As this football season unfolds, I increasingly find myself going through a sort of déjà-vu of the 1977 season.
In the first three games of that season, the offense sputtered under Rusty Lisch. Lisch was an erratic passer, albeit a great athlete with a huge arm and a strong running game. Opposing defenses loaded up on the run, inviting Lisch to throw. Head coach Dan Devine, for reasons known only to himself, had Joe Montana warming the bench.
The 1977 Season Opens: Pitt
In the 1977 opener, Notre Dame beat a tough Pitt team 19-9. Pitt’s offense was hampered as much by an early injury to future NFL journeyman Matt Cavanaugh as by Notre Dame’s historically powerful defense. On the other hand, the Irish offense struggled to move the ball consistently. This colorful post-game description of the offense by Sports Illustrated‘s John Underwood might just as well have been written about one of the earlier games this year:
Devine was not pleased by what he saw offensively. Except for an eight-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that beat the halftime clock and featured, in a stunning reversal of form, four straight completed passes by junior Quarterback Rusty Lisch, the Irish offense slugged along fitfully. Plays were tentative, and if there was imagination in their concept it was not evident in their execution.
A Historic Upset: Ole Miss
The following week, Notre Dame went down to Jackson, Mississippi to play Ole Miss, favored by 21 points. The Ole Miss coach, Ken Cooper, had undertaken before the season began to get the game time moved from the evening to the afternoon. And it was one hot, sticky afternoon.
By the end of that day, the heat had made the impenetrable Notre Dame defense penetrable; the blocks of ice that a Notre Dame alumni club had provided on the sidelines had melted, and the big Notre Dame players, unused to playing in that level of heat, were throwing up on the field.
Down 13-10 with 4:53 left to play, Cooper replaced dehydrated and banged-up option quarterback Bobby Garner with Tim Ellis, their best passer. Ellis responded by marching the ball 80 yards down the field for a touchdown. Ole Miss added an extra field goal, and the final score was Ole Miss 20, Notre Dame 13.
Rick Cleveland of Mississippi Today tells this story:
Watching it all on the Notre Dame sidelines was a reserve quarterback named Joe Montana. That’s right — that Joe Montana. Who knows what would have happened if Dan Devine had inserted Montana into the game as Ole Miss had inserted Tim Ellis?
[Ellis] says he can’t even estimate how many times somebody has told him they were at the game when Ole Miss beat Notre Dame and Joe Montana.
“But Joe Montana didn’t play,” Ellis always tells them.
“And they still swear they saw him play and that we beat Joe Montana,” Ellis said, laughing.
Notre Dame fandom (including me) was in a furor. Devine needs to run more. Devine needs to bench Lisch and start Montana. The play calling is terrible. Poor execution. Moose Krause needs to retire.
The “Dump Devine” meme was everywhere: bumper stickers, sheets hanging from dorm windows, even a few signs in yards.
The Last Straw: Purdue
The following week, Notre Dame played Purdue. Purdue was better in those days than it is now, but in 1977 Jim Young was still a year away from restoring it to the prominence of the Jack Mollenkopf years. Notre Dame was favored by nearly two touchdowns. Nevertheless, many fans were pessimistic: Purdue’s brilliant quarterback, Mark Hermann, would find a way to put up points on the Notre Dame defense, and Devine and the weak offense would find a way to lose.
Lisch started, and did his Brandon Wimbush imitation: among short runs of solid and even brilliant play, he missed passes to wide-open receivers, threw into double and triple coverage when there was an open man somewhere else, and stalled drives with poor decisions. After three quarters, Lisch was 14 of 25 with two touchdowns and a perfectly thrown interception (hit the defender right on the numbers). Notre Dame was down 24-14.
Enter Joe Montana.
Joe threw seven passes in a row, completing four of them, and marching the ball to Purdue’s 10. Notre Dame settled for a field goal. In the ensuing Purdue drive, an interception and 45-yard return by Luther Bradley gave Notre Dame the ball at the Purdue 36.
Two plays later Notre Dame had a touchdown, courtesy of two pass completions to Ken McAfee. Joe would add another touchdown drive to make it 31-24. Game over, Montana was the quarterback for the rest of the season, and of course Notre Dame went on to win it all.
Parallels Between 1977 and 2018
The 2018 defense is looking exceptional, and could well rival the great 1977 defense. Each offense was a bit hamstrung early in the season by the less-than-optimal passing of the starting quarterback. Lisch was replaced by Montana; Wimbush was replaced by Book.
Book looks a lot like Montana: deadly accurate passer, throws — and completes — a large number of short and medium passes, runs for yards when he needs to, great decision making, and fires up the team and the fans.
It’s too early to say that Book is the next “Comeback Kid,” even with his clutch pass to Boykin in the LSU game. Nevertheless, he has turned the offense around in much the same way that Montana turned the 1977 offense around.
Like Devine at the beginning of the ’77 season, I am “cautiously optimistic.” Maybe we’ll make the playoffs, and take care of Ohio State or Georgia or Oklahoma or Clemson. Maybe we’ll even knock off Alabama in the final, the way we knocked off Earl Campbell and Texas back in the ’78 Cotton Bowl.
In fact, like the Vegas oddsmakers, for at least this week I am 10 percent certain of it.