Notre Dame and Michigan have played some big college football games over the years. But none was bigger and perhaps none was more anticipated than the one the Irish and Wolverines played in September of 1989, when they were ranked 1-2 in the country.
You can read more about the season-long journeys of each team and about their key players. This post focuses specifically on the events of the 1989 Notre Dame-Michigan game that went down on September 16th in Ann Arbor.
The Big House in Michigan was artificial turf in 1989 and television viewers saw puddles throughout the carpet, fruits of some hard rain prior to kickoff. The Notre Dame offense was conservative by nature anyway, but the field situation undoubtedly made it more so. Irish quarterback Tony Rice only threw two passes the entire game—and, as it turned out, one of them would be for a touchdown.
On the flip side, the Wolverines had to put the ball up. Their starting quarterback, Michael Taylor, was an option-oriented runner, but when he was injured, freshman Elvis Grbac came off the bench. Grbac was only a freshman, but he had a good future—both here at Michigan and later in the NFL. Grbac went 17/23 for 134 yards and threw a pair of touchdown passes, keying a statistical edge for the Wolverines on the afternoon.
But that statistical edge had a big caveat to it. The reason Notre Dame didn’t amass more yards is that their special teams did the work for them, not once, but twice. Specifically, return man Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail was the story of the afternoon.
After the cautious first half, the Irish held a 7-6 lead and were set to get the ball to start the second half. Ismail’s speed and explosiveness were renowned, but Michigan had not allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in over three decades. Perhaps that, along with the value of field position in a game like this, was why Wolverine coach Bo Schembechler decided to kick it deep to the Rocket.
Schembechler’s decision was understandable, but it had disastrous consequences for Michigan. Ismail went 88 yards to the house and gave Notre Dame a 14-6 lead. Grbac responded with a TD drive, but the missed two-point conversion kept the score at 14-12. Worse, it meant the Wolverines had to kick off again. This time, Ismail went 92 yards for a touchdown.
The Irish won 24-19, sealing the game with a 4th-and-1 conversion at the Michigan 30 with just under two minutes to play.
Notre Dame stayed undefeated and atop the polls all the way to Thanksgiving weekend before they lost at eventual national champ Miami. The Irish finished the season at #2 in the country. Michigan won out the rest of the way and were in the top 5 nationally before a close Rose Bowl loss to USC left them #7 in the final rankings.
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
Even though 1982had 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.
After a rough rookie year in 1981, Gerry Faust’s second year on the sideline in South Bend was looking better. Notre Dame won big games and was poised to get to a major bowl. Then a late fade sent Faust and the Irish back to the drawing board.
The 1982 Notre Dame football team was built on its defense. They ranked 19th in the country in points allowed and were led by ballhawking safety Dave Duerson. A future member of the great Chicago Bears’ defense of 1985, Duerson intercepted seven passes in his senior season for the Irish.
Duerson was joined by linebacker Mark Zavagnin, a who got some votes in the All-American balloting, along with a solid veteran defensive tackle in Bob Clasby.
Notre Dame could also run the football. A balanced three-pronged attack was led by senior Phil Carter who ran for over 700 yards. Freshman Allen Pinkett was getting an outstanding college career underway and cleared the 500-yard mark. So did senior fullback Larry Moriarty.
Moriarty was also the team’s third-leading pass-catcher, which perhaps underscored Notre Dame’s biggest problem. They could not generate passing offense. It wasn’t for a lack of targets. Tight end Tony Hunter caught 42 balls and would be a first-round pick in the coming spring’s NFL draft. Joe Howard was a good deep threat. But the consistency at the quarterback position was not there.
Blair Kiel got the bulk of the snaps and his 54% completion rate was decent in that era. But his 5.8 yards-per-attempt was simply way too low. And while TD-INT ratios from this time period are always worse than what we see today, a 3/10 figure wasn’t going to hack it—not even in 1982.
Notre Dame was ranked #18 to start the season, although a late start to the schedule meant they were actually #20 when the first game finally arrived. But it was a game that would be worth the wait.
Michigan was coming to South Bend and the university would install lights. It was the first night game ever at Notre Dame Stadium. And the Irish looked every bit ready for prime-time.
Notre Dame dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. For 3 ½ quarters, Michigan could only score on special teams and the Irish led 23-10. With just over seven minutes to go, Notre Dame got a bad break—a Wolverine touchdown came when running back Vincent Bean grabbed a deflected pass right off the shoulder pad of the intended receiver and raced for a touchdown.
When Michigan drove to the Notre Dame 30-yard line it looked like Faust’s bad luck from 1981, when his team lost several games at the wire, might continue. Duerson saved the day when he stripped the ball from Bean with 2:14 to play. The Irish had the 23-17 win and moved to #10 in the polls.
