Head coach Dan Devine devised to near perfection a gameplan against against Texas that stympied the potent Longhorn offense in the 1978 Cotton Bowl as Notre Dame earned a 38-10 victory and the 1977

Triumph In Texas

Oct. 4, 2013

Lou Somogyi

Blue & Gold Illustrated

Name 20 of Notre Dame’s most memorable, historical or epic victories in football, and the chances are that next to Notre Dame Stadium, the city of Dallas would boast the most such triumphs.

• In Notre Dame’s first-ever trip to Dallas for a game, Dec. 3, 1949, head coach Frank Leahy’s Fighting Irish clinched their third national title in four years and finished a remarkable run of four straight seasons without a defeat with a pulsating 27-20 victory versus SMU.

“I never saw more excitement in a game in my life,” said Leahy afterwards.

• On Jan. 1, 1971, Notre Dame ended No. 1 Texas’ 30-game winning streak with a 24-11 victory in the Cotton Bowl.

• Seven years later on Jan. 2, 1978, 11-0 and No. 1 Texas faced 10-1 and No. 5 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl again, and the Irish pulled another upset, 38-10 — and vaulted all the way to No. 1 to win their second national title in Dallas. The only city where it has clinched more national titles is Los Angeles, with victories in season finales at USC in 1930, 1947 and 1966.

• One year after, Jan. 1, 1979, Notre Dame staged its greatest comeback ever, rallying from a 34-12 deficit with 7:25 remaining in the contest to defeat Houston, 35-34.

In games played at Dallas, Notre Dame is 9-3, highlighted by a 5-2 record in the Cotton Bowl from Jan. 1 1970 through Jan. 1, 1994. During that time, the Cotton Bowl was one of the four “major bowls” with the Orange, Rose and Sugar. The Fiesta Bowl also entered that arena as the fifth such bowl in the early 1980s.

The seven Cotton Bowl appearances are the most for Notre Dame at any postseason venue, with the Orange Bowl second with five.
Notre Dame’s five victories in the Cotton Bowl are also the most in one postseason game, with the Orange and Sugar next in line with only two apiece . Especially notable is that the five Cotton Bowl triumps came against teams that brought a collective 52-3 record (.945 winning percentage) into the game. Chronologically, here were those victories:

Jan. 1 1971 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 24, Texas 11

One year earlier, 8-1-1 Notre Dame ended its 45-year ban on bowls and accepted a bid to play No. 1 Texas. The Longhorns eked out an 11th-hour 21-17 victory and extended their winning streak to 20 games.

In 1970, a rematch for the national title had been arranged in mid-November after Notre Dame defeated SEC champion LSU, 3-0. Alas, while 10-0 Texas extended its winning streak to 30, Notre Dame fell to 9-1 and No. 6 in the country when it lost its regular season finale at USC, 38-28.

After Texas took a 3-0 lead on its first possession, Notre Dame scored three touchdowns in a span of nine minutes and 30 seconds for a 21-3 lead.

Heisman Trophy runner-up Joe Theismann began the onslaught with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Tom Gatewood, and then the quarterback added three-and 15-yard scoring runs.

All the scoring came in the first half, and Notre Dame’s “Mirror” defense, designed to combat Texas’ Wishbone attack, frustrated the Longhorns into
nine fumbles, five of which were recovered by the Irish.

After the Irish upset of Texas, No. 2 and 10-0 Ohio State was in the driver’s seat to finish No. 1 — but was stunned by a three-loss Stanford team, 27-17, in the Rose Bowl. Thus, if LSU could defeat 10-0-1 and No. 3 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl that night, the Irish would leapfrog all the way to No. 1.

LSU held a 12-10 fourth-quarter lead, but a game-winning march by Nebraska gave the Cornhuskers the 17-12 victory and their first national title.

Jan. 2, 1978 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 38, Texas 10

This was the “rubber match” in the Notre Dame-Texas Cotton Bowl trilogy from 1969-77.

In 1977, the Irish were a preseason favorite to capture the national crown, while Texas was coming off a 5-5-1 season and had a first-year coach in Fred Akers. However, No. 1 Texas became a Cinderella story with an 11-0 regular season spearheaded by Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell at tailback and Outland Trophy recipient Brad Shearer on defense.

