Sixty-three minutes before the Michigan-Notre Dame kickoff last Saturday in Ann Arbor, Wolverine Coach Bo Schembechler strode into a room beneath the packed stands of Michigan Stadium. That room, too, was packed—with high school football stars Bo hopes will be wearing maize and blue in future years. Curtly, the 52-year-old coach said, "I hope you enjoy the game, because this is what college football is all about." Then he paused and somberly delivered his exit line: "Our backs are kind of to the wall."
Kind of? Listen, Bo, when you start the season ranked No. 1, then get upset by Wisconsin in your opener, and now have the new No. 1 team in both wire service polls, Notre Dame, staring you in the face, your back's not only to the wall, but your reputation is on the line. Tell it like it is.
Complicating matters for Michigan was the fact that the Irish seemed to have a hex on the Wolverines, having defeated them by two points in 1979 and by the same margin last year. Also, those Irish victors were supposed to have been dull teams with a dull coach, Dan Devine, while the 1981 Irish had showed in their opening-game rout of L.S.U. that they would be an exciting, wide-open team under their enthusiastic new coach from the high school ranks, Gerry Faust.
So, what happened? Well, Michigan won 25-7, before a crowd of 105,888, third-largest in Michigan history, but we're not just talking victory here. We are talking annihilation, dismantling, demolition and abject demoralization. For example, Notre Dame went from midway in the second quarter to early in the fourth between first downs. Michigan generated 407 yards of offense to 213 for the Irish. In truth, the game wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated.
September 27, 1981
Fans with short attention spans could have learned all they needed to know by watching the game's first series of plays. The very first play was the key to the entire rout. Michigan Quarterback Steve Smith, who admits he was terrible in the 21-14 loss to Wisconsin—the stats (he completed six of 18 passes, three to Michigan players, three to Wisconsin players) back him up—ran right on a keeper, ducked inside and cut up the field for 26 delicious yards. If ever a young man needed success immediately, Smith did.
And when Smith, a sophomore who saw action in only three games last season, jumped up after finally being tackled on his own 38, he had the look of a man high on success.
Had the Irish been able to stop him, the rest of the game might well have had a different look. Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson confessed, "We felt we could destroy Smith's confidence after what happened at Wisconsin. But we couldn't. Today, they played like a No. 1 team."
Then, one-two-three plays in a row, Tailback Butch Woolfolk stung the Irish defense, running for a total of 24 yards. Smith, with his newfound confidence, rolled left for eight yards and Woolfolk struck for 15 more (he finished with 139 for the day). The point wasn't that Michigan was moving the ball, but that it was doing it easily. It seemed not a question of whether the Wolverines would score, but when and how often. As it turned out, Michigan did fail to score on that opening drive when Ali Haji-Sheikh missed a 31-yard field-goal try. But Michigan had left its calling card with the Notre Dame defense, and would be back knocking again soon. Insistently. Oh yes, and the Wolverines had done all this without their game-breaker, Flanker Anthony Carter, catching a single pass.
All of which made Woolfolk's observation of last summer seem 100% prophetic: "Our passing game should be elite and our running game superb. I don't understand how we can be stopped." Tackling, of course, would have been one way to stop Michigan, but Notre Dame couldn't handle the vengeful blocking of Michigan's massive offensive line. The smallest member of that front is 6'1", 230-pound sophomore Center Tom Dixon, while the rest—tackles Ed Muransky and Bubba Paris, guards Kurt Becker and Stefan Humphries—average 6'5", 260.
The further significance of Michigan's first offensive series was to cast in concrete the fears Faust had expressed while sitting in his motel room late on the eve of the game. "Great football teams have the ability to rebound," he said. In that first series, Faust—and everyone else—could tell that Michigan had rebounded. Credit that to Bo.
For openers, Schembechler had refused to go public and lambaste Smith ("He's our quarterback and we're going to play with him") or any other player following the debacle at Wisconsin; he just called them all rotten. Asked if any of his players had talked with him about the loss to Wisconsin, Bo stormed, "They don't talk to me when I'm in this mood. I talk to them."
