Ty Detmer vs. the Rocket: Remembering the day BYU quarterback defeated Notre Dame star
It’s been 32 years since Ty Detmer beat out Notre Dame’s Raghib Ismail for the Heisman Trophy. This fall the two programs meet again, this time on the field, in Las Vegas
Notre Dame sent a bolt of lightning through Cougar Nation last weekend by announcing the start time for the Oct. 8 showdown at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. While this will be the ninth meeting between the two independent football powers, it will be the first time they have met in prime time on NBC (5:30 p.m. MDT).
Most spring football polls forecast Notre Dame in the top 10 for the 2022 season with BYU somewhere in the top 20. If the projections hold, this will be the fifth time the Irish will play BYU while ranked in the top 10.
Notre Dame is 6-2 all-time against the Cougars and the Las Vegas oddsmakers will likely favor them again in October, but the BYU victory on Dec. 1, 1990, in New York City trumps them all. That is the day Ty Detmer beat Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and a well-tuned public relations machine by 305 votes to win the Heisman Trophy.
In the end, Detmer’s bombs through the air overwhelmed the Rocket’s red glare. Detmer completed 361 passes for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns during his junior season. Ismail, a senior, and as explosive as his nickname, combined for just five touchdowns running or receiving and had one kickoff return for a touchdown. But the media hype for the “Rocket” was out of this world and Detmer faced criticism for BYU’s perceived weak schedule — except for one game — Miami.
Coincidentally, the Hurricanes played a key role in both Detmer and Ismail’s rise to fame.
Ty beats No. 1 Miami
A sold-out LaVell Edwards Stadium had never seen anything quite like it — the nation’s No. 1-ranked team was in Provo for the first time. Miami brought its national championship dreams to Utah County on Sept. 8, 1990, but Detmer gave them a nightmare.
Detmer completed 38 of 54 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns. His 14-yard strike to Matt Bellini tied the game at 7 in the first quarter. His two-yard toss to Andy Boyce gave BYU a 17-14 lead in the second quarter and his 7-yard touchdown to Mike Salido with an accompanying two-point conversion throw to Boyce late in the third quarter gave BYU all it would need to stun Miami 28-21.
“Ty Detmer, to me, is unbelievable,” Hurricanes coach Dennis Erickson told the Chicago Tribune. “Obviously, he’s a great, great quarterback.”
The win put Detmer on the road to the Heisman, but Ismail would get his own shot at Miami to make his case.
Rocket beats No. 2 Miami
A sold-out Notre Dame Stadium welcomed the No. 2 Hurricanes on Oct. 20, 1990. Ismail turned in a performance that dominated the news cycle. He amassed 268 yards of total offense, including an electrifying 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, to lead the sixth-ranked Irish to a 29-20 victory.
“What can you say about him?” Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s the best football player in the country.”
Erickson, who had previously watched Detmer beat his ’Canes, stoked the Heisman battle further.
“What can you say about Rocket Ismail,” he told UPI after the game. “You plan against that and work all week to prevent that and suddenly, you get into the game, there’s a hole and he’s gone.”
The big finish
Heisman votes go out to the media in mid-November and while final decisions were being made, the Irish went cold, losing at home to Penn State 24-21 on Nov. 17 and edging out an unranked USC team 10-6 on Nov. 24. Ismail sat out the second half against the Nittany Lions with a thigh bruise and managed just two receptions for 70 yards against the Trojans.
As the “Rocket” fizzled, Detmer was firing on all cylinders. On Nov. 10, he threw for 484 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-14 rout at No. 25 Wyoming. The following week, Nov. 17, Detmer threw for 451 yards and five touchdowns while routing Utah in Salt Lake City, 45-22. On Nov. 24, a week before the Heisman announcement, Detmer threw for 560 yards and five more touchdowns in a 45-10 victory against Utah State.
Talk about a big finish. Over those final three games, Detmer combined for 1,495 passing yards and 12 touchdowns as the Cougars rolled up three more wins and 135 points. Not even the PR machine from college football’s most storied program could beat that — although it certainly tried.
The 1990 Heisman Trophy award was determined by 917 voters and former winners, divided into six regions around the country. When the announcement was made, Ismail was at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York and Detmer was connected via satellite from Honolulu where BYU was preparing to play Hawaii that night.
“It is the special privilege of the Downtown Athletic Club to let the country know the name of this year’s greatest football player,” said Peter Lambos, president of the Downtown Athletic Club. “The winner of the 1990 Heisman award, whose name is Ty Detmer! Ty Detmer of BYU. Ty Detmer!”
After a brief satellite delay, those words traveled from the East Coast to the islands and into Detmer’s earpiece that he wore for the CBS broadcast. Surrounded by coach LaVell Edwards and his teammates, Detmer broke the silence with, “We got it!” and raised his right arm — his throwing arm — up into the air.
The former Texas high school quarterback, who Edwards described as “Pee-wee Herman” when he first arrived on campus, defeated Ismail in the voting 1,482 to 1,177. Detmer won 79 more first-place votes and 34 more second-place votes. He also won a free swim as his teammates tossed him into the pool at the hotel following the announcement.
A bitter pill to swallow
It’s been 32 years since Detmer won the Heisman, but time has done little to soften the blow for Irish fans and those who drank the “Rocket’s” Kool-Aid.
“Rocket Ismail was the best player in the country. Period. Everyone knows that,” wrote Scott Serles for Bleacherreport.com in his 2011 article “Top 10 Worst Heisman Winners,” where he listed Detmer at No. 2. “Voters couldn’t resist the gaudy numbers.”
“Here we are, 29 years later, and Ty Detmer has the Heisman Trophy that belongs to Raghib “Rocket” Ismail,” wrote Terence Moore in 2019 in Forbes Magazine.
Dante Pryor listed Ismail among college football’s 10 greatest players to never win the Heisman Trophy in his 2020 article for Saturdayblitz.com.
Notre Dame blogger Daniel Morrison used Ismail as his headliner in a 2021 article for slapthesign.com called “The Five Notre Dame Players who were robbed of the Heisman Trophy.”
New faces, new places
When the Cougars and Irish meet on Oct. 8, Jaren Hall will be the highly touted BYU quarterback, and Notre Dame will roll out another batch of flashy performers. But unlike the previous eight meetings, this game will be staged on a neutral field at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
The Irish may be 6-2 against BYU, but in the 1990 showdown over the Heisman Trophy, the Cougars are 1-0.
Ismail is now 52 years old and if it came down to a foot race, he would be a sure bet to beat the 54-year-old Detmer in a 40-yard dash. But, if it were a passing down, the smart money would still be on Ty.
No matter what happens on Oct. 8, Detmer will still be a Heisman winner when the sun comes up on Oct. 9, and BYU football will still have its biggest win over Notre Dame proudly on display in a glass trophy case at the student athlete building.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.