Preparing his team for last Saturday's game with Alabama was just another ho-hum week for Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine. Which is to say, it was miserable. But then he has grown accustomed to misery. During his six years as Irish coach, Devine has endured countless rumors that he would be fired if he didn't win on a given Saturday; he always won on a given Saturday. O.K., so he'd be fired if he didn't have a good season; he always had a good season. Nevertheless, before this one began, Devine himself let it be known that he would be leaving at the end of 1980, win, lose or lynched.
But even by Devine's standards, last week was the pits. He was trying to rally his depressed team, which had lost 3-3 the week before to lowly Georgia Tech, after seven straight wins. Now there are purists who would say 3-3 isn't a loss. Not Notre Dame Defensive End Scott Zettek. As he succinctly put it, "If you don't win, you lose." This debacle cost Notre Dame its No. 1 ranking—after only one week at the top—and the team was dropped to No. 6 in the AP poll. The 3-3 tie created another problem for Devine; how to get freshman Quarterback Blair Kiel propped back up emotionally after the confidence-shattering treatment he was accorded by Tech.
Moreover, the disheartened Irish were about to go on the road for the fourth week in a row, this time into Bear Bryant's den in Birmingham, and there were the injuries, of course. And finally, there was yet another upsetting rumor, this one published as fact in the Chicago Tribune, which said Devine would return as coach next year and that this would be announced after the Alabama game. There was no announcement.
For all that, it was a sanguine Devine who methodically prepared his team for the big game with Alabama. At home last Thursday night, he was musing about his squad. "I've yelled at some of these guys so much that I don't know why they even listen to me, much less do what I tell them," he said. "But they're great kids. Aw, what the heck. I'm not much good as a coach, but I'm great at cooking steaks."
Sure enough. Standing out back of his South Bend home wearing his Notre Dame Fighting Irish jacket, he hovered over the steaks on the charcoal grill like a mother hen. He fretted about the coals—too cool, oops, too hot. Devine frets about everything. But he did ultimately prove that if he gives up football, he can always make it as a chef.
Two days later at Legion Field, he proved he also knows a bit about coaching. Notre Dame was gloriously prepared for Alabama, a team that had been No. 1 itself for seven weeks. Despite a 6-3 loss to Mississippi State, it was still very much a challenger in the confusing chase for the national title. Said Ben Cook, editor of the SEC Sports Journal, "After two national championships in a row, Alabama fans now feel it's their birthright."
So what did Devine's Irish up and do? They stemmed the Tide by a score of 7-0 right there in Bear's turf, leaving Bryant 0-4 against Notre Dame lifetime. Three months ago the Irish had looked like a team that would go 7-4 and then play in a bowl that would leave their New Year's Day calendar clear. They were up against the ninth toughest set of opponents in the country. Alabama had the 62nd toughest on its schedule, but how do you factor in an aroused Notre Dame? As Zettek was saying before the game, "I feel sorry for the team that's on the field when we put it all together." At which time, 'Bama showed up.
It was only the second time Bryant had seen one of his teams get shut out at home in his 23 years at Alabama. Two of his earlier losses to Notre Dame cost him national titles. The first time was in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, when Alabama was ranked No. 1, Notre Dame No. 3, and both were unbeaten. The Irish scored a dramatic 24-23 victory, featuring a desperation end-zone pass by Tom Clements. The next year unbeaten Alabama, No. 2-ranked and with designs on No. 1, played twice-whipped Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. This time the Irish won 13-11, thanks to an interception late in the game when Alabama might have kicked a field goal to win.
Asked how he felt after Saturday's defeat, Bryant said, "Well, I went out there and wasted my afternoon." But the game wasn't a waste for the fans. It was a hard-knocking, tense struggle before 78,873 spectators and a national TV audience. When it was over, the Irish had an invitation to the Sugar Bowl, where they will play Georgia in what could be a battle for the national championship. In defeat, Alabama agreed to go to the Cotton Bowl and play Baylor for the money. Asked if Notre Dame could perform any better than it did Saturday, Devine said softly, "I don't think so."
As it developed, the outcome was decided in a wild flurry that started with 9:37 to play in the second quarter, when 'Bama had the ball with a third-and-four on its own 12. Quarterback Don Jacobs attempted to hand off to his fullback, Billy Jackson, but the ball hit Jackson's hip, hit the ground, and Irish Defensive End John Hankerd jumped on it. "I didn't hit anybody but I'll take credit for the fumble," he said. "Some Alabama guy grabbed it, too, but I had it more than he did."