Wins over Purdue and Michigan State, both bad teams, kept Notre Dame ranked #10 when Miami came to town. The Hurricanes were ranked #17. Under head coach Howard Schnellenberger their program was building towards what would be a shocking 1983 national championship that upended the entire landscape of college football.
On this October afternoon in South Bend, Miami looked ready to upend Notre Dame’s unbeaten season, taking a 14-10 lead into the fourth quarter. The Irish still trailed 14-13 late when they got a big stop and then drove for a game-winning field goal with 0:11 left.
At 4-0, the Irish were riding high. But two mediocre Pac-10 teams would throw a monkey wrench into the season.
Arizona ended up a six-win team, but one of those victories came in South Bend. A 16-13 upset loss sent Notre Dame tumbling to #15 in the polls. A visit to woeful Oregon resulted in a tie. The Irish dropped out of the rankings.
Notre Dame bounced back with a 27-10 win over an average Navy squad in East Rutherford. A week later they had to make another trip east. This one to Pittsburgh, where Dan Marino and the #1-ranked Pitt Panthers were waiting.
Faust’s defense was ready for Marino and for three quarters, they kept the Irish in the game. Notre Dame trailed 13-10. Then early in the fourth quarter, the Irish offense uncharacteristically erupted.
Kiel threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Howard off a flea-flicker. Pinkett raced 76 yards for a touchdown. Pinkett followed that up by finishing off a 65-yard drive with another touchdown. The freshman running back rolled up 112 yards on just ten carries and Notre Dame stunned the nation with a 31-16 win.
The pollsters responded by re-inserting the Irish into the rankings at #13. Major bowl scouts were watching a team that was 6-1-1. The opportunity was there for Notre Dame to get a breakthrough that might have reshaped Faust’s tenure.
Notre Dame lost at home to Penn State 24-14. But the Lions would be the eventual national champion and even if the Irish could win their final two games, they would be an attractive bowl team at 8-2-1.
But a road trip to Air Force produced another loss. The Falcons were a good team, one Faust consistently struggled against and the final was 30-17. A road trip to archrival USC on the Saturday after Thanksgiving brought a controversial end to the season.
Notre Dame led 13-10 late in the game and appeared to recover a fumble at the goal line. Officials not only ruled the ball belonged to USC, but that it was, in fact, a touchdown. A bitter 17-13 loss was a fitting conclusion to a bitter end of the season.
The Irish had improved from Faust’s first year, but no major bowl wasn’t going to cut it in South Bend. The negative momentum continued and the head coach couldn’t get it turned around over the next three years. Who knows if history might look different had the 1982 edition of Notre Dame football been able to close the deal.
The 1981 Notre Dame football team came into the season brimming with optimism. The program had won national titles as recently as 1973 and 1977. The 1980 Irishcontended for #1 deep into the season. Even a coaching change didn’t dim the good feeling. In fact, the hiring of uber-optimistic Gerry Faust only enhanced it. Faust’s love for the school, his devout Catholicism and his hiring straight out of the high school ranks, where he was a record-setting coach in Ohio, seemed like a storybook tale come true. But this storybook tale went terribly wrong and 1981 was the harbinger of a tough five-year stretch in South Bend.
It wasn’t for lack of personnel. Notre Dame had a nice running back combination of Phil Carter and Greg Bell, the latter headed for a nice pro career. Senior linebacker Bob Crable was an All-American and would become a first-round NFL draft choice the following spring. The secondary had talented future pros in Dave Duerson and Stacey Toran.
Throwing the football was a problem. While Tony Hunter was a versatile tight end and freshman receiver Joe Howard a deep threat, the Irish did not get consistent play at quarterback. Blair Kiel and Tim Koegel spent the season shuttling back and forth and nothing really clicked. Notre Dame ended the season ranked 66th in the country in points scored.
None of it seemed to matter early on. The Irish were ranked #3 in the preseason polls. When heavyweights Michigan and Alabama suffered early upset losses and Notre Dame crushed lowly LSU 27-9, Faust’s team was elevated to #1.
The road trip to Ann Arbor a week later was an unmitigated disaster. Even though this Michigan team wasn’t anything vintage and ended up losing three games, the Irish never had a chance. They started their first twelve possessions backed up behind their own 25-yard line and lost the game 25-7. Pollsters responded by dropping Notre Dame all the way to #13.
Another rankings hit came after a heartbreaking loss at mediocre Purdue. The Irish had taken a 14-7 lead late in the game. The Boilermakers drove 80 yards, but faced 4th-and-goal from the nine-yard line in the final minute. No matter. Notre Dame gave up the touchdown, the two-point conversion, lost 15-14 and fell out of the national polls.
