Notre Dame sports was on a high in the fall of 1978. The football team won the national title following the 1977 season. Three months later, the basketball program made the Final Four. The 1978 Notre Dame football team was one marked by comebacks—they got off to a slow start in the season itself, and had several games where they had to rally.
But they eventually won a major bowl, finished in the Top 10 and produced one comeback moment in particular that lives on in lore, both for the school and for one of football’s icons.
Notre Dame was led by Joe Montana, now in his senior year at quarterback, and they opened the season ranked #5. The beginning was less than stellar. Playing Missouri at home, Montana committed three red-zone turnovers and was stopped on fourth down on another trip. Notre Dame was stopped on another fourth-down attempt down close and shanked a makeable field goal, managing to lose 3-0. They quickly fell to #14 in the polls.
The best of the Big Ten now awaited, and things did not get better, with a 28-14 home loss to Michigan. The Wolverines were followed on the schedule by Michigan State and Purdue, who would each win eight games and finish second and third in the league, as Ohio State had a down year in Woody Hayes’ final campaign. Notre Dame was able to answer the bell with close wins of 10-6 over Sparty and 29-25 over the Boilermakers.
Pitt came to South Bend on October 14. The Panthers were at an “in-between” spot in their program history. They were just removed from the Tony Dorsett years that saw them win a national title and one year away from welcoming Dan Marino to campus. But their 1978 team was still pretty good and was ranked ninth when they arrived at Notre Dame and took a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter.
It was now that Montana started to get the comebacks rolling. He completed seven straight fourth quarter passes, including two touchdowns, that produced a 26-17 win. The Irish, out of the rankings since the Michigan loss, returned to the national scene at #20. Consecutive wins over Air Force and Miami nudged Notre Dame up to #15.
Navy was enjoying a big year in 1978 and was 7-0, ranked 11th in the country, when they met Notre Dame in a neutral-site game in Cleveland. The Irish showed how far they had progressed, coasting to a 27-7 win. Another decisive win, 31-7 over a mediocre Tennessee team followed. Notre Dame went south to Atlanta and knocked off bowl-bound Georgia Tech by a 38-21 count.
The string of decisive wins had Notre Dame back in the Top 10. Running backs Vagas Ferguson and Jerome Heavens were each having good years, with Ferguson going over 1,100 yards and Heavens chipping in over 700. On the offensive line, center Dave Huffman was an All-American and linebacker Bob Golic was the same on defense.
Montana did not make All-American, that honor going to Penn State’s Chuck Fusina—while it looks kind of silly from the perspective of history, it was an accurate reflection of college football in 1978, where Fusina led Penn State to an undefeated regular season.
What Montana did do was continue to author comebacks. The Irish traveled to third-ranked USC for the season finale and fell behind 24-6. Montana led a fourth-quarter rally that put his team ahead 25-24. The win appeared to be sealed when USC quarterback Paul McDonald was sacked and fumbled on the final possession. But a Pac-10 official ruled that McDonald got his arm going forward and the pass was incomplete. It allowed USC to get into field goal range and win the game 27-25, the first of two straight games they would win with help from officiating that was—at best—shaky.
As for Notre Dame, they were still #10 in the country and had a Cotton Bowl date with Houston. It was cold and wet in Dallas and Montana suffered from hypothermia. He had to be kept in the locker room, eating chicken soup and covered with blankets. The Irish fell behind 34-12, and the quarterback emerged with 7:37 to play.
It was Tony Belden who started the comeback, blocking a punt that Steve Cichy returned from a touchdown. Montana converted the two-point play. Then he led a 61-yard touchdown drive and another two-point conversion and suddenly it was 34-28 and there was still 4:15 to play.
Notre Dame got the ball back, but Montana fumbled on the Houston 20 with 1:50 left. The Cougars were faced with 4th-and-1, and decided to go for it on their own 29-yard line. Facing a heavy wind, this was a defensible decision—they weren’t going to get more than 10-15 net yards on punt in these conditions. The Irish defense held.
Montana led the team to the eight-yard line with six seconds to play. His first pass to Kris Haines in the left corner of the end zone was incomplete. They went back to the same play, and this time Montana hit Haines. The final was 35-34.
Joe Montana would go on to win four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers. Notre Dame didn’t have quite that many great moments in its future, but they too would add to their lore. Together, a storied school and a legendary quarterback made the 1978 Notre Dame football season one to remember.