On Borrowed Time

The 6th-ranked team in our Top 15 countdown – the 1980 Fighting Irish.

From 1980 through 2009, Notre Dame completed 30 football seasons. Each week this summer, IrishEyes will profile and rank the top 15 teams of that span, counting down to our No. 1 overall Irish squad to be highlighted during the final week of August training camp.

Today, IrishEyes continues the countdown with our No. 6 ranked squad – the 1980 Fighting Irish (9-2-1).

Note: Prior to the start of the 1980 campaign, Dan Devine announced that the upcoming season would be his last the Irish head man.

1980 – By the Numbers

Offense: The passing attack, ranked No. 20 one year prior, bottomed-out to a 50-year-low (1948) 83.7 yards per contest, the second lowest output at the program since the NCAA began tracking rankings in 1946. The Irish backfield, however, thrived despite a single-threat attack, posting nearly 245 rushing yards per game en route to 21.6 points per contest

Defense: The team challenged for the national title because of its stout 4-3 defense, a unit ranked No. 4 nationally in total defense and No. 5 in scoring D (10.1 points per game). No Irish defense has allowed fewer than 12 points per game since (the 1988 National Championship squad yielded 12.3 to rank second at the program over the last 30 years.

Defensive coordinator Joe Yonto's troops ranked No. 8 vs. both the run and the pass, holding five opponents without a touchdown and two others with two or fewer in the 11-game season.

Notables: statistical and otherwise

  • Junior place-kicker Harry Oliver was the season's hero, drilling 18 of 23 field goals including a legendary game-winner vs. Michigan (detailed below) and a season-saving 47-yarder at Georgia Tech to force the final 3-3 tie. Oliver hit seven of nine attempts from 41 yards out or farther, including a 50-yard boot in the Sugar Bowl while drilling all seven of his kicks from the all-important 30-39 yard range. Oliver finished third nationally at 1.64 field goals per game.
  • Sophomore halfback Phil Carter and senior halfback Jim Stone performed most of the heavy lifting. Carter, who missed four mid-season contests due to a leg injury, rushed for 822 yards (4.4 per carry) and six touchdowns in his first season as a starter replacing Vagas Ferguson. Stone paced the squad with 908 rushing yards (4.7) and seven rushing scores, including a 211-yard effort vs. Navy and bruising 224-yard, 38 carry day in a September win over No. 13 Miami.

    Carter was the team's star prior to injury, piling up 500 yards and four touchdowns on 99 total carries in wins over Purdue, Michigan and at Michigan State (sound familiar?) to start the season.

  • Sophomore split end Tony Hunter led the team in receptions (23) and receiving yards (303) while scoring one of only two touchdowns thrown by Irish quarterbacks during the season (tied with the national runner-up 1989 squad for the lowest total over the last 30 seasons). At 6'5" 211 pounds, Hunter was ahead of his time in college football as an athletic, big receiver with track speed to burn.

  • Senior flanker and future Los Angeles Rams H-Back Pete Holohan (6'5" 228) and junior tight end Dean Masztak (6'4" 240) rounded out a pass catching trio that could have ranked among the best in the nation had it played with previous season's quarterbacks Rusty Lisch or a guy named Joe Montana.

  • Senior Mike Courey and freshman Blair Kiel split the quarterback duties. Courey started the season and led the Irish to wins over Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State while Kiel took over for a Week Four win vs. Miami and victories over Army, Arizona and Navy for the then 7-0 Irish. Kiel saw more time than any true freshman quarterback in the program since Gus Dorias in 1910, starting the final nine games including the Sugar Bowl.

  • The defense was led by All-America selection and team MVP Bob Crable. The junior middle ‘backer led the squad in tackles for the second consecutive season (154), serving as the tackles-leader in each of the team's 11 contests with a season-high 19 stops on three occasions: vs. No. 14 Michigan, Georgia Tech and No. 5 Alabama.
  • Sophomore strong safety Dave Duerson added 34 tackles (3 for lost yardage) while creating three turnovers and finishing the season as the nation's third leading career punt return man.
  • Sophomore Mark Zavagnin backed Crable's efforts vs. the run, recording 82 tackles on the weak side, breaking up three passes and creating three turnovers and scoring on a blocked punt touchdown.
  • Freshman Stacey Toran and junior John Krimm manned the corners. At 6'4' 185 pounds, Toran would meld nicely with the corners of today (he moved to safety for a five-year NFL career before his tragic death in an auto-accident in 1989). Krimm led the secondary with 51 tackles, adding two interceptions and a team-high eight pass breakups.
  • Senior All-America defensive end Scott Zettek led the D-Line in tackles and tackles-for-loss while junior Pat Kramer ranked second (53 tackles, 12.5 for loss) while shifting between right and left defensive tackle. Junior DT Joe Gramke finished third on the DL in tackles including a 13-stop effort in the surprising 3-3 tie at unranked Georgia Tech.

