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Last Friday morning Coach Dan Devine sat in the front row of the first of the three buses taking his Notre Dame football team on the 140-mile trip from South Bend, Ind. to Ann Arbor, Mich. trying to pinpoint the personality of his squad. "This group is different," he said. "I think they have a feeling I'll get them out of whatever scrapes they get into during the game. They just have blind faith in me. But I have blind faith in them.... I have to, because they haven't at any time shown me they have the ability to beat a team like Michigan."
Indeed, there was very much a feeling on the bus trip of lambs being led to the slaughter. Of course, the lambs didn't realize it; they never do. This would be the season opener for a Notre Dame team that, whispers had it, was potentially the school's worst in several years. It might even lose four games. That would be a disaster of unspeakable proportions in South Bend; not since 1963 has a Notre Dame team lost more than three games. But it certainly seemed possible, because nearly all the stars of recent glorious moments are gone, including the dazzling Quarterback Joe Montana and the all-time leading Irish ground-gainer, Jerome Heavens. Plus Notre Dame would be playing what the NCAA has announced is the toughest schedule in the land. Shed a tear for the Irish.
As the Michigan countryside rolled by, Defensive Coordinator Joe Yonto talked of life with seven of last year's 11 defensive starters gone and injuries cutting into his slim stock of veterans. "We're so young," he said. "We're eager, enthused—and very trappable." He sighed, then suggested, "But somebody may just rally to the cause. Kids have a surprising way of rising to the occasion." Shed another tear for the Irish.
What happened, of course, is that two kids in particular—a kicker nobody wanted and a linebacker who plays with barely controlled intensity—rose to the occasion. In spades. And with support from the rest of the squad, including a shockingly adept defensive unit, they pulled off yet another miraculous Notre Dame win. But what did you expect? The last time the Irish engaged in such heroics was the game just before this one—the Cotton Bowl, where they tied Houston on an eight-yard pass with no time remaining and won on the conversion. Last Saturday there was still a full second left when sophomore Linebacker Bob Crable blocked a Michigan field-goal try to preserve the 12-10 win.
Still, by the time the winds of November sweep the Midwest, it may be that neither Michigan nor Notre Dame will be at the top of the football pecking order. That's because both seem a notch or more below championship form, primarily because both may have shortcomings at quarterback.
Michigan is trying to replace all-everything Rick Leach with B.J. Dickey, an unknown from Ottawa, Ohio, who wasn't recruited by other football powers. "All I wanted to do was make the traveling squad," B.J. says. He has far surpassed that modest goal by showing a talent for directing the option, the toughness to turn upfield with the ball when need be and adequate passing ability.
The Irish are trying a little d�j� vu with Rusty Lisch, who was named the starter in 1977 but was replaced after three games by Montana. Notre Dame then went on to win the national championship. Last year Lisch didn't play a down. On the matter of having lost out once as the quarterback, Lisch is laconic. "I learned a lot," he says.
"That I wasn't as good as Montana."
On Saturday both Dickey and Lisch showed they have plenty of room for improvement, but they also showed enough flair to give hope that, with time, they can move into the class of their predecessors. Indeed, while Lisch had a so-so day—five of 10 passes for 65 yards and one interception—it should be remembered that he was working against a fine defense. He didn't produce a touchdown, but he often got the ball close to the Michigan goal, mainly by giving it to Halfback Vagas Ferguson at every available opportunity. Ferguson responded by gaining 118 yards on 35 carries to set up all of the Irish's field goals.