Irish season highlighted by ugly losses

After posting a 9-2 regular season record under first-year head coach Charlie Weis in 2005, Notre Dame earned a spot in last year's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. The Buckeyes proceeded to run the Fighting Irish ragged all game long. In the end, Ohio State amassed 617 yards of offense to Notre Dame's paltry 348.

Despite the loss, Weis convinced enough AP and Coaches' Poll voters that he had returned the Golden Domers to the elite of the college football world. When the rankings finally appeared for the 2006 season, Notre Dame stood at No. 2 in the AP Poll and was tied with Southern California for the No. 3 spot in the Coaches' Poll. Combined, 19 voters from those two polls gave the Fighting Irish the nod as the No. 1 team in the nation. Through 12 regular season games, Notre Dame has shown they were unworthy of such lofty expectations.


As they prepare for the Allstate Sugar Bowl on January 3, 2007, and the LSU Tigers, Notre Dame can lay claim to beating just one team ranked in either the AP or Coaches Polls' Top 25. That one team, Georgia Tech, is currently listed as the No. 25 team in the latter and doesn't even appear in the former. The Yellow Jackets will face West Virginia in the Toyota Gator Bowl on January 1, 2007. In truth, by the end of this bowl season, the Fighting Irish could easily find themselves in the position of not having defeated a team ranked in the Top 25 for two consecutive years.


Weis, who served as New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick's offensive guru for five seasons and two Super Bowl victories, has the Fighting Irish at No. 12 in the nation when it comes to scoring. Notre Dame is averaging 32.42 points per game. While the rushing attack is No. 76 in the land, grinding out 124.25 yards per game to go along with 14 rushing touchdowns, the passing attack looks like something out of the Western Athletic Conference.


All total, the Fighting Irish have the No. 10 aerial assault in the land, putting them in aleague with the likes of Louisville. At 273.8 yards per game, Notre Dame has more than a two-to-one passing to rushing ratio that has elevated them to the 22nd best offense overall – 398 yards per game.


One-time Heisman Trophy winner hopeful quarterback Brady Quinn has completed 274 of 432 attempts (63.4 percent) for 3,278 yards thus far. Most impressive is his touchdown-to-interception ratio – 35 to five.


Not surprisingly, Quinn has connected most often this season with wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, whose 70 receptions have been good for 958 yards and 11 touchdowns. Rhema McKnight is right behind him, however, with 64 receptions for 885 yards and four more touchdowns. But Quinn has also spread the wealth. He has found running back Darius Walker 54 times and John Carlson on 64 separate occasions.


Walker has been Notre Dame's workhorse on the ground, rushing 233 times for 1,139 yards and seven touchdowns. His average is 4.9 yards per carry, but Walker hasn't broken a run longer than 39 yards all year. Running a very distant second to Walker is James Aldridge. In only six games, Aldridge has rushed 34 times for 135 yards.


Defensively is where the Irish have mostly had their struggles this year, but at least they're consistent.


Notre Dame's defense ranks 50th in the nation against both the run and the pass. In giving up 320.5 yards per game, they rank 45th overall. Opponents have rushed for 127.8 yards per game and have passed for an additional 192.67 yards per game against the Fighting Irish. Foes have scored 22.4 points per game, making Notre Dame No. 57 in scoring defense.


Beginning the season as highly ranked as they did, the Fighting Irish opened the season by avoiding an upset when they overcame a 10-0 deficit to defeat Georgia Tech, 14-10. Notre Dame's final score of the contest came with 6:33 to go in the third quarter, and they held Georgia Tech to 66 yards offensively in the entire second half. The close call seemed to have served as a bit of a wakeup call. Just seven days later, the Irish, who had fallen to No. 4 and No. 5 in the polls, manhandled a hapless Penn State team to the tune of 41-17. The victory was enough for the pollsters to bump Notre Dame back up to the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the rankings, but the Golden Domers were about to fall hard.


By Week 3 standards, Notre Dame's 47-21 beating at home by Michigan was an upset. Ultimately it would prove to be a true indicator of the limits of the 2006 Irish gridiron gang. A tumble into the polls' double digits following the debacle against the Wolverines led Notre Dame into East Lansing, Mich., and what almost proved to be a second straight loss. The Irish overcame a 16-point fourth quarter deficit to eke out a 40-37 win over Michigan State, setting themselves up for a rise in the eyes of the voters during a less than arduous midseason run.


Games at home against Purdue and Stanford proved not much of a problem for Notre Dame and put them back in the Top 10 of both polls. A struggle against UCLA at home put doubt in minds again as the Irish needed a touchdown with 27 seconds showing in the fourth quarter to earn a win. Victories over Navy, North Carolina, Air Force and Army followed.


Notre Dame's eight-game winning streak was good enough to help it climb to No. 6 in both polls with a shot at Top 3 foe Southern California serving as the last obstacle in the way of a potential shot at the BCS National Championship Game.


Just like against Michigan early in the season, Notre Dame found stepping up to the upper echelon of college football a tremendous chore. With over 11-and-a-half minutes to go in the second quarter, the Trojans held a 21-3 advantage. The final proved to be 44-24 in Southern California's favor, and Notre Dame didn't get any closer than 11 after falling behind by 18 early.


While the consensus was Top 3 to begin the year, Notre Dame finds itself at No. 11 now in both the AP and the Coaches' Poll. The BCS Poll has them slated in that same position, making them the sixth-highest two-loss team in the standings behind LSU, Southern California, Louisville, Auburn and Oklahoma.


Instead of heading to Tempe for a title shot, Notre Dame finds itself in New Orleans. The Fighting Irish haven't played in the Sugar Bowl since 1992, when they defeated then-No. 3 Florida, 39-28. Notre Dame ranked 18th at the time.

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