We are now in week eight in my series of the “unclaimed” Notre Dame Fighting Irish football national championship seasons, and this week I’m looking at the 1970 season. This week I’m going to share an excerpt from the December 4th, 1970, Notre Dame Football Review, detailing the Notre Dame VS Georgia Tech game.
Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech
Last Tuesday something happened to the 1970 Notre Dame football team that was entirely new to them: they were ranked the number one college football team by both the AP and UPI for the first time this year. All along campus experts had been saying that the Irish were easily the best in the land, and now they had their recognition.
But the glory of “numero uno” was short-lived, for Georgia Tech, lowly Georgia Tech, almost pulled off the upset of the year, but nevertheless succeeded in spilling the Irish from their briefly held lofty perch. For fifty-three minutes and thirty-two seconds the fired-up Yellowjackets had the capacity crowd that filled Notre Dame Stadium believing in the power of Southern football. For many had made the long walk from their dorms to Gate 15 presupposing that no southern school could match the powerful Irish; and these same students left with sighs of relief of having escaped the jaws of defeat by so narrow a margin.
Outwardly, Coach Parseghian expressed little concern for the polls after this one. “It doesn’t make any difference if you win by 40 or 1, just so long as you win,” said Ara. “It’s nice to be number one as we were this week, but the only rankings I want to see is after November 28th, when we close our season.”
Just what had happened that November afternoon that justified the pollsters’ lowered esteem for the Irish? A look at the statistics won’t reveal much; the Irish easily “out-offensed” the ‘Jackets by a 448-141 total offense margin. No, the statistics don’t tell it straight; they hide some interesting facts. Facts such as:
—Notre Dame’s failure to penetrate the Yellowjacket 15 until 3:50 of the third quarter.
—Gatewood catching his first pass of the day at 2:50 of the second quarter.
—the failure of the Irish to make good on eleven third-down situations.
In all, the Irish punted three times in the first half and missed on two field goals. The ‘Jackets had it even worse; of the eight series of downs they had the ball, the Yellowjackets were forced to call upon punter Chip Pallman for his services. The end result? A scoreless tie at the half’s end; quite unbelieveable considering the Irish had been averaging a little over 41 points-per-game entering today’s contest.
Assistant Coach Pagna analyzed Tech’s first-half defensive success as an “attempt to take away our big attack from both sides. They were forcing our running attack to the weak side by stacking their linebackers on the side our tight end lined up. And on pass defense, they rotated their safety on each play to Gatewood’s side.”
Having spotted the problem, what then was the coaches’ solution?
Again Pagna: “To counteract these defensive maneuvers, we decided upon two things; first, we would use a two-tight end system more in the second half to confuse their linebackers, and second, we would cross Gatewood more with the other receivers to free him from the safety.”
As it developed, this very concept of “crossing” Gatewood would later figure in perhaps one of the biggest plays of the season; but not quite the way Coach Pagna figured it would.
After Georgia Tech had erased the slim lead provided in the third quarter by a 34-yard Scott Smith field goal with a 66-yard McAshan-to-Thigpen pass play, it appeared that mighty Notre Dame was destined to have its unbeaten streak snapped at seven. With 11:45 left to play it appeared the Irish had really sealed their fate, as a Theismann pass intended for Denny Allan was picked off on the goal line by Tech’s Rick Lewis.
But the Notre Dame defense gave the Irish one more crack at the Tech goal line, forcing the Yellowjackets’ eleventh punt of the day. Ara later said that “it was our defense that won the game for us. With the exception of that one bomb they played near perfect— they shut them off.” Pallman’s punt was retrieved by Mike Crotty on the, ND 10 and he returned it to the 20. It was now or never for the ‘70 Irish.
The very first play was a perfect example of Pagna’s “Gatewood cross,” only the wrong men were fooled. Gulyas, flanked left, was the decoy who was supposed to clear the left side for Gatewood cutting over the middle. But the Tech defense picked up the play; in fact, too many Tech defenders read the play. For as Joe Theismann scrambled looking for a receiver, Tech cornerback Jeff Ford (who had in last year’s game returned an interception 100-yards for a Tech TD) left his zone for a split-second to pick up the new man, Tom Gatewood. In so doing, he let Gulyas go; and Theismann hurled him the ball on the run for a 46-yard gain at the Tech 34.
This was the big play the Irish needed. Hushing the noisiest student-body crowd since last year’s Southern Cal game, Theismann coolly directed the Irish attack to the Tech end-zone, calling upon halfback Allan five times for the last 18 yards and the score.
Tech could muster nary an offensive threat after that, and Clarence Ellis squelched a final desperation bomb with an interception of McAshan’s pass on the ND 27 with 1:58 left to play.
“You gotta win this kind of game for a successful football season,” proclaimed Coach Parseghian in the victor’s locker room, “I was particularly proud of the way our boys came back to win.”
Joe Theismann stood in front of locker number 120, pealing off his jersey and pads, and lamented that he still didn’t think “I’m playing the type of game I’m capable of.” But Theismann had passed for 272 yards on 15 of 30 in a wind he himself termed “very freaky.”
What seemed to be lacking in this game was a general cohesiveness to the offensive attack; a problem Coach Parseghian had noted earlier in the season in the Army game. The yardage came big, true. But the “big yardage” never seemed to come at the right time.
The Irish defense had backed up the offense in their first substantial collapse of 1970, but could it continue to do so should the offense continue to sputter in the remaining two games? Only time would tell . . .
Next week I’ll look at the 1989 season (my freshman year at ND!).
Cheers & GO IRISH!