What was then a traditional Big Ten trifecta of Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State on the early season schedule came to an end when an average Spartan team came to South Bend. Notre Dame got back on track with a 20-7 win. They were headed into a key schedule stretch against ranked teams from Florida State and USC with both games at home and a chance to get back in the major bowl picture.
More difficult losses awaited. ND led FSU 13-12 midway through the fourth quarter before giving up the go-ahead touchdown and losing 19-13. The loss to the fifth-ranked Trojans was by a 14-7 count.
At 2-4, there was no way the season could be considered a success by Notre Dame standards. But for all the problems Faust encountered, one thing remains true—neither he nor his players ever quit. They hosted a good Navy team and delivered a 38-0 rout. Consecutive blowouts of bad teams from Georgia Tech and Air Force got the record up to 5-4.
The final two road games, at Penn State and Miami, represented a chance to at least go into the offseason with some positive momentum. Instead, there was more heartbreak.
Notre Dame went into State College, led 21-17 in the fourth quarter and were driving for a lockup touchdown. Kiel threw a red-zone interception. The Lions drove the distance and took a 24-21 lead. The Irish reached the PSU 39-yard line on their last gasp before a fourth down pass to Howard fell incomplete. Penn State accepted a bid to the Fiesta Bowl where they beat USC and ended up third in the nation.
The season ended with a thud on Black Friday. Notre Dame was never in the game and lost to Miami 37-15. The Hurricanes completed a 9-2 season and sent a message to the college football world that they were coming.
Even after the bleak 5-6 campaign there was still hope that Faust would turn it all around. Notre Dame did get better and had winning seasons each of the next three years. But they never made a major bowl game under Faust and his tenure was bookended with another 5-6 season in 1985 that also ended with a blowout loss at Miami. 1981 was the warning that the bright optimism of Faust’s hiring would go unfulfilled.
There was something magical about the third year of a Notre Dame football coach’s tenure. Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine had each won a national championship in Year Three. Brian Kelly reached the BCS National Championship Game in 2012. The 1988 Notre Dame football team is a part of that third-year magic, winning a national title for Lou Holtz.
Holtz had taken over a program that was on hard times, and against a tough schedule, he struggled to a 5-6 record in 1986. The 1987 season saw a big step forward, as the program earned a Cotton Bowl bid. But decisive losses to Miami and in the bowl game to Texas A&M, seemed to suggest that Notre Dame still had work to do in order to reach the national elite. The preseason polls in 1988 reflected that sentiment, ranking ND #13.
The option was the offensive style, and Notre Dame had a powerful running attack. Junior quarterback Tony Rice was an average passer, but he stayed clear of mistakes and was the team’s leading rusher. Rice had a balanced backfield, including Mark Green and Tony Brooks. One of the favored pass targets also came out of the backfield, future NFL star Ricky Watters. And the occasional big passing play could go to explosive sophomore receiver Raghib Ismail.
Defensively, Notre Dame was even better. The coordinator was Barry Alvarez, who would eventually bring the Wisconsin program to life as one of the game’s best head coaches. Chris Zorich, a future NFL talent, was at defensive tackle. Pat Terrell was solid at corner, and there were the “Three Amigos” of Frank Stams, Wes Pritchett and Michael Stonebreaker.
The former was a defensive end, the latter two were linebackers, with Stonebreaker having the most appropriate last name for a defensive football player since Mike Hammerstein played defensive tackle for Michigan in the mid-1980s.
It was Michigan who would come to South Bend to start the year under the lights. The Wolverines were ranked ninth in the country and would eventually win the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Watters made a big special teams play early, returning a punt 81 yards for a touchdown and then the defenses and the kicking game settled in.
Notre Dame never scored an offensive touchdown, but diminutive kicker Reggie Ho, kept knocking field goals through. With 1:13 to play, Ho hit his fourth field goal to give the Irish a 19-17 lead. The Wolverines stormed down the field and got a chance for a 48-yarder to win it. The kick just missed.
Holtz’s team efficiently won at Michigan State 20-3, the team that had won the Rose Bowl the previous season. Notre Dame blew out bad teams in Purdue and Stanford, and they went on the road to beat bowl-caliber Pitt team 30-20. The Irish were up to #4 in the polls and it was time for the game the nation was awaiting—the showdown with #1-ranked Miami in South Bend.
The Hurricanes were the defending national champions, and Notre Dame felt like they owed Miami. Bad blood still ran high over 1985, when it was believed the ‘Canes had run up the score in Gerry Faust’s final game as ND head coach (something Faust does not hold Miami responsible for). The 24-0 loss the prior November rankled Holtz.
Miami’s reputation for trash-talking had made them the villains of college football, and T-shirts that have since become legendary circulated the Notre Dame campus. They read “Catholics vs. Convicts.” The matchup was one of college football’s many “Games of the Century”, and this one really played out that way on the field.
