The 1980 Notre Dame football team began the season with some built-in motivation. Head coach Dan Devine, who had led the school to a national title in 1977, and enjoyed prior success coaching Missouri and the Green Bay Packers, announced he would retire at the end of the season. Notre Dame looked like it might ride the motivational wave all the way to another national championship, before coming up short in the end.
Devine was still searching for a quarterback, having never really replaced Joe Montana, after the soon-to-be NFL legend left campus following the 1978 season. Freshman Blair Kiel was the starter in 1980. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that defense and running the ball was the Irish calling card.
The D was led by two All-Americans, linebacker Bob Crable and defensive end Scott Zettek. The running game was in the hands of sophomore Phil Carter and senior Jim Stone, who combined for over 1,700 yards.
Notre Dame played a tough schedule, with its usual marquee games against Michigan and USC augmented by a road trip to two-time defending national champion Alabama. And even though there was no time to rest in between those games, but the Irish played three other teams who finished the regular season at 8-3.
The first of those 8-3 teams was Purdue, a consistently good team in this timeframe that ran just a notch below Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten. Notre Dame, ranked #11 to begin the year, got the Boilermakers at home and sent an early message with a 31-10 win that moved them up to #7.
If the Purdue game was a message about quality, then the Michigan game in South Bend two weeks later was a message about destiny.
The Irish jumped out to a 14-0 lead, before falling behind 21-14. After going up 26-21, Notre Dame allowed a late Michigan touchdown and the score was 27-26. The Irish defense was going to have several big moments before the year was out, but their showing against the Wolverines and their gutty quarterback John Wangler, playing on what all but amounted to one leg because of a prior injury, wasn’t one of them.
Fortunately, Notre Dame had kicker Harry Oliver in reserve. They moved the ball into Michigan territory and lined up for a last-gasp 51-yard field goal into the wind. Oliver stunned everyone by hitting the field goal and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
The win didn’t send the pollsters into a frenzy and Notre Dame—who had slipped to #8 during their week off between games, didn’t budge in the rankings. Nor did another bye week and a shaky win over a bad Michigan State team do anything to change that.
A college football season is about attrition though, and winning games makes the rankings take care of themselves. Notre Dame beat Miami, a team bound for eight wins and a bowl victory, by a decisive 32-14 count and moved to #5. The Irish didn’t allow a touchdown in wins over Army and Arizona and were up to #3.
The first day of November is All Saint’s Day in the Catholic Church, and November 1 was a big day for the 1980 Notre Dame football team as well. They went to East Rutherford to play Navy, another team en route to eight wins and hung a 33-0 shutout on the Middies. Then the Irish got word that the top two teams in the polls, Alabama and UCLA had each lost. Notre Dame was #1 in the country as we moved into the season’s final month.
But Notre Dame couldn’t handle prosperity—at least the offense couldn’t. Georgia Tech was only going to win one football game in 1980. It wouldn’t be this one, but they did play the Irish to a stunning 3-3 tie that dropped Devine’s team back down to #6.
It was time for the hyped road trip to Alabama. It might not have the 1 vs. 3 battle that seemed imminent a couple weeks earlier, but the Tide was still #5, and both teams were still in the national title hunt.
The 1980 game would live up to expectations, and it started with being all about defense. In the second quarter, Notre Dame recovered an unforced fumble on the Alabama 12-yard line. After getting to the one-yard line, Kiel fumbled it back. Amazingly, the Tide fumbled it right back to the Irish and finally, Carter dove over the top for the touchdown.
In a defensive battle, it was the game’s only score. Crable sealed the win with a 4th-and-1 stop at the Notre Dame 37-yard line in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame moved back up to #2 in the polls, behind only SEC-leading Georgia.
The Sugar Bowl was licking its chops, with Georgia locked into their game, and being able to create a Bulldogs-Irish battle for the national title. Notre Dame took care of its business against Air Force and needed only to beat USC.
Perhaps I shouldn’t say “only” when it comes to beating USC. The Trojans were #17 in the country, and while this wasn’t a team on the same par as the 1978 team that shared the national title with ‘Bama, or the 1979 team that finished 11-0-1 and ended up #2. But they were still 7-2-1 coming in and still had future NFL Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Marcus Allen, the latter being just one year away from a Heisman campaign.
Furthermore, Notre Dame had to go on the road. The game wasn’t played until December 6, at a time when college football’s regular season rarely extended past Thanksgiving weekend. In the Los Angeles Coliseum, their dreams of the ultimate retirement gift for Devine died hard, with a 20-3 loss. Notre Dame fell to #7 and had no shot of a national title.
There was still a month to lick their emotional wounds and come up with a big win though. Bowl commitments were made early, usually with two weeks or more left in the regular season, so Notre Dame was already locked in to the Sugar Bowl and would get a chance to derail Georgia and their sensational freshman running back, Herschel Walker.
Notre Dame controlled the line of scrimmage and got an early field goal from Oliver to take a 3-0 lead. Unfortunately, nothing else went right. They had a miscommunication on who would field a kickoff return and gave Georgia the ball on the 1-yard line. There were four other turnovers along with that. There were two missed field goals. And in spite of Georgia only completing one pass all game long, the Irish lost 17-10.
The final 9-2-1 record and #9 ranking was a good season and marked solid improvement from the rebuilding year of 1979. There were magical moments against Michigan and Alabama and solid wins up and down the card. If anything haunts the legacy of 1980 Notre Dame football it’s not that they didn’t achieve, or even that they underachieved—neither would be true. It’s just that so much more seemed possible on Dan Devine’s final ride.