MAYBE IT'S THE LUCK OF THE IRISH

Notre Dame needed every break, including the fractured arm of Pitt's talented quarterback, to beat the Panthers in a brawl
September 18, 1977

Here is what happens when you eat your spinach and grow up to be No. 1 like Mother promised.

A few years ago, when the University of Pittsburgh was winning football games in bunches of one and two a season, a boosters' club was formed. The initial outpouring of support was 15 donors at $2 each, a $30 windfall. This year the boosters raised $287,000. The nouveau riche Pitt athletic department, in an example of football enhancing scholarship, contributed $100,000 to the library.

Four years ago the Panthers quit holding pep rallies because nobody came. Last week for the opener with Notre Dame they had a pep rally and a bonfire. And the university chancellor, Dr. Wesley W. Posvar, a Rhodes scholar, gave a rousing speech in an example of scholarship enhancing football. And at the rally the school band, which once had to recruit from nearby Duquesne and Carnegie-Mellon to fill its ranks (with predictable anarchy in sound and march), was alive with quality tooters and bangers anxious to make the next bowl trip. And the cheerleaders, of whose female numbers it used to be said, "They do not cheer, they bark," were not only lovely but they were led by Miss Cheerleader U.S.A. herself, Susan Murphy.

And on Saturday when the Panthers went out to defend their first national championship in 40 years against the Irish, they did so before a sellout crowd of 56,500. In a stadium newly spruced and splashed with blue and gold paint. On a brand-new $300,000 carpet. Beneath a classy new scoreboard that could, in flashing letters, make announcements like ZOWIE! Not even an occasional and forgivable snafu (Pitt being unused to such high station for so long) could dampen the good feelings. Publicist Dean Billick's order for 15,000 pompons for the boosters turned up short, but in one box was a surprise allotment of 400 brassieres. Billick resisted the temptation to have the brassieres painted blue and gold for waving but could not resist saying, "This must mean it's Notre Dame or bust."

Bust, alas, is what it was. For purposes of future scoreboard programming, BUST! was a chillingly appropriate word. But so, too, would have been OOPS! And, ultimately, AAAGH! That Pitt's party and 13-game winning streak were spoiled there was no doubt. Notre Dame won 19-9. Whether the supposedly big, tough and insatiable Irish, themselves now heir apparent to No. 1, could have done it alone will, however, remain moot.

What Mother might have neglected to tell you was that staying No. 1 allows little margin for error, and even less for a truly bad break. Just when it appeared that the Panthers were going to get over the loss of a Coach of the Year (Johnny Majors) and a Heisman Trophy winner (Tony Dorsett) without missing a beat—just when it seemed they were on their way to an upset of Notre Dame—Pitt suffered a lulu. One that confirms the fact that nothing enhances bonfires, bowl trips and financial well-being like a healthy star quarterback.

The one player new Coach Jackie Sherrill had said all along was indispensable was Matt Cavanaugh. "Tough—and tough-minded," Sherrill said of the 6'2", 215-pound senior. Cavanaugh's presence comforted his coach. A former Alabama fullback and linebacker, Sherrill delighted in telling how physical (and therefore un-quarterbacklike) Cavanaugh was. He admitted, chuckling, that as Majors' defensive coordinator he had tried to get the freshman Cavanaugh moved to linebacker "because he wasn't playing and he's too good an athlete to let sit." Besides, he said, your average quarterback doesn't lift weights or heft jackhammers in the off-season. Though mild mannered and well liked off the field, Cavanaugh was not averse to jerking helmets and kicking fannies in huddles to get attention.

Sherrill was blunt. With Dorsett gone, he had refashioned Cavanaugh as the central jewel of a pass- and option-oriented offense. Pressure? "He can handle it," said Sherrill. "A born leader."

With 1:28 to play in the first quarter, at the precise moment that he put Notre Dame in serious jeopardy with a touchdown pass, Cavanaugh went from candidate to casualty.