Notre Dame got a big interception from Terrell, who took it to the house and the Irish were ahead 21-7 in the second quarter. Steve Walsh, Miami’s efficient quarterback led two consecutive drives for touchdowns, though one was disputed by the Irish—it was believed Hurricane tight end Rob Chudzinski had fumbled, and the ball recovered by Notre Dame. Officials ruled it an incomplete pass. The game went to halftime tied 21-21.
The Irish defense kept getting turnovers, and had already collected six when they held a 31-24 lead in the fourth quarter. The seventh would be hotly disputed. Walsh completed a pass to running back Cleveland Gary near the goal line. He fumbled, or at least the officials ruled he did, and the ball was recovered by ND. Replays indicated that Gary was down, and that Miami should have had first-and-goal.
Notre Dame ended up giving the ball right back anyway, and Miami eventually faced a fourth-and-goal in the closing minute. Walsh lofted a pass to Andre Brown in the front-right corner of the end zone. Touchdown.
The Hurricanes decided to go for two. They went back to the same spot, this time with running back Leonard Conley. Terrell was waiting and he batted the ball down. Notre Dame had prevailed 31-30 in one of college football’s greatest games.
Notre Dame was still #2 in the polls behind UCLA, which had Troy Aikman at quarterback. The Irish beat Air Force and Navy, while the Bruins suffered an upset loss. ND was #1, while USC was now in the #2 spot and the two teams were on a collision course for a battle in Los Angeles on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The Irish upheld their end of the bargain, blowing out Rice and beating an uncharacteristically poor Penn State team to get to 10-0.The Trojans took care of UCLA and clinched a Rose Bowl berth. Was another Game of the Century in store?
This one got off to a rocky start for Notre Dame—not on the field, but in the days leading up to the game. Watters and Brooks were late to a team meeting, something they had been repeatedly warned on, and had no valid excuse for. Holtz suspended both players.
The head coach had done something similar (albeit on charges much more severe) when he coached Arkansas against Oklahomain the Orange Bowl that followed the 1977 season. That night, Holtz’s team won and it paved the way for an ND national championship. Could history be, in a roundabout way, repeating itself?
Notre Dame dominated USC. Rice ran the option for a 65-yard touchdown run early on, and defensive back Stan Smagala intercepted Trojan quarterback Rodney Peete for a Pick-6. The game was 20-3 by halftime and it ended 27-10. The unbeaten regular season was complete.
All that was left was third-ranked West Virginiain the Fiesta Bowl. Miami had not lost since that October afternoon in South Bend and there were some minor rumblings for the second-ranked Hurricanes to get a rematch. No one really believed that unbeaten West Virginia was better than Miami, but if the Mountaineers could actually beat Notre Dame—something Miami already had its chance it doing—didn’t that change the equation? The right matchup in Tempe took place.
Notre Dame again dominated. They got short touchdown runs from fullbacks Anthony Johnson and Rodney Culver. Rice threw a 29-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Ismail, and the lead was 23-3. West Virginia’s immensely talented quarterback, Major Harris, couldn’t get anything going until a third quarter TD pass that briefly made the game mildly interesting at 26-13.
But any faint hopes of a WVA comeback were gone when Harris injured his shoulder. Notre Dame tacked on an insurance touchdown, West Virginia scored a meaningless one in the closing minute and the final was 34-21.
Notre Dame was national champions. It’s the most recent title for the school, though Holtz continued to put together major bowl teams, and in 1989 and 1993 had very good arguments for the title. But there’s no question that 1988 was the big high point of an era that is the school’s last Golden Age in football.
Oklahoma and Michigan spent the first half of the season trading the #1 spot, moving up and down based on victories that were less than impressive. In October, both fell. Michigan’s loss was an upset to Minnesota, while OU lost a showdown battle with Texas. The Longhorns were the program on the rise.
Texas, after opening the season unranked, with a first-year head coach in Fred Akers, came barreling through the regular season as the nation’s only undefeated team. They had a Heisman Trophy winner at running back in Earl Campbell and were fully expected to make the national championship an easy vote in the Cotton Bowl.
Notre Dame was the opponent in Dallas, ranked #5. The Irish had bounced back from an early season to Ole Miss to get their season around. If Notre Dame could win, other candidates for the top of the polls included Orange Bowl foes Oklahoma and Arkansas, who had only lost to Texas. Third-ranked Alabama was hoping to make its case in the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State. And Michigan was still out there, ranked fourth and headed for the Rose Bowl to face unheralded Washington.