So the Irish took over on the 'Bama 12 and punched it down to the 1, whereupon Kiel stepped away from the center too quickly and the ball squirted out of his hands. "I thought, 'Oh, God, I really blew it," said Kiel. 'Bama's Middle Guard Warren Lyles covered the fumble on the one. Two plays later Jacobs was involved in another fumble, on his own three, and Zettek, who made nine tackles on the day, recovered it. With the Irish, he said later, "doing the unusual is commonplace."
On the second play after Zettek's recovery, with the ball on the Alabama two and 6:02 to go in the half, Kiel called Power Right 33 Seal. Phil Carter, the splendid Irish halfback, took the hand-off and crashed up the middle, diving and stretching into the end zone. Carter, the game's leading rusher with 84 yards, is that rare breed, the kind of back who genuinely loves to run straight ahead and take on the linebackers. "I like to take a beating," he has said. For his part, Devine says, "I always see all 22 players on the field every play, but Carter is so fast that once I only saw 21."
Still, the Tide had its chances. In the third quarter it missed a 37-yard field-goal attempt. On the first play of the final quarter, fourth down and two from the Notre Dame 35, Alabama was stopped cold. The Irish blew a 19-yard field goal from a difficult angle midway through the fourth quarter when Harry Oliver slipped as he was about to kick the ball. Given this reprieve from what would have been a 10-0 deficit, Alabama had one last opportunity to tie—win if it scored and made good on a two-point conversion. But with the ball on the Notre Dame 37, fourth and less than one, Halfback Linnie Patrick was stopped for no gain by Irish Linebacker Bob Crable.
Crable led the Irish defense, making 11 tackles, nine unassisted. Linebacker Coach George Kelly attributes Crable's astounding play to the fact that "he's so fearful of failure." Crable was a heralded freshman in 1978, but he played miserably before catching on. With a vengeance. He deserves much credit for the fact that the Irish haven't given up a touchdown in their last five games. 'Bama's total offense was only 246 yards, compared with its average of 388.1.
Yet the Tide was even more stingy, limiting the Irish to just 192 yards of total offense, thanks in large measure to Linebacker Thomas Boyd and Strong Safety Tommy Wilcox, each of whom had 19 tackles; 14 of Boyd's were unassisted. But the Irish cashed in when that one double opportunity reared its gorgeous head. Joe Yonto, veteran defensive coordinator for Notre Dame, said of his group's performance, "They gave up too many yards." But his big smile spoke his true feelings.
In Alabama, nobody complains openly about Bryant. It's against the law. But after two defeats this year, with the national championship out of reach, there is whispered discontent. Fans aren't pleased with the way Bryant has handled the quarterback situation. In one game he used five. Jacobs, coming off knee surgery, is slower now and his passing woeful. But Bear has experimented with others—notably freshman Walter Lewis, who took over near the end of the first half—in ways that clearly have hurt continuity. And some of the faithful aren't elated with Bryant's minimal use of Major Ogilvie, one of the better running backs around. On Saturday, Ogilvie carried only three times for four yards. In the Mississippi State defeat, he carried seven times.
To question the decisions of a man who will soon be the winningest coach in history is perhaps presumptuous. But Bryant prompts it himself with his repeated observations that only his coaching can screw things up. He doesn't mean it, of course, but it does set others to considering the possibility.
At the least, Bryant should be questioning his wisdom in giving one of his famed hats to Notre Dame Athletic Director Moose Krause years ago at a New York City dinner. Moose has worn it the week of all four Alabama games. "This hat," says Moose, "is undefeated."
And so, of course, is Notre Dame, no matter what Zettek might say. But remaining so might be a problem. Before meeting Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the Irish must get by what figures to be an angry group of USC Trojans in Los Angeles on Dec. 6. USC lost to Washington last week, ending its chances for the national championship, but if the Trojans beat the Irish, Notre Dame will be gone, too, and will be playing New Year's Day merely to keep Georgia from the title. And if that happens....
Dan Devine will worry about that later. No matter what else happens, he'll always have last week in Birmingham to savor while he fusses over his steaks.