The nation’s top two Catholic football-playing universities, Notre Dame and Boston College, meet on a reasonably regular basis. But when they played at the 1983 Liberty Bowl it was only the second time they’d met on the field. Here’s a look back on how the Jesuit schools found their way to Memphis in late December.
Notre Dame had never accepted a non-New Year’s Day bowl bid in its history, but this was the third year of the Gerry Faust era and while the Irish had some notable wins in his first two years—they had yet to exceed six wins in a year. The traditional Notre Dame expectations were still there though, and Faust’s team opened the season ranked sixth in the nation.
Allan Pinkett was the focal point of the offense and he ran for nearly 1,400 yards in 1983. The passing game wasn’t as effective. Two players split duty at quarterback, Steve Beurlein and Blair Kiel. Beurlein was a future NFL starter, but just a freshman and shared snaps with the senior Kiel.
They combined for a TD-INT ration of just 11/13. No receiver caught 30 passes or got to 500 yards. Pinkett’s 28 catches actually led the team and Milt Jackson’s 438 yards were a team-high. Another future pro, tight end Mark Bavaro, who started for a Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants three years later, only had 23 catches.
The Irish still opened the season by blasting woeful Purdue 52-6 and moved up to #4 in the polls. But the games that most often bedeviled Faust in his tenure were the ones ND was supposed to win. Like the September 17 game at home with a losing Michigan State team, that the Irish dropped 28-23.
Down to #13 in the polls, Notre Dame tumbled completely out of the rankings when they visited future national champion Miami and lost 20-0. With the season in danger of slipping away, the Irish corrected their problem of losing winnable games and beat five straight teams with losing records.
They rolled Colorado, South Carolina, Army, USC and Navy. Yes, USC finished 4-6-1. All of the wins were impressive, coming by 16-plus points and the October 29 home game with Navy was a historic moment—because it was this writer’s one and only trip to Notre Dame Stadium.
Faust had his team up to #18 in the polls and while games against Pitt, Penn State and Air Force presented a big challenge—all were bowl-bound—it was also opportunity. A Notre Dame that finished 9-2 was sure to get a major bowl bid and even at 8-3, they were still a likely candidate.
But the ND rush defense, reliable all year, couldn’t stop Pitt’s Joe McCall, who rushed for 116 yards. Pinkett fumbled early in the game, the key play in a 46-second sequence where the Panthers scored two touchdowns. The Irish lost 21-16.
In spite of this, the Fiesta Bowl announced its intention to take Notre Dame if they could go to Penn State and win. The Nittany Lions might have been the defending national champion, but they were fighting simply to be bowl-eligible this year.
Pinkett had a huge game and ran for 217 yards, and Notre Dame led 30-27 in the fourth quarter. When they stopped a Penn State drive by recovering a fumble on their own 12-yard line, that trip to Tempe was in their hands. But three straight runs by Pinkett went nowhere. Penn State got the ball back with a short field and with a stiff wind at their back, drove it for a winning touchdown.
The Irish dropped one more heartbreaker, 23-22 to Air Force. With a record of 6-4-1, the decision was made to accept the Liberty Bowl bid.
Boston College had no such problems with taking a slot in a non-major bowl game. The Eagles had reached their first bowl game since 1942 the previous year, led by sophomore quarterback Doug Flutie. It was the latest sign that the building program of head coach Jack Bicknell, who had taken over in 1981, was on schedule.
Flutie would throw for over 2,700 yards in 1983 and be effective in making big plays, with 7.9 yards-per-pass and 17 touchdowns. He had a few rough edges—the completion percentage was only 51.3, though that was still respectable in the football world of 1983. And he threw 15 interceptions. But Boston College could move it through the air.
Brian Brennan was the top receiver with 66 catches for 1,149 yards. Scott Gieselman played both receiver and tight end and caught 45 passes for 525 yards. Another target was Gerald Phelan, who joined Flutie in college football lore one year later when he caught a desperation pass at the end of the Miami game, what is surely the most oft-replayed moment in the history of the sport.
Troy Stratford provided some balance to the offense, running for 810 yards, and defensive back Tony Thurman intercepted six passes, setting the stage for his All-American season in 1984.
BC was unranked to start the year and tuned up with a 45-21 win over Morgan State. Then came a message-sending win over Clemson. The Tigers would finish the year 9-1-1, win the ACC and were just two years removed from winning a national championship. Boston College thumped Clemson 31-16.
When they followed it up with a 42-22 win in East Rutherford over lowly Rutgers, the Eagles moved into the national rankings at #19. But they quickly gave it back, losing 27-17 to 12th-ranked West Virginia, with future NFL quarterback Jeff Hostetler at the helm.
An unimpressive 18-15 win over lowly Temple followed and BC then blew out Yale on October 8. The Eagles now had three weeks to get ready to face Penn State in Foxboro.
It was earlier noted that this was not a vintage Nittany Lion team, which made it all the more imperative for BC to get their first-ever win in this rivalry. There was a national TV audience, with ABC’s legendary play-by-play man Keith Jackson in the booth.
Flutie led an 80-yard touchdown drive to begin the game and capped it with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Brennan and Boston College stormed out to a 21-0 lead. Penn State crawled back to within 24-17 in the fourth quarter before Brennan made a diving catch that set up a clinching field goal.
With the 27-17 win, the Eagles were ranked #16. The victory was also the biggest reason BC eventually won the Lambert Trophy, given to the top team in the East.
Boston College went on the road and buried a two-win Army team and climbed to #13. But they stumbled at an average Syracuse team 21-10, though the Eagles held on to their national ranking at #18. A 47-7 blowout of Holy Cross in Foxboro set up one more nationally televised appearance.
Alabama was coming to the northeast in the first year of the post-Bear Bryant era. Ray Perkins was at the helm and his team was welcomed with rain and sleet. There was also a power outage in the third quarter, although the networks still struggled less with the weather than the Tide offense did.
Boston College forced five turnovers and even though they trailed 13-6 after three quarters, backup running back Bob Biestek scored two touchdowns in the final quarter to win 20-13. The Eagles concluded the regular season ranked #13 and came to Memphis hoping they could beat their Catholic rival and finish in the Top 10, all in one fell swoop.
The turf at the Liberty Bowl was frozen and it dramatically affected the kicking game. Flutie threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Brennan 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.
Notre Dame’s Mike Golic, the modern-day ESPN radio personality, blocked a punt and set up a quick Irish score. Kiel was at quarterback and he hit Bavaro on a 20-yard touchdown pass. Flutie answered with a 28-yard TD pass to Phelan before the second quarter was out.
Of the three touchdowns just noted, there was either a missed PAT or missed two-point play (since kicking was a nightmare) on every one. 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. The little quarterback pushed his team down the field for one last drive, reaching the Notre Dame 35-yard line with 1:08 left.
It was 4th-and-4 and it was 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. Notre Dame had the win.
The Irish win was their one bowl victory during the Faust Years, though they had several significant regular season wins. As for Flutie and the Eagles, they were just getting started, with a major bowl win and Heisman Trophy just around the corner.