Here come the Fighting Irish—swiftly

Something new has been added to the heavy-armored Notre Dame offense, namely runners with speed
October 07, 1973

The way things are happening at Notre Dame lately, any moment now someone will name a chapel after Martin Luther or paint the Golden Dome blue gray. Or maybe replace that bust of Knute Rockne with one of Joe Kuharich. Who would have ever believed girls camping out at South Bend? As students. Or speed in the Irish backfield? Real speed, for heaven's sakes, zip, zap, zip. That's like giving George Foreman a hammer. Or Henry Aaron four strikes.

For what seems like forever, certainly long before Ara Parseghian ascended from Northwestern, all you needed to stop an Irish runner was a bazooka, provided you could get in a killing shot while he was busily batting down biwinged war planes from the top of the Empire State Building. For most teams, an 80-yard touchdown run was explosive. For Notre Dame, it took so much time it was called ball control. The Irish should have been awarded six points and a penalty for delaying the game.

But no more. Notre Dame has discovered how handy it is to run around people. Not that Eric Penick, the 215-pound junior halfback with 9.5 speed who showed such promise last year, or 200-pound sophomore Art Best (9.7) would hesitate to step on chests. "You can't be making a big move all the time," says Penick. "Sometimes you get surrounded and you just have to lower your head."

Last season, unfortunately, when Penick lowered his head he had a habit of losing the ball. "I was about 18 pounds lighter and people were bruising me," he says. He also had to learn that assistant coaches yelled at him because they think yelling is part of the job, not because they are down on him. Penick took shouting as a personal attack. If he wasn't shaking from rage, he was shaking from nerves. Finally Dave Casper, a 240-pound offensive tackle who is playing tight end this year, talked to him. The most versatile, and probably the best, athlete on the squad, Casper is tough to ruffle. Last year the coaches told him his hair was too long, so he shaved his head. "They thought I was gung ho," he says. "I shaved it because if I can't wear my hair the way I want, I don't want any."

"Those guys don't mean any harm," Casper told Penick. "They just like to yell a lot. Let it roll off your back like water off a duck. Quack. Quack." Sometimes when in a huddle, Casper would look at Penick and remind him: "Quack, quack."

"It helped," says Penick. "Now I do it myself. They yell and I go 'quack, quack.' They think I'm a little crazy, but I'm sure not nervous anymore."

During the summer break Penick added the extra pounds, all of it muscle from the waist up. "I just ate a lot and lifted weights. Now I'm going to bruise some people," he says. And he studied his cat. Panther. "Cats have the most beautiful moves of any animal. They never think about it; they simply do it. I watch my cat all the time. I love to study him. I try to pattern my moves after his. If you have five or six guys around you, you haven't got time to think of which one you are going to duck first. You simply do it. If I could run like a cat I'd be the greatest runner in the world."

Little in life is perfect, however. While Notre Dame is as big and strong as ever, and now has backfield speed, most of its talent is packaged in young bodies, perhaps too young. Only time and USC will tell. In its opener two weeks ago against Northwestern, the Irish started two freshmen, three sophomores and 12 juniors. Ross Browner, a 218-pound freshman defensive end, does not see that as a problem. "We may be young," he says, "but we don't play like we're young." With the starting offense sitting out the second half, Notre Dame won in adult enough fashion 44-0.

That did not mean much. Notre Dame always crushes its opening opponent. The Irish have lost but three openers since 1897. And in 23 opening games as a head coach at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern and Notre Dame, Parseghian has lost but once, and that team (Northwestern in 1957) did not win any games at all.

Nor were the pollsters impressed, ranking Notre Dame seventh. But Parseghian was pleased.

"It's tough to go undefeated if you don't win the first one," he said. "I'd rather birdie the first hole of a golf course than get a double bogey."

The second hole was Purdue last Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind., and Ara had taken more double bogeys against the Boilermakers than he cares to remember: four in the last nine years. There is something about a golden helmet that sets a Boilermaker boiling. Purdue had opened with a narrow victory over Wisconsin and then got a 24-19 jolt from Miami of Ohio. But Parseghian saw no good in Purdue's defeat.

"They are always sky-high for us," he said. "Now they've been hurt and they'll be just that much more angry."

They must have been, because it was a football game for much longer than a lot of people expected. Purdue was woefully inexperienced when it began the season, and it had been weakened even more by injuries at key positions. But Alex Agase had proved to be an outstanding coach while working with a minimum of talent at Northwestern, and he has lost none of that touch now that he is at Purdue.

Even with ponderous backs, the Notre Dame offense always had been a frustrating mixture of two parts shell game and one part football. "They give you so much misdirection," says Agase, "that by the time the game is over you can't even find your way out of the stadium." With Penick and Best the con game is just that much more devastating.

"It's really not very complicated," says Tom Pagna, the Notre Dame offensive backfield coach. And he grins. "It just takes a lot of study, a lot of work and a very good memory."

Except for a brief flare of brilliance—Best's 64-yard run on the first play of the game—Notre Dame did not get that offense untracked until Purdue had taken a 7-3 lead in the second quarter. The Boilermaker touchdown came on a 53-yard bomb from Bo Bobrowski to Olympic sprinter Larry Burton, the fourth-place finisher in the 200-meter final at Munich. It was a simple play: Bobrowski dropped back and, without looking, threw the ball as far as he could. Meanwhile Burton just blew past Irish defender Tim Rudnick, caught the ball in full stride at the seven and scored. "There are only three men in the world faster than Burton," said Notre Dame publicist Roger Valdiserri. "And one of them isn't Rudnick." Later, Parseghian said that right then he began to have nightmares of past Purdue defeats.

But Irish quarterback Tom Clements, who handled the offense well last year and now runs it with a master's touch, began playing football, football, who's got the football?

Penick, who had been dogged by a pair of black shirts all afternoon, made a few moves around left end for eight, and then picked up three more on the same play after Best had cracked over right guard for 1. Now, with Purdue watching everybody but the Irish cheerleaders, Clements hit on a 14-yard pass to Wayne Bullock, a 220-pound junior fullback who runs with more force than finesse. After Best was stopped for no gain, Penick cracked left tackle for eight yards while everyone else was moving to the right; Best got seven over left guard while everyone was watching Penick, and then Best left black shirts strewn across the field on a nine-yard burst to score. Notre Dame 10, Purdue 7.

The Irish did that sort of thing only once more, early in the third period, driving 86 yards in 14 plays with Bullock going in from the one. Later, Bob Thomas kicked his second field goal to wrap it up 20-7.

Except for that one shattering breach of its air defenses, Notre Dame was imposing against the Purdue attack, which more or less dissolved in the second half into Bobrowski running for his life and more often than not losing the race to one or another 260-pound lineman like Steve Niehaus. Even eliminating the ground given up when Bobrowski was sacked, the Boilermakers gained only 78 yards rushing, which speaks well for a young defense.

The Irish should improve game by game, but the one Penick is looking forward to most eagerly is Pittsburgh. There is a fan at Pitt who has read about Penick studying his cat's moves.

"He's been sending me postcards," says the Irish halfback. "He claims every time we play on TV he has his cat study my moves. He said his cat has such good moves now from watching me, he's the best mouse catcher in Pittsburgh. I got to send that dude a couple of tickets to the game. I'd like to see what he looks like."

PHOTOERIC PENICK SHOWS PURDUE THE KIND OF MOVE HE LEARNED WATCHING HIS CAT

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)