1980 – Personnel Highlights

Devine's final season ushered in a new era, with freshman QB Blair Kiel taking the reigns and sophomore Phil Carter emerging as the great Vagas Ferguson's successor.

Coaching Staff of Note: Brian Boulac (Offensive Line/Recruiting coordinator); Joe Yonto (Defensive Coordinator/D-Line); Jim Johnson (Defensive Backs); George Kelly (Linebackers); Jim Gruden (Running Backs/Special Teams).

  • Team Captains: LB Bob Crable, FS Tom Gibbons C John Scully
  • Unsung Heroes: The offense could not have functioned without its consistent offensive line. Future pros Phil Pozderac (RT), Tom Thayer (RG) and Tim Huffman (RG) along with the group's anchor, team captain and future Atlanta Falcon John Scully at center, as well as the left side of senior Bob Burger (G) and sophomore Mike Shiner (T) paved the way for the highest rushing total (244.9 yards) of the Devine era, a number which ranks as the highest from 1975-1987, despite the offense's lack of a viable passing threat. Shiner (6'8") and Pozderac (6'9") still rank as the tallest tackle tandem in program history.

  • Top position group: Choose either the D-Line or Linebackers and you can't miss on a team that won because of its defense, but my vote goes to the linebacker trio of Bob Crable, Mark Zavagnin and strongside junior Joe Rudzinski, who accounted for 300 tackles (18 for loss) while creating nine fumbles.

  • Seniors drafted following the season: Center John Scully (4th Round); TE Pete Holohan (7); DT Scott Zettek (8); RB Jim Stone (9); OT Tim Huffman (9); DE John Hankerd (12)

    The 1980 senior class (recruiting class of 1977) finished their Irish careers with a 36-10-1 mark, a national championship, and three bowl victories including the famous Chicken Soup Cotton Bowl game following the 1978 season. The group finished ranked in the A.P. Poll's final top 10 on three occasions.

  • Award Winners/All-America Selections: LB Bob Crable (Consensus 1st Team All-America; 2nd Team AP); DT Scott Zettek (1st Team AP All-America); C John Scully (consensus 1st Team All-America); K Harry Oliver (3rd Team All-America Football News).

Waiting in the Wings: The following future starters played subordinate roles for the 1980 squad.

  • Freshman defensive tackle Tim Marshall recorded 10 tackles for loss (and 41 stops) in a backup role.
  • Junior transfer Larry Moriarty carried just three times but gained 78 yards. He would go on to form a three-headed monster at running back in his final season of '82, combining with the tailback duo of Phil Carter and Allen Pinkett to total more than 2,100 yards from scrimmage while scoring an aggregate 14touchdowns.
  • Future three-year starting DL John Autry served as a backup outside linebacker, earning a monogram as a true freshman.
  • Freshman halfback Greg Bell rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown on just five carries.
  • Sophomore kicker Mike Johnston hit his only PAT of the season in relief of Harry Oliver. Johnston would set a school record with 13 consecutive field goals in 1982.
  • Freshman defensive tackle Tim Marshall (2 starts/12 games played)

On-Field Results/Irish in the Polls

Notre Dame finished unranked in 1979; the second such occurrence of the Devine era. The '80 Irish began the season ranked No. 11 overall and climbed to No. 8 with a convincing 31-10 season-opening win over No. 9 Purdue. ND climbed steadily to No. 3 with wins over No. 14 Michigan, at Michigan State, No. 13 Miami, Army, Arizona, and Navy, before ascending to the top spot heading into a contest at unranked and struggling Georgia Tech.

The ugly 3-3 tie at Tech dropped the Irish to No. 6, but a 7-0 win over No. 5 Alabama put the Irish back to No. 2 heading into the final week showdown at No. 17 USC. The Trojans handled the Irish, 20-3, but the squad had already accepted a Sugar Bowl berth to battle No. 1 Georgia for the national title.

The Sugar Bowl loss to national champion Bulldogs dropped Notre Dame from No. 7 to No. 9 in the final A.P. Poll.

  • Bowl Result: Lost to No.1 Georgia. The Notre Dame defense battled freshman sensation Herschel Walker over 36 carries, 150 yards and two touchdowns - numbers the defense could win with, but the key to the contest were Irish miscues: the first, a Georgia kick-off the Irish failed to field near the goal line that led to a one-yard Walker plunge; the second, a fumble deep in their own territory that set up Walker's second score and a 17-3 Bulldogs lead early in the second quarter.

