Why not another rebound for Irish?
Davie-led ND squad overcame two early losses to play in BCS in 2000
History and tradition can save a football season at Notre Dame.
It happened in 2000, so why not again this year?
Back then, the Irish were pretty good. They opened with a win over Texas A&M, then lost in overtime to top-ranked Nebraska.
More than just a game, Notre Dame lost its franchise quarterback (Arnaz Battle to a broken wrist) against the Cornhuskers.
Sound familiar? At least that year the franchise QB played in two games.
They had to piece together enough to beat Purdue (which eventually reached the Rose Bowl) by two on a Nick Setta field goal as time expired. Then, after coming back from a 20-7 deficit against Michigan State, the roof caved in with less than 2 minutes to play.
“The Michigan State game was the most devastating loss I’ve ever been involved with,” Bob Davie, the Irish head coach at the time, told The Tribune earlier this week. “We came back from 20-7, take the lead, we have (the Spartans) fourth-and-eight on the (MSU 32).”
During a timeout before the play, Davie changed defenses to keep Spartan quarterback Jeff Smoker from running. Michigan State flanker Herb Haygood caught a slant pass. The Notre Dame safety slipped, and Haygood went 68 yards for the touchdown.
“I can tell you exactly, word-for-word, the conversation we had on the headset,” said Davie, now the head coach at New Mexico. “I made the call to change the defense. When I saw our safety slip, I felt physically nauseated.”
That one play threatened everything. The trajectory of the season was teetering.
Two losses in September, without a conference championship to battle for, and with a national championship not in play anymore, there seemed little reason for motivation.
“To this day, I remember coach (Davie) saying, ‘You’re wearing that helmet for everyone in that huddle; you’re also wearing it for everyone who has ever played at Notre Dame,’” said Shane Walton, a junior cornerback on that team. “You go to Notre Dame for a reason. You realize that the program is bigger than yourself. You realize that it isn’t about you.
“It took a collective effort to right the ship. It wasn’t like one or two guys were the leaders. Everyone had to step up their game. When we lost Arnaz, it was a huge blow.”
“Once you put the helmet on, it goes without saying: You’re there to serve Notre Dame,” said tight end and co-captain Dan O’Leary. “You’re part of a large family.
“You put in so much time, so much work; you don’t want to let anyone in the immediate family down.”
“That deep-down desire kept us from packing it in,” said defensive lineman and co-captain Grant Irons. “We’d wake up (in the offseason) at 5:30 (a.m.) and run the stadium stairs. We worked too hard to give up.
“We tapped into what drives us. We wanted to do it for each other; for the love of Notre Dame.”
Davie and his staff, which included offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers and receivers coach Urban Meyer, first tried
converted tight end Gary Godsey under center, then turned to freshman Matt Lovecchio, who wasn’t flashy, was pretty smart, but didn’t turn the ball over.
OK, the turnover part isn’t familiar.
Anyway, the Irish stubbornly refused to quit. They ran the table with wins over Stanford, Navy, West Virginia, Air Force, Boston College, Rutgers and Southern Cal.
Notre Dame’s 9-2 record set up a BCS pairing against Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. The magic ran out by then as the Irish lost, 41-9.
But still, a team that could have quit before that first game in October didn’t.
That’s the challenge facing Notre Dame Saturday when it meets Arizona State.
“After the loss to Michigan State, I remember it clearly,” said O’Leary. “We were still fired up. We wouldn’t let it happen again. That was a turning point for us. We were determined not to let anyone take (the season) away from us.”
“I wish I had a magic formula,” Davie said. “Every week is unique. Each team is different; each week there’s a different challenge.
“We couldn’t sit there and think about the big picture. We had to figure what we could do each week to get through November.
“After (the Michigan State loss), no doubt we were at a crossroads. There’s a morgue-like presence that permeates through the campus and the city when the team loses. There’s no way for the players to be able to hide from it. You always had to deal with it.”
Some things don’t change. Besides enduring a public outrage over his players not singing the alma mater after a loss, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has been charged with finding the glue to keep a crumbling season together.
“These guys have been together for four years, and it’s the constant day-in-and-day-out relationships, everybody knows what’s expected, everybody knows what to do on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “When you’re talking about a program that has won a lot of football games over the last couple years, they just want to go out and play better football. I mean, that’s really their goal.
“It’s interesting, and we talked a little bit about this: They’re not walking around campus flashing their 12-0 rings (last year’s undefeated regular season). They don’t have a 12-0 ring. They’re not wearing a conference championship ring. They have an immense amount of pride in what they accomplished by playing so well and winning games that what drives them is winning, and they want to win. They want to win football games, and they want to play good football week-in and week-out.
“So what drives them, what the glue is, is for them to go out, prepare and play good football week-in and week-out, not what the destination is for one (bowl) game, right? Not whether they play (a bowl game) in Florida or Texas. It’s taking that week of preparation and going out on a Saturday and playing really well and the satisfaction of doing that and having it all come together.”
When Kelly attacks a problem, he keeps it in the “here and now.” Intangibles, like history and tradition, count for something, but X’s and O’s don’t lie. Intangibles are the gray area. Kelly is more comfortable dealing in black-and-white.
Still, there’s something to be said for that gray area.
“I felt the uniqueness of Notre Dame,” Davie said. “There were little issues that were a pain in the butt when I was there: Are the players singing (the alma mater) after the game? Were some players’ socks too low that someone wrote in and complained?
“The thing about Notre Dame, so many people care about those things. That’s what makes the place special.
“When I was at Notre Dame, I learned to embrace the past. I felt we had a responsibility to each other and to everyone who came before us. That’s why Notre Dame is Notre Dame.”
“It’s different at Notre Dame,” said Walton. “The offseason, the summer, the mentality is that all the work you’re putting in is directed at winning the national championship. When you lose early, everything that you’ve worked for goes out the window.
“That season was a great experience for life: Even if you do well, something bad could happen. Then, the important thing is how you respond to that.
“The difficult part was that we got shocked back to reality in the bowl game. It’s then when we came to the conclusion that it was going to take more work (to get the program in shape).”
“Playing for the guys who came before us was always a theme,” Irons said. “They paved the way for us.
“After the losses, we learned from our mistakes. We re-committed ourselves. We played with our hearts. We played for the love of the game.
“We relied on our fans a lot. They carried us through some tough times. We believed in each other and (our fans) believed in us. We gained strength from that.
“We focused on being in the moment. We didn’t look ahead. Our focus was on each game.”
That focus was fantastic. Even a crummy performance in the bowl game couldn’t take the luster off the resurrection.
“The expectations we had for that season were so high,” Davie said. “That was something else we had to deal with it.
“The (bowl) game against Oregon State might have exposed some problems we had, but, the season in general, after such a tough start, was remarkable.”
“After the way the season ended, it was tough to say it was a positive year,” Walton said. “Ending the way it did was difficult.
“In terms of wins and losses, it was a good season. But the loss going out really hurt.”
“Even after the Fiesta Bowl (loss), I was proud of that year,” O’Leary said. “Hey, we got to the BCS. We beat some good teams along the way. We accomplished a lot. We were able to grow in the right direction.”
Two September losses didn’t hold that team back.
Everyone who had worn a helmet before or since should have been proud.
The 2000 team carved its own bit of history.
Now’s the chance for Kelly and his crew.