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Football: A mighty fall

Jay Fitzpatrick | Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Notre Dame’s 2007 season was a record-setting one, just not with the kind of records fans want.

The Irish started the season 0-5 – the worst start in team history – before finally beating UCLA on Oct. 6.

They lost to 38-0 to both Michigan and USC – the largest shut-out margins in the histories of the two rivalries.

They lost 46-44 in triple overtime to Navy – Notre Dame’s first loss to the Midshipmen since Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Roger Staubach beat the Irish 43 years ago.

They lost seven consecutive games dating back to last season, the longest skid in Notre Dame history.

The offensive line allowed 58 sacks last season – the most since the NCAA began recording the stat.

The nine losses were the most ever for an Irish squad.

The team’s ineptitude started during the first week 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech on Sept. 1. Irish coach Charlie Weis played three different quarterbacks during the loss, starting with the dual-threat Demetrius Jones in a spread offense. Weis had met with former West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez over the summer to discuss the spread, which worked well against the Yellow Jackets in the Mountaineers’ Gator Bowl win the year before.

Unfortunately, Jones fumbled twice and carried 12 times for only 28 yards in the first half before Evan Sharpley – Weis’ two-minute specialist – came in at the end of the first half.

“We thought that going against Georgia Tech, especially with our experience level, we thought that the best way to go against them was to run the football,” Weis said in his post game news conference after the loss. “And we felt that Demetrius as an additional runner could provide us some plays where we would be able to move the ball.”

Sharpley threw the ball better (10-for-13 for 92 yards), but was sacked seven times before being benched for freshman Jimmy Clausen.

Unfortunately for the Irish, this quarterback carousel continued all season, with Clausen taking the starting reins during the team’s second game at Penn State. The Irish offense sputtered again, only putting up a field goal in the team’s 31-10 loss. (Cornerback Darrin Walls returned an interception in the first half for the only touchdown).

Notre Dame continued to struggle offensively the next game against Michigan, after which Weis said he was going to reset how he would run the team for the rest of the season.

“We’re starting training camp tomorrow. The team is heading in the wrong direction and when your team is heading in the wrong direction there is only one way I know to fix it; to come out swinging,” Weis said after the Michigan loss.

The training camp mentality helped a little for the Irish in their next game against Michigan State, when the team scored its first offensive touchdown. Running back Travis Thomas pounded the ball in from the 1-yard line after a Spartan fumble gave the Irish the ball at the Michigan State 9-yard line.

Freshman Robert Hughes also gave the Irish positive rushing yards for the first time all season with a 104-yard performance.

Despite the progress made against Michigan State, the Irish faltered again the next week at Purdue. Also, the quarterback controversy again came to the forefront after Sharpley replaced Clausen and went 18-of-26 passing with two touchdowns and an interception.

But after all the losing, things started looking up against UCLA – the team’s first win.

The Bruins entered the game with their starting quarterback, Patrick Cowan, out with an injury. In the first half, defensive end Trevor Laws and safety Tom Zbikowski combined to sack the second-string signal caller, Ben Olsen, and knocked him out of the game.

That left the Irish to deal with walk-on quarterback, MacLeod Bethel-Thompson, for the remainder of the game. Behind middle linebacker Maurice Crum’s big day (seven tackles, one sack, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and a touchdown), the Irish notched their first win of the season.

“I was hurting the first five games, but I could get used to this feeling,” Laws said after the win.

The feeling didn’t last long, and the Irish quickly found themselves in another long losing skid, this time four games.

The Irish lost back-to-back home games to rivals Boston College and Southern Cal before getting a chance to right the ship against Navy.

The score stayed close throughout the game, and remained tied late. With a chance at a 41-yard field goal to win the game, Weis instead opted to go for the first down on a fourth-and-eight. Navy linebacker Chris Kuhar-Pitters leapt over Irish running back Armando Allen to sack Sharpley, ending the Irish drive.

Irish kicker Brandon Walker had missed a 40-yarder in the third quarter and Weis said he was not confident Walker could make this kick.

“It was going against the wind and in practice, he couldn’t make it from there. That’s why we didn’t kick it from there. That was a pretty simple one. We had a position on the field that we had to get to going into the wind. And we hadn’t gotten there yet,” he said.

During the overtime periods, the teams matched each other score for score, with each getting a touchdown in the first and a field goal in the second.

Navy’s offense took the field first in the third overtime, which ended with a touchdown pass on the first play of the period from quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada to running back Reggie Campbell. The Irish responded with a Travis Thomas 5-yard run for the touchdown. After a pass interference call on the first attempt at the two-point conversion to force a third overtime, Thomas was stuffed trying to pound the ball in from the one-yard line.

Weis said after the Navy game that ending the 43-game winning streak never entered his mind.

“The streak they are worrying about is how many games how many games they lost on the road, at home. That’s what they are worrying about. How many games we played since UCLA when last we won. That’s what they are worrying about. They are worrying about the here and now,” he said in the post game news conference. “These kids are 17. Do you think they’re worrying about 43 years? They are worrying about right now. They would like to beat Air Force. I think that’s the streak they would like to beat on.”

After losing to Air Force 41-24 the next week, the Irish finally got a home win on Senior Day against Duke, winning 28-7. The Irish offense struggled for most of the first half, but then exploded for two scores in the last 1:17 – both Jimmy Clausen touchdown passes, one each to wide receivers David Grimes and Duval Kumara.

“What was the difference [between this game and earlier games]? Playing good, knowing that, you know, we have one more chance out on the Notre Dame field and going out, making plays with my friends, getting a ‘W’ at home, finally, this season,” Laws said after the game about getting a home win.

The Irish closed out the season with a second straight win, this time a 28-14 win at Stanford.

Despite the atrocious season, Notre Dame landed one of the top recruiting classes in the country, ranking No. 2 according to the recruiting Web site scout.com.

The Irish had top-five recruits at multiple positions, including quarterback Dayne Crist, wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Overall, Notre Dame landed 23 recruits, including seven in the scout.com top 100, tied for fourth behind Ohio State (nine), USC and Oklahoma (eight each).

Even though next year’s recruiting class is signed, the Irish have already gotten started on the 2009 recruiting class. After this year’s Blue-Gold game, five-star running back Cierre Wood and four star defensive lineman Tyler Stockton committed to Notre Dame. Four days after Wood announced his commitment, four-star running back Theo Riddick also committed to Notre Dame.