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Texas vs. Notre Dame: Part II, the Modern Era

The modern era of the Texas-Notre Dame series includes three Cotton Bowl games and two regular season confrontations. Two of the Cotton Bowl games determined national championships for each of the teams.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The transition to the new era in the Texas Longhorns-Notre Dame Fighting Irish series reflects the increasing role of television in broadcasting more and more games, as well as on-the-field changes from platooning to unlimited substitution and greater and tighter restrictions on recruiting. One of the enduring values of football has been the concept of the ‘level playing field,' which is a self-evident democratic value of fairness to all teams competing. While the size of schools and the quality of their teams varied, of course, the change from near unlimited recruiting to set limits on individual classes and overall number of scholarships tried to limit the talent disparity in college football.

The last element of powerful change was the integration of intercollegiate sports, and especially its most visible elements, football and basketball. While younger fans can respect that this was a necessary and proper occurrence, in actual fact it took a lot of time, was uneven, and created some great hardships of those first brave athletes. In the early 1960s the fastest teams in the Texas weren't in the Southwest Conference, but in the Lone Star Conference and particularly at Texas A&I. Texas El Paso (now UTEP) smashed the barrier in 1966 when an all-black team beating Kentucky's all-white team to win the NCAA basketball championship. Northern teams were cherry picking the great talent in Texas, particularly within the Golden Triangle, and the SWC basically had to change or be left behind. Within a decade, by the mid-1970s, the change was going to completion.

It was television that slowly but surely found the incredible market in college football. In the 1963 MNC season, Texas was on TV three times...and that included the Cotton Bowl game against Navy. In 1969, Texas games were only broadcast four times, including the Cotton Bowl versus Notre Dame. By the 1983 the number of game broadcast were up to six but by '88 almost every game made the tube. That's only 27 years ago.

Today most every game can be seen one way or another. Notre Dame signed a contract to broadcast all home games on NBC in August of 1991 that helped change the dynamic of televised football. Of course, seeing every game is great unless your team is in the doldrums, then the negatives are magnified and hypercritical fans multiply like skeeters in a wet summer.

The games

1970 | Texas 21, Notre Dame 17 | New Year's Day | Cotton Bowl

This was the big enchilada as far as Texas is concerned, and one of the very best football games in history. Two of the best coaches of their era whose sense of preparation, clarity of purpose, fulfillment of the concept of team football and calculation of how the game could turn created a match-up of multidimensional chess proportions, perfect for the 100-year celebration of college football.

Darrell K Royal had perfected the wishbone over a two-year period and Longhorns had won 20 straight games with it (20-1-1 over '68-'69) that would change the face of football. The doldrums of the mid-60's at Texas was over and the fan base was totally galvanized. DRK was in a position to finally win another but it seemed much longer than a mere six years since '63.

OU and Alabama would win more MNCs to make the wishbone one of the most successful innovations in the running game ever. And the adjunct was that when it was paired with a great defense, it was just damn tough to beat. The advantage of the wishbone was that it gave the attacking team a one-person (sometimes a half a person edge, sometimes one and a half) advantage at the point of attack, it had deception, the triple option, counter plays and enough passing to keep the other team honest and unable to combat the advantage. Eventually, coaches like Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian would find solutions. The other problem was the offense's lack of ability to make up larger deficits late in a game.

Texas started '69 with three straight wins that didn't push the Horns much at all. They didn't pass much -- quarterbackJames Street had 59 yards total in those three -- as they bumped off Cal at Berkley 17-0, Texas Tech 49-7 and Navy 56-17. But the next week they would get pushed hard.

Oklahoma had a bruising attack behind Steve Owens, who would win the Heisman in '69, and it was a hot day in Dallas, 91 degrees. An interception was converted for a touchdown by OU and they added another to run up a 14-0 lead in the first half. Texas was forced to the air and after a 42-yard kickoff return by Jim Bertlesen, Street found Cotton Speyrer for passes of 34 and 24 yards, the last a beautiful over the head catch, for one touchdown to narrow the gap. Getting tricky, the Horns utilized a throw-back pass to Bertlesen for 55 yards to set up the tying score just before the half.

