Notre Dame vs. Texas 1978 Cotton Bowl: A Devine Title

Notre Dame's 1977 national title relied on a clutch Cotton Bowl win and key upsets by other teams to secure victory.

The path to a national championship travels many roads, with some simply being achieved because a team finishes a season undefeated. In other instances, avoiding crucial losses can be the ticket. For the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, their 1977 national title was accomplished due to a combination of a clutch Cotton Bowl victory and help from multiple teams.

The 1977 edition of the Irish appeared to suffer a devastating blow in just the second week of the season. An upset loss at Mississippi put them in a position where one more defeat would end any title dreams. Then, even after running off nine straight wins to end the regular season, a 38-10 rout of the Texas Longhorns still required two upset losses in other bowl games to earn the school’s 10th national championship.

The Coaches: Devine and Akers follow legends

Dan Devine was in his tumultuous third season as Notre Dame’s head coach, with that Mississippi loss giving rise to rumors about a possible in-season dismissal. An emotional blowout of Southern Cal at midseason in the “Green Jersey Game” seemed to temporarily quell his detractors’ anger. However, his 27-7 record since replacing the legendary Ara Parseghian and an 11-year gap since the last national title still made his grip on the job tenuous.

Fred Akers was ending his first season at Texas after replacing another coaching legend, Darrell Royal. That transition had been smooth as the Longhorns outscored their 11 regular-season foes by an average of 26 points per game. Akers made his presence felt early after Texas outscored its first three opponents, 184-15, with the squad remaining in the number spot since late October.

The Key Players: Captain Comeback, dominant defense define Irish

Junior Joe Montana had missed two games at quarterback due to injury for the Irish and was in the process of crafting his legend. At running back, Jerome Heavens narrowly missed breaking the 1,000-yard threshold and Vagas Ferguson came close to reaching the 500-yard mark. When Montana went to the air, tight end Ken MacAfee was a regular target. Leaders of a defense that allowed only 11 points per game included Ross Browner on the line, Bob Golic at linebacker and Luther Bradley in the secondary.

Even though Randy McEachern was in charge of the Texas offense at quarterback, the focus of any Longhorns opponent that season was bruising back Earl Campbell, who rushed for over 1,700 yards and was awarded the Heisman Trophy. The squad’s limited passing game had Lam Jones and Alfred Jackson as the top options, while the defense was led by defensive tackle and Outland Trophy winner Brad Shearer.

The Game: Notre Dame capitalizes on Texas turnovers

During the first half, Texas sustained some self-sustained wounds that allowed fifth-ranked Notre Dame to take control of the game by halftime. In the opening quarter, an errant pitchout by the Longhorns was recovered by Ross Browner at the Texas 32. A quick three-and-out still resulted in the game’s first points when Dave Reeve booted a 47-yard field goal for Notre Dame.

Before the period ended, the Longhorns put together a 55-yard drive that ended when Russell Erxleben’s 42-yard three-pointer went through the uprights. Texas had appeared to be in a position to take the lead but consecutive sacks forced the field goal option.

Early in the second quarter, a fumble off a screen pass by the Longhorns at their own 27 was recovered by Jim Browner. Needing just four plays to hit paydirt, reserve running back Terry Eurick ran it in from six yards own for a 10-3 Irish lead.

McEachern’s rough afternoon continued on Texas’ next series after he dropped the ball at the Teas 40 and Willie Fry recovered for Notre Dame five yards upfield. Needing one more play than their previous drive, the Irish again used the legs of Eurick to double their advantage to 17-3.

After the Longhorns were subsequently forced to punt, each team then coughed up the ball. Montana was picked off at the Texas 23 but McEachern gave the ball back just three plays later when Notre Dame linebacker Doug Becker’s 16-yard interception return put the ball at the Longhorn 20. Given plenty of time to throw, Montana soon found Ferguson in the end zone to boost the Irish lead to 21 midway through the quarter.

Before the half ended, Texas had a field goal attempt blocked but managed to get the ball back at their own 32 with just 22 seconds remaining. A 45-yard McEachern pass to Lam Jones and following a pass interference call on Bradley, a 22-yard toss to Michael Lockett offer the Longhorns a glimmer of hope despite trailing, 24-10.

The Irish came up short on a field goal to start the second half, but the 14-play drive ate away time on the clock. That was soon followed by Notre Dame linebacker Steve Heimkreiter’s interception that led to a Ferguson rushing touchdown that made the score 31-10 in favor of the Irish.

Yet another Longhorn blunder led to the final Notre Dame score when a fake punt attempt in the fourth quarter imploded. Ferguson then responded one final time with a 26-yard scamper that made the final 38-10. The Irish could have added insult to injury but chose to run out the clock from the Texas three.

To no one’s surprise, Ferguson was named the Offensive MVP, while Golic’s 17 stops on defense garnered him similar accolades on the defensive side. Campbell managed to run for 129 yards on the afternoon but had no run longer than 18 yards.

The Aftermath: Holtz helps Devine secure his national championship

Knocking off Texas was only one part of the three-piece puzzle that Notre Dame needed for a national title. The odds were seemingly not with them with two schools ahead of them, Michigan and Oklahoma, entering their respective matchups as double-digit favorites.

In the Rose Bowl, the postseason futility of Notre Dame’s long-time, bitter rival Michigan, continued as Warren Moon’s Washington Huskies pulled the 27-20 upset. The Wolverines made a determined comeback in the fourth quarter but dropped its fifth bowl game in as many tries under head coach Bo Schembechler.

That evening, Oklahoma looked to be in an even better position in the Orange Bowl against a depleted Arkansas squad. Three key Razorbacks were suspended for the game, yet future Irish coach Lou Holtz and his team delivered a shocking 31-6 upset of the Sooners. Both defeats helped crown Notre Dame national champions.

Devine had spoken about possibly resigning but changed his mind and stayed for three more seasons. Since that victory, the Irish have only won a single national championship, that coming in 1988.

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One Comment

  1. Devine not starting Montana almost cost NotreDame the title. For some reason he never liked Montana. NotreDame should have made Pagna the head coach. Ara pushed for it.

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