Still a lot to play for
Heather VanHoegarden | Tuesday, December 14, 2004
For some, it’s a chance to get a win. For others, it is the last time they will put on a Notre Dame uniform. But for most, it is an important football game.
When Irish coach Tyrone Willingham was fired on Nov. 30, his team had a decision to make. Would they honor the commitment they made just two days earlier to play in the Insight Bowl? Or would they back out of the contract?
Under the leadership of its seniors, this team decided to play. So now, with former defensive coordinator Kent Baer as their interim head coach, the Irish (6-5) travel to Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix to take on Oregon State Dec. 28.
Notre Dame isn’t playing for a national championship, and they aren’t playing to move up in the top-25, but don’t tell this team this game isn’t important. In fact, the players are all playing for one thing – a win. But each has approached it differently.
“Coach Baer said we needed to do this one for coach Willingham and the University,” Irish running back Darius Walker said. “The University has been through some times this year, and we really want to go out there and win this one for the University. We also want to win it for ourselves.”
It has been 10 seasons since Notre Dame has ended its year with a bowl win. The last win for Notre Dame came in the Jan. 1, 1994, Cotton Bowl when the Irish beat Texas A&M 24-21. For the fifth-year seniors, the Insight Bowl is an opportunity for them to leave on a positive note after seeing three coaches in five years.
Senior defensive end Justin Tuck said Baer brought up the fact that Notre Dame hasn’t won a bowl game in so long.
“It’s been over a decade that we haven’t had a bowl game win,” said Tuck, who has one year of eligibility remaining. “That’s our focus. We want to go down there and get a win. It’s not about we got a bowl game and all the hoopla. This is a focused football team.”
Senior Mike Goolsby doesn’t want his season to end as it did his freshman year – with a loss to Oregon State. As a true freshman, Goolsby saw the Irish get beat 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl by the Beavers in 2001.
“We got our butts kicked, and I remember them calling it the Fiasco Bowl,” Goolsby said. “We are trying not to let that happen again.
“It’s ironic for the fifth-year guys that our first bowl game as freshmen is going to be our last bowl game playing the same team. It’s our last chance to get a shot. I never got to beat Boston College, so this is one of those types of deals. It’s your last opportunity.”
Something to build on
Last year, their season ended with a 38-12 loss to Syracuse. The year before it ended with a 28-6 loss to North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl. In fact, Notre Dame has not won its last game since 2001, when Bob Davie’s team beat Purdue 24-18, the last game Davie coached at Notre Dame.
The Insight Bowl is an opportunity for this team to end a roller coaster season on a positive note, following a 41-10 loss at USC Nov. 27, the third straight 31-point loss to the Trojans.
“USC we didn’t finish on a good note, and this is just one more chance to get everything going in the right direction and just make the spring and summer that much more exciting,” Irish kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick said.
Irish offensive lineman Dan Stevenson said getting a win to end the year is especially important.
“You don’t want to spend the entire offseason thinking about the last game,” Stevenson said. “Whatever happens in the last game you keep that in the back of your mind. So it’s huge for us to go out there and get a big win.
Stevenson said he thinks this Irish team still has something to prove to the rest of the college football world after a season in which the Irish knocked off two top-10 teams (Michigan and Tennessee), but also lost two tough home games (Boston College and Pittsburgh).
“It’s a huge game, we want to go out there and show that we have a great team, great talent,” he said. “I think everyone’s writing us off, but we know better than that. We know what we have here, and its time for us to step up and show it.”
Still a football game
Despite all the media attention Notre Dame and its football program has received in the weeks following the firing of Willingham, Irish players are excited to get back on the field to play the game they love.
“We’re excited,” Tuck said. “We get to go to a great bowl site in Phoenix. The coaches have set up a schedule where we’re going to have a lot of fun. But in the same sense we’re going to go down there and work and try to get a win. I think this football team is very excited with this opportunity.”
Goolsby sees his last game as one final chance to show what he can do on the football field, while at the same time, preparing the younger players for their futures at Notre Dame. He won’t need any extra motivation going into the game.
“Anytime you get an opportunity it’s a chance to showcase what you’ve got,” Goolsby said. “It’s going to be a big-time game with a lot of guys watching. That’s one way I want to look at it. But at the same time I want to win it for coach [Willingham] and for the younger guys so there’s more than enough reasons to prepare well.”
Budinscak, another fifth-year senior, said that for the seniors, it is a chance to show the world one last time what they can do.
“Obviously this thing might mean a lot more to us than it does to people around the program who are concerned with a lot of other things,” Budinscak said. “I think we would love to as seniors go out and play the best game we’ve ever played, and try to amaze people with what we can do and have a great team effort. We want to go out on the right note.”
And while the seniors play their last game for Notre Dame, other Irish players will be playing their first bowl game. Walker, a true freshman, is excited for the opportunity to play in a bowl.
“It’s very exciting,” Walker said. “Seeing all the bowl games on TV last year, that was something I really wanted to do. I’m excited, I’m thrilled. I’m pumped-up, ready to go. I just can’t wait to get to Arizona where it’s warm.”