Oct. 15, 2010
Rally Sons Of Notre Dame
Consecutive dramatic victories in 1975 began a comeback era
By Lou Somogyi
For the first three quarters of the 20th century (1900-74), there was one Notre Dame second-half comeback that was easily the school standard: the 18-13 victory from a 13-0 deficit at Ohio State in 1935.
So dramatic was that victory, it was ranked No. 1 in college football history when Sport magazine in 1969 surveyed dozens of luminaries connected to the game’s history to ask what the greatest games were in the first 100 years (1869-1969).
That was the benchmark — until the “fourth quarter” of the 20th century arrived at Notre Dame in 1975 with sophomore quarterback Joe Montana. A new era of comebacks commenced during consecutive victories in October of that year.
On Oct. 11, 1975, long-time Notre Dame athletics director Edward “Moose” Krause — who had played under Knute Rockne, coached for Frank Leahy and was in office during the Ara Parseghian era — told first-year head coach Dan Devine that Notre Dame’s 21-14 victory at North Carolina eclipsed the 1935 comeback at Ohio State. In Chapel Hill, N.C., the Irish overcame a 14-0 fourth-quarter deficit to post a 21-14 victory, triggered by second-team quarterback Montana.
It took 40 years to surpass the 1935 standard — but it took only one week after that contest at North Carolina for Krause to change his mind. On Oct. 18, 1975 at Colorado Springs, Colo., Montana and Notre Dame’s “Cardiac Kids” trailed 30-10 in the fourth quarter before emerging with a 31-30 triumph.
“It’s going to be a long time before two remarkable victories like that will ever be seen again,” predicted Devine at the end of the 1975 season.
There were several reasons why there were so few legendary comebacks at Notre Dame until 1975:
During the Rockne (1918-30), Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53) and Parseghian (1964-74) regimes, Notre Dame seldom trailed, never mind by more than two touchdowns or anything more than 13 points.
In the 1930s under head coaches Hunk Anderson and Elmer Layden, there wasn’t enough offense in games to necessitate dramatic rallies. In 1937, for example, the average score in Notre Dame’s nine contests was 8.6 to 5.4, which is more like baseball results.
Finally, during Notre Dame football’s prolonged slumps from 1956-63 and 1981-85, the Irish usually either weren’t good enough to make a dramatic comeback or were in too much of a losing rut to overcome it.
It all changed 35 years ago this month.
Carolina Blue (And Gold)
The 13-point comeback win at Ohio State in 1935 remained the gold standard of Irish rallies for 40 years, mainly because it all took place in the final quarter.
There were two ties of note during that span: 13-13 against Great Lakes in 1942 and 14-14 versus Iowa in 1950. The Irish trailed Great Lakes 13-0 at halftime but knotted the contest in the third quarter. Notre Dame trailed 14-0 in the first quarter versus the Hawkeyes, but again the score was tied in the third quarter. In neither game did Notre Dame trail entering the final quarter.
In 1957 at Philadelphia, Army built a 21-7 third-quarter lead that Notre Dame trimmed to 21-14 before the start of the fourth quarter. The Irish eventually won, 23-21.
In 1959, Navy took a 22-14 lead into the fourth quarter before the Irish scored the last 11 points for a 25-22 victory. Monty Stickles kicked the game-winning field goal with 32 seconds remaining. That eight-point deficit was the top fourth-quarter comeback by the Irish since the game at Columbus in 1935.
Only one other time did the Irish come back from as many as 13 points to win the game — 1954 at home versus Michigan State. The passing of Earl Morrall staked the Spartans to a 13-0 advantage in the first 10 minutes, but by the end of the third quarter, Notre Dame had the lead and hung on for a 20-19 victory.
So when Notre Dame entered the fourth quarter on Oct. 11, 1975 at North Carolina trailing 14-0, history was not on its side. It had never won a game trailing by that much in the final 15 minutes.
With 11:27 remaining, Notre Dame ended a seven-quarter drought without scoring a touchdown when halfback Al Hunter scored from two yards out. Alas, the two-point scoring pass from quarterback Rick Slager fell incomplete. Even with another score, the best the Irish might hope for was a tie.
That’s when the birth of a legend began. After a defensive stop by Notre Dame, sophomore Montana was inserted in place of Slager with 6:04 left and the ball at his 27. Montana had received his first start a week earlier, a 10-3 loss at home to Michigan State in which he threw a crucial interception into the end zone and was yanked from the game in the second half.
“I didn’t think I’d be going in,” said Montana of taking the throttle after Slager’s previous series resulted in a punt. “When I did get in, I was a little nervous. But I knew there was time.”
Mixing the run with the pass, Montana completed a short seven-yard out pass (which would prove significant later) and launched a perfect 39-yard pass to split end Dan Kelleher down the right sideline, setting up Hunter’s second short scoring run. Montana then found backup tight end Doug Buth for the two-point conversion and a 14-14 score with 5:11 left.
When North Carolina missed a 42-yard field goal with just 1:15 remaining, UNC publicists were doling out information in the press box that the Tar Heels had played 189 consecutive games without a tie.
Make it 190.
From his 20, Montana was instructed from the sidelines to run a draw but was told to look for the quick sideline pass if the cornerback was playing too far off. It was the same seven-yard completion he threw to get warmed up.
On cue, Montana called the audible, but North Carolina cornerback Russ Conley heard it and sensed the play was coming. As sophomore split end Ted Burgmeier turned for the pass, Conley had a bead on it … until he slipped. Burgmeier caught the seven-yard out and turned it into an 80-yard touchdown, evading the lone would-be tackle threat at the Irish 40 and tallying with only 1:03 left in the 21-14 conquest.