The Fighting Irish stunned the nation and the crowd in Dallas with a 38-10 blowout that was out of hand by halftime. Alabama blasted Ohio State, while Michigan was upset by Washington. There would still be no real debate if second-ranked Oklahoma could win—but the Sooners were crushed by the suspension-laden Razorbacks.
Notre Dame and Alabama were who the debate revolved around, with Arkansas, the runner-up in the old SWC to Texas, destined to finish third. The Irish had lost to an SEC opponent and had been ranked two spots behind the Tide coming into the bowl games. Conversely, another common opponent was USC—whom Notre Dame beat by thirty and Alabama beat by one. And the Irish had buried the consensus #1 team in a road-neutral environment.
The vote went to Notre Dame. The rise from #5 to #1 has not been duplicated since, and with the advent of the new era of playoff football, it never will
The biggest development in the 1980 college football season was the arrival of a freshman running back that would define the sport for the next three years. Herschel Walker made Georgia must-see television at the outset of the decade and in his first year he led the Bulldogs to an undefeated season and a national championship.
Two more traditional powers played important parts in the drama of the season. Georgia had to displace two-time defending national champion Alabama in the SEC. The Crimson Tide slipped a bit this year, but were still good enough to reach the Cotton Bowl and get what would prove to be the final major bowl victory for the great Bear Bryant.
Notre Dame was looking to return to the top and to do it for outgoing coach Dan Devine. The Irish made a serious run at #1, highlighted by a dramatic head-to-head win over Alabama. A late season loss ultimately ended those dreams, but Notre Dame got a crack at Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Another pair of traditional powers didn’t make a serious run at a national title, but they impacted the season and won major bowl games. Oklahoma survived a challenge from Nebraska and won its third straight Big Eight title, earning the automatic ticket to the Orange Bowl. Michigan won the Big Ten, which by itself wasn’t unusual. But they also won the Rose Bowl and that was outside the norm—in fact, for current head coach Bo Schembecler it was unprecedented.
Outside, the world of the “Bluebloods”, Florida State showed that their run to the Orange Bowl in 1979 was no fluke, by doing it again this year and this time matching up much better with Oklahoma. And Pitt, with a who’s who of future NFL talent up and down its lineup, made a run at the top and settled for the #2 spot in the final polls.
This articles below take you on a season-long run through the seven most consequential teams in college football’s 1980 season:
The glorious legacy of Notre Dame football history is no secret. Neither are the program’s current struggles, at least relative to the expectations of a traditional national power. That’s what makes Lou Holtz’s tenure in South Bend, from 1986-96, stand out. The Last Golden Age is a season-by-season narrative on each year of the Holtz era.
A program that rose to prominence in 1913 when they upset Army and introduced the forward pass, and produced legends with names like Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian, had its last real era of success when Holtz was at the helm. But The Last Golden Age is not a title that’s meant as prophecy or prediction.
I don’t believe that Notre Dame football won’t ever rise again. Alabama has gone through hard times. So has Southern Cal. Those two programs are now the most recent national dynasties in the early 21st century. It’s well possible Notre Dame could enjoy a similar revival. But for now, as a historical point of fact, Holtz’s era was the last time Notre Dame was golden on the football field and The Last Golden Age is intended to celebrate it and preserve it.
The format of this book is that of a collection of blog posts. Each season recounted exists on TheSportsNotebook.com as a separate article. They’ve been sequenced and edited to eliminate redundancy. All eleven seasons of the Holtz era are recounted. I’ve also included two important articles that serve as prologue—Holtz’s 1978 Orange Bowl win as head coach of Arkansas that put him on the national stage and paved the way to South Bend. And the 1985 season at Notre Dame that ended Gerry Faust’s tenure and officially brought in the Holtz era.
The Last Golden Age is a great way to stir the memories of a great era in Notre Dame football. It’s all here—from the epic Catholics vs. Convicts battles with Miami, to capturing the 1988 national championship over West Virginia, to the season-opening battles with Michigan, to dramatic games with USC, Florida State, Penn State, Texas and many more.
Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend began with a year that saw a slow start and strong finish on the football field, but was ultimately overshadowed by a tragedy in between. It was an emotional roller coaster for the 2010 Notre Dame football team as they began a new era.
The defense was the key to the team and the key to the D was held by sophomore linebacker Manti Te’o, the team’s leading tackler. Darius Fleming provided some big-play capability at linebacker, with both sacks and tackles for loss. Harrison Smith led the way in the secondary with seven interceptions.
Kelly had produced potent offenses in his tenure at the University of Cincinnati, one that culminated with back-to-back major bowl bids and an undefeated regular season in 2009. That success didn’t translate immediately to Notre Dame. Dayne Crist played quarterback most of the season and had pedestrian numbers of a 59% completion rate and 6.9 yards-per-attempt.
