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Eight aching losses

Mike Gilloon | Tuesday, December 12, 2006

It might have all started before one of Notre Dame’s last bowl victories. Over a decade ago.

Lou Holtz’ Irish were preparing to face Florida in the 1992 Sugar Bowl, when a waiter in a New Orleans restaurant told the feisty former Notre Dame coach a joke.

“What’s the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios?” the waiter asked. “Cheerios belong in a bowl.”

Only Holtz and the waiter know if that’s true. Still, Holtz used the story to motivate Notre Dame as the then-No. 18 Irish went on to upset the No. 3 Gators 39-28 behind 150 rushing yards and three touchdowns from Jerome Bettis.

But Notre Dame’s postseason performances of the last 12 years have shown that that New Orleans waiter might have been correct.

Entering next January’s Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame has lost an NCAA-record eight consecutive bowl games.

And the program hasn’t come within two touchdowns of a win since the 1999 Gator Bowl against Georgia Tech, when Bob Davie’s Irish fell 35-28 to George O’Leary’s Yellow Jackets.

Since Notre Dame’s last bowl victory – a 24-21 triumph over Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl – the Irish have been outscored by an average of 34-18.

They have been outrushed by an average of 172-113 and have turned the ball over 12 times while forcing just six in eight games.

The University has hired four head football coaches since that victory over the Aggies.

The Irish quarterback who led Notre Dame past Texas A&M on Jan. 1, 1994 was Kevin McDougal, who gave up Arena League football in 2002 and now lives and works in Florida.

The run has included three Fiesta Bowl flops, two Gator Bowl losses and defeats in the Orange, Independence and Insight Bowls.

Bottom line?

Beside the pleasant winter weather, Notre Dame’s recent bowl history is anything but sunny.

“We want to win a bowl game”

Just nine years old when Notre Dame last won a bowl game, Tom Zbikowski isn’t too concerned about his school’s postseason past.

Only when the media fills the down time between the last Irish regular season game and the bowl with questions about when Notre Dame will stop its near-historic streak does the Irish strong safety get annoyed.

“We want to win a bowl game and we want to stop answering questions about Notre Dame not being able to win a bowl game,” he said.

If the Irish force the media to stop asking about the streak, Notre Dame will have something more important than peace and quiet as it heads into the off-season – momentum.

After two of Notre Dame’s eight recent bowl defeats, the Irish have opened the season with a loss.

Whether that’s directly due to the bowl game performance isn’t for sure. The Irish did defeat defending national champion Michigan 36-20 in the 1998 opener, eight months after they were crushed by LSU in the Independence Bowl.

Still, a win could never hurt. And that’ll happen if Notre Dame can figure out a way to upset LSU on January 3.

The Tigers, fourth in the regular season’s final BCS standings, only lost to Florida and Auburn (both on the road) this season while rushing for 159 yards a game. On top of that, Tigers quarterback JaMarcus Russell has completed over 68 percent of his passes for 2,797 yards with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26-to-7. Meanwhile, LSU’s pass defense is No. 3 in the nation – surrendering only nine touchdowns while grabbing 14 interceptions.

Those statistics aren’t lost on Irish coach Charlie Weis.

“Having seen nothing more than LSU on T.V. at night,” Weis said after the Sugar Bowl pairing was announced, “they play with great passion and great emotion.”

With good reason, no one seems to think the Irish can upset the Tigers. The LSU athletics Web site even lists Notre Dame as unranked. (In fact, the Irish finished No. 10 in the final regular season BCS standings).

And just in case you thought Weis’ job couldn’t be any tougher, the game will be played in New Orleans – 80 miles from LSU’s campus.

“When you’re playing a team the caliber of LSU, the first thing that comes to mind is making sure our players are ready for the speed of the game,” Weis said. “If you’re not ready for that, it’s going to be a long night.”

Higher ground

No matter how talented the Tigers are, history shows that if Notre Dame runs the football and controls the line of scrimmage against LSU, the Irish have a shot at ending the country’s longest bowl losing streak.

But that’s a big if.

In five of Notre Dame’s losses during the streak, the Irish have been outrushed.

That statistic looks worse when recalling the 2005 Insight Bowl, when Notre Dame outgained Oregon State 59-20 on the ground but allowed Beavers quarterback Derek Anderson to pass for 345 yards and four touchdowns.

Notre Dame hasn’t dominated the line of scrimmage this season. The squad averages just 3.8 yards per rush and the offensive line has allowed Quinn to get sacked 30 times.

That must change if Notre Dame hopes to top the Tigers next month.

But if Notre Dame can find a way to run past LSU, Zbikowski and the Irish can finally stop worrying about the dreaded streak.

For now, they will just have to answer the questions and prepare for the game. Certainly everyone will be watching – even Holtz and his waiter.