It was Pittsburgh's second possession of what was then a scoreless game. Cavanaugh had driven the Panthers from midfield to the Irish 12. Five times he had carried the ball, sticking his tough nose into pile-ups, running options from an exaggerated spacing in the Pitt line that, allowing for double-team blocking on the Irish tackles, isolated and neutralized Notre Dame's excellent defensive ends, Ross Browner and Willie Fry. Now, on third down, Cavanaugh dropped back to pass. His primary target was Split End Gordon Jones, running deep on the left side. Finding Jones covered, Cavanaugh broke from the pocket and raced to his right.

At that point he must have lost sight of Fry, looping in from the back, but he was safely ahead of him and sprinting out, looking downfield for the Pitt receivers on the right side. He might have run for some yardage, but Cornerback Luther Bradley blocked his path. He hesitated, and when he looked back to his left he saw Jones floating free in the end zone. He planted his right foot and threw.

Cavanaugh never saw Fry until his body came around after he threw the pass. The collision and the release of the ball were almost simultaneous.

Fry drove hard into the exposed front of the quarterback, toppling him backward with a legitimate tackle. Downfield, Jones was catching the spiraling pass as Cavanaugh instinctively thrust his arms back to cushion the fall. His left hand curled under as Fry smothered him. "I stripped him from the top down and drove his shoulders into the ground," Fry said. "I knew it was a good tackle."

Cavanaugh, in pain, stayed on the ground, but only for a moment. Getting up, he ran directly into the locker room, cradling his left forearm. There followed a series of press-box and public-address announcements, each one more grim than the last. X rays revealed "a broken radius [a major bone that affects wrist rotation]." The crowd moaned when it was announced that Cavanaugh would be lost for six weeks. The team doctor later said a brace on the wrist might allow him to return earlier. Cavanaugh throws right-handed.

The injury had more than just a dampening effect on Pittsburgh's fans. It dampened the whole game, took the air from it like a puncture and doused it of its vitality. "Dull" is a charitable word to describe the last three quarters.

The drop-off in quarterbacking was pronounced and dire for Pitt. Behind Cavanaugh were two non-players (that is, quarterbacks who had seldom played), sophomore Wayne Adams and senior Tom Yewcic. It is no use to belabor the point because neither of them deserves condemnation, but there were immediate breakdowns. With the change in cadence, the Pittsburgh handoffs became cumbersome and perilous. Without Cavanaugh's run-pass ability, the option attack carefully designed for Notre Dame was not only diminished but also became nonexistent. From the time of Cavanaugh's exit, Pitt never generated more than 11 yards in total offense in any one of its next 12 possessions. Six of the last seven times it had the ball Pitt fumbled it away or was intercepted. Four times it lost the ball inside its own 26.

With Cavanaugh optioning off the ends from his wider-split line, Pitt had found a way to go on its TD drive. Notre Dame adjusted in the second half by splitting its own tackles wider and substituting two quicker ones, Mike Calhoun and Scott Zettek, for Ken Dike and Jeff Weston. That, together with the suddenly erratic Pitt ball exchanges and a growing inability to coordinate blocking assignments, was only part of the suffocating process. In the words of ex-Pitt publicist Beano Cook (now with CBS), the Irish defense is "a monster God created along with Hitler and the Great White Shark," and, though not much fun to watch, it should always be regarded as a menace to navigation.

It does not, and did not, in fact, make for an interesting game: both defenses were nothing if not brilliant. With Browner, Fry, Middle Guard Bob Golic and poaching Linebacker Doug Becker happily stuffing themselves down the barrel of every volley, Pitt got a net two yards from its offense in the second half. Notre Dame had more opportunity but did not get that much more proportionately because Pitt's version of the Monster Mash—Tackle Randy Holloway, End Dave DiCiccio, Middle Guard Dave Logan, Linebacker Jeff Pelusi—was just as touching and clutching.

