First Week Blues

After months of waiting for ND football to return, most Irish fans are tempted to draw global conclusions from the first game. However, because of the extremely small sample size it's hard to do that.

Obviously the 14-10 final score in favor of ND was a bit of a surprise to most ND fans. I thought that something closer to 31-18 (as projected by my linear model based on last year's results) was more like it. And in many senses it was unlike last year's 42-21 win over Pitt where the game was no longer in real doubt by halftime.

However, some of last year's giddiness was based on elevated expectations for Pitt, which was coming off a BCS year and was also breaking in a new coach with NFL experience. The truth was, however, that Pitt wasn't a very good team last year, particularly early. Pitt lost the next week to the Ohio Bobcats and didn't get a win over a I-A team until defeating Cincinnati, 38-20, on October 8.

Georgia Tech may or may not be a good team this year, but I think the odds are reasonable that the Jackets will surpass Pitt's 5-6 performance of last year. Moreover, despite the closeness of the score in the Tech game, ND did deserve to win. ND out-gained Tech 384-259, a margin of 125 yards that was not completely dissimilar to last year's 179-yard margin over Pitt (502-323). Probably more importantly, ND out-gained Tech both on the ground and in the air. You can look at a lot of box scores and you won't often find the winning team having less rushing and less passing yardage.

ND also owned a substantial first down advantage of 21-14, and over the last 35 minutes of the game, outscored Tech 14-0, out-gained Tech about 330-70 and had 16 first downs to Tech's 5. No team that gets dominated as thoroughly as Tech over the last two-plus quarters is likely to win the contest.

So, all's well? Well, not necessarily. Many aspects of ND's performance were undeniably weak. Two very reasonable field goal attempts were missed. Quinn was rushed and inaccurate for much of the game and linebacker play continues to be a question mark.

However, at least when ND has had good coaches, an opening performance or early-week performances that haven't met expectations haven't usually meant trouble ahead. Let's look back.

In 1965, Ara's second year, ND was stunned in the second week by Purdue, 25-21, but still went on to have a 7-2-1 season. Purdue bit Ara again in week two in 1967, but the Irish still finished 8-2, and then Purdue did it again in week two of the 1968 season, but ND still finished 7-2-1. Finally (this must have been getting tiresome) Purdue did it again in 1969 in the second week, but ND managed to go 8-1-1 in the regular season before losing a heartbreaking Cotton Bowl to Texas.

Ara, you'll be glad to know, took it out on Purdue in 1970 winning 48-0 on his way to a 10-1 season and a No. 2 final ranking. But Purdue was almost up to its old tricks in the second week of 1971 losing only 8-7 where ND scored a late TD and converted a 2-pointer in a driving rainstorm. ND went on to finish 8-2 that year. Finally in 1974 (Ara's last season) Purdue pulled off another improbable early upset (this time in week three) but ND finished 10-2 capped by a 13-11 win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

Turning to Devine, his 1975 team looked less than awe-inspiring beating Boston College, 17-3. Although BC of those years was usually a 7 or 8-game winner, their schedule was littered with schools that would now be I-AA or lower. Though BC won seven games that year, four of its wins came against Temple, Massachusetts, Villanova and Holy Cross. For a team that was a major bowl winner as ND was the prior year, struggling to beat BC was not what was expected by most ND fans, yet ND finished 8-3 that year.

In 1976, Devine's team opened the season by getting hammered at home by Pittsburgh, 31-10. Surely Irish eyes were not smiling, yet ND finished 9-3 including a win over Penn State in the Gator Bowl.

ND's slow start problems under Devine continued in 1977. ND did manage to avenge the Pitt loss by winning, 19-9, over the Panthers but then lost, 20-13, to a Mississippi team that was coming off a 34-13 loss to Alabama and finished only 6-5. ND was in serious trouble the next week against Purdue before Joe Montana rallied the troops to a 31-24 win. ND won its last none games by an average margin of almost 26 points, including a 38-10 win over then-No. 1 Texas, to win the national championship.

In 1978, ND opened at home with a 3-0 loss to Missouri and a 28-14 loss to Michigan before squeaking by Purdue 10-6. ND, however, managed to finish the regular season 8-3, with the only other loss being a controversial 27-25 to USC in Los Angeles, before the famous "Chicken Soup" Cotton Bowl win over Houston.

