Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Close Calls that Still Hurt...A lesson in Notre Dame History

Close calls and what might have been is a good way to put what Notre Dame has gone through since their last National Championship title in 1988. Sure there were close calls along the way, plenty of them. They could have played for a title a year later had they won in the Orange Bowl. Who can forget a week after beating #1 FSU, the loss that occurred at home against Tom Coughlin and Boston College?

2000 was the year we saw Notre Dame come back onto the map (albiet a short time) in the college football ranks. An overtime loss against Nebraska then kept the Irish from chasing what could have been a national title game appearance. Sad, but actually true if you go back and look at that season.

Lets take a look back at heartbreaking Notre Dame losses over the past twenty years and see which ones really were the worst.

1989 vs. Miami
Many expected Notre Dame to repeat as National Champions in 1989 as they entered the season #2 in the nation, behind only the Michigan Wolverines. After defeating UM 24-19 in the Big House the Irish soared up to #1 in the nation. What stood between them and another national title though were the Miami Hurricanes, the defending champs the Irish had to knock off in South Bend the year before.

Although this game did not come down to a last second play it showed the Irish they were not the best team in the nation that year. Miami cruised to a 27-10 win in the Orange Bowl and finished the year as National Champs. Although it was not as heartbreaking as other Irish losses, it was still a day that Irish fans can look back at and just wonder.

1991 Orange Bowl vs. Colorado
1991 has two offerings for the Irish, one coming on the first day of the year in the Orange Bowl against Colorado. Although Notre Dame entered the game not capable of winning a national championship themselves in all likelyhood, they still had the opportunity to defeat the Buffs and keep them from being the champs. Well, long story short the Irish were held in check by the Colorado defense throughout. Trailing 10-9 late in the game there is no way Colorado would kick to the Rocket...right? This pains me to post but why not, its still a hell of a run back.

1991 vs. Tennessee
In 1991 the Irish seemed primed for another title run before the Tennessee Volunteers came to South Bend and started off the game down 14-0 before most fans in the stands even blinked. The Irish continued to pile on, gaining a 31-7 advantage at one point in the matchup. However the Vols came storming back and defeated the Irish 35-34 as Reggie Ho missed a last second field goal that would have won the Irish the game.

The Irish would have had to have other things work out which did not in order to gain a trip to the title game in 1991 but this loss still pains Irish fans to think about to this day. The loss sent the Irish in a downward spiral that set up the dramatic Sugar/Cheerios Bowl game against Florida.

1993 vs. Boston College
The Irish were championship chasers once again in 1993 and gained the #1 ranking after defeating previous #1 Florida State in South Bend. All Notre Dame had to do was beat Boston College and they were headed to Miami to face Nebraska and play for the national title. That's all they had to do and what happens?

A defense that held Heisman Trophy QB Tommy Ward in check for the most part a week before goes out and gives up 41 points to BC. The Irish lose 41-39 and settle for date in the Cotton Bowl where they in turn beat Texas A&M for a second year in a row.

This is the first Irish heartbreak I remember watching first hand. I was seven years old and to this day can't describe what happened that day. Notre Dame had no answers defensively for most of the afternoon while Tom Coughlin and Glenn Foley had all of them. Thinking of this kick will prevent me from being able to sleep tonight.

Since that day one can argue the Irish have not made a serious run at a national championship. Although it is safe to say they were not the best team in the nation any of the years since then it is fair to say they have had their title opportunities if one thing or another went just slightly different.

2000 vs. Nebraska
Not a whole lot was expected of the Irish in 2000 but after beating Texas A&M convincingly they found themselves in the top 25 with number one coming to town. In a game where the Irish cashed in on Special Teams they found themselves tied late with a chance to win the game.

Instead Bob Davie and company decide not to risk anything and to play for overtime. Nick Setta steps up and gives the Irish the lead once again, sure. However, Eric Crouch leads the Huskers right down field and into the endzone.

I was not watching this game at the time, instead was in a car headed home listening to the whole thing. As a freshman in high school I knew Davie was wrong for sitting on the ball and to this day I feel the same way.

2000 vs. Michigan State
Two weeks later the Irish traveled to East Lansing looking to move to 3-1 and improve their rankings. A game that was back and forth until the end, Notre Dame losses on a touchdown pass over the middle that goes for big yards.

