Cook: Cavanaugh vs. Irish, Part II
Share with others:
It's not as if Matt Cavanaugh has spent the past 28 years waiting to get another crack at Notre Dame. He has been fairly busy. Playing 14 seasons in the NFL and winning Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants. Coaching 11 seasons in the league. Winning another Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.
But it is Pitt-Notre Dame week, the first time Pitt has opened a season against the Irish since that fateful day in 1977. Now that Cavanaugh is back at Pitt as Dave Wannstedt's offensive coordinator, how can he not look back and wonder what if? What would have happened if his wrist hadn't been broken early in the game? Would Pitt have won a second consecutive national championship?
Is it any wonder that high on Cavanaugh's priority list for Pitt's offense Saturday night is keeping quarterback Tyler Palko clean and safe?
That would give Pitt a better chance of beating Notre Dame than it had in that 1977 game after Cavanaugh was injured. Notre Dame was ranked No. 3 at the time, Pitt No. 7. The Panthers had won the national title the year before in no small part because of Cavanaugh, their quarterback. He was named MVP of their 27-3 rout of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on a night his more celebrated teammate, Tony Dorsett, closed out his Heisman Trophy-winning career by rushing for a Sugar Bowl-record 202 yards.
"Tony was gone and it was supposed to be my team in '77," Cavanaugh said. "I was the guy who was supposed to carry us. That's why what happened was so devastating."
Cavanaugh marched Pitt down the field on its opening drive. But at the Irish 12 late in the first quarter, he was chased out of the pocket and forced to roll to his right. Just before the sideline, he planted and threw back across his body to wide receiver Gordon Jones. An instant later, defensive end Willie Fry planted him in the Pitt Stadium turf.
People would joke a few years later that this was the first of two times that Fry would play a cruel trick on Pittsburgh. He was the Steelers' No. 2 draft choice in 1978 but never made it in the NFL.
No one was laughing after Cavanaugh was hurt, though. It didn't matter that he completed that pass to Jones for a touchdown and a 7-0 Pitt lead or that the Panthers would add a safety to boost the margin to 9-0. His left wrist was broken. Pitt wasn't going to win this game against that opponent without him. Backup quarterback Wayne Adams had trouble even getting the snaps from All-American center Tom Brzoza. The Panthers fumbled eight times, losing five. They didn't score again and lost, 19-9.
"I really believe if we had won that game, we would have gone all the way," Cavanaugh said.
Notre Dame ended up winning the national title despite losing at Mississippi the next week. A young third-string quarterback by the name of Joe Montana -- he would later be Cavanaugh's teammate on the 49ers -- took over for Rusty Lisch and Gary Forystek in the third game and led the Irish to 10 consecutive wins, including a 38-10 pounding of No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Pitt finished 9-2-1 and No. 8 under new coach Jackie Sherrill. Cavanaugh returned for the game at Florida after freshman Rick Trocano led the Panthers to three consecutive wins, but Cavanaugh clearly wasn't ready. Because of the cast on his wrist, he, too, had problems with Brzoza's snaps, a significant factor in Pitt's 11 fumbles. The teams tied, 17-17.
Pitt's other loss came against Penn State, 15-13. The game wasn't just played in blinding snow at Pitt Stadium. It was one of the great rivalry games of all time. Cavanaugh, by then named to the All-American teams, threw three interceptions, two in the end zone. Pitt still had a chance to tie but Penn State defensive tackle Matt Millen stopped running back Elliott Walker's 2-point conversion try with 12 seconds left.
"I had no excuses that day," Cavanaugh said. "I was healthy.
"Even now, I know we still would have had to beat Penn State. But if we had won the Notre Dame game and gotten on a roll ... "
The stakes won't be so high Saturday night, although you wouldn't know it with the excitement surrounding the first game of the Wannstedt era. Pitt comes in ranked No. 23. Notre Dame is unranked.
Cavanaugh is confident because Pitt has Palko. He has found out what the rest of us learned last season: The kid is a winner.
"He's so conscientious," Cavanaugh said. "He wants to know everything about every play. He wants to know what every other guy is doing. Sometimes, I have to reel him in a little and remind him he has to worry about what he has to do. But, believe me, I'm not complaining."
The two have developed a nice relationship.
"I think he's going to be great for our offense," Palko said of Cavanaugh, "and I think he's a guy who can take me to the next level."
The journey starts Saturday night.
Cavanaugh knows the game could come down to how Palko plays. He just hopes it doesn't come down to if Palko can play.
"Don't say that. Don't even think it," Cavanaugh said, his left wrist suddenly aching again after 28 years.John Beale, Post-Gazette
Pitt coach Matt Cavanaugh talks with quarterback Tyler Palko at a practice.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published August 30, 2005 12:00 am