The teams traded field goals in the third, before Street once more dialed up Speyrer for a 48-yard completion to set up a go-ahead field goal by Happy Feller to make it 20-17 going into the fourth quarter. OU's Glenn King fumbled a punt mid-way through the quarter and OT Bob McKay fell on it at the OU 23. Fullback Steve Worster would punch it in from the one to ice the game, 27-17. Steve Owen would bull for 123 yards while Texas would manage only 158 yards itself. However, Street passed for 215 (9 of 18), and Speyrer caught eight of those for 160 yards as OU coach Chuck Fairbanks had used his DBs to help stop the running game and left the passing lanes a little too open.

Royal was happy to have won such a tough game. "We hadn't had anybody jump right down our throats before. They were on us like white on rice, and that's completely covered," he noted after the game. But his team had a lot of lingering injuries and welcomed a bye week due to the Arkansas game being switched to the end of the schedule.

The next week against SMU the wishbone reached one of its highest levels of production. All four backs ran for over 100 yards, something that had never occurred in major collegiate football. Bertlesen (18-137, 4 TDs), Street (15-121, Ted Koy (13-111, TD) and Worster (21-137). Back-up quarterback Eddie Phillips accounted for 76 yards late in the game. The 611 yards rushing set a SWC record and was fourth in history in the NCAA. Street also passed for 65 yards for a record 676 yards for a UT record in the 45-14 victory.

Nowadays that total seems small compared to some of the passing offenses but it reverberated throughout football at the time. It caused Bear Bryant to show up at the doorstep of the athletic office complex at first light after the season. When someone happened by, he allegedly said in his gruff manner, "Doesn't anyone ever go to work around here?" Obviously, Bryant didn't think much of the offseason. One of the big mistakes DKR made, in my opinion, was giving Bryant and OU detailed plans of the wishbone, blocking schemes, adjustments, etc. OU's hyper-speed version would come back to bite the Horns in the ass later.

Texas would wipe out the rest of the schedule leading up the Arkansas game in Fayetteville. The Big Shootout is now legendary with two undefeated teams matching up in the last regular season game of the 100th year. Michigan had defeated Ohio State to push Texas to No. 1 in both polls and Arkansas was No. 2 in the AP and No. 3 in the UPI Coaches Poll behind undefeated Penn State.

Pushed to the wall by Arkansas, Texas rallied from 14 down at the half to win 15-14 on Street's 42-yard scramble and  two-point conversion on the counter option, at the most charged moment in the comeback, the call of 53 Veer Pass to Randy Peschel and its perfect execution. If you don't know the details and context of all this, and you're a Texas fan reading this, you should. Go see the movie at the very least. Freddy Steinmark's key play to set up the situation and how his tragedy played into the emotional context of the Arkansas game and the Cotton Bowl game that followed. Great moments are often permeated with deep sadness.

Notre Dame had voluntarily withdrawn from bowl games after 1925 the Four Horsemen defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl, 27-10, but the #9 Irish broke its policy of 44 years to come to the Cotton Bowl. Their coach, Ara Parseghian, had led the Irish to a MNC in '66 and would win another in '73. He and Royal were two of the best in that era, and the glamour of the match galvanized the nation. And the game they played fulfilled the expectations, much like the 2005 Rose Bowl.

The Irish were bigger than Texas, averaging some 20 pounds more and one match-up with Texas' Mike Dean and ND's Mike McCoy was nearly 70 pounds. Notre Dame was only allowing 85.1 yards per game rushing, so Royal was deeply concerned after the Cowboys and Cleveland Rams had torn up the field and several days of rain has soaked it thoroughly thereafter. It would moderately dry out over three days with dry dirt added and helicopters drying it out but was still a little soft in places at game time.

Notre Dame had a power running game and a fine passer in quarterback Joe Theismann. They would jump off to the early lead when Texas stopped a long drive at the 10 yard line in the first quarter and forced a 26-yard FG. The Irish would raise the lead to 10-0 when DB Danny Lester slipped in the mud and Theismann hit a wide open Tom Gatewood for 54 yards and a TD.

Texas responded with a 74-yard drive featured passes of 17 and 16 yards to Speyrer and the running of Bertlesen, who slipped in for the TD to make it 10-7, a score which held until the fourth quarter. The Horns had a shot after a 28-yard pass to Speyrer that carried into the red zone. However, Texas went for it on 4th and 1 and Billy Dale was smashed by LB Bob Olson a foot short of the first down. Worster would have big runs of 43 and 30 yards as the first half wore down but Texas couldn't capitalize.

