Bo Schembechler stood alone on the playing field surveying the distant rim of an empty Michigan Stadium. The next day his Wolverines would play favored Notre Dame in their first game of the season. As he luxuriated in the Ann Arbor sun, the surgical scar on Schembechler's leg, the result of his 1976 coronary bypass surgery, shone below his coach's shorts. More noticeable was what one Michigan official called "this damn smile Bo's been wearing all week."
When a visitor recalled Michigan's steady decline from football prominence in the last five years, Schembechler remained calm. How does it feel, Coach, being unranked by the major polls? "It's understandable," he said. How about being an underdog to Notre Dame even though you've never lost a home opener? "I don't mind that." Are you better than last year? "I think we are. But maybe we don't have as much talent." Schembechler sounded more like directory assistance than the guy who ripped lockers out of walls during his coaching days at Miami of Ohio.
Then again the cagey Schembechler may have known it would be the last day of such questions. On Saturday, Michigan beat the Irish 20-12 before 105,523 fans, all of whom had to leave the stadium thinking that the Oust Faust faction at South Bend would be getting its wish at the end of the season. For nine months Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust had been saying, "After four bad years in a row, we have to show people how good we are." Instead, Michigan showed people how bad Notre Dame is.
The Irish defense was run over, and the alleged offense failed to produce a touchdown with a game plan that seemed to have been borrowed from the Moeller High Jayvees. Notre Dame ran off 13 plays from inside the Michigan 15-yard line, and on seven of them quarterback Steve Beuerlein handed off to Allen Pinkett. Twice Pinkett, a 5'9" senior tailback, was dropped for a loss. Once he was stopped for no gain. Average yardage for those seven carries: 0.86.
"I want the ball in those situations," said Pinkett about the thwarted scoring drives. "That's what they brought me to this school for. There were a few blocking mistakes, a few missed assignments, which is typical of an opening game. I can even think of three or four mistakes I made. Nobody's perfect."
"I can understand the confidence the coaches have in our running game," Beuerlein said. "But there were a lot of times when I thought, when a lot of people thought, that we should have thrown the ball. It's not something I have any control over. All I can say is, maybe they had their reasons. I don't want to point any fingers."
Faust did order a pass on one of those plays inside the 15, but Michigan sacked Beuerlein for an 11-yard loss. In all, the Wolverines brought down Beuerlein six times for losses totaling 42 yards. The Irish passer seemed to spend most of the afternoon retreating from the rush.
Notre Dame did lead at the half, 9-3, thanks to three field goals by John Carney, the last from 47 yards with eight seconds left. But by then Michigan had learned that it could handle the Irish up front and that 5'7", 175-pound tailback Jamie Morris couldn't be stopped by supposed tacklers who outweighed him by 100 pounds. "We felt like we had momentum at halftime," said Michigan's poised and confident quarterback, Jim Harbaugh.
When Notre Dame's freshman Alonzo Jefferson fumbled away the second-half kickoff at his 14, the Mo was all for Bo. A minute and a half later Harbaugh scored on a quarterback draw. Another Carney field goal put Notre Dame up 12-10, but Harbaugh wasted little time taking the Wolverines 80 yards for another touchdown and a 17-12 lead.
When Mike Gillette's 23-yard field goal in the fourth quarter increased Michigan's lead to 20-12, Notre Dame needed three field goals to win, touchdowns—it should be remembered—not being in the game plan.