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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Football Firsts - Florida State, 1981

Bowden’s Oktoberfest No Picnic

Florida State’s defense stuffs a Notre Dame ball carrier, Saturday, Oct. 10, 1981, at Notre Dame Stadium. The Seminoles beat the Fighting Irish 19-13.
Notre Dame Athletics

My off-season series of “Notre Dame Football Firsts” continues this week with the first meeting between Notre Dame and Florida State, 1981.

So far I’ve covered USC, Stanford, Navy, Purdue, the first Spring Game at Notre Dame, Michigan State, Pitt, Army, Michigan, Boston College, and Miami. This week I’m going to take a look back at Notre Dame’s first matchup against Florida State in 1981.

Notre Dame and Florida State have played each other 11 times, with Notre Dame winning five, and Florida State winning six. The largest margin of victory for Notre Dame was 42-13 in 2018, and the largest margin of victory for Florida State was 37-0 in 2003. Notre Dame’s longest win streak is three (2018-2021), and Florida State’s longest win streak is also three (2003-2014). The two teams played for the first time on October 10th, 1981, in South Bend, IND., and the Irish lost by a score of 19-13.

The following excerpt of the game is from the March 1st, 1982 edition of the Irish Eye, “A Review of the 1981 Notre Dame Football Season.”

Bowden’s Oktoberfest No Picnic


The greatest day in the 28-year coaching career of Bobby Bowden just might have been Gerry Faust’s worst.

“To me, personally, this is the biggest win I’ll ever have,” said Bowden, Florida State’s quotable head coach with the down-home, Southern style. “Having wanted to coach all my life, you can imagine what respect I have for a place that produced the likes of Knute Rockne- and a tailback named Ronald Reagan.

“This one puts us up there with the best of them.”

The Seminoles’ 19-13 victory in Notre Dame Stadium- on the heels of Florida State’s 36-27 win at Ohio State the previous Saturday- without question marked the high point of their ‘81 campaign. They would finish out their Oktoberfest schedule-as Bowden liked to call it- by dropping four of their last six games.

But for Faust, the preseason anticipation continued to turn into midseason frustration as the Irish fell to 2-3.

“We’re getting better,” he asserted, “but it’s hard to be optimistic. I just never dreamed we’d be two and three at this point.”

“First, though, I’ve got to keep myself up. It’s been hard for me. I’m just not used to losing.”

Faust’s Irish had hoped they could move the ball against a Florida State defense that had given up 458 passing yards to Ohio State and 464 rushing yards to Nebraska. And everything went according to form early as Dave Duerson brought back the opening kickoff 36 yards, Notre Dame quickly moved to the Florida State 26 and Harry Oliver bounced a 43-yard field goal off the top of the left upright.

“That was the first time I thought about the luck of the Irish,” said Bowden.

But that was as offensive as Notre Dame’s attack would get in the first 30 minutes. Despite 72 rushing yards from Greg Bell, five of Notre Dame’s seven first-half possessions ended in Blair Kiel punts. The only other serious threat fizzled when a fourth-down Tim Koegel pass from the Seminole 27 fell incomplete.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s defense was gearing up for an expected aerial barrage from Florida State quarterback Rick Stockstill, who had thrown 25 completions for 299 yards against Ohio State. Stockstill wasted little time, throwing on his first four plays and including 10 passes among the 13 plays he ran in the initial quarter. Only first half interceptions by Mark Zavagnin and Chris Brown deep in Irish territory saved Notre Dame. But it finally took a 25-yard Mike Rendina field goal with 3: 16 left in the half to knot the score at three apiece.

“We came out dry so many times there, for a while I felt like a baseball coach whose team left 15 runners on base,” Bowden cracked.

All that changed in the second half as Florida State’s well-conceived game plan came to fruition.

After the Irish edged ahead 6-3 on another Oliver three-pointer following a Mark Zavagnin interception, the Seminoles went to work. They did it by completely changing their offensive philosophy after lulling the Irish to sleep with their short passing game.

“I didn’t think we could start out by sustaining drives on the ground,” maintained Bowden. “So we threw a lot early and we had their linemen thinking pass, pass, pass. Their front four lost some of its discipline because of the pass rush, and that’s when we went to our running game.”

After gaining only six rushing yards in the opening quarter, Florida State came back with 244 in the final three. Stockstill, after throwing 20 first-half passes, threw seven in the last two periods. And tailback Ricky Williams accounted for 101 second-half rushing yards on his own to set the tone for the Seminole strategy reversal.

“Early in the game, their linemen were coming hard on the passes and ignoring the run,” noted Stockstill. “So we started running the draw and they were running past it.”

Irish defensive end Kevin Griffith had his own version: “We just didn’t control the line of scrimmage after the half. We didn’t have the same amount of pressure on the quarterback as we had in the first half.”

Once Oliver’s field goal gave Notre Dame the early second-half advantage, Florida State began to make its running game go. The Seminoles needed less than three minutes and only six plays to go 80 yards and take the lead for good. Williams did most of the damage himself by ripping off runs of 20 and 33 yards.

Bowden’s crew came right back for a field goal on its next possession, as only a procedure penalty with the ball on the one kept Florida State out of touchdown range. A key first down during that march came about, thanks to a 14-yard dipsy-doodle pass from running back Cedric Jones to Stockstill.

The Seminoles missed yet another opportunity to put points on the board a few minutes later when a Rendina field-goal try from 34 yards went wide right after the Irish had fumbled on their own 22. Then it was Notre Dame’s turn to put on an impressive drive.

The 80-yard Irish march got off the ground quickly, when a Kiel pass for Mike Boushka drew a penalty flag and a 32-yard interference call against the visitors.

“That was the second time I thought about the luck of the Irish,” quipped Bowden.

With Kiel throwing and Bell and backup wingback John Mosley running and catching, Notre Dame traveled to within a yard of paydirt- where Bell accounted for the six points and a 13-13 deadlock.

“Midway through the third quarter I thought we had them,” said Seminole defensive tackle Gary Futch. “But they seemed to regain the momentum after Mike (Rendina) missed the field goal and we got called for interference. They seemed to come alive again after that, and I think we knew we were in for a dogfight.”

Read more of the game recap here!

Next week I’ll take a look at the first game between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in 1922.

Cheers & GO IRISH!