Even though 1982 had ended on a dour note, with three straight losses ruining hopes for a major bowl bid, the 1983 Notre Dame football team entered the season with high hopes. It was the third year for head coach Gerry Faust, the team had shown significant improvement in his second season and pollsters were high on the Irish. Alas, another heartbreaking fade put the Faust era deeper into a funk.
Notre Dame was led by running back Allen Pinkett, who ran for nearly 1,400 yards. Pinkett averaged 5.5 yards-per-carry. He was also the team’s leading receiver with 28 catches and those receptions averaged ten yards a pop. Pinkett was a second-team All-American, trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier at Nebraska and Auburn’s Bo Jackson.
The Irish also got better play at the quarterback position then had been the case the first two years under Faust. Senior Blair Kiel split time with freshman Steve Beuerlein and both played respectably. Kiel and Beuerlein each completed over 50 percent of their passes, a key benchmark in this era. And they both generated over seven yards per attempt.
Kiel and Beuerlein had a well-balanced corps of receivers to work with. Joe Howard and Milt Jackson were good deep threats. Mark Bavaro, a tight end with a good NFL career ahead of him could work underneath and get downfield. And there was Pinkett out of the backfield. Notre Dame finished 26th in the country in points scored—not dazzling, but they were no longer a liability.
The Irish defense didn’t have the same star power, but they were even more effective as a unit. Mike Golic, the future ESPN radio personality, was on the defensive line. Chris Brown and Stacey Toran led up the secondary and linebacker Rick Naylor intercepted three passes. ND ranked 15th nationally in points allowed.
They were ranked #6 in the country to start the season and came out firing on all cylinders at Purdue. A 52-6 win over a bad team to start the year nudged Notre Dame to fourth in the polls.
Michigan State was a mediocre program in 1983 and they came to South Bend for the home opener. Notre Dame opened the game with an 80-yard TD match that ended with a Kiel-to-Bavaro touchdown pass. The Irish followed that up by driving 88 yards for another score and a 14-0 cushion.
But the game got away. Notre Dame frequently found themselves in poor field position and the Spartans chipped away to tie the game 21-21. Kiel threw a fourth-quarter interception that set up the go-ahead touchdown. MSU took a safety late in the game, but it ended 28-23 and Notre Dame fell to #13 in the polls.
Things got no better the following week in a road game at Miami, the eventual national champion. Notre Dame was dismantled, 20-0, and fell out of the rankings.
Three road trips awaited, although they were against mediocre teams. Faust got the Irish back on track with easy wins at Colorado and South Carolina. A trip to the Meadowlands saw a 42-0 thrashing of Army. Notre Dame had a little momentum and USC was coming to town on October 22.
It was the six-year anniversary of the “Green Jersey” game, where Notre Dame surprised everyone, including USC by coming out of the tunnel wearing green instead of their customary navy blue. The Irish won that game and started a run to the 1977 national championship.
That was also the last time Notre Dame had beaten USC. Faust decided this game would be Green Jerseys II. The result was the same (although the fact this was a bad Trojan team didn’t hurt either). Pinkett ran for 122 yards and the Irish got an easy 27-6 win.
A week later they rolled lowly Navy 28-12, a game this writer was in an attendance for in my one visit to Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish were back to #18 in the polls. With a 6-2 record, a major bowl bid was most definitely on the table.
But the stretch drive wouldn’t be easy. There were home games against good teams in Pitt and Air Force. In between was a road trip to Penn State.
And the Irish did not play well against Pitt. The Panthers jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and Notre Dame never did get their offense untracked. They trailed 21-6 late in the game when a touchdown with 0:25 left, followed by a voluntary Pitt safety made the score deceptive close at 21-16.
The Fiesta Bowl was still interested in the Irish if they could win out. A Notre Dame team that was 8-3 and had closed the year by beating quality teams in Penn State and Air Force would be very attractive on the major bowl stage.
Playing in winds up to 35mph in Happy Valley, Pinkett ran wild, for 217 yards. When Notre Dame recovered a fumble at their own 12-yard line, holding a 30-27 lead late in the game, they looked on track for Tempe.
But the offense went three-and-out. Kiel, kicking with the wind, shanked a punt. Penn State got the ball at midfield with 0:53 still to play. The Lions only needed 34 of those seconds to break Notre Dame’s heart with a game-winning touchdown.
The 34-30 loss ended any major bowl hopes and a 23-22 loss to Air Force was one more knife to the chest for Faust’s team. But they would get a chance to redeem themselves. For the first time in school history, Notre Dame accepted a bid to a non-major bowl game. They would play fellow Catholic school Boston College in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis.
BC was ranked #13 and had a junior quarterback by the name of Doug Flutie, who would set the college football world afire a year later.
The turf at the Liberty Bowl was frozen and it dramatically affected the kicking game. Flutie threw a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, but the extra point was missed. Notre Dame answered with an 87-yard drive capped off by Pinkett’s 1-yard run. The converted extra point would prove to be the biggest play of the game.
Golic blocked a punt and set up a quick Irish score. Kiel hit Bavaro on a 20-yard touchdown pass. Flutie answered with a 28-yard TD pass to before the second quarter was out. In all three cases, the PAT or two-point conversion following these touchdowns missed. The score was 19-12 Notre Dame at the half.
The Irish couldn’t score in the second half, but Pinkett did run for 111 yards. Flutie was able to lead an 85-yard touchdown drive, but another missed two-point play kept the score at 19-18.
Flutie led one more drive that reached the Notre Dame 35-yard line with 1:08 left. It was 4th-and-4 and time for the frozen turf to play a role one more time. Flutie dropped back to pass, but slipped while passing and his throw fell incomplete. Finally, Notre Dame’s heart didn’t get broken in a big game.
The Liberty Bowl win was a nice end to another frustrating season. Faust seemed so close to a breakthrough only to keep coming up short in November. Unfortunately for the head coach and the program, that wouldn’t change over his next two years in South Bend.