Tommy Rees stepped in as the season wore on and provided a marginally better completion rate, but also threw eight interceptions—compared to Crist’s seven—in fewer starts. The lack of production in the passing game looks worse when you consider the quality of the receivers.
There was a stack of future NFL talent, starting Michael Floyd, who caught 79 balls for over 1,000 yards. Senior Kyle Rudolph and freshman Tyler Eifert, both future pros, were steady at tight end. But there just wasn’t enough consistency in getting them the ball.
Nor could the running game pick up the slack. The tandem of Cierre Wood and Armando Allen was decent, but nothing special, combining for 1,117 yards. Robert Hughes mixed in as a third running back.
It all added up to a team that was improved, but not good enough to stay with the best teams on the schedule.
The season started with a ho-hum 23-12 win over a bad Purdue team. Then Michigan came to town. The Wolverines were going through the struggles of the Rich Rodriguez era and finished 7-5, but this game was a classic. Each team rolled up over 500 yards of offense. Notre Dame rallied from 21-7 down in the third quarter to take the lead on Crist’s 95-yard touchdown pass to Rudolph. But Michigan got the last word, when shifty quarterback Denard Robinson ran for the winning touchdown with 27 seconds left in a 28-24 final.
A visit to a better team in Michigan State followed. The Spartans were on their way to an 11-1 season and a piece of the Big Ten title, led by future Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. Crist was actually the more prolific quarterback in this game, going 32/55 for 369 yards and four touchdowns. But the Irish defense couldn’t contain another future NFL starter, Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell, who rolled for 114 yards. The Irish lost 34-31 in overtime.
Stanford was up next. The Cardinal were ranked #16 in the country and would finish even stronger, with just one loss and an Orange Bowl win. They had a quarterback whom NFL scouts were already drooling over in Andrew Luck. For the second straight week, Crist put up more passing yards than a future pro. And for the second straight week it was because the ND opponent was making too much hay on the ground. Stanford’s Stephan Taylor went for 108 yards and the Irish were crushed in the second half, losing 37-14.
This wasn’t the opening Kelly had anticipated as he stared at 1-3 record and a road trip to face a pretty Boston College team that could run the football. But after being pounded by Bell and Taylor, the Notre Dame rush defense played its game of the year, holding the Eagles to five yards rushing in a 31-13 rout. A 23-17 home win over Pitt put the Irish back into the bowl conversation.
Notre Dame hosted Western Michigan, a mediocre MAC team and an 80-yard strike from Crist to Floyd right out of the gate set the tone. Crist later hit Eifert on a 39-yard TD pass and connected again with Floyd, this time on a short scoring pass, in a 44-20 win.
But with the record above .500, the Irish again wilted against a good team. They went to the Meadowlands to play Navy, who would end up with nine wins and couldn’t get a passing game opened up. Crist threw two interceptions and was pulled for Rees in a 35-17 loss.
It was must-win time at 4-5 and Tulsa, a good Conference USA opponent with a potent offense was coming into South Bend. But it didn’t take long for the focus to shift to something drastically more important than football.
Heavy winds were going through the Midwest this week. Some teams moved practice indoors. Kelly did not. The head coach, with the athletic director present, also allowed the filming of practice to go forward. That meant student videographer Declan Sullivan was up in the scissors lift. The wind blew the lift over and Sullivan was killed in the fall.
The media outrage poured forth and to this day I find it hard to grasp that Kelly and the school were not culpably negligent. There was nothing wrong with practicing outdoors, but putting a student up in the scissors lift was something a reasonable and prudent person would have known not to do. Notre Dame could undoubtedly have been liable…but the Sullivan family said they would not file suit, they did not negotiate a settlement and they continued to cheer for Notre Dame.
For that reason, I won’t go crazy in this space assigning blame when the people most directly affected by the tragedy chose to move on. I will say that if Kelly can get off the hook then it’s time for people to also show some mercy for Joe Paterno, whom no one has even proven did anything wrong. But we need more people like the Sullivan family and if they’re at peace with Notre Dame, then the rest of us should be as well.
On the field, the Notre Dame players had to be affected by the turmoil of this game week. They made key special teams mistake against Tulsa, allowing a punt return for a touchdown and not only getting an extra point blocked, but having it returned for two points. It was the difference in a 28-27 loss.
This was now looking like a lost season with 15th-ranked Utah coming in next. Notre Dame had shown no ability to compete with ranked teams and they spotted the Utes an early field goal. Then Rees awoke and threw a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes to Duval Kamara. The defense found another big-time performance in them and the result was a surprising 28-3 rout
Notre Dame went to Yankee Stadium to play Army, and this was the best Cadet team since 1996—in fact, the only winning team to come out of West Point since that ’96 year when they won 10 games. Trent Steelman was a capable quarterback running the triple-option attack that the Irish hadn’t handled against Navy.
