Last Friday morning Coach Dan Devine sat in the front row of the first of the three buses taking his Notre Dame football team on the 140-mile trip from South Bend, Ind. to Ann Arbor, Mich. trying to pinpoint the personality of his squad. "This group is different," he said. "I think they have a feeling I'll get them out of whatever scrapes they get into during the game. They just have blind faith in me. But I have blind faith in them.... I have to, because they haven't at any time shown me they have the ability to beat a team like Michigan."
Indeed, there was very much a feeling on the bus trip of lambs being led to the slaughter. Of course, the lambs didn't realize it; they never do. This would be the season opener for a Notre Dame team that, whispers had it, was potentially the school's worst in several years. It might even lose four games. That would be a disaster of unspeakable proportions in South Bend; not since 1963 has a Notre Dame team lost more than three games. But it certainly seemed possible, because nearly all the stars of recent glorious moments are gone, including the dazzling Quarterback Joe Montana and the all-time leading Irish ground-gainer, Jerome Heavens. Plus Notre Dame would be playing what the NCAA has announced is the toughest schedule in the land. Shed a tear for the Irish.
As the Michigan countryside rolled by, Defensive Coordinator Joe Yonto talked of life with seven of last year's 11 defensive starters gone and injuries cutting into his slim stock of veterans. "We're so young," he said. "We're eager, enthused—and very trappable." He sighed, then suggested, "But somebody may just rally to the cause. Kids have a surprising way of rising to the occasion." Shed another tear for the Irish.
What happened, of course, is that two kids in particular—a kicker nobody wanted and a linebacker who plays with barely controlled intensity—rose to the occasion. In spades. And with support from the rest of the squad, including a shockingly adept defensive unit, they pulled off yet another miraculous Notre Dame win. But what did you expect? The last time the Irish engaged in such heroics was the game just before this one—the Cotton Bowl, where they tied Houston on an eight-yard pass with no time remaining and won on the conversion. Last Saturday there was still a full second left when sophomore Linebacker Bob Crable blocked a Michigan field-goal try to preserve the 12-10 win.
Still, by the time the winds of November sweep the Midwest, it may be that neither Michigan nor Notre Dame will be at the top of the football pecking order. That's because both seem a notch or more below championship form, primarily because both may have shortcomings at quarterback.
Michigan is trying to replace all-everything Rick Leach with B.J. Dickey, an unknown from Ottawa, Ohio, who wasn't recruited by other football powers. "All I wanted to do was make the traveling squad," B.J. says. He has far surpassed that modest goal by showing a talent for directing the option, the toughness to turn upfield with the ball when need be and adequate passing ability.
The Irish are trying a little dèjà vu with Rusty Lisch, who was named the starter in 1977 but was replaced after three games by Montana. Notre Dame then went on to win the national championship. Last year Lisch didn't play a down. On the matter of having lost out once as the quarterback, Lisch is laconic. "I learned a lot," he says.
"That I wasn't as good as Montana."
On Saturday both Dickey and Lisch showed they have plenty of room for improvement, but they also showed enough flair to give hope that, with time, they can move into the class of their predecessors. Indeed, while Lisch had a so-so day—five of 10 passes for 65 yards and one interception—it should be remembered that he was working against a fine defense. He didn't produce a touchdown, but he often got the ball close to the Michigan goal, mainly by giving it to Halfback Vagas Ferguson at every available opportunity. Ferguson responded by gaining 118 yards on 35 carries to set up all of the Irish's field goals.
As for the deceptive Dickey, his best moment came early in the second quarter. The Wolverines had driven 84 yards on their first possession and Bryan Virgil kicked a 30-yard field goal. Now, after a Notre Dame field goal and with Michigan on the Irish 17, Dickey dropped back to pass, but none of his receivers was open. So he darted up the middle for 16 yards to the Notre Dame one. On the next play, Tailback Stan Edwards carried around the left side for the only touchdown of the game and a 10-3 Michigan lead.