Finally late in the third quarter the Longhorns drove 78 yards on the ground with Koy carrying the last three to gain the lead, 14-10, early in the fourth. Notre Dame responded with a 80-yard drive in 10 plays with Theismann running and passing key the movement. He would hit Jim Yoder on a broken play for 24-yards and the TD to put the Irish in control 17-14 with 6:52 remaining in the game.

Against the wall, Texas pulled off a well-executed 76 yard, 17-play drive. Street delivered two key passes to Speyrer and the team overcame a pair of 4th and 2 situations. Despite the size and skill of the Irish, the Longhorns would grind out 331 yards with the wishbone and kept the ball on the ground for 15 of the 17 plays. The first fourth situation was at the Irish 20 but Koy made the first with a foot to spare.

The second one came with 2:26 to play at the 10. Street and Royal conferred (caught in a famous photo of the moment) and Royal called for ‘Left 89 Out' to Speyrer. Street barely got the ball to Speyrer, who made a diving catch at the two. Two more plays only gained a yard and on third day, Billy Dale, on a cross buck, smashed into the end zone on the left side to score. Theismann would make a couple of completions in the final 1:18 but Tom Campbell would intercept with 29 seconds left to insure the 21-17 victory, Texas' 20th straight victory and the subsequent MNC. Campbell wouldn't relinquish the ball after the interception, giving it to Royal to give to Freddy Steinmark later.

1971 | Notre Dame 24, Texas 11 | New Year's Day | Cotton Bowl

Texas entered the season ranked No. 2 and came out blazing, beating Cal, 56-15, and Texas Tech, 35-13. Then they came within a whisker of having their 23-game streak broken when UCLA had the Longhorns down 17-13 with under a minute left in the game at Memorial Stadium.

The Bruins had picked up a field goal in the opening quarter, then Texas responded with a Bertlesen three-yard run to cap an 80-yard drive and two Happy Feller field goals of 48 and 55 yards to lead 13-3 at the half. UCLA made two long drives of 89 and 93 yards to grab a 17-13 lead and Texas just couldn't get untracked and looked to be doomed. They got the ball back with 58 seconds remaining, ran five plays and were still 45 yards away from the end zone. Quarterback Eddie Phillips then rifled a long pass toward Cotton Speyrer near the 15 near the east side hash marks and two of the three UCLA DBs went up for the ball; amazingly, they collided and knocked each other off and Speyrer came down with the ball. The other defensive back, a step or two behind them, made a move one way to come to the play and Speyrer spun the other and dashed to the end zone to score with 12 seconds remaining. Texas escaped with a 20-17 win. (I witnessed this from about 10 seats up and it was right in front of me. The only damn play that happened on that end the whole game.)

Baylor was the only other close game and Texas maintained a 21-7 lead most of the game on two TDs by Worster and one by Phillips. The Bears blocked a kick and returned it for a TD mid-way through the fourth for a 21-14 final.

Texas blasted everyone else, including OU, 41-9, and Arkansas, 42-7. They finished the season undefeated and again faced Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. This contest was a first half affair, with no scoring in the second half. Texas got an early field goal from Feller, but then Notre Dame ran off three touchdowns on a Theismann pass to Gatewood and two Theismann runs.

Bertlesen scored from three yards out to complete an 84-yard drive in 18 plays and Texas went for two, with Phillips hitting Lester to make it 21-11 with 1:52 in the half. Notre Dame added a 36-yard FG with 24 seconds left to make what turned out to be the final score, 24-11. Texas gained 426 total yards, but fumbled nine times and lost five. And an interception by Donnie Wigginton blunted another drive.

1978 | Notre Dame 38, Texas 10 | New Year's Day | Cotton Bowl

In his first year Fred Akers inherited a team with a strong defense, tail back Earl Campbell, experience at quarterback in Jon Aune and Mark McBath, a great kicker and punter in Russell Erxleben and a strong defense led by Johnnie Johnson, Lance Talor, Brad Shearer, Rick Churchman and Steve McMichael among others. They whacked Boston College (44-0), Virginia (68-0) and Rice (72-15), one of the best starts since 1915.

