Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2023

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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52 JANUARY 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED IRISH ECHOES JIM LEFEBVRE BY JIM LEFEBVRE T he 1976 Notre Dame football team opened the campaign with a 31-10 loss to eventual consensus national champion Pittsburgh, and the Irish closed the regular season with a hard- fought 17-13 defeat at Southern Cal, which finished as the nation's No. 2 team. For the first time in their history, the Fighting Irish, at 8-3, were set to play in a bowl game other than the traditional Big Four. Up until then, they had made two appearances in the Cotton Bowl (1969 and 1970 seasons) and Orange Bowl (1972, 1974), and one each in the Rose Bowl (1924) and Sugar Bowl (1973). This time, the bowl trip would be to Jacksonville, Fla., to meet No. 15 Penn State in the Gator Bowl. Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions were right behind Notre Dame as one of the strongest indepen- dents in the country. The Lions were 7-4, with two of their losses coming to then- No. 2 Ohio State and, like the Irish, the top-ranked Pitt Panthers and their Heis- man Trophy winner Tony Dorsett. "It was an opportunity to play a very good football team," recalled junior halfback Terry Eurick, who would go on to be a co-captain of the 1977 Irish. "And it was a chance to potentially po- sition us going into the 1977 season." Penn State, for its part, was on a trajec- tory that would lead to 11-1 records and top-five finishes in both 1977 and 1978. Paterno was in his 11th season in Happy Valley and slowly building a dynasty. A theme for the '76 Irish was how they bounced back from losses. After losing at Pitt, they reeled off six straight wins while outscoring the opposition 176-33 with three shutouts. "We knew we played good football that season," Eurick noted. "We had the upset loss at Georgia Tech [Nov. 6] but came home and beat [No. 10] Alabama the fol- lowing week. We were glad to have the chance to play again after the USC loss." Coach Dan Devine's Irish had only two seniors among their 22 starters — quarterback Rick Slager and split end Dan Kelleher — so the game would be, as Devine noted, "the projection of 1977." And with stars like Ross Browner and Luther Bradley leading the defense and offensive firepower including tight end Ken MacAfee and running back Jerome Heavens all coming back in '77, the Ga- tor Bowl would be a dress rehearsal for the coming season. After Penn State took an early 3-0 lead, Eurick fielded the kickoff at the 1-yard-line, found a lane at the 20 and shifted gears a couple of times en route to reaching the Penn State 35. From there, Al Hunter, Notre Dame's first 1,000-yard rusher, gained 27 yards on the short drive, including a 1-yard touchdown for a 7-3 Irish lead. In the second quarter, penalties forced the Irish to start one drive with a first- and-25, and Slager responded by rifling back-to-back 12-yard passes to MacAfee, then with a QB sneak for the first down. Hunter ripped off a key 11-yard run, then scored his second TD from 2 yards out. Along with a pair of Dave Reeve field goals, Notre Dame had the game well in hand with a 20-3 halftime lead. Hunter was on his way to a 102-yard rushing game. The Irish allowed one third-quarter TD, but stopped a two-point conver- sion attempt. Jim Browner intercepted Junior halfback Al Hunter ran 26 times for 102 yards and scored both of Notre Dame's touchdowns in its 20-9 win against Penn State in the 1976 Gator Bowl. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS 1976 Gator Bowl Win Set The Stage For Subsequent Irish Run To A National Title

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