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Irish Surprise: 2005

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.

Quarterback Brady Quinn directed a prolific attack for the top-10 Irish in 2005.

Can the Irish get out of their funk in 2012 and break the spell? At least 10 other Notre Dame teams did. Our criteria include, 1) how long has the program been slumping? 2) how much did it struggle a year earlier? And 3) how dramatic was the turnaround season? At No. 6 is 2005.

Previous Year(s)
On Nov. 30, 2004, third-year Notre Dame head coach Ty Willingham, once billed “The Savior of South Bend,” was fired for at least three reasons.

One was that he was 13-15 in his last 28 contests, including three straight 31-point losses to USC, three consecutive “snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws of-victory” setbacks to Boston College, and an alarming rate of blowout losses, including 41-16 to Purdue in 2004, the Boilermakers’ first victory at Notre Dame in 30 years.

Two was recruiting. The 17-man haul in 2004 was the lowest-ranked group in school history, and the 2005 harvest (which would end up with only 15 players) seemed to be on a similar, if not worse, trajectory.

But third, and maybe most significant of all, rising superstar coach Urban Meyer of Utah appeared to be there for the taking. Meyer was an assistant at Notre Dame from 1996-2000, had the famous Notre Dame clause in his contract — just like Frank Leahy and Lou Holtz — and had directed the Utes to an 11-0 regular season (soon to be 12-0 after the Fiesta Bowl). The mandate was made clear to Irish athletics director Kevin White: Go get Meyer!

One problem: Notre Dame was a day late and a dollar short again. Florida had already been wooing Meyer, and the reality soon hit home about how the Notre Dame job wasn’t as attractive as it used to be. Florida had the fertile recruiting territory, less restrictions, warm climate … while Notre Dame was a vanishing flower in football, surviving mainly on its past perfume.

Huge backlash hit the Notre Dame program, most notably accusations from national media of racism for not giving black coach Willingham the same five-year window of predecessors such as Bob Davie (1997-2001), Gerry Faust (1981-85) and Terry Brennan (1954-58).

Notre Dame was the job no one in the collegiate ranks seemed attracted to anymore, so it had to resort to pare down the field to a couple of alumni who
were NFL assistants: Irish hero Tom Clements (the 1972-74 quarterback) and Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator for Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots who were on the cusp of winning their third Super Bowl in four years.

Weis was handed the reins to a program that was 56-41 the past eight years and had failed to finish in the top 10 a record 11 straight seasons (the previous school record was seven).

Another .500 record seemed to be on the horizon in 2005. ESPN analysts projected a 1-5 (maybe even 0-6) start. The first six games were at Big East champ Pitt, at No. 3 Michigan, Michigan State, which had won six of the last eight versus the Irish, the “Ty Bowl” at Washington, at Purdue — ranked No. 1 by the Orlando Sentinel — and No. 1 USC.

Four of the first five games were on the road, and then the Irish also had to face USC, BYU, which upset Notre Dame the previous year, and Tennessee, favored to win the SEC. The over-under for 2005 wins was set at 6.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
Weis made history when he became the first Notre Dame coach ever to defeat two ranked teams in his first two games: 42-21 at Pitt, followed by the 17-10 upset of the third-ranked Wolverines.

His name is already linked with Knute Rockne’s when it is publicized that he is the first Irish coach since the Rock in 1918 to open 2-0 while winning on the opponents’ on-campus sites. Yet perhaps no coach in Notre Dame history received more veneration in defeat than when the Irish lost in controversial fashion to No. 1 and defending two-time national champ USC, 34-31. A couple of weeks later, Weis signed a 10-year extension through 2015 seven games (5-2) into his career.

His pro-style influence maximized the talents of veterans such as quarterback Brady Quinn, wideouts Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall, and tight end Anthony Fasano. Quinn would finish in the top 5 in the Heisman balloting by shattering Irish passing records with 3,919 yards through the air, a .649 completion percentage, and 32 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions.

Samardzija and Stovall combined for 146 receptions and 26 touchdowns, and they averaged 16.2 and 16.7 yards per catch, respectively. Samardzija earned consensus All-America notice while third-round pick Stovall caught more passes(69) under Weis than in his first three years combined. Senior tight end Fasano (47 catches) became a second-round selection, and sophomore Darius Walker rushed for 1,196 yards and 4.7 yards per carry to keep defenses in check.

The Irish averaged a near school record 36.7 points per game, and became the first to score at least 30 points in nine straight games. Defensively, Notre Dame was adequate and led by Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri along the line, linebackers Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays, and safety Tom Zbikowski. If only Justin Tuck had returned for a fifth year, he might have made the difference in the overtime loss to Michigan State and the heartbreak versus USC.

The 9-2 Irish were ranked No. 5 and accepted a BCS bid to play No. 4 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame was dominated statistically in the 34-20 defeat, but was within one score with about four minutes left before the Buckeyes converted a third-and-long and followed with a touchdown.

Still, for the first time in 12 years (and the only time in the last 18), Notre Dame finished in the top 10 (No. 9) of the AP poll, and a new Messiah Coach seemed to be discovered.

Similar to predecessor Willingham, Weis was the recipient of some national “Coach of the Year” awards with his inaugural campaign, and the cycle of rhetoric began anew.

“This time, Notre Dame finally got it right with its hire.”

“Weis gets Notre Dame — he truly gets it.”

“Our glory days are back.”

Indeed, the Irish were a popular 2006 pre-season selection to finish No. 1 with a vast majority of the 2005 team back, and Weis was in the process of completing a 28-man recruiting haul he labeled “a killer class.”

But whereas an Co. did a fine job of polishing up a veteran unit in 2005 and 2006, the development of younger talent and building a defense was not there. In his final three seasons, Weis was 16-21, similar to the four-year mark of Joe Kuharich from 1959-62.

When all was said and done, Weis averaged seven wins per season (35-27), just like Willingham (21-15) an d Davie (35-25).

Another manufactured “Return to Glory” theme sadly fell by the wayside.

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