This time was different. They kept Steelman under control and won 27-3 and got themselves bowl-eligible. A visit to Southern Cal, coming in with an 8-4 record would end the regular season.
USC was in its first year post-Pete Carroll and that meant Lane Kiffin was in charge and the program was on probation. This wasn’t the fearsome Trojan team that had dominated college football from 2002-08, but they still had plenty of talent.
Rees was at quarterback and threw a pair of 1-yard touchdown passes in the second quarter. But a missed extra point kept the score at 13-3 and nearly cost the Irish. The Trojans took a 16-13 in the fourth quarter, aided by three interceptions from Rees. The missed extra point meant a field goal couldn’t win it as ND started its final drive. Fortunately, it didn’t matter. The running game was solid tonight, with Wood getting 89 yards and Hughes going for 69. It was Hughes who ran in from five yards out to win the game 20-16.
The Sun Bowl put together as highly anticipated a game as a bowl of its stature could hope for. They got Notre Dame and Miami together for the first time since the schools staged their famed “Catholics vs. Convicts” rivalry from 1987-90, a rivalry that defined not only college football, but all of sports. It might have been a low-level bowl and Hurricane head coach Randy Shannon might have been fired prior to the game, but the very matchup of schools got this Sun Bowl attention from everyone who followed college football.
This New Year’s Eve afternoon bowl game didn’t measure up, but not in a way that made anyone in South Bend unhappy. Rees threw a short touchdown pass to Floyd and then hit his top receiver on a 34-yard TD pass before the first quarter was out. Wood bolted 34 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Two more field goals made it 27-0. Notre Dame led 30-3 after three quarters before a couple cosmetic Miami touchdowns made the final a marginally respectable 33-17.
Brian Kelly’s first year in South Bend was both trying and tragic. But it ended on an up note. One year later they improved from a 7-5 regular season record to 8-4. And in 2012, Kelly would take Notre Dame back to college football’s biggest stage when they reached the national championship game before losing to Alabama.
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.
The Sugar Bowl had hosted the #1 team in each of the previous two years and the annul game following the 1980 college football season no different. The Georgia Bulldogs were undefeated and atop the polls. Notre Dame was playing the final game in the tenure of head coach Dan Devine. On New Year’s Day, the 1981 Sugar Bowl might have marked the end for Devine, but it was just the beginning for the great Georgia freshman, Herschel Walker.
Georgia had been a consistent, competitive program, not unlike today. But they hadn’t won a major bowl game since 1966, nor appeared in one since their SEC title in 1976. The Bulldogs were coming off a 6-5 year in 1979, one that ended without a bowl appearance in the more stringent postseason world of the late 1970s.
Walker came blazing onto the scene and transformed the team immediately. He ran for over 1,600 yards in 274 attempts, at 5.9 yards-per-carry and scored 15 touchdowns—all of which were the best in the SEC.
Buck Belue at quarterback was far from a great passer, as the Sugar Bowl itself would demonstrate, but his 49% completion rate was still fourth in the conference, and with over 1,300 passing yards he was second in the SEC. And before the year was over he would complete the biggest pass in the history of Georgia Bulldogs football history.
Head coach Vince Dooley had a great secondary, with two All-Americans in Jeff Hipps and Scott Woerner. Kicker Rex Robinson also made All-American. Georgia had modest respect when the season opened and were ranked #16 in the first polls.
The Dawgs opened with a narrow win at Tennessee. Even though the Vols were on their way to 5-6, the 16-15 win moved Georgia up four spots in the polls. Then they crushed shaky Texas A&M 42-0 and got into the Top 10.
Georgia edged Clemson 20-16, a win that looks more important in retrospect than it was at the time. The Tigers were unranked and finished 6-5, but it was the core of a team that won the national championship the following season. Georgia then smoked hapless TCU 34-3 and were ranked sixth in the nation by the time October began.
Wins over three bad teams, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky followed. The former was close, 28-21, the latter two were blowouts, with a combined final of 68-zip. Now it was time for two big November tests, against South Carolina and Florida, with the Dawgs up to #4 in the nation.
Walker and South Carolina’s George Rogers were far and away the two best running backs in the nation. Rogers was a local boy who’d gone to Columbia and then beaten the Bulldogs in 1978 and 1979. Now he came to Athens with a worthy foe in Walker waiting.
Both running backs put on a show, with Walker going for 219 yards and Rogers rushing for 168 yards. Georgia ground out a 13-10 win. More good news came elsewhere in the SEC—Alabama, undefeated, ranked #1 and the two-time defending national champion had been upset by Mississippi State. The Bulldogs and Tide would not play each other and now Georgia had the inside track to the conference’s Sugar Bowl bid.
