Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com®
By Joe Tybor
For The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (IE) – It almost seemed like blasphemy.
You can't blame Irish fans for clearing out of Notre Dame Stadium quuickly after another lost opportunity, but you didn't want to see what remained. There, in the southeast corner was the Tennessee marching band entertaining orange-shirted Vols fans with nothing other than "Rocky Top."
There's no doubt that time is running out for Bob Davie. He's probably lost his job, even though the loss of this game was clearly not his fault. He and his staff had excellent game-planning on both offense and defense..
Two weeks ago, after the Irish had won three in a row to pull even at 3-3, Davie and his players talked about winning out the string. With Tennessee's 28-18 win on Saturday, the Irish have lost two in a row.
How does 4-7 sound? Not bad, if you want Davie gone.
Sadly for Irish players and Irish fans, the last two were games Notre Dame could have won, and Davie acknowledges that.
Four times Notre Dame was in the Tennessee red zone in the first half Saturday and, because of fumbles, sacks, and poor judgment, they could only come away with three points.
"We're a disaster in the red zone right now," said offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers.
That's an understatement.
Arnaz Battle lost a fumble at Tennessee's one yard line after a gain of about 17 yards on a nice reverse in which he broke a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Later, with the Irish at the Tennessee 12, freshman Ryan Grant, who showed some nice vision and cutback ability on several carries in the second quarter, was stripped and Julian Battle, who caused Arnaz Battle's fumble, ran it back 81 yards to give Tennessee a 7-0 lead.
In the first quarter, the Irish were at Tennessee's 20 when Carlyle Holiday fumbled a botched option. Even though he recovered it, he lost nine yards. On the next play, Holiday took a sack instead of getting rid of the ball to preserve a field goal attempt by the hot Nicholas Setta. Instead, the Irish had to punt from Tennessee's 37 yard line.
The Irish did make it 7-3 before the half on a 41-yard field goal by Setta. But the Irish almost botched that opportunity, too. They were down to the Tennessee 15 with second down, when Holiday made another rookie mistake. He rightly didn't take the sack this time, but wrongly threw the ball so far beyond the sideline, he was flagged for intentional grounding.
Put it all together, and the Irish could have been up 20-0 at halftime, if it were not for the mistakes. Woulda', shoulda', coulda. It doesn't count.
Give the players credit. The Irish made a game of it, even after the Vols got their offense in gear and marched the field for touchdown drives of 80 and 81 yards in the second half. Notre Dame pulled within three to 21-18 after a 75-yard drive and a two-point conversion.
But it was a frustratingly prolonged drive (17 plays taking up more than eight minutes with first down conversions coming only on third and fourth downs.).
The Irish got the ball back with 3:25 left. Holiday was sacked for a loss of nine and on the next play, received another heavy rush and his deflected pass was intercepted, eventually resulting in Tennessee's final score on a naked quarterback boot by heavy-legged Casey Clausen on fourth down from the one. Notre Dame could do little on its final possession, and all that was left was for Davie to give his congrats at midfield to Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer.
Then, Davie walked straight off the field toward the tunnel, with nary a wave to the student section and athletic director Kevin White ahead of him by an embarrassingly wide 10-yard interval. There were no condolences extended this time, no pat on the back from the man who makes, or has made, the decision that Davie stays or goes.
It may as well be over. That was the feeling when you got when you glanced in the southeast corner of the end zone and the Tennessee band played its spritied version of that dratted song.
"It's particularly frustrating when you feel you could be sitting here with five straight wins and you're not," Davie said. "If you look closely at this game, it's probably a microcosm of what we've been.
"After all that happens, feeling we can move the ball offensively pretty well: 33 minutes of possession time, 69 plays, 268 yards and you really put only 11 points on offense.
"It's kind of what we are."
Unfortunately, it is; what the Irish have become. They have an off week before closing out the home schedule against Navy and then travel to pass-happy Stanford and steady Purdue.
At 3-5. even if the Irish play spectacularly the rest of the way, they finish the season 6-5. That gives Davie a 36-24 record over his five seasons, frighteningly similar to the 30-26-1 record of Gerry Faust after his five-year tenure.
Davie is now 1-7 against Top 10 teams.
You've got to feel for the players, especially those seniors like David Givens, who had one of the best games of his career with nine catches for 99 yards, including key receptions in critical situations.
"David Givens was a real warrior today," Rogers said. "He really stepped up. I can't say enough about how he played today and I'm really disappointed for him and the rest of the seniors."
Davie could only cross his arms and shake his head in frustration over how well the Irish played on both sides of the ball, and not come away with a win. The statistics were more one-sided in the ill-fated first half, when the Irish had possession time of 19:55, 198 total yards to Tennessee's 97 and 13 first downs to the Vols four.
Tennessee's star running back, Travis Stephens,who has averaged 145 yards per game this season, was held to only 25 yards in the first half by the Irish and finished with 69, his lowest production of the season.
Tennessee's offense spread the Irish defense out in the second half, when onetime Irish recruit Clausen was 13 for 21 for 164 yards, but the Irish actually went ahead 10-7 at the start.
Courtney Watson intercepted a Clausen pass that was nicely broken up and deflected by freshman ballhawk Abram Elam. Behind a phalanx of Irish, Watson ran it in 31 yards for the score.
You have to feel for Davie. He is still talking like a football coach, albeit one who thinks the season is just starting instead of headed for the stretch with only three regular season games remaining.
"We continue to build on the positives," Davie said in his postgame news conference. "I sincerely believe we are a better football team than we were five weeks ago. We're going to have an opportunity to beat some good football teams.
"I told our team you can leave here feeling good about the fact that you are improving and competing."
Obviously, it's not enough, and hard to swallow—even for some players.
"My motivation is to win," said gritty corner Shane Walton. "I don't like losing. There's no other motivation than winning. Winning is life to me."
To thousands of Irish fans, too -