    The Irish cut the lead to 17-10 on a Phil Carter (27 carries, 109 yards, TD) dive from the 1-yard line but neither team would score again with Notre Dame's final threat snuffed out by Blair Kiel's third interception of the contest in the fourth quarter.

    Notre Dame outgained Georgia 328 to 127 (the Bulldogs finished with 23 fewer total yards than Walker accounted for on the afternoon) but Georgia won its first national championship since the early 40s.

    Record vs. Top 20 Teams (at game time): 4-2
  • Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 5-0
  • Home W/L: 5-0 Road W/L: 3-1-1 (1-1 neutral)
  • Game of the Year: Notre Dame 29 Michigan 27.

    It ranks as one of the greatest games in Notre Dame Stadium history; one tie, four lead changes, two touchdowns and a field goal in the game's final 3:03. Sophomore sensation Phil Carter shined for the Irish, amassing 103 yards and two touchdowns on a grueling 30 carries while linebacker Bob Crable led the way with 19 tackles.

    The Wolverines answered a late Carter score with 10-play, 78-yard drive that culminated with a touchdown pass from backup QB John Wangler to Craig Dunaway. Blair Kiel led the Irish on a five-play drive, including two completions to Tony Hunter and the benefit of a pass interference. The 37-second drive set-up Harry Oliver with a 51-yard field goal attempt – into a 15-MPH wind – for the win.

    Oliver, who had drilled a 66-yarder in pre-game warmups, boasted a career-long field goal of 38 yards (in 1979 JV action) as he took the field for the most famous field goal in program history. The junior lefty calmly split the uprights as the gun sounded in one of the greatest games in the history of the ND/UM series.

    Click here for highlights of the final drive.

    Most Impressive Victory: A brutal 7-0 slugfest vs. then-No. 5 Alabama in Birmingham. The Irish D allowed 246 yards but caused three fumbles including a Scott Zettek recovery midway through the second quarter that set-up the game's only score – a two-yard plunge by Phil Carter. Following the contest, legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant praised his counterpart and the inspired Irish: "Dan Devine had Notre Dame prepared. He did a much better job for this game than I did."

  • Toughest Loss: Ranked No. 2 with a berth in the Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Georgia on tap, the Irish left their offense in South Bend in a 20-3 defeat at No. 17 Southern Cal. The game week was marred by the announcement that Gerry Faust would take over at head coach (see Devine's resignation below) and the distraction proved too much for the previously surging Irish.

    Just one week after a shut-out of the Crimson Tide in Alabama, Notre Dame managed only a field goal against the arch-rival Trojans. The Irish were held to 120 net yards but had a chance until the midway point of the fourth quarter when USC extended its 10-3 lead to 13-3 thanks to an Irish interception and the ensuing field goal.

  • Head-shaking Contest: Newly anointed No. 1, the Irish scuffled to a 3-3 tie at Georgia Tech (final record: 1-9-1). The offense lost five fumbles and was saved by defeat thanks to an interception by freshman cornerback Stacey Toran and a 47-yard Harry Oliver field goal with late in the contest.

1980 – Final Analysis

Are the 1980 Irish appropriately ranked? The team's one-dimensional offense likely precludes it from ranking higher. I had originally slated the '80 squad at No. 7 behind Holtz's 1991 offensive powerhouse, but Devine's '80 team played in a de facto national title game and attained the following rankings in November: 1, 5, 2, and 2.

A dominant defense and power running game were two ingredients for success in the early 80s college football landscape, but the presence of a freshman quarterback has rarely resulted in a championship finish.

The team would be hard-pressed to beat many of the teams linked below, especially Holtz's '91 squad, but it was a much better defensive unit than eight of the nine Irish squads we've reviewed to date (below).

Had the 1980 Irish been blessed with capable, veteran quarterback play (a leader such as Kevin McDougal, Jarious Jackson, or even Ron Powlus) the team would have likely brought home a second national title in four seasons.

Devine's final squad was Notre Dame's best for the eight seasons that followed, and one of the more underappreciated groups of the last 30 seasons at the program.

Next Week: Our No. 5-ranked Irish team of the last 30 seasons.

Honorable Mention the 1986 Irish

No. 15 the 2000 Irish

No. 14 the 1998 Irish

No. 13 the 2006 Irish

No. 12 the 2002 Irish

No. 11 the 1996 Irish

No. 10 the 1987 Irish

No. 9 the 1995 Irish

No. 8 the 2005 Irish

No. 7 the 1991 Irish

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