I may be wrong but I remember this play occuring on a fourth down. At the end of the year this loss did not matter, it didnt prevent Notre Dame from a BCS game or a national title but it was an extremely tough pill to swallow nonetheless.

2005 vs. USC
October 15, 2005 will be a day I will never forget. The atmosphere of Notre Dame that day was unmatched and there was just the feeling in the air something was different on that afternoon. Early in the game both teams trade a few scores before Tom Zbikowski brings the house down with a punt return for a touchdown to put the Irish ahead (I specifically remember nearly passing out during this play).

The game goes on, both teams convert 4th downs in their own territory. Late in the game with the Irish trailing Brady Quinn scores on a keeper and the Irish are one stop away from the upset of the century.

First two downs are an incomplete pass and a one yard gain. 4th and 9, no timeouts for USC who is trailing 31-28 at the time. That's when Matt Lienart and Dwayne Jarrett hook up on a perfectly thrown ball to keep hope alive for the Trojans.

Shortly after the Irish hold USC and time winds out on the scoreboard with ND winning 31-28. After order is restored on the field Pete Carroll is seen signaling to his team to get to the line and spike the ball. Instead Lienart takes the ball on a sneak and gets some extra help from Reggie Bush to find the endzone.

34-31, USC Wins. As mentioned earlier in this article, I am still pained in this loss and it was the toughest pill to swallow of any that I have ever had to when it comes to my team and losing.

So that's that for that. What do you think, which one of these losses was the worst for you since the Irish last won a title? Do you have a loss not mentioned that you feel is deserving? Go ahead Irish fans, let me know how you feel.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Notre Dame '08: It Starts up Front

It seems idiotic to even imply that Notre Dame could be the biggest surprise team in 2008 but the statement alone makes everyone realize how far it is the Irish have fallen. One year ago they were coming off of back-to-back BCS appearances and seemed primed for the spotlight for years to come once again. However, 3 wins and 9 losses later they enter 2008 looking to gain back some of the respect that was lost on the national level a year ago.

So what does Notre Dame have to do to at least get back to a bowl game? What do they have to avoid to make a sure a repeat of 2007 does not occur? Its pretty simple with Notre Dame in '08, the Irish need to get back to the basics and that starts up front.

Jimmy Clausen will never come within shouting distance of All-American status and Robert Hughes and the rest of the Irish stable of running backs won't reach their full potential if the offensive line does not improve. If we learned one thing towards the end of last year it was that Notre Dame has more talent on their roster than a 3-9 record should have. However, the offensive line was amongst the very worst in the game. If that does not change then the results in the win column will fail to as well.

Rightfully so there are a ton of questions marks about this offensive line. Irish fans wish it was as simple as a years more experience means that the line will be that much better but the truth of the matter is that it does not work that way. Sure the experience may help but to what degree? Time will tell.

On the line Notre Dame will see its anchor back in Sam Young.

The former 5-Star recruit will be playing right tackle this year and will be counted on heavily in giving Jimmy Clausen more time to throw while also opening up running room for the Irish backs. Young was a pleasant surprise his freshman year of 2006 but '07 saw him take a step back. Young getting back to his form at right tackle in 2008 will be key for Irish success.

Joining Young on this years offensive line are expected to be Paul Duncan, Michael Turkovich, Dan Wenger, and Eric Olesen from left to right, with Young being the RT. This has turned into an older and more experienced group for the Irish, both something that will be helpful for 2008. Like I mentioned before though, experience will not matter if these guys did not gain anything from last years debacle.

What needed to be done is that the Irish offensive line learned from mistakes they made last year. The coaching staff needed to learn what they may have done a poor job with while working with the O-Line a year ago.

Nobody knows yet what the Irish offensive line may entail in 2008. They could be the reason the Irish disappoint again or they could very well be the reason Notre Dame flies in under radar on their path back respectability. As far as I am concerned, this is the only important question Irish fans need to ask themselves about for the time being.

If the line has not improved from a year ago there is no need to worry about the development of Jimmy Clausen or the skill of the running backs on the roster. Without an offensive line these young men will not prosper on the football field and will not have to be worried about to make plays because they once again will not be able to.

Only if the offensive line is improved should Irish fans begin to even have doubts about what happened to the skill positions of Notre Dame last fall. If the line gets better and Clausen and company still struggle, then you can begin to question player development at those positions. However, without an offensive line it is impossible to be critical of the rest of the offense, including the play calling because it does not have a chance when the line doesn't hold up its part of the bargain.