What the Irish Need: A Signature Win

Something occurred to me as I watched the 2007 Fighting Irish squad leave the field after a particularly humiliating 38-0 loss to the USC Trojans: I don’t actually remember the last time I felt confident going into a game against a team that is highly touted and highly ranked.

It seemed to me, in that moment, that as a Notre Dame fan it has been ages since I felt like the product we were putting on the field would beat, easily or otherwise, the likes of USC, an SEC power, a Big 12 bruiser, or a national contender of any stripe.

To prove my point, here’s a thought experiment for all of you: what were your honest, deep-down, set-aside-your-fanaticism feelings just prior to the kick-off of that 2007 drubbing by USC? How about the 2006 Sugar Bowl matchup with #4 ranked LSU—in their backyard? How about the night game that very same season, on ABC (do we ever do well on ABC at night?) at the Coliseum with the then #2 ranked Trojans? Or, still remaining honest with yourself, go back to the 2005 Fiesta Bowl with #4 Ohio State. Did you feel good going into any of those games? Did you wince when those opponents went up by two scores? Did you have a sinking feeling the first time Brady Quinn was sacked or intercepted or our when our secondary was burned deep by seemingly much faster athletes?

To avoid the depression that would inevitably set in with such morose thinking, I decided to pop in some old game tapes and do some number crunching. What I wanted to know was this, when was the last time the Fighting Irish had signature wins against quality, perhaps even superior, opponents? What I came to realize surprised me, and gave me an idea of exactly what it is that this program needs so desperately.

Going back to the Bob Davie Era, Notre Dame is an abysmal 18-33 against ranked opponents (according to Coaches Poll rankings posted pre-game). Included in this sad statistic are the particularly tragic 1997 (2-4), 1999 (1-5), 2001 (0-3), 2006 (1-3), and 2007 (1-4) seasons. This means that, going back to 1997, the Irish have won only 35% of games in which the opponent was ranked—setting aside, for now, the issue of whether the team being played was ranked higher or lower than Notre Dame coming into the contest. This is devastating.

Of course, looking back, it hasn’t been all bad news. Bob Davie had six wins over ranked opponents. Three of these I would call program builders:

  • The 24-6 win over the 11th ranked LSU Tigers in 1997 (never mind that LSU would win the rematch with the Irish in the Independence Bowl). This same LSU team would finish 9-3, with a spectacular win over the top ranked Florida Gators.
  • The 36-20 win over 5th ranked Michigan in 1998. Michigan finished the season 10-3 and had a share of the Big Ten title.
  • The 23-21 win over the 13th ranked Purdue in 2000. The Boilermakers went on to finish 8-4 and were Big Ten champions.

Tyrone Willingham bookended his brief coaching career at Notre Dame with signature wins over quality opponents. Four of his five wins over ranked teams were stellar:

  • 22-0 over the 21st ranked Maryland Terrapins in 2002. The unranked Irish opened the season with this surprise win. Some later dismissed the victory when the Terps stumbled early going 1-2, but many forget that the 2002 Terrapins finished 11-3.
  • 25-23 over #7 Michigan, also in 2002. Probably my favorite Ty Willingham win, and kicked off what many thought would be a golden age in Fighting Irish history. Michigan finished the season 10-3.
  • 28-20 over #8 Michigan in 2004. The Wolverines would finish 9-3 and shared the Big Ten title.
  • 17-13 over #9 Tennessee, also in 2004. This was an admittedly shocking win over a stunned Knoxville crowd. The Vols would finish 10-3 and go to the SEC Championship game.

Thus far, Charlie Weis is 5-9 against ranked opponents. Of the five wins since 2005, only the 2007 win over 25th ranked UCLA could be considered a signature upset win, and even then, only barely. The Bruins looked awful against the Irish, sure, but don’t forget that this was a UCLA team that had wins over BYU, #9 Cal, and the 10th ranked Oregon Ducks.

At this point some readers may protest asking, What about the 41-17 drubbing of #19 Penn State in 2006? The 42-21 upset win over the 25th ranked Pitt Panthers, or the famed 49-28 toppling of 20th ranked Purdue in 2005 in which you could actually see Boilermaker defensive coordinator Brock Spack go apoplectic on the sideline? Yes, these were fine wins that did a lot to bring positive attention to the Irish after the dark pall cast by the Willingham nadir, but the Penn State win was largely expected (keep in mind, the Irish were ranked #5 coming into that game) and the overrated Pitt team that Notre Dame dismantled finished the season 5-6, as did that Purdue squad.

The rest of the 2008 Notre Dame season leading up to the November 29 grudge match with USC is certainly winnable. For the first time in a long time, the scheduling gods have favored us. By that date the Trojans will be, despite being horribly exposed by Oregon State last week, a one-loss, top-10 ranked team.

The knock against the Trojans is that while they excel in intersectional match-ups with high caliber, nationally ranked teams, they stumble against Pac-10 foes. They were upset in 2006 by UCLA; in 2007 it was Stanford that upended them. The reason why this happens, say pundits, is that the teams of the Pac-10 are so familiar with USC that nothing they do surprises them precisely because they seem them year in and year out.

In 2006 the UCLA team that upset USC lost at South Bend to the Irish. In 2007 the Stanford team that shocked the Trojans were beat in Palo Alto by—the Irish. And outside of playing Pac-10 teams that know USC better than the rest of the nation, Southern Cal also plays the Irish every single season. We know them just as well as Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA.

I’m not going to predict a win over USC, and the team shouldn’t look that far ahead, especially given tricky games with Stanford, North Carolina, Pitt, and Boston College coming up, but I am going to say that what this Notre Dame program needs is another signature upset win in front of the nation.

It’s time.

Signature wins against ranked opponents on national television are key pillars in building a program that contends for the National Championship, especially in the BCS age. It is a simple formula: you must beat good teams, by good scores, and make sure everyone is watching when you do.

Thus far, the Irish have the last part down pat: everyone is watching us, especially in big games. Now, can we deliver?

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