The annual trip to Jacksonville to play #20 Florida was up next. Walker picked up where he left off, bolting on a 72-yard touchdown run on the game’s third play. He rushed for 238 yards for the game and Georgia got out to a 14-3 lead.
But Florida had a good passing game with Wayne Peace at quarterback and a wide receiver named Cris Collingsworth, who was the best in the SEC. Even though Georgia still led 20-10 after three quarters, Florida rallied with a touchdown, two-point conversion, field goal and then got the ball with 5:53 left and a 21-20 lead.
The Bulldogs held and got their offense the ball back, but Georgia was on its own eight-yard line with 1:35 left. On 3rd-and-11 Belue dropped back and found Lindsay Scott over the middle. He got behind the secondary and the race was on. “Run Lindsay Run!” was the legendary call over the Bulldogs radio station. And run he did. Scott found the end zone and Georgia survived, 26-21.
Georgia closed the season with a 31-21 win at mediocre Auburn and then rolled woeful Georgia Tech 38-20 to complete the undefeated season. The Dawgs were 11-0. Walker didn’t get the Heisman Trophy—the bias against freshman was too strong and would not be broken until Johnny Manziel won it for Texas A&M in 2012—but the team was #1 in the country.
Notre Dame had won the national championship in 1977 and then won the Cotton Bowl following the 1978 season, but the first year after Joe Montana was a difficult one in ’79. The Irish had a comeback year, motivated by the desire to win for Devine after he announced his retirement.
The defense was anchored by All-Americans in the front seven, with defensive end Scott Zellek and linebacker Bob Crable. On the offensive side, John Scully at center also got All-American honors. A freshman quarterback, Blair Kiel, got the nod as the starter and Notre Dame was ranked #11 to start the year.
Notre Dame quickly sent a message they were on the way back with a 31-10 pounding of Purdue—a good team with the best quarterback in the country in Mark Herrman. It set up the rivalry game between the Irish and Wolverines and what would be one of the now-defunct rivalry’s great moments.
The Irish jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but by the time the final minutes arrived, they were trailing 27-26 and trying a last-ditch drive into a stiff wind. They reached the 34-yard line and sent kicker Harry Oliver out to try what seemed like a hopeless kick given the conditions. Unbelievably, Oliver made it, sending the South Bend crowd into a frenzy and sparking hope that this really could be Devine’s destiny year.
Between the 29-27 win over Michigan, and the end of October, Notre Dame relied on attrition to move up the polls. They beat Michigan State, Miami, Arizona and Army. On November 1, the same day Georgia was beating South Carolina and Alabama lost to Mississippi State, the Irish rolled Navy 33-10. Second-ranked UCLA also lost.
Notre Dame concluded the day at the top of the polls, with Georgia at #2. The Irish couldn’t handle prosperity though. Georgia Tech was awful and would finish the season 1-9-1, but their game with Notre Dame was the one tie, a 3-3 final. Notre Dame slipped to sixth.
There was still a trip to Alabama on tap, and even though each team had recent blemishes, there were still national title implications. In a defensive war, Notre Dame got the game’s only touchdown when they recovered a fumble inside the 5-yard line and Phil Carter went over the top for the score in a 7-0 win.
The Irish beat Air Force and moved back up to #2, back in control of their national championship destiny and the Sugar Bowl date with Georgia locked in. Notre Dame still had to beat USC if it was to be a 1 vs. 2 battle. But the Irish, facing a talented Trojan team with Ronnie Lott and Marcus Allen, lost 20-3 and slipped to #7. There was no national title in the cards, but Notre Dame could still send Devine out with a bowl victory over a #1-ranked opponent.
President Jimmy Carter was on hand in the Superdome to watch his home state Bulldogs, the last time an American president would attend a championship sporting event until Bill Clinton went to the 1994 Final Four to cheer on his alma mater, Arkansas.
Notre Dame got a 50-yard field goal from Oliver, and then Walker had to briefly leave the game with a separated shoulder. The freshman told the trainer to do what was necessary to get it back in place—“I didn’t come all this way to not play.”
The Irish started missing opportunities. Oliver missed three field goals, and they fumbled a kickoff on the 1-yard line, setting up an easy Georgia score. Walker was running well for the Dawgs, injured shoulder and all, but even without Belue completing a pass, Georgia still led 17-10 late in the game.
Notre Dame made one more drive, but Kiel threw an interception. All that was left was for the Bulldogs to run out the clock—and for Belue to complete that elusive pass. Georgia was national champions.
The Bulldogs haven’t won a national title since, but with Walker, they would continue to be the power of the SEC for the next couple years. The Irish would take a brief step back from national prominence until Lou Holtz arrived in 1986.