Ah, yes, the only touchdown. Enter the name Male into the bulging pantheon of Notre Dame heroes. Chuck Male is the field-goal kicker who calmly booted 4 for 4 at distances of 40, 44, 22 and 39 yards. That gave Male the school record for most field goals in a game. It also gave the Irish all their points. "This is something you dream about," Male said. "Winning a game in front of 100,000 people. If you didn't dream of a day like this, you couldn't be a kicker."
Chuck kicked well in high school, but no college came knocking. Even though he had about a B-plus average, Notre Dame turned him down. Dismayed, Male went to Western Michigan, determined to smarten up and try again. One year later, in September 1976, he entered Notre Dame. Then one afternoon in the spring of '77, Male was kicking footballs when Devine jogged by. "You're kicking the ball pretty good," the coach said. So Chuck became a walk-on and set about the sometimes esoteric, always lonesome job of perfecting his kicking.
During warmups in Michigan Stadium, Male hit two from 50 yards, and his coach, Brian Boulac, told him, "You're on today." Male replied, "I'll hit it if I'm given a chance." Prophetic, that, because he was indeed "given" three opportunities by the Wolverines. Male got his first two field goals after Michigan fumbled, his third after the Irish got down to the Wolverine five but couldn't score and his last with 3:46 to go in the third quarter following a short Wolverine punt.
For most of the afternoon it looked as if Notre Dame were hanging on by Male's toenail. Michigan, it seemed, would explode any moment. Even Devine admitted he felt good about being down only 10-6 at the half. By that time Dickey, Edwards & Co. had rolled up 12 first downs to the Irish's three, had outrushed Notre Dame by 126 yards to 43 and had completed six of 10 passes for 86 yards. During the break Devine told his troops, "You're gonna have to give a little more, dig down a little deeper." Which the faithful did. In the third quarter the Wolverines earned not one first down.
The fourth quarter started with Notre Dame on top 12-10, but it seemed unlikely the Irish would hold on, especially when Ferguson fumbled on his own 35 and Michigan's Curtis Greer fell on the ball. But on third and seven. Tackle Don Kidd sacked Dickey for a seven-yard loss.
With six minutes left Devine sent Reserve Quarterback Mike Courey in to run the ball because Lisch had a sprained left ankle. At least Courey told his teammates he would run the ball. But he passed—and was intercepted on the Irish 44. Courey buried his head and asked, "Can you believe I did that?" Said Assistant Coach Ron Toman, "No."
On its next possession. Michigan tried another quarterback, John Wangler, who drove the Wolverines from their own 42, with 2:02 to play, down to the Irish 25, with seven seconds to go. In came Virgil for a 42-yard field-goal attempt. Despite the 30-yarder he had kicked earlier, Virgil may have been in a bad frame of mind, what with having punted poorly, including one boot that went only five yards. Now. with six seconds left, the ball was put down by Dickey, whereupon Bob Crable vaulted up in the center of the Notre Dame line—his hands seemed to reach about 15 feet in the air as he climbed on the backs of his teammates—and blocked the ball with his left hip. Was he surprised it was open over center? "It was not open over center," said Crable. What? George Kelly, the Irish linebacker coach, said of Crable, who also had 10 solo tackles and two assists, "He just does goofy things."
Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler, who treats a football game with all the lightheartedness that George Patton treated war, was tight-lipped. "We had problems offensively," he said. To say the least. Schembechler's team was uncharacteristically disorganized. For example, twice in three plays in the second quarter the Wolverines were penalized for delay of game, and an illegal-substitution penalty in the final series of the game drove them back, perhaps just enough that the unsettled Virgil struck his final kick at too low a trajectory in an effort to compensate.
Michigan had plenty of other chances to win, especially considering that in the second half Notre Dame tried three passes, completed none and suffered two interceptions.
"I didn't say we played a perfect game," said Devine. No, indeed. But it wasn't bad for turning a lot of skeptics into believers.