DALLAS -- The Irish belonged, after all. No arguments.
Notre Dame 28, Texas A&M; 3 in yesterday's 57th Cotton Bowl Classic left no doubt the 10-1-1 Irish deserved to be playing on New Year's. And after summarily dismantling the 12-1 Aggies, the Irish left little doubt about their championship possibilities in a playoff system.
The Irish ran right over the previously undefeated Aggies, winningtheir seventh straight behind quarterback Rick Mirer's two touchdown passes and fullback Jerome Bettis' three
They out-gained Texas A&M;, 439 yards to 165. They out-rushed the Aggies, 308 to 122. They had more first downs, 28 to 11. Their time of possession was 38:01, compared with the Aggies' 21:59.
And the Aggies wanted to play Florida State.
"The last four weeks, we beat four nationally ranked teams in a row," Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said. "I'd have loved to play anyone in the country. I think we're the best football team in the country. If we don't turn the football over . . . we put some points on the board."
When asked if he had hopes of the Irish's finishing No. 2 in the polls, Holtz said: "I would hope we would finish second. . . . I would hope we'd finish first."
The Aggies wouldn't disagree, after watching their chance of becoming the third team to finish 13-0 dissipate under a brutal charge by the Irish offensive and defensive lines. And although the Cotton Bowl committee might have thought it was doing the fourth-ranked Aggies a favor by pairing them with the lesser-ranked Irish (fifth), the game added tarnish to the Southwest Conference's diminishing image.
This was the fifth consecutive Cotton Bowl loss by an SWC team. The last victory was Texas A&M;'s over Notre Dame in 1988. SWC teams have not scored a Cotton Bowl touchdown since Arkansas' Billy Winston caught a 67-yard pass from Quinn Grovey with 1:25 left in a 31-27 loss to Tennessee. That's more than three full games, 181 minutes, 25 seconds without scoring a touchdown. This makes no SWC touchdowns in four of the past five Cotton Bowl games.
"I was disappointed with the way we played," Texas A&M; coach R. C. Slocum said. "I said we could have anyone else in the country playing us today and I wouldn't have been more concerned than playing Notre Dame. But I'd have to say I'm surprised. We're not accustomed to being beaten like this."
The beating began late in the second quarter, when Mirer countered the blitzing Aggies with a little inside screen to split end Lake Dawson. The ball was caught one yard behind the line of scrimmage, but when Dawson broke behind five Irish blockers, he had no problem negotiating the 40 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Notre Dame lead with 36 seconds left in the half.
The Irish all but put this game away during their first possession of the third quarter, driving 69 yards on 10 plays and scoring on Mirer's 26-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open, 247-pound Bettis at the 5. Then, when Bettis turned Demetrius DuBose's fumble recovery at the A&M; 11 into a 1-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead two plays later, the Aggies' fate was sealed. All they could score against an Irish defense led by Devon McDonald, the game's defensive MVP, was a 41-yard field goal by Terry Venetoulias.
"I felt I needed to have a pretty good game," said Bettis, who lost the game's offensive MVP award to Mirer. "I like to think Coach uses me in a way he gets everything out of me. I had figured I'd be blocking a lot, and then in the second half, when we wanted to run the football, I came in handy."
Handy Bettis was, gaining 75 yards to go with tailback Reggie Brooks' 115 and Mirer's 119 yards passing. And with the Notre Dame defense taking A&M; out of its game -- tailback Rodney Thomas, who replaced the suspended Greg Hill, gained 50 yards -- the Irish had proved their point.
"They were talking about how they wanted to play Florida State," Notre Dame guard Aaron Taylor said. "Now I see why they wanted to play Florida State. You saw what happened today. They got their butts kicked. They were a great team and played hard, but you saw who the better team was today."
The Irish were so good that they would only wish for a playoff system.
They lost a shot at No. 1 after an early-season tie with Michigan and loss to Stanford.
"In my four years, I've been on some good teams, but the last seven games, this has been the best," Mirer said. "If there were a playoff system, we would be ready to go a long way."