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Four years ago Notre Dame played the three military academies—Army, Navy and Air Force—beat them by a combined score of 154-25, and won a share of the national championship with an undefeated season. This year all three are again on the Fighting Irish schedule and another national championship is on the horizon. The team is so talent-laden that even with the loss of Al Hunter, the first back in Notre Dame history to gain more than 1,000 yards (who was drafted last week by the Seattle Sea-hawks after being placed on disciplinary suspension), Notre Dame should go undefeated. Particularly since the Irish play a schedule that includes only two nationally ranked teams: Pittsburgh in the opener and USC on Oct. 22.
The Notre Dame defense, which ranked seventh in the country against the rush last season, remains intact. Its mainstay is 1976 Outland Award winner (as the best lineman in the country) Ross Browner, a 245-pound end who made 97 tackles last year (worth 203-minus yards) and recovered four fumbles, raising his career total to an Irish record of 10. Nor is there any weakness at the other end of the line, where 6'3", 242-pound All-America Willie Fry sets up. Behind the front wall is a tough, mobile group of linebackers led by 240-pound Bob Golic, an All-America wrestler. The strong safety is Browner's little brother Jim (210 pounds), who was credited with 80 tackles and had two interceptions last year as a sophomore.
On offense the Irish have lost three players. Junior Rusty Lisch steps in at quarterback for Rick Slager, who graduated. In the final games of last season, after Slager was injured, Lisch engineered wins over Alabama (21-18) and Miami (40-27). Coach Dan Devine also is looking forward to the recovery of Fullback Jerome Heavens, who was the leading Irish rusher two years ago (5.9 yards per carry) before suffering a knee injury. Should he not come around after missing spring practice, sophomore Vagas Ferguson, who crashed for 107 yards in the upset of Alabama, will take over. Three-time All-America Ken MacAfee returns at tight end. He averaged 14.2 yards on 34 receptions last year and at 6'4", 253 pounds is an excellent blocker. Still, Devine plans to reduce the football's flight time this year, except when it comes off the toe of junior Joe Restic, who averaged 41.7 yards a punt in 1976. Restic, who is the son of Harvard's coach, also was All-America honorable-mention defensive back last year. He came off the bench in the second game of the season, when Randy Harrison broke his forearm, and went on to lead the Irish in interceptions (four). With Harrison back, the two will probably alternate at free safety.
With the military less than massed to stop them and with 34 lettermen (18 of them starters from a team that went 9-3 in 1976), this should be a Devine season under the Golden Dome.
Considering how spoiled the folks in and around Norman have gotten in recent years, last season must have seemed almost dismal. After all, there were only nine wins for Sooner fans to boom about—the fewest in Coach Barry Switzer's four years at OU—and instead of a trip to Miami and the Orange Bowl, there was only a 41-7 wishbone-vs.-wishbone clobbering of poor Wyoming in the Fiesta Bowl.
A rash of injuries in the secondary, the necessity of starting a sophomore quarterback and the unusual absence of a superstar contributed to Oklahoma's 9-2-1 record, which included back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State (31-24) and Colorado (42-31). This dropped Switzer's record at OU to 41-3-2. Poor guy. That means he won't win No. 50 until late this season—probably in one of two year-end showdowns at home against Big Eight challengers Colorado and Nebraska.
But, rest assured, it will come. The Sooners are that strong. All they seem to be lacking from the 1974 and '75 teams, each of which was selected as a wire-service poll national champion, is a big name. Says Switzer, "There's no Leroy Selmon out there. And there darn sure ain't no Little Joe Washington around."
Nevertheless, the 1977 team may have the most overall speed in Sooner history. The offensive backfield, perennially the showcase of Switzer teams, is stocked with enough nifties and swifties to make up for the absence of a Washington. Junior Thomas Lott, a backup quarterback for four games until starter Dean Blevins was hurt, rushed for 195 yards in a 49-20 win over Kansas State. Fullback Kenny King gained 791 yards last fall. Halfback Elvis Peacock has turned into a distance runner, reeling off an 84-yarder against Oklahoma State and a 50-yard scamper against Nebraska. The other halfback, Junior Billy Sims, gained 139 yards in 18 carries during two injury-plagued seasons. If Sims is hale, look out, America.