In 1979, ND suffered a 28-22 loss to Purdue but still finished 7-4. In fact, in Devine's career the only time his teams got out of the gate well was in 1980 his last year.

Turning to Holtz, his teams often looked much different in later weeks. Although it's hard to call any win over Michigan a disappointment, in 1988 ND was fortunate to beat Michigan, 19-17. ND didn't score an offensive touchdown (and didn't score one the next week beating MSU 20-3) and Michigan's kicker missed a potential winning field goal as time expired. Given that ND had crushed Michigan, 26-7, the prior year it was hard to see a national championship in the offing, but ND went 12-0 and won it all.

ND was less than awe-inspiring early in 1990 as well. ND was again fortunate to beat Michigan, 28-24, and eked out a 20-19 win against MSU the next week. ND still finished the regular season 9-2 and only the famous "phantom clip" call on Rocket's punt return kept ND from another major bowl win.

In 1991 and 1992 early-week disappointments against Michigan did not completely spoil the season. ND's 1991 team lost 24-14 to Michigan but still went 10-3 and beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl and a 17-17 tie in 1992 did not prevent ND from finishing 10-1-1 with a No. 4 final ranking and a 28-3 win over then-undefeated Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

In 1993, ND's 27-12 win over Northwestern in the opener was seen as shockingly weak, causing ND to fall several spots in the polls. I recall that Lee Corso on the basis of this outing predicted that Michigan would beat ND 38-10 "If they [the Irish] are lucky!" ND, however, looked crisp beating Michigan, 27-23, in Ann Arbor. I still remember Holtz being asked at the press conference after the Michigan win where he thought ND would be ranked. He responded that he hoped ND would only drop a few places as beating Northwestern, which he remarked was a "pretty good team," had cost ND several spots. The Irish eventually finished the year 11-1 and No. 2, again beating Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

Finally, Holtz's 1995 team was beaten 17-15 by Northwestern, which was a huge shock (though less so in retrospect as the Wildcats won the Big 10 and went to the Rose Bowl) yet finished the regular season 9-2 and almost upset FSU in the Orange Bowl.

So, assuming that Weis belongs in the company of Ara, Devine and Holtz (where I believe he does belong), the chances are good that an early-season scare will become a teaching tool that allows the team to reach its potential.

With ND's weaker coaches, however, poor early-season showings have meant trouble ahead because they could not correct the issues and superior coaching staffs for other squads exploited the problems.

For instance, in 1981 Faust's then No.1 team was coming off a decent-looking 27-9 win over LSU but then was ripped apart, 25-7, by Michigan and finished 5-6. In 1983, ND played at home in the second week against an MSU team that was coming off a 2-9 year and somehow lost, 28-23, to the Spartans. ND lost its last three regular season games that year to finish the regular season 6-5 before defeating BC, 19-18, in the Liberty Bowl to give Faust his only bowl win. In 1984, Faust was again stunned early, this time by Purdue in the opener and he could manage only another 7-5 finish. Finally in 1985, Faust's squad lost the opener and then finished the year 5-6 in a season that would end his beleaguered career.

Bob Davie's squad opened weakly in 1997 beating Georgia Tech, 17-13. Objectively this close win was probably cause for more concern because Tech was only 5-6 the year prior and had lost its last four games. Unfortunately, in Davie's case, it was indeed a sign of things to come as ND lost its next four and finished only 7-6.

Davie's 1999 team was never able to recover from a 26-22 loss to Michigan in the second week in a game that ND apparently had won. ND proceeded to throw away the game the next week at Purdue and then looked absolutely listless losing to MSU, 23-13. A 5-7 season capped by four straight losses (including 40-37 to a Willingham-coached Stanford team to close the year) ensued. Finally, Davie's 2001 opening loss at Nebraska crushed the team as ND opened 0-3 for the first time in school history and finished 5-6.

In 2003 and 2004 Willingham's teams both struggled unexpectedly in the openers. First was an overtime win against Washington State and then a shocking road loss to BYU the next year. Unfortunately both times it signaled a bad year ahead.

Coaching, as Weis often notes, is a form of teaching. Every game is a chance to instruct. The Tech game certainly presented a full week's lesson plan. Let's hope the students are quick on the uptake. Top Stories