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Football: Second straight 6-6 regular season dooms Weis

Matt Gamber | Thursday, May 13, 2010

Notre Dame failed to finish the regular season above .500 for the third straight season in 2009. This time, it cost former Irish coach Charlie Weis his job.

The Irish began the season 4-1, just as they did in 2008. And then the Irish dropped five of their last seven to finish 6-6 — again, just as they did in 2008. That drop-off ultimately led to Weis’ dismissal on Nov. 30, two days after Notre Dame lost its season finale at Stanford.

“As you look at the entire course of the season, it led you to the conclusion that you couldn’t have enough confidence that a jump up was imminent, that you could know with sufficient certainty that next year’s results would be significantly different,” director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said following the dismissal. “And so I think that was probably the tipping point.”

Notre Dame opened the season with a bang, thrashing Nevada, 35-0, at home on Sept. 5.

Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen threw for 315 yards and four touchdowns in the game, which featured an offensive outburst similar to Notre Dame’s last contest, its 49-21 victory over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24, 2008.

“How do you keep momentum rolling from a game that was so long ago? A lot of it has to do with hunger. These guys are hungry,” Weis said. “This was their first opportunity to show that they’re a different team. It was just a good start.”

Sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd caught four passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns, as the Irish amassed 510 yards of total offense and led 28-0 at halftime.

“It’s the first game,” Floyd said. “You have to show the nation what kind of team Notre Dame is and how we are going to do everything.”

The No. 18 Irish hit the road the next week to play at rival Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines pulled out a 38-34 victory on freshman quarterback Tate Forcier’s five-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds remaining.

Junior running back Armando Allen ran for 139 yards but was injured late, and the Irish were unable to run out the clock and had to punt the ball away with 2:13 to play. Clausen threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns, and Floyd and Tate combined to catch 16 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns.

“This feeling right here,” Clausen said, “is not going to happen again.”

Sure enough, the Irish managed to avoid that feeling the next week, surviving a late Michigan State surge to beat the visiting Spartans, 33-30. Clausen was impressive again, throwing for 300 yards and two touchdowns, including 127 yards and a score to Tate. On a second-half scramble, Clausen suffered an apparent foot injury, but did not miss a snap.

Notre Dame did lose Floyd to a broken collarbone and needed senior safety Kyle McCarthy’s interception at the 4-yard line with less than a minute to play to hang on to the victory.

“In the past, what might have happened is when we went down in the second half, it might have been deflating,” Weis said. “But not this team. This team just expects they’re going to come back and make a play and win.”

At Purdue the following week, Clausen, whose foot injury was worse than it initially appeared, came off the bench to throw a game-winning, two-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph on a fourth-and-goal with 24.8 seconds to play.

Sophomore quarterback Dayne Crist played most of the 24-21 victory and led two touchdown drives.

“[Clausen] actually wasn’t supposed to play in the second half,” Weis said. “He took some medication at halftime, and we tried to run a lot of shotgun formations so it would take pressure off his footwork. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, he said he could go and when the game got to that situation, I listened to him and went ahead and put him in there.”

The Irish began a three-game home stretch the following week and won their third straight nail biter, topping Washington 37-30 in overtime. Junior running back Robert Hughes’ overtime touchdown run gave Notre Dame the final lead. But the story of the game was the Irish goal-line defense, which stopped the Huskies six straight times with the ball inside the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter.

“We’re just clutch,” Tate said. “We’re a clutch team. In the trenches we know what to do and we’ve been doing a good job of that, I think.”

After a bye week, the Irish put their three-game win streak to the test in a highly anticipated Oct. 14 home date with No. 6 USC. Clausen almost led Notre Dame to another comeback victory, but the final Irish drive fell four yards short in a 34-27 Trojans win.

“Coming up short, one second to go, it’s heartbreaking,” Clausen said.

Notre Dame trailed 34-14 early in the fourth quarter but scored two touchdowns in six minutes to close the gap with 7:28 to play. Clausen threw for 260 yards and two scores, and Tate caught eight passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the game.

“I think anyone that doesn’t realize the fight that’s in the Fighting Irish is missing the boat. It’s evident if you watch the last five games. Every week it’s the same thing,” Weis said.

“This team’s a bunch of fighters. I’m proud of the fight. I’m disappointed with the loss, it’s never OK to lose. But they’re a bunch of fighters.”

The 5-2 Irish used the week of Fall Break to prepare for Boston College, which had beaten Notre Dame six straight times. In another game that went down to the wire, junior linebacker Brian Smith’s interception with 98 seconds to play sealed a 20-16 Irish victory.

The defense gave up 279 yards passing to 26-year-old freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie but intercepted him three times.

“The story of our season, the game coming down to the last five minutes,” said Tate, who caught 11 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns. “It’s keeping people at home and making sure they continue to watch the game. I don’t know, I can’t tell you why, but it says a lot about us. We don’t give up.”

The following week, on Halloween night in San Antonio, the Irish finally posted a blowout victory by beating one-win Washington State, 40-14, in an offsite home game. Hughes, starting in place of an injured Allen, ran for a career-high 131 yards, while Clausen threw for 268 yards before giving way to Crist. Crist threw an impressive 64-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver John Goodman before going down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament that would sideline him until spring practice.

The highs of the Washington State victory were immediately erased with the lows of a second straight home loss to Navy, which topped the No. 19 Irish, 23-21, to begin Notre Dame’s second consecutive November slide and end its hopes of a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) run.

“It’s a heartbreaking loss,” said Clausen, who threw for 457 yards but turned the ball over in the red zone twice.

The Irish dropped their second straight the next week at No. 8 Pittsburgh, as Tate’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns weren’t enough to erase an 18-point deficit, and the Panthers prevailed 27-22. The loss was Notre Dame’s eighth straight against a top-10 team and dropped Weis to 1-10 against ranked teams since 2006. A conservative game plan saw the Irish score only three points in the first half before Clausen and Co. got going.

The losing streak continued with Notre Dame’s second straight loss on Senior Day, a 33-30 double-overtime heartbreaker to a reeling Connecticut squad dealing with the death of a teammate. The Huskies had two different players eclipse 100 yards rushing, and the Irish surrendered their second kickoff return touchdown of the season in the loss. Tate broke single-season school records for catches and receiving yards in the game.

“I really feel absolutely miserable for those 33 [seniors],” Weis said, declining to answer questions about his future after the loss dropped the Irish to 6-5. “I’ll worry about me tomorrow. But I think today I should be worrying about them.”

In what seemed likely to be Weis’ final game, the Irish concluded their season with a 45-38 loss at Stanford. Cardinal running back Toby Gerhart torched Notre Dame for 205 yards rushing and three touchdowns while also adding an 18-yard touchdown pass.

“There’s a bunch of 22, 23-year-old young men right there finishing out their career losing the last four games,” Weis said in a postgame radio interview. “They feel miserable and I feel miserable for them.”

Weis was fired two days later.

In addition to Weis and the Irish seniors, it turned out to be the final games for Clausen and Tate, who declared for the NFL Draft on Dec. 7. Clausen finished his junior season with 3,722 yards passing, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions. Tate caught 93 receptions for 1,496 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he scored 18 total touchdowns in 2009, resulting in the junior earning the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s top receiver.

Both Clausen and Tate were second-round selections in the 2010 NFL Draft, with Clausen going to the Carolina Panthers and Tate to the Seattle Seahawks.