Editor’s Note: Over the past five seasons, Notre Dame is 32-31, has tied the school record for most consecutive seasons with at least five losses (five) and is one short of tying the school record of six straight seasons not finishing in the top 25.
Freshman quarterback Matt LoVecchio (10) and the Irish offense committed an NCAA record-low eight turnovers in 2000.
Can the Irish get out of their funk in 2012 and break the spell? At least 10 other Notre Dame teams did in the past. Our criteria include, 1) how long had the program been slumping? 2) how much did it struggle a year earlier? And 3) how dramatic was the turnaround season? At No. 10 is 2000.
Entering his fourth season, head coach Bob Davie was 21-16 and coming off a miserable 5-7 campaign in the crucial third season in which the Irish lost their final four games for the first time since 1963.
Another finish out of the top-25 was projected in 2000 for at least four reasons:
• Record-setting quarterback Jarious Jackson had graduated. His three fourth-quarter heroics in 1999 during victories against Oklahoma (34-30), USC (25-24) and Navy (28-24) prevented a potential 2-10 finish.
• The 1999 Irish defense surrendered a school record 331 points — and an average of 36.5 points per game to close the season in losses to Tennessee (14-38), Pitt (27-37), Boston College (29-31) and Stanford (37-40).
• The 2000 schedule was onerous, with the first four games against No. 23 Texas A&M, No. 1 Nebraska, that year’s Big Ten champ Purdue, led by quarterback Drew Brees, and a Michigan State team that was coming off a 10-2 campaign and No. 7 finish.
• Davie was on the hot seat, especially with a new athletics director (Kevin White) hired that April.
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
The Irish started 2-2, losing to top-ranked Nebraska in overtime and in the closing minute at Michigan State on a 4th-and-long play.
However, despite losing starting quarterback Arnaz Battle to a season-ending injury by the third game, inserting former tight end Gary Godsey at QB in the victory against Purdue, and naming the less heralded freshman Matt LoVecchio as the permanent starter over more publicized classmate Carlyle Holiday in the final seven games, the Irish ran the regular season table thereafter, capped by an impressive 38-21 win at USC.
Special teams, led by return man Joey Getherall, playmaker Glenn Earl and kicker Nicholas Setta, were sensational all season. The scoring defense improved from 78th to 34th (despite losing captain/defensive end Grant Irons in the second game). Most remarkable of all, Notre Dame set an NCAA record for fewest turnovers during an 11-game season with just eight even though it had a freshman at the throttle.
LoVecchio was masterfully efficient, throwing 11 touchdown passes to only one interception. He also rushed for 300 yards while executing the read option employed by offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers.
With the 9-2 regular season and No. 10 finish, the Irish received a BCS bid to play 10-1 and No. 5 Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl — and Davie received a five-year extension from White to coach through the 2005 season.
From unranked and 5-7 to No. 10, 9-2 and a BCS bid, this qualifies as a “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!” in the immortal words of actor Jim Nabors as Marine Gomer Pyle.
Unfortunately, there is more to a season than just the regular season, which brings us to...
It was fun while it lasted.
The Irish were drubbed 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl, Davie was axed at the end of the next season after posting a 5-6 record, and LoVecchio lost his starting job , resulting in his transfer to Indiana University in 2002.
The 2000 team was a couple of plays from finishing 11-0 in the regular season, but also two plays away from being 7-4, which goes to show the thin line that exists in athletic competition.
Likewise, Davie went from the hot seat, to Coach of the Year candidate, to unemployment during the three-year span from 1999-2001. His program had fine growth spurts with an eight-game winning streak in 1998 and seven straight in 2000, but it could never quite achieve the year to year consistency or excellence that is the bedrock of premier programs.