponent. We have a lot of things to prove yet."
Where Mirer stands
Where Rick Mirer stands on Notre Dame's all-time career charts:
.. ........... Total offense yards Steve Beuerlein, '83-86.. ......... 6,459
Mirer, 1989-92..................... 6,014
Passing yards Beuerlein.......................... 6,527
Pass attempts Beuerlein..... . .................... 850
Mirer......... .. ................... 619
Touchdown passes Mirer................................ 35
Joe Theismann, 1968-70............... 31