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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football VS Purdue, 1971

Rain — the great equalizer. 

A while back I asked you all what some of your favorite Notre Dame football games were. As we head toward the football offseason, I’m going to write about them. The first one I’m going to look back at is Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Purdue Boilermakers, 1971. I’m not sure about your experience with Notre Dame-Purdue football games, but the majority of the ones I’ve attended have been in the rain, and this one was no different. Here’s an excerpt from the November 30, 1971, Scholastic, Notre Dame Football Review, and a little commentary on the 1971 season, written by Don Kennedy.

Notre Dame vs. Purdue

Rain-slicked highways, a muddy field and soggy souls in the stands. All too reminiscent of the USC tragedy last November. Rain — the great equalizer. Add to it the rivalry of Notre Dame-Purdue and the memory of a 48-0 shellacking and you’ve got the makings for one hell of a ball game.

For the longest time — 58 minutes and two seconds to be exact — it appeared that the weather was guiding the Boilermakers to a 7-0 upset of Notre Dame. The Irish ‘71 season, a season filled with the hope for and dream of a National Championship, was being washed away by the fickle moods of Indiana’s autumn weather.

Neither team could muster much of an attack in the early goings. Two Bob Thomas field goal attempts failed: once, when a bad pass from center foiled the attempt; and, early in the second quarter, when Thomas’ kick was wide to the right. The Irish running game was moving in spurts, but just couldn’t manage to squeeze together enough sizable gains on one series to crack Purdue’s end zone. Notre Dame’s passing game was, understandably, having its problems in the wet weather.

The Riveters’ ground game also met with complications— the Irish front four. But their passing attack was fairly successful in penetrating the creases in the Notre Dame zone defense. Hook patterns and quick-out passes were helping them move the ball.

Late in the second quarter Purdue’s passing game took them in for what later appeared to be the only score of the day. Taking over on their own 47 after a Brian Doherty punt, Purdue’s Gary Danielson teamed with split-end Rick Sayers on two hook passes to move the Boilermakers to within striking distance at the Irish 26. A third pass to Sayers was just barely overthrown at Notre Dame’s 10-yard line.

Purdue’s success with the pass had the Irish defense a bit shaken. On second down from the Irish 26 the Boilermaker offense ran what might be called “the perfect play.” Danielson dropped back, faked a draw to his fullback (which suckered the entire Irish defense except for Ralph Stepaniak) and lofted a lazy screen pass to Otis Armstrong in the left flat. All that was between Armstrong and the Irish end zone were about six Purdue blockers and Ralph Stepaniak. Stepaniak fought off four of the blockers, but couldn’t get by the Boilermakers’ left guard Ken Watkins. Armstrong walked into the end zone unmolested and Purdue fans were delirious.

At half-time the rain suddenly stopped. Purdue’s band (complete with the Golden Girl) went through their routine sans rain. No sooner had the band marched off the field and the two teams had returned for the second half, when the rains reappeared. It was that kind of day.

The monsoon that hovered over Ross-Ade Stadium in the second half was unbelievable. Almost as unbelievable as the events that were about to unfold. At times it rained so hard it was almost impossible to see the field from the press box perched at the rim of the stadium. And the harder it rained the worse playing conditions got. It was not, to say the least, the type of conditions that were suited for a team to play catchup football.

Pat Steenberge, who quarterbacked most of the game because, according to Coach Parseghian, “he worked better with that center and under those conditions we didn’t want to risk a fumble,” just couldn’t seem to get the Irish offense, to catch up to anything, let alone Purdue’s 7-0 lead. But then, late in the game, the Irish got the first of two big breaks that would lead to their victory.

Standing on his own 12-yard line, Purdue punter Scott Lougheed sliced a punt off the side of his foot and the Irish took over at the Boilermaker 42. Steenberge quickly moved the Irish to the Purdue 5. On second down from the 5 Pat lost control of the slippery ball and Chuck Piebes, former Purdue quarterback turned safety, fell on it to apparently ice Purdue’s upset. But the weather, which had equalized things all afternoon, soon evened that mistake.

