As the Cotton Bowl showdown with undefeated Texas drew near, Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine recalled a day in practice when he suspected his No. 5-ranked team was not going to rise to the occasion. The players missed blocks. They missed passes. A couple even missed the team bus.
After that grim afternoon, Devine gathered his bemused athletes into a dressing room and delivered the kind of oration other Notre Dame coaches at other times have had paraphrased in bronze and on celluloid. "If you play like you're practicing," he said, "Texas will blow your butts out of the Cotton Bowl. The day is gone when people lay down for Notre Dame. Play like this, and you'll wake up in the second quarter and it'll be 21-zip."
Devine said two of his captains came to him later and said, "Thanks, Coach, we needed that."
What happened next would not be attributable in this day and age to anything as prosaic as an old-fashioned pep-talk, not even by Devine. But the day before the Cotton Bowl game, sitting on the edge of his motel bed wrapped in a scarf to protect a stiff neck, Devine said it was almost scary how the Irish had turned themselves around. "We're right back where we were before the USC game," he said, recalling with obvious relish that 49-19 Irish haymaker. "I don't think we can play any better than we're playing—or will play."
January 9, 1978
Devine glanced down at a list of "incentives" he had planned to bring up at practice that afternoon. The fact that Texas had become a seven-point favorite; that at the Cotton Bowl luncheon the Longhorns had been given seats of honor while the Irish had to scramble for places in the balcony; that Texas players had their initials on their gift watches. "Trivial stuff," Devine sniffed and threw the note pad aside. "It's not necessary. We're going to win."
Oh, my, how the Irish won!
There is a story about a dentist who was renowned for the speed of his work. As a patient would settle in the chair for a crucial extraction, the dentist would lean forward and say, "This won't take long...did it?"
In less than eight minutes in the second period of exactly the kind of game no one expected, Notre Dame performed surgery on Texas that was, if not painless, exquisitely deft. From a 3-3 tie, the practically perfect Irish—swift and sure on offense, overwhelming on defense—did some remarkable operating of their own, and before 76,701 chilled Cotton Bowl spectators could say bye-bye national championship, the score was 24-3. Though it would eventually mount to 38-10, the game was over right there.
Devine had said beforehand that this was, personally, his biggest game. His own self-darkened humor surfaces at such times. He quipped that a Chicago group of Notre Dame alumni had given him "moccasins for Christmas. Water moccasins." That line passed largely unnoticed (as well it might), but, for certain, Devine is a strangely beleaguered coach. It would seem ludicrous for a man with a 10-1 record, a No. 5 national ranking and 27 victories in 34 games during three years at South Bend, to feel that way, but he is probably right. He remains vaguely suspect. It was only natural that in the tumult of the Cotton Bowl victory he would repeat that it was his biggest win, and please take back the moccasins.
It was more than natural, it was logical that Devine would then reaffirm what Notre Darners have been contending all along: in the event of such a victory, the Irish now deserve to have what Texas has been harboring for weeks—the No. 1 ranking. "Yes," said Devine, lank hair in his eyes, and the stillest, smallest voice in the balmy Irish dressing room, "we ought to be No. 1."
When you sift through the rubble, you find it hard to resist the argument.
Practically perfect? The Irish were better than that. Consider the evidence.
•The disciplined and aggressive Notre Dame defense made hash out of Coach of the Year Fred Akers' 300-yards-a-game rushing attack, holding it to 131 yards. Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell got 116 of those, and that would seem a lot until you break it down. Shutting Campbell off from the outside—the Irish linebackers sometimes looping to support the pinching and plugging end play of Ross Browner and Willie Fry, while alternating a bewildering assortment of four- and five-man line sets—Notre Dame forced Campbell to carry the ball 29 times to get those 116 yards. They were a painstaking collection of two- and three-yarders, plus one striking run when Campbell caught a Notre Dame end otherwise occupied inside and broke loose to the outside for 18 yards. But for most of the day Campbell wore Irish Middle Guard-Linebacker Bob Golic, the game's outstanding defensive player, on his chest. Golic weighs 244 pounds. That's some handicap.
•Poor Randy McEachern, the people's choice as the best third-string quarterback in America, was rushed unremittingly. He had to work very hard to complete 11 of 24 passes and had to put in overtime to get the one Texas touchdown, a 13-yard pass to Mike Lockett on an extra down granted the Longhorns because of a penalty on the last play of the first half.
•Three McEachern passes were intercepted, two by linebackers who couldn't believe their good fortune to be right in the path of his harried, hurried throws. Twice those interceptions initiated Notre Dame touchdown drives. By contrast, Irish Quarterback Joe Montana, himself a third-stringer when the season opened (but we all knew old Joe would rise up because his wife answers a phone in the Notre Dame publicity office), had only one of 25 intercepted—and that was of no consequence.
•Notre Dame's Jerome Heavens and Vagas Ferguson rushed for 101 and 100 yards, respectively, and never fumbled. In fact, none of the Irish fumbled. Texas did. Three times. And lost each of them. Two led to Notre Dame touchdowns. "We had a bad day, man," said Akers afterward. "Didn't you ever have a bad day?" Akers lamented that the fumbles were not properly induced (that is, by physical duress), but the truth was that Notre Dame's swarming defenders consistently got to the ball at the point of attack, forcing premature handoffs and pitches that led to turnovers. They were not accidents.
Because of the six Longhorn turnovers, the Irish never had to drive more than 35 yards for any of their 24 first-half points. Touchdowns—two on traps to the left side by Fullback Terry Eurick, who at the half was averaging a score every time he touched the ball—were rung up after a fumble at the 27, a fumble at the 35 and an interception that Linebacker Doug Becker ran back to the Texas 20. Serendipity: three Notre Dame TDs in seven minutes and 32 seconds.
•Notre Dame ran 28 plays to Texas' 12 in the third quarter—Devine called it "our most important third quarter of the season"—when its dominance became complete. Devine had vowed beforehand not to play conservatively. The Notre Dame offense has many sharp edges, and to counteract Texas' quick, active defenders—indeed, to turn the Longhorns' speed against them—the Irish used a multiplicity of traps, quick draws and sprint-out passes to bedevil Texas. From one particularly effective set, the Irish consistently got good yardage out of three plays that started the same way—a power play, a sprint draw and a sprint-out pass. Perhaps most amazing of all was the way Irish Guard Ernie Hughes handled Brad Shearer, Texas' outstanding and outspoken Outland Trophy winner. Hughes seemed to think he had the proper incentive. "When somebody is doing a lot of talking," Hughes said, "football players know that the only way to shut his mouth is on the field. I read that Shearer said there were other guards in the country better than me."
More often than not, Hughes handled Shearer one-on-one. Sometimes Center Dave Huffman would drop by to see if Hughes still was doing O.K., then Huffman would go about his own business. Huffman, who wears red sleeves under his jersey "so Mom can see me in pile-ups," said that, "If Shearer is the outstanding tackle in the country, Hughes must be the outstanding guard. It was a personal vendetta."
Blatantly, Notre Dame tried to run up the score with gaudy passes at the end. Devine, his cheek bulging, said the Irish were actually trying to give a Texas cornerback who hadn't played much "some needed game experience." What he actually was trying to give was a prod to wire-service pollees who vote for the national championship. By now, of course, the votes are in and it has been determined if, indeed, the Irish jumped all the way from fifth to first to win it all, much the way Alabama did in a series of bowl upsets that ended the 1965 season.
In either case, win it or not, the alums won't be able to blame Dan Devine.
Though they probably will.