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FOOTBALL: Season plagued by inconsistency ends in disappointment

Pat Leonard | Thursday, May 12, 2005

In the 2004 season, time simply ran out on Tyrone Willing-ham.

After three seasons as head coach, Willingham became the first Notre Dame head football coach to be fired before his original contract expired.

Willingham led the Irish to a 6-6 record in his final season, earning some significant victories but also suffering several blowout losses.

Though Notre Dame bested No. 7 Michigan and No. 9 Tennessee, the Irish lost badly to Purdue (41-16), USC (41-10) and Oregon State (38-21).

“Usually what happens is the team that is most consistent makes a few more plays that given day than the other team, and they win,” Willingham said. “And in some cases, they make a lot more plays.”

Notre Dame was inconsistent from play to play and from game to game, beginning with a season-opening, 20-17 loss to BYU in Provo, Utah.

Irish quarterback Brady Quinn completed 26 of 47 passes for 265 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown screen pass to wide receiver Rhema McKnight. Quinn later finished the season with 2,586 yards passing and 17 touchdowns. The loss to BYU, however, set the tone for a rough, up-and-down season.

Notre Dame rebounded to roll over Michigan at home, 28-20. Freshman running back Darius Walker, one of a couple consistent bright spots for the team, ran for 115 yards on 31 carries and two touchdowns.

“Our guys did something significant, but it was still one win,” Willingham said following the game. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves. Tomorrow we have to start all over.”

The Irish remained levelheaded in disposing of Michigan State on the road the following week, 31-24. Notre Dame’s defense forced six turnovers, including a 75-yard fumble return by safety Tom Zbikowski. But the defense became the most serious area of concern throughout the year.

Though the Irish then dominated a struggling Washington squad, 38-3, the following week Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton lit up the Notre Dame secondary. Orton threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns, including a 97-yarder to wide receiver Taylor Stubblefield, who pumped his fist all the way down the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame gave up an average of 281.2 yards passing per game to its 2004 opponents, including a total of 23 touchdowns through the air.

The team earned wins in its next two games against Stanford and Navy, moving to a No. 24 national ranking, but on Oct. 23 Boston College humbled Notre Dame for the fourth consecutive season. Eagles quarterback Paul Peterson threw a 30-yard touchdown pass with 54 seconds remaining to top the Irish, 24-23.

Notre Dame never recovered.

The following week Willingham managed to rally the troops and steal a 17-13 win at Tennessee, but what then followed were a heartbreaking, 41-38 loss to Pittsburgh and an embarrassing, 41-10 blowout at the hands of rival USC.

Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko became the first quarterback to throw five touchdown passes against Notre Dame. USC quarterback Matt Leinart matched Palko’s touchdown total the next week, also throwing for a career-high 400 yards.

And though Notre Dame played Oregon State in the Dec. 29 Insight Bowl, Willingham’s time ran out on Nov. 30 when the University fired the head coach.

Notre Dame hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis on Dec. 12 and held a press conference the following day.

“We simply have not made the progress on the field that we need to make,” athletic director Kevin White said in an initial statement.

Meanwhile, whether players were pleased or disappointed with the move, the pervading sense surrounding the program called for a change of leadership.

“There’s so much talent here,” senior linebacker Derek Curry said. “There’s a lot of young guys who can do a lot of great things with the new system coming up. And I hope those guys really play like they can play. They’ll be fine.”