Sunday, August 20, 2006

ESPN Classic Theater: The Chicken Soup Bowl

The 1979 Cotton Bowl has earned its own special place in Notre Dame folklore, when a skinny little kid with a violent case of the flu strapped on a helmet in sub-zero weather and propeled the Irish to a 22 point fourth quarter comeback. So, naturally, I was delighted to see it on the upcoming slate on ESPN Classic. The game aired on Saturday at 7 AM, which was about the time I was staggering home down Claremont Avenue and ringing all the buzzers. Luckily, the DVR picked it up and I was able to enjoy the game with my mid-afternoon meal of aspirin and several tall glasses of water.

It's January 1, 1979, and the Irish are squared up against the Houston Cougars, the recent powerhouse from the Southwestern Conference with a high-octane option attack and, true to the spirit of the late '70's, a finely-developed appreciation for your good old fashioned afro. Notre Dame was returning to the site of their 38-10 drubbing of Texas the year before, a game that clinched the Irish their tenth national championship. The situation is a little bit different this year, as the Irish are saddled with three disappointing losses and out of title contention, which was quite the rarity for that decade.

Anybody who has spent any time in east Texas understands that New Years is usually a warm, festive holiday involving flip flops, coolers of beer on your back porch, and dangerous inebriated usage of shotguns. However, 1979 brought the Dallas region the worst cold snap in recollection, as an ice storm and freezing winds plunged the thermometer below zero (with wind chill) as the teams lined up to play. It was hell on earth, and, as you can see, a large majority of the ticketholders elected to catch the game on television rather than risk frostbite. To make matters worse, young Joe Montana was battling with a particularly virulent strain of flu which was only exacerbated by the bone-chilling weather.

As you would expect, the execution of the game was a comedy of errors. Botched snaps, blocked punts, wobbly interceptions, careless fumbles, and ill-advised bouncing incompletions were the norm. Hey, you try doing something physically and mentally demanding (like, say, solving a Rubik's cube while riding on a unicycle), then try to do it while locked in a meat freezer. It's visible on the faces of all the players that the cold is so overpoweringly intense that it's nearly impossible to concentrate on anything. This becomes a problem, as it takes great discipline and awareness to defend a complex read-option attack like the one Houston ran.

After jumping to a quick lead, the Irish offense collapsed upon itself. Viewers at home can visibly see Joe Montana get sicklier and more frail as the game goes on, and a slew of costly turnovers and confused defense turns the tide in favor of Houston rapidly. The Cougars pile up 34 points, most of which were on short drives off of turnovers, and it looks like it's just about garbage time in Dallas. Even worse is that when the Irish run out their offense to start the second half, Joe Montana is nowhere to be seen. Reports are he has hypothermia and his body temperature has dropped dangerously low. With the backup in, the offense is even more inept. A ray of hope hits the Irish faithful when Joe, with a belly full of chicken soup, comes back into the game, but it quickly evaporates when number three scrambles out of the pocket and heaves up an ugly interception on his first possession. I'll take over liveblogging at this point.

  • 1:20: There is a gasp of live for the Irish when the special teams takes control of the game and blocks a Houston punt. After recovering the punt and assessing a personal foul on Houston, Joe Montana is inside the 20 with a chance to keep this game close. Instead, things turn even bleaker when Montana is nearly sacked and ends up grounding the ball on 4th and 15. The spark has been dashed.
  • 1:24: Notre Dame's defense holds tough and forces another punt from Houston. Same song, second verse, the Irish bowl through the line and block the punt. This time, Steve Cichey snatches the ball out of mid-air and takes it the distance for a touchdown. The freshman, who also pulls double duty as the kickoff specialist, hails from Fargo, ND, so he probably feels like he's in a tropical paradise right now.
  • 1:28: Quoth the announcers:
    Well, two series ago, if Notre Dame could have put some points on the board, this might have turned into an interesting last five or six minutes.
    Chuckles. Little do you know...
  • 1:36: Houston successfully punts the ball!
  • 1:36: Finally, Montana looks like Montana. Two big time completions and a pass interference call, and the Irish are inside the five. Now it's third and goal, and Dan Devine calls a daring option to the left. The scrappy, yet not terribly fleet-footed Montana skitters out into the flat and bulls his way into the end zone. For his efforts, Montana receives an incredibly brutal punishment by getting leveled by four Houston defenders. The whole play kind of reminded me of this one in its boldness of call as well as the sheer heart that was demonstrated by these quarterbacks laying down their very lives for the team.