Notre Dame’s defense dug in and forced Purdue to punt from its own end zone. Scott Lougheed dropped back, the snap was low, and the ball was loose. He managed to regain control and tried to roll to his right in an attempt to get the punt off. Just as he was releasing the ball for the punt Clarence Ellis blind-sided him from his left. Fred Swendsen fell on the loose ball and it was suddenly raining Shamrocks in Lafayette. The two-point pass play from Steenberge to Creaney sealed the win, but seemed a bit anticlimactic after what had preceded it. Somehow everyone knew that the conversion was going to work after the defense had scored. After all, they were just following the script.

Purdue Coach Bob DeMoss took the blame for the blocked punt upon himself. “I never thought about the safety,” commented a downcast DeMoss. “I just told him to punt it out of there. It was my fault, I should have told him to fall on the ball if he got in trouble.”

So the Irish fans left Lafayette a bit shaken but ecstatic nonetheless. “No one could beat us today,” one was overheard saying. “That old Notre Dame charisma came through again. The luck of the Irish still lives!” Bob DeMoss knew what they were talking about. He shook his head and sighed, “I guess we just weren’t meant to win today.”

Notre Dame 8 - Purdue 7

The 1971 Season

It was not an exciting year of football. Nor were the season’s expectations fulfilled in the slightest way. Perhaps the 1971 edition of Notre Dame football could simply be written off as the “Year of the Great Dud.” But to lightly pass over a team that, nonetheless, won eight of ten games would be unfair. After all, the 8-2 record for 1971 is the fourth best registered by an Irish eleven since 1952. Some colleges haven’t seen 8-2 seasons in ages. Perfection, or, winning if you will, is the ultimate stressed at Notre Dame. And when a team falls short of that idealized goal, it is met unfairly with choruses of jeers and catcalls.

The distasteful aftermath of 1971 can be attributed to much more than the team’s performance throughout the season. When a Sports Illustrated or the like tabs Notre Dame as its preseason favorite for the coveted National Championship, expectations understandably reach lofty perches. The preseason prognosticators, and most Irish fans, ignored (or maybe simply underrated) the consequences of Joe Theismann’s graduation and departure from the team.

Theismann was, simply, the main reason the 1970 offense moved so well. He had his weak points, but it was his ability and combined skills at quarterback that led the ‘70 team to a 10-1 record. You just don’t remove so integral a part of a winning unit and nonchalantly expect practically the same squad to perform even better. Not unless, of course, you’ve got a better part with which to replace the old one. There wasn’t even the slightest indication of just who would replace Theismann at the time everyone was picking Notre Dame number one. Everyone “assumed” that Ara would come up with another “Jersey Joe.” This false assumption led to an overrated team. And this overrated team consequently disappointed the same individuals who overrated them. The fault lies not with the players, but with those who expected so much.

A former Notre Dame gridder was overheard this fall commenting on the style of the 1971 team’s play. “Watching Notre Dame play football this year,” he analyzed, “is like watching to men fish.” True, Notre Dame’s “grind-it-out” game plans didn’t exactly bring the crowd to its feet every minute or so, but, really, what else could they do? Had they abandoned the rudiments of the ground game for the flashier attack of seasons past (which they were incapable of handling) they would’ve lost more than the USC and LSU games. The Irish were forced to implement an offensive attack that suited the ability of the personnel available. It didn’t always work, but it was the best of possible offensive arrangements.

Success can’t be measured this year with a yardstick molded out of the performance of past “great” Notre Dame teams. Maybe 8-2 was the best that could’ve been asked from this year’s team. Everyone can conjecture about what might have been, but the only ones who know just how well the ‘71 team performed are the players themselves, and they’re not telling anybody.

—don kennedy

So what do you think about our bowl game vs South Carolina? The two teams seem pretty evenly matched up to me. What say you?

Cheers & GO IRISH