It was going to be remembered as Notre Dame legend No. 3,684. Some guy—exactly who remained to be determined—would win one for the Gipper, and the Fighting Irish would cream Michigan as they got back to the business of defending their national title. The occasion was perfect. There was Notre Dame, fighting mad after a fluky opening-game loss to Missouri at South Bend and hot to stomp on anybody. And who better than Michigan, a highly regarded team that had boldly broken off a rivalry with the Irish in 1943 and had balked at reviving it? Perfect, too, because though Irish Coach Dan Devine might occasionally drop a game to a heavy underdog like Missouri, his record in big games is like John Wayne's in shoot-outs. Then, too, poor Michigan would be playing in that cauldron of adoration called Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish hadn't lost back-to-back openers in 82 years. Will this season's legend please step forward?
Oops! Seems someone forgot to recruit a Big Game legend this year. Before the usual capacity throng of 59,075 last Saturday, Notre Dame sent in its troops and Michigan left them for dead. The final score was 28-14, but more telling was the second-half score, 21-0. For those 30 minutes Michigan outgained, outtackled, outblocked and outcoached Notre Dame out of any national championship hopes. It was a classic field-position victory—Notre Dame hemmed inside its 25-yard line on each of its six possessions and inside its 11 on two of them. It was Tackle Chris Godfrey and Linebackers Ron Simpkins and Tom Seabron regularly squashing the Irish ground attack. It was a busy pass coverage scheme that baffled Irish Quarterback Joe Montana. As Montana said afterward, "I had plenty of time back there, but seldom anyone to pass to." It was also five Notre Dame turnovers.
"We felt that if momentum swung our way we could handle them physically," said Wolverine Coach Bo Schembechler, beaming. "We just played excellent ball the whole second half."
One reason was that up in the press box Michigan Assistant Coaches Jerry Hanlon and Tirrel Burton had spotted an Irish Achilles' heel. In the first half they noticed that when Michigan ran play-action passes, the Irish free safety would dart up toward the line of scrimmage in support of the rush defenders. That left the deep middle of Notre Dame's zone vulnerable to what Michigan calls its Pro Left Wide pass play. Quarterback Rick Leach called it on the first play of the fourth quarter and hit Tight End Doug Marsh for an 18-yard scoring pass. Five-and-a-half minutes later Leach called it again, this time connecting with Ralph Clayton, from 40 yards out for another TD.
"I read the safety," Clayton said. "If he comes up, I cut to the middle. Rick reads him, too. If the safety comes up, he throws to the middle. The safety's got to support against the run. It's a tough play to defend against."
"It all clicked in the second half," said Leach, who had completed just three of 14 passes in the first two quarters but broke Notre Dame's back after the intermission with five completions in six attempts, three of them for touchdowns.
"It came down to basics," said Devine. "The idea is, you don't let people get behind you. But we had a couple mental lapses."
Earlier in the week both coaches oozed mutual respect and a mutual attitude of "let's not say something that ends up on the bulletin board." Yet Schembechler did ruffle a few feathers by saying that a win over the Irish wasn't as important as a win over Michigan State, Ohio State or anybody else in the Big Ten.
That's what Schembechler said, but what he did was to designate Notre Dame as a "red-letter game," a status normally reserved for the Spartans and Buckeyes. And he whisked his players in and out of town with a secrecy usually saved for a conference shoot-out. To get from Ann Arbor to Elkhart, maybe 150 miles, the Wolverines were bussed to Detroit, flown to South Bend and then bussed to their hotel. "I know we can get there quicker by charter bus from the campus," Schembechler said. So why fly? "Because Michigan always goes first-class," he snapped.
By contrast, Devine seemed genuinely relaxed. Asked at a practice if he had any surprises for Michigan, he thought for a moment and said, "Yes, I think we'll warm up in green jerseys and then change into blues." But one thing did sort of rankle Devine. "I have never played for a team or coached one and said that we're getting ready for two opponents at once," he said, "like Bo did when he said he was getting ready for Illinois and Notre Dame a few weeks ago."