The Notre Dame football program had enjoyed a great run with Joe Montana at quarterback. The man who was already a college legend when he left South Bend following the 1978 season and was about to become an NFL legend with the San Francisco 49ers, had led Notre Dame to a national title in 1977 and a historic Cotton Bowl comeback win in 1978 had to be replaced. The transitional year of 1979 Notre Dame football proved to be a rocky indeed.
Notre Dame traveled to Michigan to start the year, and with Rusty Lisch now at quarterback, the offense bogged down. But the kicking game and the defense bailed out the Irish. They clung to a 12-10 lead in the game’s closing moments. Michigan lined up for a short field goal try to win it. Notre Dame linebacker Bob Crable blocked the kick.
It was the first big play of what would be many for Crable in his college career. A sophomore in 1979, he would make All-American each of the next two years, and he joined with freshman defensive back Dave Duerson—a future starter with the 1985 Chicago Bears, to give Notre Dame a good young crop of defensive talent.
That talent was still too young one week later against Purdue though. The Boilermakers, led by quarterback Mark Herrman, moved the ball well and won 28-22. It was the start of a big year in West Lafayette, as Purdue would finish the regular season 9-2, win the Bluebonnet Bowl and end up 10th in the nation. On September 22, they dropped Notre Dame from #5 in the polls to #15.
Notre Dame got a needed win over Michigan State, an easy 27-3 win that provided a little solace for the fact the Spartans beat the Irish in a big basketball game the previous March—Magic Johnson and Michigan State knocked out Digger Phelps’ Notre Dame hoopsters in the regional final of the NCAA Tournament.
The victory moved the Fighting Irish back into the Top 10, and they stayed there with wins over Georgia Tech and Air Force, neither of which was a winning team in 1979. It set the stage for another big battle with USC.
USC won a co-national championship with Alabama in 1978, and had a great running back in Charles White. The game was in South Bend, and Notre Dame got a big performance from their own All-American runner, Vagas Ferguson. The Irish back ran for 185 yards and ND hung in for a half with the fourth-ranked Trojans, tied 7-7 at intermission.
But White took over in the second half and scored four touchdowns, as USC pulled away to a 42-23 win. It set up White to win the Heisman Trophy and the Trojans to eventually finish #2 nationally. Notre Dame fell to #14 in the rankings. Their national championship hopes were gone and the hopes of a major bowl game were in serious trouble.
A tough fight over bowl-bound South Carolina (at a time when there were only 15 bowl games, the phrase “bowl-bound” meant something) produced an 18-17 win, and Notre Dame followed it up with a 14-0 shutout of a Navy team that won seven games.
On November 10 heading into a Tennessee, there was still hope of making it to a New Year’s Day game. But those hopes came crashing down hard in Knoxville, as the Irish fell 40-18 to the Vols. It deserves noting that this was not a great Tennessee team—they were pretty good, to be sure, winning seven games and being the team that lost to Purdue in the Bluebonnet Bowl. But Tennessee ended the year unranked.
A better opponent in Clemson came to South Bend a week later. The Tigers had two good young defensive players on their own, in linebacker Jeff Davis and defensive back Terry Kinard, and they would form the heart of a team that won the 1981 national championship. Notre Dame led 10-0, but the Tiger defense locked down, Kinard intercepted two fourth quarter passes, and Clemson won 16-10.
There would be no bowl game in South Bend. This was a time when Notre Dame refused most non-major bowl invites (though an exception was made in 1976 to play Joe Paterno’s Penn State). Ferguson got postseason honors, rushing over 1,400 yards, making All-American and finishing fifth in the Heisman voting.
But the only serious trip the 1979 Notre Dame football team would make was to Tokyo, for a season-ending game with Miami, which the Irish won 40-15. They concluded the year unranked. Better days were immediately around the corner, as Notre Dame would contend for the national title in Devine’s final year of 1980. But the first post-Montana season was a rocky one indeed.