Notre Dame, started off poorly, before rallying behind No. 3 quarterback Joe Montana to finish 10-1 and No. 5.

There were three remarkable similarities between Notre Dame’s 1971 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas and the one in 1978:
•In 1971, Notre Dame trailed 3-0 but exploded with three TDs in a span of 9:30 to take a 21-3 lead. In 1978, the game was tied 3-3 when the Irish detonated with three second-quarter TDs in a span of 7:28 to build a 24-3 cushion.
•In 1971, the Longhorns committed six turnovers while Notre Dame had only two. In 1978, Texas again had six turnovers while the Irish had one.
•In 1971, Texas scored late in the first half to trail 24-11 at halftime. In 1978, it scored a touchdown on the last play of the first half to cut its deficit to 24-10.
•The Irish added two more touchdowns in the second half to complete the surprising 38-10 rout.

Vagas Ferguson, who scored three TDs, and Jerome Heavens had 100 and 101 yards rushing, respectively, for the Irish. Meanwhile Defensive MVP Bob Golic helped limit Campbell to 116 yards on 29 tough carries.

Only two teams in history moved all the way from No. 5 to No. 1 with a bowl victory. The first was Notre Dame in 1977. The other was Miami in 1983, when the No. 5 Hurricanes upset No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and 11-0 and No. 2 Texas lost to Georgia, 10-9, in the Cotton Bowl.

Jan. 1 1979 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 35, Houston 34

For the second year in a row, and fourth time in 10 seasons, No. 10 and 8-3 Notre Dame headed to Dallas to play in the Cotton Bowl. This time it was against 9-2 and No. 9 Houston.

On the eve of the contest, the city was hit with its worst ice storm in decades, leaving it at a standstill. Game-time temperature was 20 degrees with a wind chill of minus-7 degrees. Only 32,500 were officially listed in attendance — and that figure ebbed significantly as the game wore on.

With the wind at its back in the second and third quarters, Houston went into the halftime locker room with a 20-12 lead that was extended to 34-12 at the end of three quarters. Meanwhile, Montana couldn’t answer the bell at the start of the second half when he was suffering from hypothermia. Team doctor Les Bodnar wrapped him in blankets and fed him chicken bouillon in the locker room before his body temperature was stabilized by the start of the fourth quarter.

With 7:25 left and Houston leading 34-12, the turning point occurred when freshman Tony Belden blocked a Cougars punt and classmate Steve Cichy caught it in the air and raced for a 33-yard touchdown return. Montana then found running back Vagas Ferguson for the two-point play to make it 34-20. A two-yard Montana run and two-point pass to wideout Kris reduced the margin to 34-28 with 4:15 still remaining.

The Cougars ran the clock down to 35 seconds when they faced fourth-and-inches at its 29. Houston already had one punt blocked, had a second tipped and on another the long snap rolled back to the punter. Head coach Bill Yeoman thus opted to go for the few inches. Freshman Joe Gramke and senior Mike Calhoun combined on a high-low stop of running back Emmett King for no gain, leaving the Irish 29 yards from the end zone with 28 seconds left and no timeouts.

Montana scrambled for 11 yards on the first play and found Haines for 10 yards on the second with just six seconds left. The timing on an out to Haines in the end zone missed with two seconds left, but Montana told Haines to run the same play again. This time, a diving Haines barely caught the ball in-bounds past the end zone to knot the game at 34-34.

With starting kicker Chuck Male sidelined because of an injury, backup Joe Unis, a Dallas native, kicked the extra point — only to see the Irish penalized for being offside. He kicked it again from five yards back for the final 35-34 margin.

The 9-3 Irish finished No. 7 in the AP and No. 6 UPI while playing the No. 1-rated schedule. The .709 winning percentage of its regular season opponents (77-31-2) remains the highest in NCAA history since the stat was first kept in 1977.

This was the fourth time the Fighting Irish entered the Cotton Bowl facing an unbeaten team, this time the 12-0 Aggies.

A defensive standoff was finally broken with 36 seconds left in the first half when wideout Lake Dawson took a middle screen from quarterback Rick Mirer and raced untouched for a 40-yard touchdown.

