There is an oddly subdued atmosphere in the environs of South Bend this fall. The usual profusion of No. 1 signs has not been in evidence and the normal air of braggadocio among the local citizenry has been replaced by an unaccustomed and rather becoming attitude of modesty. The reason is that South Bend's faith in the superiority of Notre Dame football was shaken to its roots last fall, and no one really has enough enthusiasm left over to start beating drums for an unbeaten year or another national championship. The wounds of 1967—the season that was to have been all Notre Dame's—have not yet healed.
The assumption then, of course, was that the Irish would easily repeat their No. 1 rating of '66. Didn't they have Terry Hanratty, the brilliant young quarterback? Didn't they have Split End Jim Seymour, the golden retriever for nearly everything Hanratty threw? Didn't they have the nation's best lineman, Kevin Hardy, a 280-pound defensive tackle who was nobly nicknamed The Massive Intimidator? Didn't they have Ara Parseghian, who had a 25-3-2 record for his first three years? And didn't they have that inviolable Notre Dame pride, which is graphically illustrated by such stirring locker room signs as NOTRE DAME'S FIGHTING SPIRIT WILL NOT BE ENTRUSTED TO THE TIMID AND THE MEEK? Of Course, they did.
But all hopes of No. 1 were destroyed when Notre Dame lost two of its first four games. During this period Terry Hanratty proved he was hardly superhuman by having 11 passes intercepted. Kevin Hardy hurt his ankle. Seymour dislocated two fingers. And, after USC beat the Irish in South Bend for the first time since 1939, Ara Parseghian spoke in despair: "I never had a team that played so poorly."
Eventually Notre Dame straightened out, coming through with an 8-2 season that would have been adequate had you not started planning postseason No. 1 parties before the first coin was flipped, as they had in South Bend.
This year even Notre Dame's most fanatic followers are not about to get their hopes as high. For one thing, the Irish meet Oklahoma and Purdue on their first two working Saturdays, a one-two punch that could leave the team with a serious case of crushed morale before the season hardly begins. After OU and Purdue, they play four Big Ten teams and finish up against Georgia Tech and USC. For another, there is the crisis of having to replace seven starters on the defensive squad, including Hardy. And, finally, there is—just like last season—no speed in the backfield. Somehow when Notre Dame corralled its huge bank of talent two or three years ago, the fast ones got away.
It is an indication of Notre Dame's strength that with its schedule and potential difficulties it may fall all the way down in the ratings to—oh—fourth. Hanratty and Seymour are back for their third airborne spectacular. Following his dim beginning last fall, Hanratty seemed to discover what he was doing wrong. After 15 interceptions in five games he did not have another. "It was all my fault," he says. "Really poor judgment. I was throwing poorly, and I wasn't picking up my secondary receivers." Parseghian thinks it might have been more basic than that: "Terry had to learn to eat the ball and not to rely on Seymour to get it for him." If Hanratty remembers what he learned in '67, he will probably go down in history as the best passer Notre Dame has ever had, which would make him a full-fledged legend at the age of 20.
Hanratty's chief target will still be Jim Seymour, who has already broken all Irish records with 85 catches. His fingers are healed and he is ready for brilliant-business-as-usual. But it is hard to catch passes with the entire opposing team and its mascots draped over your shoulders. Parseghian has to find a way to take some of the heat off Hanratty-Seymour by opening up the Irish running game. Halfbacks Bob Gladieux and Ed Ziegler and Fullback Jeff Zimmerman are solid runners, but discouragingly slow. None has the speed or deception to break a game open, and Notre Dame will have to rely—perhaps too much—on Hanratty's arm for most of its crucial plays. That is not necessarily a winning strategy, as Parseghian saw last year against Purdue when Hanratty threw 63 times, completed 29 and still could not produce an Irish victory.
There is a certain statuesque quality, too, about the offensive line. Except for Seymour and Tackle George Kunz, a friendly 240-pound giant who blocks savagely but is so polite that he has been known to address teammates as "sir," it is not an agile group. But there is size, lots of it. Tight End Jim Winegardner is 225, Tackle Chuck Kennedy 240, Guards Tom McKinley and Larry DiNardo about 230, and Center Tim Monty 220. Since football is not a track meet, the offense is good enough to beat anybody, but probably not everybody.
The defense is a lesser known quantity. "It all depends on how the boys mature," says Parseghian. Three or four sophomores could start. Tony Capers, a 248-pounder who is also being tried on offense, could be somewhere on defense—at end or linebacker—and 240-pound Tackle Pat Mudron is capable of ousting a veteran. Mike McCoy, a 6'5", 270-pound junior, will play left tackle, and Bob Kuechenberg, 245, left end. Thus, the front four will average a hopefully unmovable 251 pounds.
It is in those defensive positions that Parseghian likes to call "the skilled areas" that the Irish have a difficult situation. Bob Olson is the only linebacker returning. The other three, sophomores Jim Wright and Tim Kelly and senior John Lavin, have no experience worth counting. And neither do the men in the secondary, Halfbacks John Gasser and Ernie Jackson, a sophomore, and Safety Tom Quinn. Parseghian is concerned enough about the safety spot to have had Coley O'Brien, Hanratty's understudy star for two years, trying his hand there. O'Brien may well start on defense. Despite its lack of experience, Assistant Coach John Ray is fairly optimistic about the defense. "I think we're going to have a good one," he says. "The kids are young, but they have size and they want to learn."
They better learn fast. Unless they do, the atmosphere around South Bend after those backbreaker-to-backbreaker weekends against Oklahoma and Purdue will not be merely subdued. It will be sepulchral.