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The way things are happening at Notre Dame lately, any moment now someone will name a chapel after Martin Luther or paint the Golden Dome blue gray. Or maybe replace that bust of Knute Rockne with one of Joe Kuharich. Who would have ever believed girls camping out at South Bend? As students. Or speed in the Irish backfield? Real speed, for heaven's sakes, zip, zap, zip. That's like giving George Foreman a hammer. Or Henry Aaron four strikes.
For what seems like forever, certainly long before Ara Parseghian ascended from Northwestern, all you needed to stop an Irish runner was a bazooka, provided you could get in a killing shot while he was busily batting down biwinged war planes from the top of the Empire State Building. For most teams, an 80-yard touchdown run was explosive. For Notre Dame, it took so much time it was called ball control. The Irish should have been awarded six points and a penalty for delaying the game.
But no more. Notre Dame has discovered how handy it is to run around people. Not that Eric Penick, the 215-pound junior halfback with 9.5 speed who showed such promise last year, or 200-pound sophomore Art Best (9.7) would hesitate to step on chests. "You can't be making a big move all the time," says Penick. "Sometimes you get surrounded and you just have to lower your head."
Last season, unfortunately, when Penick lowered his head he had a habit of losing the ball. "I was about 18 pounds lighter and people were bruising me," he says. He also had to learn that assistant coaches yelled at him because they think yelling is part of the job, not because they are down on him. Penick took shouting as a personal attack. If he wasn't shaking from rage, he was shaking from nerves. Finally Dave Casper, a 240-pound offensive tackle who is playing tight end this year, talked to him. The most versatile, and probably the best, athlete on the squad, Casper is tough to ruffle. Last year the coaches told him his hair was too long, so he shaved his head. "They thought I was gung ho," he says. "I shaved it because if I can't wear my hair the way I want, I don't want any."
"Those guys don't mean any harm," Casper told Penick. "They just like to yell a lot. Let it roll off your back like water off a duck. Quack. Quack." Sometimes when in a huddle, Casper would look at Penick and remind him: "Quack, quack."
"It helped," says Penick. "Now I do it myself. They yell and I go 'quack, quack.' They think I'm a little crazy, but I'm sure not nervous anymore."
During the summer break Penick added the extra pounds, all of it muscle from the waist up. "I just ate a lot and lifted weights. Now I'm going to bruise some people," he says. And he studied his cat. Panther. "Cats have the most beautiful moves of any animal. They never think about it; they simply do it. I watch my cat all the time. I love to study him. I try to pattern my moves after his. If you have five or six guys around you, you haven't got time to think of which one you are going to duck first. You simply do it. If I could run like a cat I'd be the greatest runner in the world."
Little in life is perfect, however. While Notre Dame is as big and strong as ever, and now has backfield speed, most of its talent is packaged in young bodies, perhaps too young. Only time and USC will tell. In its opener two weeks ago against Northwestern, the Irish started two freshmen, three sophomores and 12 juniors. Ross Browner, a 218-pound freshman defensive end, does not see that as a problem. "We may be young," he says, "but we don't play like we're young." With the starting offense sitting out the second half, Notre Dame won in adult enough fashion 44-0.
That did not mean much. Notre Dame always crushes its opening opponent. The Irish have lost but three openers since 1897. And in 23 opening games as a head coach at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern and Notre Dame, Parseghian has lost but once, and that team (Northwestern in 1957) did not win any games at all.
Nor were the pollsters impressed, ranking Notre Dame seventh. But Parseghian was pleased.