All week long the feeling was there, building slowly just below the surface, waiting for the right moment to explode. Each time a Notre Dame football player went to practice he passed a message posted on the locker-room bulletin board: NOTRE DAME, THEY'RE FAT SLOBS. The words had been clipped from a newspaper. The normally low-keyed Tom Gatewood saw them, and as he played with a cup of coffee the morning before last week's game with LSU, a tight smile crossed the face of the fine Irish wide receiver. "I've never been called a slob in my life," he said. "It's humiliating. I've never been vengeful for anything. Man, this week I am."
"If they want to make it a slugfest," added Walt Patulski, a very unfat 250-pound defensive end, "I'd like that. I'm usually just sliding out there, containing and waiting for help. I've felt like a spectator at most of our games. I'd like some action. They'll see I'm not a fat slob."
This was the Notre Dame that awaited Charles McClendon as he brought his once-beaten Louisiana State team to South Bend, primed and superchromed to play what he called "the most important game in LSU football history." They all knew Notre Dame well—the same Notre Dame, they said acidly, that had cost them a trip to last year's Cotton Bowl. "There are a lot of things working in this game," mused LSU Safety Bill Norsworthy. "The bowl last year, a bowl this year, the polls, their tradition, everything. We've waited a long time. They're mighty desirable."
Late on Friday afternoon, McClendon, huddled against the cold and the mist that come with every South Bend autumn, walked slowly along the sidelines of Notre Dame Stadium. He tested the wet grass, looked hopefully at the blank scoreboard, then stared long and hard at the 60,000 empty seats. Finally he stopped under a goalpost. "This place," he said with a sweep of the hand.... "Too many teams come into this place and they've already lost the ball game before it starts. Not my kids. We're ready. They may not have sense enough to realize it up here, but we have a helluva football team. We're not gonna be intimidated. We may get shellacked tomorrow. But that'll be tomorrow. Not today."
When the cool, crisp tomorrow finally came, the Tigers were neither intimidated nor shellacked but, for all that, they lost just the same. In as glorious a defensive game as one could hope to see, Notre Dame's Scott Hempel finally chipped one over from 24 yards out with a mere 2:54 remaining, and the Irish remained undefeated 3-0. Even Touchdown Jesus, the mosaic figure that looks down on the stadium from the library nearby, hands upraised, sighed in relief.
It was a game of Ping-Pong played with a football. In the capacity crowd of 59,075 eyes swiveled back and forth throughout the afternoon as punt followed punt until Wayne Dickinson and Jim Yoder had almost as much playing time as Joe Theismann. Wayne What and Jim Who? Well, Wayne Dickinson of LSU kicked 12 times for 455 yards; Notre Dame's Jim Yoder kicked 10 times for 426. And fittingly enough, it was Yoder's 10th that set up Hempel's field goal. With 6:50 remaining, Yoder lofted the ball high into the wind from State's 44, then watched as it hit on the eight and caromed crazily out of bounds inside the one. "Would you believe 2-nothin'?" someone said in the press box. But LSU plunged desperately out to the seven, then punted to Clarence Ellis, who returned it to the 36.
Theismann immediately threw a deep pass to Halfback Ed Gulyas, who was battered prematurely and openly by LSU's James Earley. Interference. The Irish had a first down on the 17. A few runs and a near-interception later, Hempel kicked his goal; the stadium heaved and the covey of Cotton Bowl hucksters had an opponent for their Southwest Conference champions, hopefully top-ranked Texas. "We thought of the Orange Bowl," said Gatewood. "But it isn't the same. We want No. 1."
For that afternoon, though, they might have settled for any number between one and four. There was LSU's defense, unscored upon by rushing in 11 straight games, and Notre Dame's offense, built around the skitterish Theismann and the fluid Gatewood, which was first in all the land. And there was Notre Dame's defense, No. 5 nationally, against an LSU offense that jams and jams and jams long enough to lull fat slobs to sleep, then burns them deep. "We did it last week." Patulski said before the game, referring to Notre Dame's 10-7 win over Georgia Tech. "We learned we couldn't depend on our offense to do it all. We'd gotten that way, but we learned. And if we have to do it again, we will."
So all afternoon there were these pesky gnats from Baton Rouge, reacting and clawing and squirming through the tiniest holes to stop everyone, and Notre Dame's giants, just as fast, giving a little more but Anally shutting off enough jams and knocking down enough pop flies to bring in Scott Hempel and his three-point toe. That provided the big number, but don't forget these: 83 net yards rushing for LSU, 78 for Notre Dame; 82 yards passing for LSU, 149 for Notre Dame; 87 yards lost rushing by LSU, 53 by Notre Dame.
If you did not have a program, you might just as well have been watching the no-decision bloodletting at Antietam. Forget all those glory names that rhyme with Heisman. The game belonged to people like Patulski, Irish Tackles Mike Kadish and Greg Marx, LSU Linebacker Mike Anderson and Tackles John Sage and Ronnie Estay. And when Notre Dame finally threw, as they had to, there was Tommy Casanova, LSU's superathlete, "playing in my jockstrap" as Gatewood put it. Casanova held Gatewood, the nation's No. 2 receiver, to only four catches for 21 yards. And when LSU thought it had the giants finally asleep there was Clarence Ellis of Notre Dame to chase down the Tigers' pop-fly passes. "You know," Ellis had said, "McClendon called me the weak link in our defense. I hope they try me out."
LSU tried everything but in the end went home unsatisfied, a pretty girl who came north hoping to gain a little more sex appeal by mixing with the sexiest of them all. When she left her skirt was a bit higher, but she had some mighty bruised knees. Before the game McClendon had said, "If we win, we may be a bit more desirable."
They still are. If the knees heal and they win the next two games, they have a handsome date at the Orange Bowl.