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Irish suffer third losing season in five years

Matt Lozar | Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The glory returned – but only for a week and three plays.After closing the Return to Glory 2002 season with two blowout losses, the Irish appeared destined for a third straight lopsided defeat, down 19-3 to Washington State at halftime of the season opener.Then running back Julius Jones showed why he would gain 1,268 yards for the Irish on a 19-yard fourth quarter touchdown that put the Irish ahead 23-19. The run showed off Jones’ speed and strength he developed at Arizona State while missing the 2002 season for academic-related problems.A week later at Michigan, linebacker Courtney Watson flew over the Wolverines’ offensive line on the third play of the game and stripped the ball from quarterback John Navarre, giving the Irish the ball at Michigan’s 38.That’s when it became apparent 2003 would be different. The Irish couldn’t get that early score in a hostile road environment like they did in 2002 and punted in four plays. By the end of the game, it was 38-0 Michigan – the largest defeat in the Notre Dame-Michigan series. “There is nothing positive we can take from this game,” Willingham said.The frustrations abounded at home in the 22-16 loss to Michigan State where quarterback Carlyle Holiday continued his early season struggles. True freshman Brady Quinn replaced Holiday and almost rallied the Irish to victory.It turned out to be Holiday’s last start at quarterback for the Irish.After a week of secrecy, Willingham and the coaching staff let Quinn start for the Irish at Purdue. Quinn threw 59 pass attempts, the second-most in school history, in the 23-10 loss.Taking advantage of a much-needed bye week, the Irish came out with a different game plan at Pittsburgh – use Jones until he could be stopped.The Panthers couldn’t as the senior rushed for a school-record 262 yards. The Irish ran for 352 yards on 56 attempts as a team and held the Panthers to 175 total offensive yards, including only eight rushing yards. “I believed in our football team,” Willingham said. “There will always be tough times.”That rushing success carried over to the first quarter against USC as the teams traded touchdowns. The game was tied at 14 with 4:02 remaining in the quarter.As soon as that success appeared, it went away even faster.The Trojans scored the next 35 points and blew out the Irish 45-14. At Boston College the next week, the Irish recovered from an 18-point deficit to take a 25-24 lead. But the Eagles marched right down the field and kicked a 26-yard field goal to win by two.Ten years after the fabled “Game of the Century,” Florida State returned to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time and sent the Irish to their lowest point not only on the season, but in a long time for the program. A 37-0 loss dropped the Irish to 2-6 and was the third 30-point loss on the season. It also gave the team its third straight home defeat for the first time since 1984, its first home shutout since 1978 and, for a short period, dropped it to second on the all-time winning percentage list.The on-field celebration after beating Navy for the 40th straight year on a last-second field goal showed how much the Irish were grasping for any success.Jones ran for 221 yards against Navy, his second 200-yard game on the season. In the 33-14 win on Senior Day over BYU, he continued to pile on the large numbers with a 161-yard, three-touchdown effort. Jones eclipsed 200 yards for a third and final time in the 57-7 blowout at Stanford. “This was more of what I anticipate out of our football team,” Willingham said, later adding, “We’re getting closer to where I want to be.” A win at Syracuse would get the team to 6-6 and provide momentum to build on in the offseason for 2004. But in the last game of the season for both teams, the embarrassing tendencies from earlier games emerged again.The Orangemen ran all over the Irish gaining 247 yards and crushed the Irish 38-12. While the three previous blowout losses were to BCS teams, Syracuse only won six games in 2003 and had lost to Rutgers the week before.”It was just a bad day for us,” Jones said. For the Irish, it wasn’t only at Syracuse they didn’t play to their capabilities.Minus a few games in 2003, it was all season.