“If I hadn’t slipped, it could have been an interception, or a four- or five-yard gain,” Conley reflected. “It was a gamble, and I lost.”
For the first time, Notre Dame rallied from as much as 14 points down in the fourth quarter to achieve victory.”
“The greatest Notre Dame comeback ever,” proclaimed Krause.
Just one week later, he would make the same statement at a different venue.
(Come)Back To (Come)Back
Montana did not start the following week at Air Force, but he was inserted in the second quarter and took the remainder of the Irish snaps.
Unfortunately, Montana entered the fourth quarter with only two completions to his own team and two more to Air Force to set up a stunning 30-10 lead by the Falcons after three quarters.
It took 40 years to stage a comeback from more than 13 points … what were the odds that coming back from 20 points would be attainable a week later?
First there was a 66-yard touchdown drive, 43 yards passing, 23 yards rushing, capped by Montana’s three-yard run off the option.
Score: 30-17, 10:26 left.
On the next Irish series, Lady Luck reared her fickle head. On third and 10 from his 37, Montana threw his third interception of the day in just 15 passes, all to defensive back Jim Miller. He returned the last one inside the Irish 25. Game over … until Miller fumbled the ball and Notre Dame tackle Pat Pohlen fell on it at the Irish 15.
From there, Montana connected with tight end Ken MacAfee for 12 yards, threaded the needle on a 66-yard catch and run by halfback Mark McLane, and seven more yards to MacAfee for the touchdown.
Score: 30-24, 5:29 left.
An inspired Irish defense forced a three-and-out, and despite the high altitude, a poor Air Force punt gave the Irish possession at the Falcon 44. Three running plays later, freshman Jerome Heavens tallied from a yard out.
Score 31-30 Notre Dame, 3:23 still remaining. Within eight minutes, Notre Dame scored 21 points to rally from a 20-point hole.
“I’ve changed my mind — this is the greatest Notre Dame comeback ever,” a jubilant Krause exclaimed one week after the victory at North Carolina.
Catchy monikers began to emerge for Montana, from the “Monongahela Minuteman,” referring to his Pennsylvania hometown, to “The Comeback Kid.”
It was merely the warm-up act for a new era in Notre Dame football history for fourth-quarter comebacks (see sidebar on this page). Not even included were 10-point comeback victories in the fourth quarter directed by Montana at Purdue and Clemson during the 1977 national title campaign, and another 10-point comeback in the final quarter versus Pitt in 1978.
But it was in these two back-to-back weeks 35 years ago that the opening line of the Irish Victory March — “Rally sons of Notre Dame” — was best manifested.
Greatest Comeback Victories
DEFICIT/SCORE YEAR/OPPONENT RESULT
22 (34-12)* 1979/Houston 35-34
21 (24-3) 1999/USC 25-24
20 (30-10)* 1975/Air Force 31-30
19 (19-0) 2003/Washington St. 29-26 (OT)
17 (37-20)* 1986/USC 38-37
17 (17-0) 1984/Michigan St. 24-20
16 (37-21)* 2006/Michigan St. 40-37
16 (30-14) 1999/Oklahoma 34-30
14 (14-0)* 1975/North Carolina 21-14
14 (17-3) 1979/South Carolina 18-17
* Denotes that the deficit was in the fourth quarter.
Notes: Note: The 1979 Cotton Bowl victory against Houston still remains the mother of all comebacks at Notre Dame. The Irish trailed by 22 when the rally began on a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown with 7:37 left in the contest. Notre Dame scored the game-winning touchdown when Joe Montana found a diving Kris Haines for an eight-yard score as time elapsed. Joe Unis kicked the extra point twice because of an Irish penalty on the first one.
The Ones That Got Away
In the 35 years since 1975, Notre Dame has rallied 10 times from two-to-three touchdown deficits in the second half to win the game.
This doesn’t even include three of the greatest comebacks in school history that still ended in defeat:
1. Nov. 20, 1993: Boston College 41, Notre Dame 39 –No. 1 and 10-0 Notre Dame trailed No. 16 Boston College 38-17 after the Eagles scored a touchdown with 11:13 left in the contest. In the next 10:04, Notre Dame tallied on touchdown drives of 57, 67 and 66 yards to take a 39-38 lead at the 1:09 mark. The Eagles responded with a 41-yard field goal as time elapsed … and Notre Dame football has never been the same in the last 17 years.
2. Nov. 25, 1978: USC 27, Notre Dame 25 — Trailing No. 3 USC 24-6, the No. 8 Irish tallied touchdowns on consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 80, 98 and 57 yards while Joe Montana completed l1 of his 15 passes for 196 yards on those marches. The go-ahead TD came with just 46 seconds left, but a controversial call on an apparent fumble by USC quarterback Paul McDonald (it was ruled an incomplete pass) led to Frank Jordan’s 37-yard field goal with two seconds left.
3. Oct. 25, 2003: Boston College 27, Notre Dame 25 — This was nearly a carbon copy of the ’78 USC game when the Irish fell behind by the same 24-6 score in the third quarter, rallied on special teams and the passing of freshman quarterback Brady Quinn to move ahead 25-24 (after missing the two-point conversion, just like in ’78) … and lost when the Eagles’ Sandro Sciortino booted a 26-yard field goal with 38 seconds remaining.