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Dallas isn't where Notre Dame or Houston figured to end up. The Irish seemed doomed to a dismal year upon losing their first two games, both at home. Houston was picked by Southwest Conference seers to go nowhere, a prediction that appeared justified when the Cougars dropped their opener to Memphis State. But then Notre Dame won eight straight games to earn an invitation to the Cotton Bowl, while Houston shocked Texas A&M, Arkansas and Texas to win the SWC title for the second time in the three years the Cougars have been in the conference.
Both teams ran up points. The Irish averaged 23.5 a game, while Houston had 30.0. The Irish have a superior passing attack, and when Joe Montana is rolling, he breaks games wide open. He hit 54% of his 260 passes and threw only four interceptions in the last nine games. Vagas Ferguson (1,192 yards) and Jerome Heavens (728) aren't Billy Sims, but they are two of the best running backs in Notre Dame history. The defense, featuring All-America Bob Golie at linebacker, figures to do well against Houston's veer, because its strength is up front against the run.
Houston's chief problem has been inconsistency: its win over Texas was followed by a loss to Texas Tech, an 11-point underdog. Before thrashing then-unbeaten A&M 33-0, the Cougars struggled to edge winless Baylor 20-18. They led Florida State 27-0 but had to hold on for a 27-21 victory, thanks largely to a last-minute Seminole touchdown being disallowed because of a penalty. And just when Houston seemed to get it together in a closing win over Rice, Coach Bill Yeoman yanked Quarterback Danny Davis and inserted Delrick Brown. Davis demanded to know why. Yeoman told him his running lacked spunk. Davis shot back he was feeding the ball to running backs Emmett King and Randy Love. The two rushed for 1,095 and 1,019 yards, respectively, to become the first SWC teammates to gain 1,000 yards apiece.
Yeoman has reinstated Davis as the quarterback, but this doesn't keep Davis from being upset and slightly confused, which is bad, because his teammates look to him for leadership. As for the Irish, they closed out their season with a last-minute loss to powerful USC. Houston is hungry, but the Irish are more composed.
Take your pick. USC is ranked third in the nation, Michigan fifth. Each has lost just one game. Both parade up and down the field, prefer to do it by rushing and pile up more than 400 yards of offense a game. Both defenses are on the national charts. Both beat Notre Dame, and both lost to teams they were favored to beat, Michigan 24-15 to Michigan State, USC 20-7 to Arizona State.
Although both operate out of a multiple I, their attacks vary in significant ways. Michigan Quarterback Rick Leach carries the ball often, as do five other Wolverine backs, all of whom average well over four yards a carry. USC All-America Charles White has more carries than all the other Trojans put together, and Quarterback Paul McDonald, a 57% passer, runs only when trapped. Leach's versatility gives Michigan the edge here.
But the biggest dissimilarity is on defense. With the likes of Ron Simpkins and Curtis Greer up front and Mike Jolly and Mike Harden in the secondary, the Wolverines excel at keeping opponents out of the end zone. They yielded only eight points a game, second fewest in the country. USC, which gave up only four touchdowns on the ground, is better than Michigan against the rush but vulnerable to passing, and 16 of Leach's 68 completions went for touchdowns this season.
Although both teams have crushed their opponents, USC outscoring them 301-143, Michigan 362-88, the Wolverines outscored their foes by wide margins in every quarter, demolishing them 99-13 in the fourth. For their part, the Trojans showed a heart-stopping tendency to build wide leads in the first half, then to hang on for hairbreadth victories. "We lack a killer instinct," admits Trojan Coach John Robinson.