Jan. 2, 1978 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 38, Texas 10
This would be the “rubber match” in the Notre Dame-Texas Cotton Bowl trilogy that spanned nine seasons.
Led by linebacker/middle guard Bob Golic (55), Notre Dame forced six Texas turnovers and kept Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell (shown with the ball) at bay.
In the first, Jan. 1, 1970, No. 1 Texas rallied with a dramatic late drive to clinch the national title with a 21-17 victory versus No. 9 and 8-1-1 Notre Dame. Yet the Irish impressed enough voters to move up to No. 5 despite the loss. Could you imagine losing a bowl game today and still rising four spots up?
One year later, Jan. 1, 1971, the No. 1 Longhorns had their 30-game winning streak snapped by 9-1 Notre Dame, 24-11. Unfortunately, the 10-1 Irish finished No. 2 to 11-0-1 Nebraska in the national title voting.
In 1977, the Irish were a pre-season favorite to capture the national crown, while Texas was coming off a 5-5-1 season and had a first-year coach in Fred Akers.
However, No. 1 Texas became the Cinderella story of college football with an 11-0 regular season spearheaded by Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell at running back and Outland Trophy recipient Brad Shearer along the defensive line.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, started off poorly, before rallying behind No. 3 quarterback Joe Montana to finish 10-1 and No. 5.
Here was the tough part: To win the national title, not only did the Irish have to upset Texas in its home state, but it probably had to win by at least a couple of touchdowns to impress the pollsters and leapfrog three other teams: No. 2 Oklahoma (Orange Bowl), No. 3 Alabama (Sugar) and No. 4 Michigan (Rose).
There were three remarkable similarities between Notre Dame’s 1971 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas and the one in 1978:
• In 1971, Notre Dame trailed 3-0 but exploded with three touchdowns in a span of 9:30 to take a 21-3 lead. In 1978, the game was tied 3-3 when the Irish detonated with three second-quarter TDs in a span of 7:28 to build a 24-3 cushion.
All-America tight end Ken MacAfee and Co. could not be stopped in the 38-10 rout of No. 1 Texas.
• In 1971, the Longhorns committed six turnovers (five fumbles and an interception) while Notre Dame had only two. In 1978, Texas again had six turnovers (three fumbles, three interceptions) while the Irish had one.
• In 1971, Texas scored late in the first half to trail 24-11 at halftime. In 1978, it scored a touchdown on the last play of the first half to cut its deficit to 24-10 at the intermission.
The difference was whereas the 1971 game had a scoreless second half, the 1978 contest saw the Irish add two more touchdowns to complete the stunning 38-10 rout.
Offense: Sophomore running back Vagas Ferguson scored the last three Irish touchdowns, the first on a diving 17-yard catch in the end zone on a pass from Montana that made it 24-3, and both in the second half on 3- and 26-yard runs. Both Ferguson and fullback Jerome Heavens reached the 100-yard rushing mark with 100 and 101, respectively.
Defense: Junior middle guard/linebacker Bob Golic helped limit Campbell to 116 yards on 29 tough carries. Golic was credited with 17 tackles and also blocked an attempted field goal.
Why No. 2 On Our List?
It wasn’t about just beating No. 1 in its home state, but having to do it convincingly to get all the way to the top spot. Yet Notre Dame did a systematic dismantling of the Longhorns while peaking on the field and emotionally in the week before the contest.
“Down in Texas we were told we shouldn’t even show up because Texas was the largest state in the whole USA,” remembered All-America Irish defensive end Ross Browner, who finished fifth in the Heisman voting and won the Lombardi Award. “Everything in Texas is big, and Texas is No. 1 in everything.
“Every place we went, people just said, ‘You’re Notre Dame. You guys are Catholic, you’re small, you need to go back home.’ We weren’t very welcome in Dallas. Even at the awards ceremony [leading up to the game], we had to sit in a balcony and all the Texas players sat on the main floor.
“That burned a spur in our hide. They got their [Cotton Bowl] watches presented to them on time, and we had ours presented the next day. We were upset about being treated like second-class citizens.
“They didn’t know who they were messing with … Coach [Dan] Devine didn’t have to give a pep talk or anything because we were ready to tear out the door.”
Only two teams in history moved all the way from No. 5 to No. 1 with a bowl victory. The first was Notre Dame in 1977. The other was Miami in 1983, when the No. 5 Hurricanes upset No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and 11-0 and No. 2 Texas lost to Georgia, 10-9, in the Cotton Bowl.
No. 4 Michigan was upset by unranked Washington in the Rose Bowl, while No. 3 Alabama whipped No. 8 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, 35-6.
The X-factor was still 10-1 and No. 2 Oklahoma, whose lone loss was to Texas (13-6). OU faced 10-1 Arkansas, but Razorbacks head coach, Lou Holtz had suspended three of his top offensive players for disciplinary reasons. The Sooners already had been three-touchdown favorites, but the suspensions took the game off the boards.
As expected, the game was a blowout — but it was Arkansas that won, 31-6. Notre Dame executive vice president Rev. Ned P. Joyce took note of what this fellow Holtz accomplished
In the final AP poll, 11-1 Notre Dame received 37 first-place votes for 1,180 points, while 11-1 Alabama had 19 (1,132), and Arkansas five (1,011). Two others still chose 11-1 Texas.
Down in Alabama, folks were crestfallen that for the fourth time since 1966, the Irish denied the Crimson Tide a national title. This time, some Crimson Tide followers wrote a ballad in which they believed that the pollsters included many priests, bishops and even “a little blue nun.” They also thought it wasn’t a coincidence that the Irish had a back named Heavens and a coach named Devine.
Said one part of the song:
“We can beat ‘em on the gridiron, we can beat ‘em fair and square.
We can lick ‘em fit and proper, but we haven’t got a prayer.
'Cause you gotta know for certain that there isn’t any hope,
“When you gotta whip Ohio State and then take on the Pope.”
Still, the bottom line was Notre Dame defeated the No. 1 team in a bowl by 28 points. That wasn’t topped in college football until 1996, when No. 1 Florida State lost to Florida, 52-20, in the Sugar Bowl.
10. 1994 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 24, Texas A&M 21
9. 1992 Sugar Bowl: Notre Dame 39, Florida 28
8. 1975 Orange Bowl: Notre Dame 13, Alabama 11
7. 1990 Orange Bowl: Notre Dame 21, Colorado 6
6. 1979 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
5. 1971 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 24, Texas 11
4. 1989 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame 34, West Virginia 21
3. 1925 Rose Bowl: Notre Dame 27, Stanford 10
2. 1978 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 38, Texas 10