"I couldn't be happier than going out with a bang," fifth-year senior Dan Stevenson said. "That's important. It was a big focus with Coach Weis when he came in and said we're not going to wait three years to win but win now. That's probably the number one thing that's stuck with me on what he said from day one to now and he's been dedicated to that. There is no better feeling than going out on the note we're going out with now."
New head coach Charlie Weis deserves a lot of credit for the quick turnaround but the seniors, along with the rest of the team, have been performing at a high level on the field. Together, the coaching staff and the players have put smiles back on Irish fans faces. A lackluster offense has turned into an explosive attack that is ranked in the top 10 nationally, a far cry from being stuck in the 100's. The defense makes the plays with their backs against the wall. Senior Brandon Hoyte, who is the team's leading tackler in his last go-around with Notre Dame, appreciates what the new staff has meant to the players.
"They are great coaches," Hoyte said. "They know exactly what they're talking about schematically. But the important part that I hope people don't miss is that they have a lot of passion for their players. They really care about us. You play a lot harder when you know your coach cares about you. They do an unbelievable job in that aspect."
Of all the players stepping onto the field of Notre Dame Stadium for the last time, no one has had a more redeeming season than Maurice Stovall. The 6-5 receiver from Philadelphia, PA was a first-team USA Today All-American coming out of high school. For the first three years, Stovall did not perform up to these lofty expectations, whether it be on his own doing or the stagnant offense that was in place.
But with Weis's arrival on campus, his senior season took off. The new head coach told him to lose weight and Stovall did just that. Other teammates point to his leadership and extra time spent in the film room. Whatever the reason may be, Stovall is lighting it up this year with 50 catches for 796 yards and nine touchdowns (eight in the past three games). A one-handed scoring grab against Navy will be on Irish highlight tapes for years to come. Stovall has fulfilled the expectations with a dynamite final season.
"I'm a little sad but more so excited because I made it this far," Stovall said about his last home game. "It's my senior year and my last fall here. I'm pretty excited about it but I don't think it'll hit me until later. If I'm thinking ‘Oh, this is my last home game, this is my last home game,' then I won't be focused on what you're trying to do and executing and trying to win. I'm going to approach this game like any other Saturday and enjoy the time after the game whether it's a win or lose. Hopefully it's a win. I don't think it actually hit me until the season is over."
Stovall is not the only one who feels this way.
"You can't put words on it," Stevenson said. "It's not going to hit me until it's over. I've been here for five years and you don't feel like it's coming to an end because you've always had another year. Hopefully, I don't get teary eyed. We'll see how it goes."
With all the up and down experiences of this group, the memories will be plentiful. The 2002 win at Florida State has to rank near the top. Beating rival Michigan three out of the past four years is another feather in their cap. For Hoyte, who is the captain of the defense and a true leader on and off the field, one singular occurrence does not stick out larger than the others.
"I think someone said it best that football is just a series of moments that you remember," Hoyte said. "I don't think it's one moment but being on the field. The biggest thing is my teammates. The jokes in the locker room and guys having fun. That's what you take away the most. You can always rewind a play on tape but you can never rewind the things people say or the passion."
This group can add one more special moment to the list with wins over Syracuse and Stanford to secure a spot in a BCS game, more than likely out west in the Fiesta Bowl. The seniors have never been to such a place and can turn the disgruntled looks of year's past into wide smiles. It also doesn't hurt that their efforts could be to the tune of $14 million for their soon-to-be alma mater. Weis, at his Tuesday press conference, said there is one way to give this group a proper home sendoff.
"We try to win," Weis said. "That's how you honor them. There would be nothing worse than to honor a group of guys with a loss. That's the whole point is to respect your opponent, know your opponent, know the strengths, know the weaknesses and play for your seniors.
"The guys I respect in addition are Beidatsch and Bent and Boland and Bonelli and Cardillo and Carney and Chervanick and Fasano and Fitzgerald and Fitzpatrick and Freeman and Frome and Brandon Harris and Hoyte and Jenkins and Landri and LeVoir and Mattes and Mays and McKnight, Matt Mitchell, Mooney, Morton, O'Hara, Raridon and Richardson and Salvador and Santucci and Schiccatano and Shelton and Dan Stevenson and Stovall and Whitney and Woods because they're all the guys that are going to be graduating here this year or have already graduated and going to complete their fourth or fifth years here in May and never step on this field again after this Saturday. And to me that's very important that they be recognized at this time."