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Football: Bowl streak snapped after late season letdowns

Bill Brink | Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Talk about a turnaround.

No, not a complete 180 from the face-plant that was the 3-9 2007 season. It was a switcheroo from one extreme – a snowball-filled embarrassment of a loss to Syracuse at home on Senior Day and a blowout against USC – to the other, a honeymoon-esque escape to warm and sunny Hawaii.

When the Irish took off their swim trunks and flippy-floppies and got to work, they demonstrated the totality of their shift in a 49-21 win over Hawaii in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The bowl win, Notre Dame’s first since 1994, capped a 7-6 season that saw both promise and despair.

Notre Dame’s start to the season had fans believing that last year’s demons had been exorcized. The Irish defeated San Diego State at home, 21-13, on Sept. 6.

“It’s a great feeling to get the win, especially coming off of last year,” sophomore receiver Golden Tate said after the game. “To get a win in the first game, we feel much more confident.”

Tate had six receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown in the game. Sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen completed 21-of-34 passes and threw three touchdowns.

Notre Dame’s success continued against Michigan the next week. The Wolverines’ new coach, former West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez, was still figuring out how to run his style of offense with the players he inherited. That, plus the monsoon that drenched Notre Dame Stadium and a good Irish running game, helped Notre Dame win 35-17.

During the game, junior linebacker John Ryan was shoved out of bounds and into Irish coach Charlie Weis, knocking him to the ground. Weis suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL).

“I’ll show up as a coach, but I’ll be gone for the year as a player. Tommy Brady’s got nothing on me,” Weis joked after the game. “I feel like an athlete. First time in my life.”

Sophomore running back Robert Hughes ran 19 times for 81 yards and two touchdowns in the game, getting a ton of carries in the downpour.

Notre Dame’s early-season success stopped on the road against Michigan State. The Irish lost, 23-7, largely in part to the performance of Spartans senior running back Javon Ringer. Ringer rushed 39 times for 201 yards and two touchdowns.

“With Javon Ringer being such a dynamic guy, I think the one thing you needed to do was make sure you had everybody in every gap,” Weis said in his Sunday post-game press conference. “And the few times in the gap where we didn’t have somebody in every gap, like the one 60 yarder that he went for, was the one time if you go back and watch it you’ll see there was no one in that gap where he ended up running through.”

Clausen threw two costly interceptions, one in the end zone and one while the Irish were driving.

Spartans kicker Brett Swenson made three field goals in the game, one from 45 yards out.

Notre Dame got back on track with a 38-21 win against Purdue. Sophomore running back Armando Allen carried the Irish, rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown.

“We went out there and showed people that we really can run the ball,” Allen said after the game. “We always hear that we can’t run the ball, so to go out there and run the ball effectively is great.”

Clausen had another good day, throwing for 275 yards and three touchdowns.

“I thought [Clausen] improved a lot,” senior receiver David Grimes said after the game. “He was coming up to the line of scrimmage and calling plays just like Brady (Quinn) used to do. I think he grew up a lot today. I’m proud of him.”

Freshman receiver Michael Floyd led the Irish receivers with six catches for 100 yards.

Sophomore kicker Brandon Walker, who had struggled up to this point, made a 41-yard field goal during the game.

“It boosted my confidence, the coaches’ confidence and the players’ confidence in me, so it was a relief,” Walker said after the game.

Notre Dame moved to 4-1 with a 28-21 win over Stanford despite only 83 yards rushing. Clausen had his best game yet, throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns while completing 72.5 percent of his passes.

“We were really getting Jimmy a lot of time and keeping him off the ground, and it just got going,” junior tackle Sam Young said. “Our receivers made great plays. I thought the line did a pretty good job keeping Jimmy up and keeping him clean.”

So then came a big chance for the Irish: A road game against a ranked North Carolina team that would cement the fact that Notre Dame had returned. But a costly second-half interception and a last-second play that almost worked doomed the Irish, who lost 29-24 in Chapel Hill.