The Wolverines had a grueling week of practice. "All coaching is," said Defensive Coordinator Bill McCartney, "is taking a player where he can't take himself." In this case, the coaches took the players to the pits. Before Wisconsin, the concern among the Wolverines was that nobody get hurt in practice; before Notre Dame, concern about injury went south and all the Wolverines recklessly had at each other.
Whatever spirit Haji-Sheikh's missed field-goal attempt kindled in the Irish, it didn't last long. Just three plays, in fact. Three plays that netted all of three yards. But on the next Irish offensive series, senior Quarterback Tim Koegel—one of nine members of the squad who had played under Faust at Moeller High in Cincinnati—found Tight End Dean Masztak with two passes to spark a drive that went from the Irish 16 to a fourth-and-goal at the Michigan eight. A chip-shot field goal for Harry Oliver, and Notre Dame would be on the board first. But Faust ordered up a fake kick. Wing-back Tony Hunter broke free, but holder Dave Condeni's pass was high, forcing Hunter to make a leaping catch; he landed off-balance and slipped down at the four. Asked later about the advisability of going for the touchdown, Faust said, "It was open, wasn't it?" It was.
Michigan finally scored at 2:52 of the second quarter. The play was an off-tackle fake run disguising a three-deep pass pattern. Smith, who had hit Carter only once, for 11 yards, at Wisconsin, lobbed the ball 40 yards to his flanker, who then ran 31 more yards for the touchdown.
"It was a nice pass," said the laconic Carter, making what for him was a speech. Running downfield, Carter had been knocked out of bounds, and Notre Dame Free Safety Rod Bone no doubt thought he was out of the play for good. "Then," Bone said sadly, "I saw him too deep too late." Of course. If you can see Carter, it probably is too late. Carter, who is listed at 161 pounds but appears at least 10 pounds lighter, can break a defender's heart scores of ways with his skinny legs. With 6:22 to go in the third quarter and the ball at the Irish 15, Smith hit Carter on the right sideline at the five, where Notre Dame's John Krimm was set to put on the hit. Trouble was, Carter left the scene and was next spotted in the end zone. "It was another nice pass," explained Carter, ever the wordsmith.
Leading 13-0, Michigan relentlessly pressed on. Deep in Notre Dame territory once again, Smith passed to Stacey Toran on the goal line. One problem: To-ran is a Notre Dame cornerback. However, the officials ruled that Carter, for whom the pass was intended, had been interfered with, and Michigan had the ball on the Notre Dame one. Lawrence Ricks ran it in and Michigan ran it up to 19-0. Early in the last quarter Smith ran six yards on a keeper for a 25-0 lead, and while Notre Dame eventually scored a meaningless touchdown, no Irish miracle was ever in sight.
Basking in victory, Bo kept talking up his quarterback. "It's just a matter of time until he gets real good," said Schembechler. On Saturday Smith connected on only four of 15 passes, but two were those touchdown tosses to Carter. For his part. Carter says of Smith, "He's a nice quarterback."
This was a difficult loss for Notre Dame to take, not only because of its breadth and depth, but also because it burst the euphoria that had enveloped South Bend since Faust arrived on campus in November. There were concerns because Faust had never coached in college (he was the head coach at Moeller High for 18 years), and because Notre Dame is a pressure cooker for any coach. The 27-9 win over LSU had fanned talk that Faust was already a legend, and had he won in Ann Arbor, there were those among the Irish who would have felt they should go ahead and have Faust bronzed and get it over with.
Faust, 46, not only brought his high school gung-ho attitude to Notre Dame, but he also installed a wide-open high school type offense, with lots of motion and shifts and funny pass plays. Whether it is too high school—and not enough big-time college—isn't known yet, but it didn't baffle Michigan any. Faust, who last tasted defeat 34 games ago when Moeller lost to Princeton High 13-12 in 1978, has a fondness for inspirational quotes. For now he can take solace in a maxim coined by one of his predecessors at Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, who said, "One loss is good for the soul. Too many losses are not good for the coach."
As for Bo and his boys, their backs may still be against the wall, but they regained much of the respect they had lost at Wisconsin.