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FOOTBALL: BCS slots Irish into Fiesta Bowl

Heather VanHoegarden | Monday, December 5, 2005

One year after a 6-6 season ended the tenure of former coach Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame has earned a trip to a BCS bowl under first-year head coach Charlie Weis and staff.

No. 5 Notre Dame faces No. 4 Ohio State in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., it was announced Sunday evening. The site is close to where the Irish played last year when they lost 38-21 to Oregon State in the Insight Bowl, played at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. The team at the time, coached by defensive coordinator Kent Baer, said it was playing for Willingham, who was fired Nov. 30, 2004, just two days after the Irish had accepted the bowl bid. But this year’s bowl game and Notre Dame team is very different from the one of a year ago.

“I smile a lot more,” Irish co-captain and fifth year senior Brandon Hoyte said of this season. “For me as a fifth-year senior, for our fifth-year seniors who have no eligibility left, it gives us a chance to go out on top and feel as if we’ve left a mark on the Notre Dame program, to leave it in the right hands.”

This time around, the stakes are much higher for the Irish, as Notre Dame is to play in its first BCS bowl game in five years following a 9-2 regular season, compared to last year’s 6-5 finish before the loss in the Insight Bowl.

“We as a team realize where we came from and where we are now,” Hoyte said Sunday evening after the pairings were announced. “I think its something that you gotta definitely hold onto and use that as motivation.”

Notre Dame, which became BCS-eligible with its ninth win on Nov. 26 at Stanford, moved up to sixth in the BCS after Saturday’s games, earning an automatic at-large bid. Ohio State (9-2) earned the bid after finishing fourth in the final BCS standings, earning an automatic spot. No. 6 Oregon was squeezed out of the BCS picture, despite finishing fifth in the BCS standings with a 10-1 record. However, since both the Buckeyes and the Irish moved into the top six in the BCS, both teams were guaranteed a BCS bid, leaving the Ducks to play in the Holiday Bowl, where they will face Oklahoma.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said Sunday his team was looking forward to playing the Irish, having a chance to watch them on tape against Michigan and Michigan State, two of Ohio State’s opponents this season.

“It was fun watching and learning and studying them,” Tressel said. “They’re just a great football team – well-schooled, and it will be exciting to play against them.”

And Weis says though his team has come a long way, the Buckeyes, who have lost to only two BCS teams – Penn State (Orange Bowl vs. Florida State) and Texas (Rose Bowl for the national championship vs. USC) – will present a challenge.

“I think that the fact that they got picked as one of the top eight teams in the country is a very rewarding feeling for those players,” Weis said of his team Sunday night. “They certainly have come a long way from walking off the field last year and ending up 6-6. But I do know that as rewarding as this year has been, they realize they have a formidable opponent ahead of them. And it’s going to be a tough task.”

For Notre Dame quarterback and co-captain Brady Quinn, a native of Dublin, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, the matchup holds special meaning.

“It was more or less an ideal situation,” Quinn said. “Playing in a bowl game out there in the Fiesta Bowl against a team I always grew up watching, basically in my backyard.”

The last time Notre Dame won a bowl game was also the last time the Irish finished the regular season in the top five in the polls.

In 1993, the Irish finished No. 4 with a 10-1 record and then went on to defeat No. 7 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, finishing the season as the No. 2 team behind Florida State, who they beat earlier that season 31-24, before losing to Boston College in the final game of the regular season. But since then, the Irish have lost seven straight bowl games.

The Irish lost in the Fiesta Bowl to end the 2000 and 1994 seasons, the Orange Bowl to end the 1995 season and the Independence Bowl to end the 1997 season. Most recently, the Irish lost the Gator Bowl to end the 1998 and 2002 seasons and the Insight Bowl at the end of last season. But both Irish captains are ready for that streak to end.

“I think it’s something that’s a motivational factor,” Hoyte said. “Just to be able to for me personally to leave this program the way it should be and make sure Notre Dame stays on top through my tenure.”

Quinn smiled at the question, knowing the answer immediately.

“That’s something that obviously needs to end,” Quinn said of the losing bowl record. “It’s something that’s gone on far too long and we’re working toward that as one of our goals, ending that streak. “