The pressure was on for head coach Gerry Faust in his fourth year. His first three years in South Bend had failed to produce a major bowl bid. 1982 and 1983 were marked by November collapses. The 1984 Notre Dame football team had 17 starters coming back and expectations were that they could save the Faust era. But it was not to be.
Notre Dame was mediocre on defense in 1984. There were a couple good players on the defensive front, from future second-round NFL draft pick to Mike Gann to future NFL starter and ESPN radio personality Mike Golic. But there wasn’t enough around them and the Irish ranked 50th nationally in points allowed.
The offense was better, but the key players still slipped from their 1983 levels. Steve Beuerlein was at quarterback. While his 60% completion rate was excellent by the standards of the time and the 8.3 yards-per-attempt very good, Beuerlein made too many mistakes. The TD-INT ratio was a poor 7/18.
That was partly because the running game did not perform as well as expected. Junior running back Allen Pinkett was still good and ran for over 1,100 yards. But that was nearly 300 yards below his ’83 output. More alarming was that Pinkett’s yards-per-carry dipped from 5.5 to 4.0. An offensive line that had guard Larry Williams and center Mike Kelley both get some notice in the All-American voting just didn’t control the line of scrimmage the way observers expected.
Notre Dame did have a talented group of receives—a future legend in Tim Brown was a freshman and caught 28 passes for 340 yards. Milt Jackson also snagged 28 balls and could stretch the field. Mark Bavaro, a future mainstay with the New York Giants, was the best tight end in the country. Bavaro caught 32 passes for 395 yards and was named 1st-team All-American. But in the end, the Irish offense still ranked only 36th in points scored.
The core of returning starters kept the pollsters high on Notre Dame and the Irish were ranked #8 to start the season. But it didn’t take long for things to come undone and for the voters to cut their losses.
Notre Dame played Purdue to open the season in Indianapolis. The Hoosier Dome had just opened up, with the Colts moving in from Baltimore for their first season in the Midwest. The Irish and Boilermakers put over 60,000 people in the seats and with ND a 19 ½ point favorite, no one was expecting any surprises.
Instead, the Irish turned the ball over five times and lost 23-21. They fell out of the rankings entirely. The make-or-break year was off to a bad start.
Notre Dame bounced back with a win over mediocre Michigan State, 24-20 in East Lansing. The Irish blasted lowly Colorado 55-14 and climbed back into the polls at #19. A 16-14 escape at a poor Missouri team was alarming, but the Irish were still 3-1 and up to #16 nationally.
But the tough portion of the schedule was ahead. It started with a visit from Miami, the defending national champion. Notre Dame lost 31-13. Air Force came to South Bend next. The Falcons would give Faust fits throughout his tenure. Even though head coach Ken Hatfield had left for Arkansas and was replaced by Fisher DeBerry, the results were the same. Air Force won 21-7.
Never before had a Notre Dame team lost three consecutive home games. South Carolina was ranked #11 and they came in next. The Irish led 26-14 into the second half before the defense collapsed. A 36-32 loss to a team on its way to a 10-1 season gave the ’84 Notre Dame team a dubious place in the history books.
The previous two years had seen Notre Dame wait until November to have their three-game losing streaks. If the pattern continued, this 1984 season was set to get really ugly. Instead, as happened so often during Faust’s tenure, his teams kept fighting at a time when others might have quit.
A road trip to seventh-ranked LSU had the sharks in the water, circling the Notre Dame head coach. To the consternation of the Bayou crowd, Pinkett ran for 162 yards on 40 carries and the offensive line played its best game of the year. The Irish won 30-22 and Faust got on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the quote “I’m Gonna Make It!”
And his kids kept battling. They avoided a letdown in a trip to the Meadowlands to play a subpar Navy team. Notre Dame won 18-17. Penn State, having an uncharacteristically down year came to South Bend and the Irish delivered a 44-7 blasting. The regular season ended with a road trip to play Rose Bowl-bound USC. Notre Dame won that one too, 19-17.
It was enough to put the Irish in the rankings at #17 and get an Aloha Bowl bid to play 10th-ranked SMU. In a good football game. Notre Dame trailed 27-20 and then drove to the Mustang 17-yard line in the final minute. But Beuerlein was having an erratic game, going 11/23 for 144 yards. On fourth down he overthrew a wide open Jackson in the end zone. The season ended with a loss.
The strong November push was heartening, but this was still Notre Dame and four years in a row without a major bowl invite was not going to cut it. Faust was pressured by the athletic department to resign, but university higher-ups were committed to honoring his full five-year contract. Faust chose to come back for 1985. But things only got worse in that final season and the era came to an end