In the second half, Notre Dame used a methodical ground game with tailback Reggie Brooks (115 yards rushing), fullback Jerome Bettis (75 yards rushing, three touchdowns, including a pass) and even Mirer (55 yards) to wear down Texas A&M’s vaunted Wrecking Crew defense orchestrated by coordinator Bob Davie, who would be Notre Dame’s head coach from 1997-2001.

The Irish passed the ball only twice in the second half and finished the game by running on 28 consecutive plays. It netted 215 yards rushing in the second half on 40 carries to finish 10-1-1and No. 4 in the country with a seven-game winning streak.

“I think this is the best team in the country right now,” Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz said afterwards. “This is as good as any team I’ve coached, and that includes the 1988-89 teams (that won a school record 23 straight games).”

Jan. 1 1994 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 24, Texas A&M 21

When the 10-0 and No. 1 Irish lost the regular-season finale 41-39 to Boston College, they dropped to No. 4, and the national title game was going to be between new No. 1 FSU — whom the Irish already had defearted — and No. 2 and 11-0 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Still at the end of the Orange Bowl, the Notre Dame team was of the belief they would be awarded the national title.

Notre Dame took the opening kickoff and drove 91 yards on 13 plays, capped by a 19-yard scoring run by quarterback Kevin McDougal.
Texas A&M held a 14-7 halftime lead, pulled ahead again at 21-14 and the score was knotted at 21 after three quarters.

Kevin Pendergast’s 31-yard field goal with 1:38 left lifted the No. 4 Irish to a 24-21 victory against 10-1 and No. 7 Texas A&M. Sophomore speedster Mike Miller set up the score by returning an Aggie punt 38 yards to the A&M 22.

With this victory, Notre Dame’s all-time bowl record improved to 13-6 — the best winning percentage (.684) in the NCAA among teams that played in at least 10 bowl games.

FSU defeated Nebraska 18-16 when the `Huskers missed a last-second field goal attempt and also had a score called back.

In the Associated Press poll, Florida State out-pointed Notre Dame 1,532 to 1,478, receiving 46 first-place votes to just 12 by the Irish. There was even more disparity in the USA Today/CNN poll with FSU getting 1,523 points and Notre Dame 1,441.

Four years earlier, Miami was awarded the title over Notre Dame even though the Irish played the nation’s No. 1 schedule and then beat No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl, 21-6. The rationale was Miami defeated the Irish head-to-head … just like Notre Dame did with FSU in ’93.

“I did not think there was any way possible that we would not win [the national title], not after what happened in ’89,” said a crestfallen Holtz the next day. “… If we had a playoff and won, I’m still not sure we’d get it.”


Prior to the seven Cotton Bowls Notre Dame played from Jan. 1 1970 through Jan. 1, 1994, the Fighitng Irish had five other games in Dallas, all versus SMU from 1949-58.

Notre Dame was 4-1 in those contests, with the most memorable occurring in the 1949 season finale, the school’s debut in Dallas.

Underdogs by four touchdowns, playing without injured star Doak Walker (the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner) and competing against a Notre Dame team that hadn’t lost in four years and 37 games, SMU stunned the college football world when it rallied from 13-0 and 20-7 deficits to tie the game at 20 with 12 minutes left — with a blocked extra point by Jerry Groom preventing SMU from taking the lead.

Mustangs sophomore Kyle Rote ran for 115 yards, threw for 146 yards and scored all three SMU touchdowns. So breathtaking was Rote’s effort that 25 years later, the 1949 Notre Dame players made Rote an “Honorary Member” of their championship unit.

After the game was tied, Notre Dame marched 54 yards in 10 plays, capped by Billy Barrett’s five-yard scoring run with 8:37 left. SMU answered by moving the ball from its 29 to first-and-goal at the five, to the delight of the 75,457 screaming Texas fans in the Cotton Bowl.

With an injured Rote taken out, SMU lost a yard on its first two plays before Rote was reinserted to pick up two yards on third down. On fourth down
Three plays gained only one yard, and on fourth down Groom and Bob Lally teamed up to intercept a Rote pass at the goal line and return it to the seven.

“For the first time all fall we had only a few minutes to prove we were really a championship team,” Notre Dame head coach Frank Leahy said afterwards.

Notre Dame’s debut in Dallas remains one of its all-time classics, and was the bow tie to an unbeaten and unprecedented four years of football.