After a rough rookie year in 1981, Gerry Faust’s second year on the sideline in South Bend was looking better. Notre Dame won big games and was poised to get to a major bowl. Then a late fade sent Faust and the Irish back to the drawing board.
The 1982 Notre Dame football team was built on its defense. They ranked 19th in the country in points allowed and were led by ballhawking safety Dave Duerson. A future member of the great Chicago Bears’ defense of 1985, Duerson intercepted seven passes in his senior season for the Irish.
Duerson was joined by linebacker Mark Zavagnin, a who got some votes in the All-American balloting, along with a solid veteran defensive tackle in Bob Clasby.
Notre Dame could also run the football. A balanced three-pronged attack was led by senior Phil Carter who ran for over 700 yards. Freshman Allen Pinkett was getting an outstanding college career underway and cleared the 500-yard mark. So did senior fullback Larry Moriarty.
Moriarty was also the team’s third-leading pass-catcher, which perhaps underscored Notre Dame’s biggest problem. They could not generate passing offense. It wasn’t for a lack of targets. Tight end Tony Hunter caught 42 balls and would be a first-round pick in the coming spring’s NFL draft. Joe Howard was a good deep threat. But the consistency at the quarterback position was not there.
Blair Kiel got the bulk of the snaps and his 54% completion rate was decent in that era. But his 5.8 yards-per-attempt was simply way too low. And while TD-INT ratios from this time period are always worse than what we see today, a 3/10 figure wasn’t going to hack it—not even in 1982.
Notre Dame was ranked #18 to start the season, although a late start to the schedule meant they were actually #20 when the first game finally arrived. But it was a game that would be worth the wait.
Michigan was coming to South Bend and the university would install lights. It was the first night game ever at Notre Dame Stadium. And the Irish looked every bit ready for prime-time.
Notre Dame dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. For 3 ½ quarters, Michigan could only score on special teams and the Irish led 23-10. With just over seven minutes to go, Notre Dame got a bad break—a Wolverine touchdown came when running back Vincent Bean grabbed a deflected pass right off the shoulder pad of the intended receiver and raced for a touchdown.
When Michigan drove to the Notre Dame 30-yard line it looked like Faust’s bad luck from 1981, when his team lost several games at the wire, might continue. Duerson saved the day when he stripped the ball from Bean with 2:14 to play. The Irish had the 23-17 win and moved to #10 in the polls.
Wins over Purdue and Michigan State, both bad teams, kept Notre Dame ranked #10 when Miami came to town. The Hurricanes were ranked #17. Under head coach Howard Schnellenberger their program was building towards what would be a shocking 1983 national championship that upended the entire landscape of college football.
On this October afternoon in South Bend, Miami looked ready to upend Notre Dame’s unbeaten season, taking a 14-10 lead into the fourth quarter. The Irish still trailed 14-13 late when they got a big stop and then drove for a game-winning field goal with 0:11 left.
At 4-0, the Irish were riding high. But two mediocre Pac-10 teams would throw a monkey wrench into the season.
Arizona ended up a six-win team, but one of those victories came in South Bend. A 16-13 upset loss sent Notre Dame tumbling to #15 in the polls. A visit to woeful Oregon resulted in a tie. The Irish dropped out of the rankings.
Notre Dame bounced back with a 27-10 win over an average Navy squad in East Rutherford. A week later they had to make another trip east. This one to Pittsburgh, where Dan Marino and the #1-ranked Pitt Panthers were waiting.
Faust’s defense was ready for Marino and for three quarters, they kept the Irish in the game. Notre Dame trailed 13-10. Then early in the fourth quarter, the Irish offense uncharacteristically erupted.
Kiel threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Howard off a flea-flicker. Pinkett raced 76 yards for a touchdown. Pinkett followed that up by finishing off a 65-yard drive with another touchdown. The freshman running back rolled up 112 yards on just ten carries and Notre Dame stunned the nation with a 31-16 win.
The pollsters responded by re-inserting the Irish into the rankings at #13. Major bowl scouts were watching a team that was 6-1-1. The opportunity was there for Notre Dame to get a breakthrough that might have reshaped Faust’s tenure.
Notre Dame lost at home to Penn State 24-14. But the Lions would be the eventual national champion and even if the Irish could win their final two games, they would be an attractive bowl team at 8-2-1.
But a road trip to Air Force produced another loss. The Falcons were a good team, one Faust consistently struggled against and the final was 30-17. A road trip to archrival USC on the Saturday after Thanksgiving brought a controversial end to the season.
Notre Dame led 13-10 late in the game and appeared to recover a fumble at the goal line. Officials not only ruled the ball belonged to USC, but that it was, in fact, a touchdown. A bitter 17-13 loss was a fitting conclusion to a bitter end of the season.
The Irish had improved from Faust’s first year, but no major bowl wasn’t going to cut it in South Bend. The negative momentum continued and the head coach couldn’t get it turned around over the next three years. Who knows if history might look different had the 1982 edition of Notre Dame football been able to close the deal.