It was going to be remembered as Notre Dame legend No. 3,684. Some guy—exactly who remained to be determined—would win one for the Gipper, and the Fighting Irish would cream Michigan as they got back to the business of defending their national title. The occasion was perfect. There was Notre Dame, fighting mad after a fluky opening-game loss to Missouri at South Bend and hot to stomp on anybody. And who better than Michigan, a highly regarded team that had boldly broken off a rivalry with the Irish in 1943 and had balked at reviving it? Perfect, too, because though Irish Coach Dan Devine might occasionally drop a game to a heavy underdog like Missouri, his record in big games is like John Wayne's in shoot-outs. Then, too, poor Michigan would be playing in that cauldron of adoration called Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish hadn't lost back-to-back openers in 82 years. Will this season's legend please step forward?
Oops! Seems someone forgot to recruit a Big Game legend this year. Before the usual capacity throng of 59,075 last Saturday, Notre Dame sent in its troops and Michigan left them for dead. The final score was 28-14, but more telling was the second-half score, 21-0. For those 30 minutes Michigan outgained, outtackled, outblocked and outcoached Notre Dame out of any national championship hopes. It was a classic field-position victory—Notre Dame hemmed inside its 25-yard line on each of its six possessions and inside its 11 on two of them. It was Tackle Chris Godfrey and Linebackers Ron Simpkins and Tom Seabron regularly squashing the Irish ground attack. It was a busy pass coverage scheme that baffled Irish Quarterback Joe Montana. As Montana said afterward, "I had plenty of time back there, but seldom anyone to pass to." It was also five Notre Dame turnovers.
"We felt that if momentum swung our way we could handle them physically," said Wolverine Coach Bo Schembechler, beaming. "We just played excellent ball the whole second half."
One reason was that up in the press box Michigan Assistant Coaches Jerry Hanlon and Tirrel Burton had spotted an Irish Achilles' heel. In the first half they noticed that when Michigan ran play-action passes, the Irish free safety would dart up toward the line of scrimmage in support of the rush defenders. That left the deep middle of Notre Dame's zone vulnerable to what Michigan calls its Pro Left Wide pass play. Quarterback Rick Leach called it on the first play of the fourth quarter and hit Tight End Doug Marsh for an 18-yard scoring pass. Five-and-a-half minutes later Leach called it again, this time connecting with Ralph Clayton, from 40 yards out for another TD.
October 1, 1978
"I read the safety," Clayton said. "If he comes up, I cut to the middle. Rick reads him, too. If the safety comes up, he throws to the middle. The safety's got to support against the run. It's a tough play to defend against."
"It all clicked in the second half," said Leach, who had completed just three of 14 passes in the first two quarters but broke Notre Dame's back after the intermission with five completions in six attempts, three of them for touchdowns.
"It came down to basics," said Devine. "The idea is, you don't let people get behind you. But we had a couple mental lapses."
Earlier in the week both coaches oozed mutual respect and a mutual attitude of "let's not say something that ends up on the bulletin board." Yet Schembechler did ruffle a few feathers by saying that a win over the Irish wasn't as important as a win over Michigan State, Ohio State or anybody else in the Big Ten.
That's what Schembechler said, but what he did was to designate Notre Dame as a "red-letter game," a status normally reserved for the Spartans and Buckeyes. And he whisked his players in and out of town with a secrecy usually saved for a conference shoot-out. To get from Ann Arbor to Elkhart, maybe 150 miles, the Wolverines were bussed to Detroit, flown to South Bend and then bussed to their hotel. "I know we can get there quicker by charter bus from the campus," Schembechler said. So why fly? "Because Michigan always goes first-class," he snapped.
By contrast, Devine seemed genuinely relaxed. Asked at a practice if he had any surprises for Michigan, he thought for a moment and said, "Yes, I think we'll warm up in green jerseys and then change into blues." But one thing did sort of rankle Devine. "I have never played for a team or coached one and said that we're getting ready for two opponents at once," he said, "like Bo did when he said he was getting ready for Illinois and Notre Dame a few weeks ago."
Did Bo really say that? "Sure did," Devine said. "It's in the Ann Arbor News. Want me to get you a copy off the bulletin board?"
If both coaches were trying to stay cool about the renewal of the rivalry after 35 years, they were alone. Notre Dame Stadium had been sold out for the game since April, when the tickets went on sale. During the hiatus Notre Dame had pressed hardest for a revival, in part because the Wolverines are the only team Notre Dame has met five times or more that has an edge over the Irish (9-2). But Michigan was content with its Big Ten schedule and an occasional Army or Navy. Wild rumors spread, among them that former Michigan Head Coach and Athletic Director Fritz Crisler was anti-Catholic, and that Michigan was worried about splitting its student body and fans along religious lines. "False," says Notre Dame Athletic Director Moose Krause. "Oh, I'd call Fritz or bump into him and ask him to play, and he'd always say, 'One of these days.' But I think he didn't want to play us because we were a power in his own backyard. If Michigan lost to Army, well, they were back East. We were too close."
Shortly after Don Canham was named Michigan athletic director in 1968, he met Krause in Detroit. Canham is a mixture of P. T. Barnum and E. F. Hutton. Krause had overheard him telling somebody that he had plans to fill Michigan Stadium for every home game.
"I know how you can fill it," Krause told him.
"Play Notre Dame," Canham replied. The two men shook hands, and a few weeks later a contract was signed, renewing the series through 1982 and from 1985 through 1990. They had planned to stretch it to 2000, but after last Saturday, Krause may be reluctant to follow through.
Early on, Notre Dame thought it had found a budding legend in Scott Zettek, a burly defensive end who was magnificent all afternoon. On Michigan's second play, Fullback Russell Davis had blasted up the middle, hit a wall of defenders and been separated from the ball. Zettek dived on it at the Wolverine 17, and four plays later Montana hit Tight End Dennis Grindinger in the end zone. Michigan tied the score when Leach ended a 49-yard drive by faking a handoff and plunging over from four yards out, and Joe Unis kicked the extra point. The Irish then countered with a 10-play march from their 25, Vagas Ferguson gaining 34 yards in six carries, including a four-yard burst for the touchdown. The conversion made it 14-7.
In the third quarter, following an Irish fumble on the Michigan 28, Leach directed the Wolverines in 14 plays to the Irish five, where he flipped a touchdown pass to Marsh, and the score was tied again. Thereafter it was all Irish mistakes and Michigan offense. An interception by Linebacker Jerry Meter at the Notre Dame 34 led to Leach's 18-yarder down the middle to Marsh, and it was 20-14. Next, Mike Harden picked off a Montana pass, and two plays later Leach lofted the 40-yarder to Clayton. The dismal Irish afternoon ended with Montana being tackled by Curtis Greer for a safety, with 1:08 left.
Not long ago, Clayton, who is a poet as well as a wingback, wrote:
All that blooms must wilt away,
All that floats must come to shore,
All that drifts must sometimes stay,
All that is passed was here before.
He says he's never written a poem about football. Maybe not intentionally.