Notre Dame scored first, on a 19-yard touchdown pass to Tate. The Irish led 17-9 at the half, but on the first play of the second half, Tar Heels linebacker Quan Sturdivant picked off Clausen’s pass and returned it for a touchdown to make the score 17-16.

Junior running back James Aldridge scored to put the Irish ahead by eight, but two North Carolina touchdowns in the final six minutes put the Tar Heels ahead by five.

Notre Dame had a chance at the end of the game, but Floyd’s catch came short of the end zone as time expired.

Despite the loss, Weis was happy with his team after the game.

“That team in that locker room today, it was the first time in a long time where I’ve looked in their faces against a good opponent and it was a team that really feels bad,” he said after the game. “And the reason they felt really bad is because they’re starting to get it.”

No worries, though, because after the bye week Notre Dame traveled to Seattle and trounced Washington, 33-7. Floyd scored a 51-yard touchdown pass on the first drive and the Irish never looked back. In fact, Notre Dame would have shut out the winless Huskies had Washington not threw a six-yard touchdown pass in the final three minutes.

Aldridge rushed 13 times for 84 yards and two touchdowns in the game.

Back in South Bend after fall break, the Irish and Pittsburgh needed extra time to decide the game, but the Panthers won, 36-33, after four overtimes.

Notre Dame led 24-17 with 5:38 remaining, but a late touchdown pass tied the game. Pittsburgh kicker Conor Lee and Walker traded field goals in the first two overtimes. When Lee made his in the third, Walker attempted a 48-yarder that barely curved over the lower left corner of the crossbar.

In the fourth overtime, however, Walker missed a 38-yarder wide left. Lee knocked his through, and the game ended.

“It’s not [Walker’s] fault at all that we lost,” senior safety Kyle McCarthy said. “He played a great game, and he is a big reason that we stayed in the game throughout. It’s the offense and defense’s fault just as much as anyone’s.”

Whatever demoralization resulted from Pittsburgh may have carried over into the next game, against Boston College in Chestnut Hill. Clausen threw four interceptions in a 17-0 loss. Boston College ran one of those interceptions back for a touchdown, and Eagles running back Montel Harris rushed for 120 yards. The Irish held Boston College to just 79 yards passing, but Notre Dame’s offense could not take advantage.

“The defense put out a winning performance, unfortunately that’s only one-third of the composition of a team,” Weis said after the game. “It took us over a quarter to get into any kind of flow.”

Notre Dame’s record fell to 5-4 after being 4-1 at one point. The Eagles extended their winning streak over Notre Dame to six games.

Notre Dame’s 43-game winning streak over Navy, snapped in 2007, now stands at one. Notre Dame eked out a 27-21 win that Navy threatened to ruin in the final minutes.

Notre Dame led 27-7, but Navy back Shun White broke a long touchdown run to make the score 27-14. The Midshipmen recovered an onside kick and after a long pass put them on the 1-yard line, they punched the ball in to make the score 27-21.

Then they recovered another onside kick, but Irish fans breathed easy when Notre Dame’s defense stopped the Midshipmen.

Then came Syracuse.

Not good times for the Irish, who lost 24-23 to the Orange. Notre Dame led 23-10, but Syracuse scored twice in the fourth quarter, once with less than a minute left, to win. The Irish could only muster 41 yards on the ground in the game.

Against top-10 Southern California in Los Angeles, the wheels fell off. Notre Dame couldn’t get a first down until the last play of the third quarter during a 38-3 loss.

Then came Hawaii, and Notre Dame stomped the Warriors in their home stadium. Clausen blew the Hawaii secondary out of the water, completing 22-of-26 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns. Tate had 177 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Both set Irish bowl game records.

“I’m glad that we got the monkey off our back, and that we were the team that did it,” senior defensive tackle Pat Kuntz said after the game.

Notes:

uuSenior safety David Bruton was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the fourth round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

uPat Kuntz, David Grimes, Terrail Lambert, Asaph Schwapp and Mike Turkovich all signed with NFL teams.