Friday, August 9, 2013

ND's Darkest Opening Days: Will Lightning Strike Again?

The only thing that counters the end of summer blues is that football season is around the corner and, as of this posting, we're only 420 hours away from Notre Dame kicking off in South Bend against Temple.

But before you say "Temple, who?," assume an easy win, and begin to think across the golden arch of Notre Dame's 125 year history, consider the contrast between the first century of the program and its recent record on opening day:  Through its first 97 years, the Irish lost only 8 openers. In the past 28 years, they've lost 8 more.

Here's a look back at the worst opening week losses in recent history and an analysis of whether lightning will strike the Irish again, against the unlikeliest opponent.

1984 - Purdue 23 @ Notre Dame 21 (Hoosier Dome)

The #8 Irish planned to christen the newly-opened Hoosier Dome with a blowout following their 52-6 romp of the Boilermakers the year before. Purdue quarterback Jim Everett had other plans, tossing a pair of touchdowns and finishing the game 20 of 28 for 255 yards.  A late Allen Pinkett score cut Purdue's lead to two with 4:21 remaining, but the Boilermaker held off the Irish to snap a two-game losing streak to Notre Dame.

The Irish would drop out of the top 25 and fail to beat a team that finished the season ranked.

1985 - Notre Dame 12 @ Michigan 20  // 1986  - Michigan 24 @ Notre Dame 23

Back-to-back losses to the Wolverines in polar-opposite games.  The first - marking the beginning of the end for Gerry Faust - saw the Irish unable to score a touchdown. Bo Schembechler remarked after the game that he "expected much more from the Irish." The Wolverines went on to finish 10-1-1 and #2 in the nation (only losing a mid-season thriller to Iowa).

Similar to the Notre Dame/South Florida game 25 years later, the Irish did everything but win the next matchup against the Wolverines.  In Lou Holtz's first game, the Irish never punted and put up 455 yards of offense, but they also coughed up the ball several times deep in Michigan territory.  The game came down to the foot of John Carney, but unlike Harry Oliver in 1980, his kick was wide.  Notre dame would finish the season 5-6.  

1995 - Northwestern 17 @ Notre Dame 15
Ah, the footwork of Ron Powlus in clutch situations.

After a 3-7-1 season in 1994, the Wildcats were at 28 point underdogs heading into South Bend, hadn't beaten the Irish since 1962, and hadn't won a season opener since 1975. Notre Dame hadn't lost one since 1986 and with Holtz sitting on win 199, was ranked #9 in the country.

In what was "akin to Appalachian State beating Michigan," according to Sports Illustrated, Darnell Autry rushed for 160 yards on 33 carries and Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats sacked Powlus four times en route to the 17-15 upset.  The game was best encapsulated by SI the following week:
The 59,075 congregated in the sun-washed stadium watched Holtz's team flounder about with an inept pass rush and hapless pass protection, woeful work on special teams and a curious failure of confidence—and they responded in kind. Once, Notre Dame safety LaRon Moore turned to the student body and pumped his arms furiously, urging the fans to come alive. They barely moved. They couldn't believe what they were watching.
With the loss, Notre Dame had posted a 7-7-1 record since beating #1 Florida State in 1993. Meanwhile, north of Chicago, Northwestern would march unbeaten (8-0) through the Big Ten to their first Rose Bowl in nearly 50 years. On their way, the Wildcats beat Michigan for the first time since 1965 and Iowa for the first time since 1973.

It was the universities last meeting for nearly two decades, as they will match-up again next November in South Bend.

2001 - Notre Dame 10 at @ Nebraska 27 

The 2001 campaign would mark the darkest days for Notre Dame football to that point.  Coming off a throttling in the Fiesta Bowl to Oregon State a year earlier, it was clear that the outgoing Bob Davie wasn't ready for primetime.

After taking the Cornhuskers to OT in a week 2 loss the previous season, Davie threw Matt LoVecchio into the fire against #4 Nebraska (who would go on to lose to Miami for the National Championship).  The Irish fumbled on their first play from scrimmage and LoVecchio remained ineffective throughout the first quarter.  Carlyle Holiday took over and led the Irish to a field goal but was equally worthless in the defeat.  The Irish went on to lose their first three games, a record for the university (at the time...).

2004 - Notre Dame 17 @ BYU 20
It might be a sign of where your program stands when the most respected Catholic university in the land travels to Provo, UT to open the 2004 campaign... and then lays an egg.  

In his first full season as the starting quarterback, Brady Quinn completed more than 50 percent of his passes for 265 yards and a touchdown.  But he was sacked four times and the Irish only rushed for 11 yards.
On the upside, the lack of a rushing game would force Ty Willingham (in his last season; you might sense a theme here) to turn to super freshman Darius Walker the following week against Michigan.  Walker would rush for 125 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Wolverines.

2007 - Georgia Tech 33 @ Notre Dame 3 

After an epic run last fall and a handful of fun wins in recent years, it's easy to block out how dark the days were for Notre Dame in 2007.

Debating between the fantastic trio of Demetrius Jones, Evan Sharpley, and Jimmy Clausen, Charlie Weis opted not to reveal his opening day quarterback until the first snap (great plan, Charlie).

Jones would start, all three would face a strong Yellow Jacket defense (finishing the season ranked 19th nationally), and none would find success.  The Irish were sacked nine times, coughed up two fumbles, and rushed for -8 yards in their most lopsided opening day loss in the history of the program. Weis and Co. would go on to lose their first five games by a minimum of two touchdowns.

2011 - South Florida 23 @ Notre Dame 20
This remains one of the most bizarre, heartbreaking and disappointing football games I've ever watched. Despite the Irish turning the ball over five times, including a goal line fumble and interceptions in the end zone and red zone, they fought off lightning delays to storm back and had a chance to win, right up through the final - well placed - onside kick.
A startling datapoint from following this game:
Notre Dame lost its season opener for the fourth time in the past 15 seasons. The Irish finished with non-winning records in all the previous occassions. Twice, it resulted in the Irish changing coaches.
Looking ahead: 
August 31, 2013 - Temple @ Notre Dame
It's highly unlikely that lightning will strike again on the last day of this month and even less likely the season will conclude with Brian Kelly looking for new work.  

The common threads woven through eight of the games above is that the Irish were either shockingly bad (1984, 1985, 1986, 2003, 2004, and 2007) or their opponents were exceptionally good (Michigan in 1985, Northwestern, and Nebraska). South Florida remains the outlier and I still have trouble coming to grips with what happened that day (or the following week...). 

As for this year, Temple finished 4-7 in their first Big East campaign last fall but lost their two top running backs (Montel Harris and Matt Brown), a problem for an Owls offense that put up only 322 yards a game last year and was held to no more than 20 points on seven occasions.  Look for the Irish defense to control the tempo and Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, and Prince Shembo to showcase what should be the country's most dominant defensive line in 2013.

2013 Prediction:  
Notre Dame 28 (1-0)
Temple 3 (0-1)


  1. usf game was the worst i've ever been to...I tell you this usf was terrified when they finally came back from the 1st half...the ND fans that were left were extremely rowdy and the usf players couldn't figure it out since they were up 16-0. Floyd should have got that onside kick for a frustrating we had 508 yards to their 254

  2. That game against USF was my daughter's first game, she was 7 at the time. On our way back to our car in the pouring rain she looked up at me and said "sorry Daddy, for wasting your money". I told her she didn't, the Irish football team did. We're going this year to the Temple game so I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for a different outcome. GO IRISH!




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