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Football: High Hopes

Ken Fowler | Friday, May 18, 2007

For Charlie Weis, 9-3 wasn’t going to be good enough in 2006. But a year after reinvigorating the program and cracking into the BCS before a blowout loss to Ohio State, Weis’ squad with talent-laden seniors on offense finished with only one more win and suffered just as many losses in the coach’s second season with the Irish.

The season began with expectations higher than they had been in more than a decade for a program looking to reclaim its place among the perennial elite – a status lost since 1993 to schools like Michigan, Southern California and Louisiana State. But those three schools stood in the way of Notre Dame’s dream season, delivering crippling blows to a team whose vaunted offense sputtered badly at times and whose vulnerable defense could not nearly make up for scoring deficiencies.

But that wasn’t how the season started.

Indeed, the Irish offense looked sluggish and rusty on a muggy Atlanta night against Georgia Tech to start the season. Notre Dame scored only 14 points, but a second-half defensive shutout led to an emotional 14-10 win in hostile Bobby Dodd Stadium.

After a highly efficient 41-17 victory over Penn State in the home opener, the Irish were devastated in Notre Dame Stadium by Michigan. Senior quarterback Brady Quinn, widely considered the preseason front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, threw three interceptions while completing just 50 percent of his passes for fewer than five yards per attempt. In the ensuing romp, the Wolverines took a 34-7 lead with 2:30 left in the first half before closing out the Irish 47-21.

A week later, with the season seeming to unravel for the Irish, Quinn led the team’s largest fourth-quarter comeback in nearly 25 years during a downpour in East Lansing, Mich., against the always unpredictable Michigan State Spartans.

Down 17-0 at the end of the first period and 37-21 after three quarters, Notre Dame fought back and avenged its overtime loss to the Spartans a year earlier. Quinn threw for 319 yards and five touchdowns, and junior cornerback Terrail Lambert returned an interception 27 yards with 2:53 remaining to give Notre Dame a 40-37 lead.

Lambert sealed the win with a second interception at the Notre Dame 27-yard line with 14 remaining.

After easy wins over Purdue and Stanford, Notre Dame once again created fourth-quarter magic, this time against UCLA. Down by four points with 1:02 remaining, the Irish forced a Bruins punt and took over at the 20 after a touchback.

The steely Quinn made the 80-yard drive look simple.

Quinn found senior receiver Jeff Samardzija along the right sideline for a gain of 21 yards on the first play. The senior quarterback with nearly a half-dozen fourth-quarter comebacks in his career then found Irish sophomore David Grimes – who had a career-high eight catches for 79 yards – on the same side of the field for 14 more at the UCLA 45.

A play later, Quinn pumped once, rolled right, and threw to his favorite receiver, once again. The lanky Samardzija contorted his legs away from UCLA safety Dennis Keyes 20 yards from the goal line, sprinted to the end zone and reached across the plane for the win with 27 seconds left in the contest.

Notre Dame’s slim hopes at a national title were still alive.

They would remain that way for weeks, as Notre Dame captured four more easy wins – over Navy, North Carolina, Air Force and Army.

“I don’t think we would be content to end up 10 and 3,” Weis said after Notre Dame’s win over Army put the Irish at 10-1 with Southern California and the bowl game to come. “I don’t think we would be content now. I know we’re one game better, but we still have two more big games.”

Those two big games became two big losses.

In each of Notre Dame’s final two games, the offense struggled early and the defense failed to keep the game close.

The Trojans took a 21-3 lead less than four minutes into the second quarter after USC quarterback John David Booty took a quarterback sneak 1 yard for an easy score. Booty threw two touchdowns to senior standout Dwayne Jarrett, who torched the Irish for a second straight season.

Notre Dame’s late comeback attempt fell short, but the Irish, then 10-2, earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl against Louisiana State, which had an identical record, with losses to eventual national champion Florida and Auburn – who each finished 11-2.

The matchup proved too much for the Irish.

Behind the strong arm of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Louisiana State rolled all over the Irish.

After a competitive first half, LSU pounded Notre Dame in the second with suffocating defense and a persistent, efficient offense. The Irish trailed just 21-14 after two periods, but the Tigers defense bore down in the third and fourth quarters, and a flat Notre Dame team never showed signs of coming back. The result was a 333-to-30 advantage in second-half yards for the Tigers and a second straight BCS blowout loss for the Irish.

“Obviously, it was a team effort,” Irish quarterback Brady Quinn said after his final collegiate game. “We really weren’t converting on third down, making plays when we had the opportunity, and really, when you look at it, we weren’t productive.”

In the days after the game, Weis announced defensive coordinator Rick Minter would not be retained, and neither would quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas. He replaced Minter with Corwin Brown, a young secondary coach for the New York Jets, and Vaas with former Irish signal-caller Ron Powlus.

Despite the loss, the Irish have remained productive on the recruiting front. Notre Dame signed a top-10 class, headlined by coveted quarterback Jimmy Clausen on national signing day in February. Clausen, who enrolled as an early-entrant in January, was the only quarterback to finish April’s Blue-Gold Game without a fumble or an interception, and with Weis’ emphasis on limiting mistakes, he has a strong chance at earning one of two spots to compete for the 2007 starting job come August.

Recruiting for the class to sign next February has taken an even quicker pace. The Irish have landed verbal commitments from a dozen players nationwide, most prominently on the defensive side of the ball.