The Horns rose from 18/13 coaches to 5/4 to face OU, ranked 2/3 and suffered a great misfortune when both Aune and McBath suffered season ending injuries in the first quarter and third-string quarterback Randy McEachern had to take over the reins the rest of the game (and year). Despite the odds, McEachern led the Horns to a tough 13-6 victory on Campbell's 24-yard touchdown run and field goalss of 58 and 64 by Erxleben. The defense held OU to two measly field goals.

The next week's game at No. 8 Arkansas was just as tough. Erxleben would hit field goals of 58 and 52 in the first quarter to stake the Horns to a lead. The Hogs great kicker, Steve Little, responded with three consecutive field goals, the second being from 67-yards to tie Erxleben and Joe Williams of Wichita State for longest Division I field goals, a record which still stands today.

Texas overcame the 9-6 lead with a Ham Jones one-yard plunge to cap a 80-yard drive late in the fourth for the 13-9 victory.

The Longhorns won the next six games easily, rising to #1 for the second half of the season and faced Notre Dame once again, this time with Dan Devine at the helm. The Irish had a powerful defense with '76 Outland Trophy winner Ross Browner, defensive in Willie Fry and All-American linebacker Bob Golic. Their quarterback was Joe Montana. They did have one loss, to Ole Miss, but came into the game ranked #5 after whipping USC 49-19. They picked up where they had left off with SC, jumping out to a 24-3 lead.

Erxleben's 42-yard FG had tied the game at 3 in the first quarter, but that would be as close as the Horns would get. McEachern hit Mike Lockett for a 13-yard touchdown pass as time expired at the half to make it 24-10. Vegas Ferguson would score two TDs in the second half to go with the one in the second quarter to make the final 38-10. Campbell would run for 118 yards and Ham Jones added 68, but six turnovers -- 3 interceptions and 3 fumbles -- would undercut their effort in the decisive victory. Notre Dame jumped over everyone in the rankings and wound up winning their 10th MNC.

1994 | Notre Dame 55, Texas 27 | September 23 | Notre Dame Stadium

Texas outranked Notre Dame going into this game (No. 13 to No. 21) and was coming off wins at Hawaii (38-17) and Pittsburgh (38-27). This was one of John Mackovic's more entertaining and successful teams (10-2-1) with James Brown at QB, Ricky Williams as a freshman fullback and Shon Mitchell at tailback, with Pat Fitzgerald at tight end, Mike Adams and Wane McGarity at wide reciever. The defense featured cornerback Bryant Westbrook, nose tackle Stonie Clark, Chris Carter, Tre Thomas and Tyson King. Overall this team was inconsistent, which seemed to be a feature with Mackovic.

This game was a ragtag shoot ‘em up match in which Texas held one-point lead for about 3 minutes; otherwise it was all playing catch-up. James Brown hit Fitzgerald for two first half touchdowns to keep the score close at 13-19 at the half. Then in the third quarter Brown nailed Steve Bradley for a short touchdown as the Horns took a 20-19 lead. Notre Dame countered with three running scores to run it up to 41-20 before Brown found Fitzgerald from 19-yards out to narrow the count to 41-27 with 6:26 left in the game. ND iced the game with another running touchdown and a final pick six made the final 55-27. Texas generated 436 yards of offense but had five turnovers.

1996 | Notre Dame 27, Texas 24 | September 21 | Memorial Stadium

They really pumped this game up in Austin and even brought in Willie to sing the National Anthem. Texas was ranked No. 6 on the strength of the prior season and wins over Missouri (40-7) and New Mexico State. Notre Dame was ranked No. 9. This was an entertaining game and close to the end. Texas jumped to the early 14-3 lead on James Brown's pass to Mike Adams and Priest Holmes' three-yard run. Notre Dame would counter with Farmer's 18-yard run and a pass from Ron Powlus to Edwards just before halftime for a 17-14 edge.

Phil Dawson's 47-yarder would tie the game in the third quarter. Ricky Williams pounder in from the one to cap a 65-yard drive early in the fourth give Texas a 24-17 lead. Audry Denson would respond with a six-yard run with 2:54 left to tie the game at 24-24. Notre Dame's 39-yard field goal as time expired gave the Golden Domers the win, 27-24, and a big 8-2 in the series.

So, to date, Texas has yet to beat Notre Dame at home. The lone win came in Dallas; the other win was at South Bend.

Tough defense and a stout running game have always been the key elements in this series, along with turnovers. How the new era of HUNH offense changes that perspective will be what we discover this evening.

Hook ‘em