Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 21 of 55

22 JANUARY 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI N ot all 9-3 or 10-3 football sea- sons are created equal. Fluc- tuating expectations create different emotions. In 2005, first-year head coach Charlie Weis was feted with a 9-3 finish, including earning some Na- tional Coach of the Year notice and a 10-year contract extension. That's because the two previous years the Irish were 5-7 and 6-6, plus the de- feats in his debut campaign were competitive, including 34-31 to No. 1 USC (which prompted the extension with a 5-2 mark). Yet the next season when the Irish finished 10-3, it was a huge letdown, with even Weis referring to the sea- son as "blah." That's because the Irish were a popular preseason No. 1 or No. 2 pick — it began No. 2 in the Associ- ated Press poll — and lost by an av- erage of 24.3 points versus their three most prominent opponents. Hence, there was a uniqueness to the 9-3 regular season in 2017, which was neither dispiriting nor fulfilling. On one hand, the campaign was an appreciable upgrade from the 4-8 outcome the year prior, highlighted by victories against USC, Michi- gan State and North Carolina State, which finished Nos. 8, 16 and 24, respectively, in the College Football Playoff rankings. Including the possibility of a Citrus Bowl win versus LSU, it likely would be the first time since 2012 that the Fighting Irish would own victories over three teams that finished in the final top 25 of the Associated Press poll. On the flip side, despite the 4-8 outcome last season Notre Dame was favored to win every regular season game in 2017, which might have been a first in 40-plus years. Thus, to at one point be 8-1 and No. 3 in the CFP rankings — the highest showing by the Irish in the four-year history of the new postsea- son format — only to finish No. 14 af- ter losing by 33 points at Miami and 18 at Stanford was disheartening. The following are four of the top themes this past regular season. PRIDE BEFORE THE FALL Notre Dame faithful know the drill from the past 20 or so seasons: Have a disappointing to outright terrible season one year — and follow with a pleasant surprise the next. Rebounding is a pride factor at Notre Dame. However, pride has also come before a fall: • Start 2-5 and finish 7-6 in 1997 — and follow with a 9-1 start the next season. Unfortunately, two more losses made it 9-3. • Finish 5-7 in 1999 (the most losses in 36 years) — and follow with a 9-2 regular season, Fiesta Bowl bid, top-10 ranking and five-year contract extension for head coach Bob Davie. Unfortunately, the Irish were crushed 41-9 by Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. • Finish 5-6 in 2001 — and then start 10-1 the next year to earn Na- tional Sportsman of the Year recogni- tion for Willingham. Unfortunately, the Irish lost their last two outings while getting outscored 72-19. • Under head coach Brian Kelly, the pattern has occurred three times. The first was going from 8-5 (2011) to 12-1 (2012) — ending with a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. The second was upgrading from finishing 2-5 in the final seven games of 2014 to a 10-1 start in 2015 — end- ing with two straight losses again (like in 1998, 2002 and 2006, a four- year cycle). Finally, after 4-8 last season, Notre Dame is 9-3 — but lost two of its last three. That leads to … SECOND BEST TURNAROUND? If Notre Dame does defeat LSU in the Citrus Bowl to finish 10-3, it would mark the second best im- provement at Notre Dame in victo- ries from one season to the next. The standard remains Ara Par- seghian's debut campaign in 1964, when a 2-7 outfit from the previous year was transformed to a 9-0 and No. 1-ranked team before a gut- wrenching 20-17 loss at USC in the finale. Still the plus-seven in victories remains the most at the school. Right now, the current plus-five win total from 4-8 in 2016 to 9-3 this year is in a three-way tie for second place with 1957 (7-3 after going 2-8 in 1956) and 2002 (10-3 after a 5-6 mark in 2001). A six-game improvement from 4-8 to 10-3 would be a strong testimonial, whereas 9-4 while finishing 1-3 in the final four games would wipe away much good will from the promising first two months and 8-1 start. It would seem fitting that in a year when Notre Dame's helmets included "Ara" to honor the coach who passed away Aug. 2, this season would be the second best comeback in wins to the one he orchestrated 53 years ago. Knute Rockne's first two seasons from 3-1-2 in 1918 to 9-0 in 1919 also saw a plus-six improvement in wins, but it comes with an aster- isk because the Spanish Influenza in 1918 cancelled the month of October schedule. CHANGE OF IDENTITY, FOR NOW For about 20 years many a long- time Notre Dame follower would la- ment, "I wish they could run the ball with the dominance they did under Lou Holtz [1986-96]." For the most part, the 2017 team did, and then some, led by the first pair of Associated Press first-team All-American offensive linemen for the Irish in tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson since 1931. The rushing average of 279.1 yards HIGH RISE, TOUGH FALL Notre Dame thrived the first two months of 2017 before taking a spill Junior Brandon Wimbush became the first Irish quarterback ever to compile at least 14 touch- downs rushing (14) and passing (16) in a single season, but struggled with his accuracy (49.8 percent completion rate) as the year wore on and ranked 87th nationally in pass efficiency rating. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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