As Sherrill predicted, without Cavanaugh Pitt's offense was "ordinary." Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine pointed out that his was pretty ordinary, too, but that his losses—four offensive starters, including 1,000-yard Halfback Al Hunter, via disciplinary action—had occurred before the season. Until late in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's longest run from scrimmage in the second half was nine yards, and there was only one of those, by Fullback Jerome Heavens. There was no Irish passing attack to speak of. And if you spoke of it you wouldn't have much to say.

So that leaves an obvious-enough question to mull after a crucial first game: How good are the heirs apparent? De-vine was not pleased by what he saw offensively. Except for an eight-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that beat the halftime clock and featured, in a stunning reversal of form, four straight completed passes by junior Quarterback Rusty Lisch, the Irish offense slugged along fitfully. Plays were tentative, and if there was imagination in their concept it was not evident in their execution.

Through it all, heroically, stood the Pitt defense, being forced to play a grisly kind of Russian roulette as its offense kept coughing up the ball and asking for another chance. During one stretch Notre Dame recovered fumbles on the Pittsburgh 26-, 16-, 16-and 11-yard lines. For all that opportunity, Notre Dame got very little. But very little was all it needed—a tying field goal of 35 yards by Dave Reeve early in the fourth quarter and a winning field goal of 26 yards by Reeve with 5:42 to play. The clinching touchdown (if you can call it that—Pitt wasn't about to score again) came on a drive of 11—count 'em, 11—yards with three minutes left.

This is Devine's third year. He lives daily with persistent reminders of his recent past—his ineffectiveness toward the end at Green Bay, his early problems at Notre Dame when fussbudget ways and lack of rapport with some players were roundly criticized. One former Notre Dame player was quoted early on: "When they made Joe Kuharich [a former and spectacularly fallible Notre Dame coach] they didn't throw away the mold, they used it to make Dan Devine."

Unfortunately, Devine continues to leave himself open for this kind of slander by lapsing, almost inexorably, into forced comparisons between himself and his immediate predecessor at Notre Dame, the Armenian Presbyterian, who happens to still live in South Bend. Devine does this while fussing around his office—straightening pictures and plaques, smoothing his sweater on a hanger, thumbing through neat stacks of letters from approving ex-players. Invariably at such times he drops ill-disguised hints that his record is every bit as good as Ara Parseghian's. Ara left him with practically nothing, the argument goes, and it is a sound one: 10 off Ara's last team (1974) were drafted by the pros; only three have been drafted since.

The fact is that Notre Dame football has been respectable under Devine—8-3 both years—and the Irish would have gone to major bowls both years if Devine had not let them vote "no" to the Cotton Bowl in 1975. Now it is conceivable he is on the verge of a national championship because of that monster defense and because from here on out the Irish play a one-game schedule: Southern California at South Bend on Oct. 22.

Devine is now proud to say that this is his team, not Ara's, and he is willing to stand on its accomplishments—or be blamed for its failures. Unfortunately, there is always somebody around to remind him that he is not Ara, and that at Notre Dame snafus are not forgiven.

Such a failing is Notre Dame's, not Devine's, of course, but he bears the brunt of it. An unconscionably cruel column appeared in a Pittsburgh paper the morning of the game. The writer, a Jim Murray faddist, could not bring himself to use Devine's name but did manage to suggest that Don Shula was more Notre Dame's type. Devine might well have read this with his game-day scrambled eggs, but Athletic Director Moose Krause warned him off it.

Spinach is one thing, slander is quite another.

PHOTOJAMES DRAKEReeve exults after kicking a 26-yard field goal, his second, to put the Irish ahead 12-9 with 5:42 to go. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEWith Cavanaugh out, Pitt fumbled seven times as backup Adams (10) had trouble handling snaps. PHOTOJAMES DRAKECavanaugh was hurt during a touchdown toss. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEThe Pitt defense tried to hold the line but it wearied, playing almost non-stop in the last quarter.

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)