    Joe got his bell rung, but eventually climbs back onto his feet and rushes over to score a two-point conversion on the exact same play (only this time, he wisely throws it). With 4:15 left, it's now 34-28.
  • 1:43: Another huge defensive stand and Houston is forced to punt the ball away deep in their own territory. A bad snap forces a high, short punt, which Notre Dame fields at the Houston 45. Suddenly, it's a ballgame.
  • 1:46: Joe Montana's stat line today? 10 for 30, 131 yards. Not so good.
  • 1:47: Montana steps up in the pocket and takes off running downfield, carrying the ball loosely in his right hand like it's a loaf of bread. A defender on his blindside clips his upper arm, and the ball squirts out onto the turf. Houston dives on the ball and reclaims possession. 1:45 left.

    Game. Over.
  • 1:50: Houston is playing it conservatively and have run three straight plays up the middle to chew up as much clock as possible. The Irish burn through all their timeouts, and have a paltry 46 seconds when the Cougars finally line up to punt.
  • 1:53: Another shanked punt puts the Irish at the Houston 45, but wait, there's a flag. Offsides, Notre Dame. So what do you do if you're Houston?
    • Take the short kick and be thankful it wasn't blocked. Play defense to win.
    • Accept the penalty and rekick from 5 yards further downfield, risking another catastrophic special teams play.
    • Accept the penalty and go for it on 4th and 1.
    Houston makes the gutsy call and goes for it. Wrong call. The d-line gives a huge push and stuffs the fullback in the backfield.
  • 1:54: 1979 rules dictate that the clock starts after a change in possession once the ball is spotted, not when it is snapped. As a result, it is a mad dash for both teams to get to the line after the fourth down stop. I mention this because they are changing the rules this year to revert back to the way it was in '79. It's something coaches definitely need to be aware of, and thankfully Devine was. A coach this year who lazily sends out his team after a big stop might inadvertantly burn precious time and cost the team a game. There are 28 seconds on the clock, the ball is on the 30.
  • 1:54: Once again, Montana scrambles while carelessly dangling the ball out with one hand. He mercifully manages to hang on to the pigskin, but is knocked down before he can get out of bounds. Thankfully, he got the first down, so the clock stops for them to set the ball.
  • 1:55: Montana hits a streaking Haines on the sideline, who steps out of bounds and puts a punishing hit on the Houston cornerback, who falls to the turf like a ragdoll. Six seconds. Eight yards.
  • 1:56: Incomplete pass. Three seconds left.
  • 1:57: This is ballgame, folks. A strong blitz blows through the middle of the line and Montana darts out to his right to buy some time. While sidestepping the pressure, he heaves one into the front right corner of the endzone. Three bodies topple in the corner, and the camera picks up nothing over the heads of the media personnel on the sidelines. Torturous seconds pass by with no ruling. It... is... a...? TOUCHDOWN! Only about a dozen people in the world actually saw what happened, but I'm guessing the ball somehow ended up in the hands of a Notre Dame receiver in the end zone. Probably.
  • 1:59: Time to celebrate! The extra point is up and good, and Notre Dame has won it, 35-34! The sidelines clear, the final score graphic goes up, drive safely everybody, and goodnight!
  • 2:00: Wait. Wait, wait. Something is going on. What is that? A flag? Yes, a flag for false start on the Irish. Everyone is cleared off the field and we have one more play (man, why does that sound familiar?) This time, however, it works out for the Irish, and the next kick sails through the uprights unharrassed. That's game, folks, one of the best comebacks in Irish history. Now, I'm off to go have some chicken soup.