Home Away From Home

Irish Eyes offers a commentary on the 2009 Irish in The House that Rockne Built.

I've been inside Notre Dame Stadium on approximately 140 occasions: for Notre Dame Football games, a few Blue-Gold scrimmages, the occasional random foray on my own, and even formal pictures for my wedding party.

It's one of my favorite places to visit...I'm sure opposing teams feel the same way.

Below are the six longest winning streaks over the last quarter century at Notre Dame Stadium:

  • 19 – set by the 1987, '88, '89, and '90 Notre Dame teams beginning with a 31-8 win over Michigan State in September of '87 (the Tim Brown game) and ending with a shocking 36-31 loss to 1-3 Stanford in October of ‘90. The Irish defeated eight ranked teams in those 19 games…an astounding seven ranked among the nation's top 10.
  • 10 – set by the 1997, '98, and '99 Irish squads, beginning with a late-October 52-20 win over Boston College and ending with a 23-13 defeat at the hands of Michigan State in September.
  • 7 – set by the 1992 and 1993 Notre Dame teams, beginning with a 42-16 late-October win over BYU and ending with a program-crippling 41-39 loss to BC on Senior Day '93.
  • 6 – set by the 1995 and 1996 Notre Dame teams, beginning with a 41-0 pounding of Vanderbilt in mid-September '95 and ending with a 29-16 loss to No. 4 Ohio State just over one year later.
  • 6 – set by the 1984 and 1985 Irish, beginning with a mid-November 44-7 win against Penn State and ending with a late November 10-7 loss to No. 17 LSU.
  • 6 (still active) – set by the 1997, '99, '01, '03, '05, and '07 Michigan State Spartans.

Michigan State has won six consecutive games in South Bend, Indiana. Five of those six Spartans squads entered the contest unranked – each of the six ended those individual seasons outside of the final polls.

An undefeated home season for the Irish must include victories over USC (winners of seven consecutive games vs. ND including three at The Stadium); Boston College (winners of six straight and three consecutive in South Bend) and the Spartans (winners of nine of the last 12 in the series and six consecutive in front of NBC cameras on September Saturdays). The Irish haven't defeated each of these three regular opponents in the same season since 1992. (ND took down both SC and BC in 1995 but were on a two-year scheduling break with the Spartans).

The Undeniable

The ND football program hasn't fielded a consistent winner since the end of the 1993 campaign, with up-and-down seasons marking the end of the Holtz era and the subsequent transition to in-house hire Bob Davie in late 1996. The first step toward regaining a level of excellence is developing consistently sound play (and depth) along both the offensive and defensive lines. The second, frankly, is that the Irish once again understand what it means to defend their home turf.

Losing home games to a rival at its peak, such as No. 1 or No. 5 USC this decade is an unavoidable occurrence that will befall every program. Losing six consecutive home games to a formerly middle tier program such as Michigan State (before the 2007 hire of head coach Mark Dantonio), or three consecutive home games and an absurd six overall to a borderline top 25 program such as Boston College is unacceptable.

The Standard

Ara Parseghian finished undefeated and untied at home in four of his 11 seasons: 1964 (his first), 1966 (National Title), 1970, and 1973 (National Title). The Irish were 51-6-1 at Notre Dame Stadium with Parseghian at the helm – he never lost two home games in the same season and posted an era-best 15 games without a loss (with one tie) from mid-November '68 to late October '71.

Since Parseghian left campus, his successor, Dan Devine managed two undefeated and untied home slates: the 1977 National Championship and his final season, 1980. Devine was 26-6 at Notre Dame Stadium. And Holtz, as mentioned previously, was undefeated at home in 1987, the National Championship season of '88, and national runner-up year in '89. He was 52-14-1 overall at home – 20-3 in his first four seasons through 1989.

The Loss of Home Field Pride

Though rarely outclassed (Holtz lost just two home contests by more than one score – a 17-point defeat to Stanford in '92 and a 13-point loss to Ohio State in '96) the College Football Hall of Famer wasn't immune to the shocking (or yearly) home defeat:

  • 1990: Ranked No. 1, the Irish lost to unranked Stanford 36-31 due largely to the Tommy Vardell show (four rushing touchdowns), early turnovers, and a dropped touchdown at the final gun. ND regained the No. 1 ranking only to fumble it away vs. No. 18 Penn State, 24-21 despite holding a 21-7 halftime edge.
  • 1991: The No. 5 Irish rolled up a 31-7 lead and 233 rushing yards prior to a half-ending blocked field goal touchdown return by the No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers. Then, as exasperated running Tony Brooks explained: "We ran the ball all over them in the first half. Then (stopped running)...I guess the coaching staff saw something we didn't." Tennessee came back to win what Volunteers fans know as "The Miracle in South Bend," 35-34.
  • 1992: The No. 3 Irish settled for a 17-17 tie with No. 6 Michigan, but the season-saving plan backfired after a mid-October loss to Bill Walsh and No. 19 Stanford, a game in which the Cardinal reeled off 33 unanswered in the 33-16 beating.
  • 1993: No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 16 Boston College, and the end of football life as we knew it in South Bend (41-39).
  • 1994: No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 6 Michigan played a classic, but a late drive and field goal by Remy Hamilton gave the bad guys a 26-24 win – the loss began a downward spiral for the Irish in an unexpected 6-5-1 season.
  • 1995: No. 9 Notre Dame lost to unranked (but eventual Big 10 Co-Champion) Northwestern, 17-15. The loss, at the time, was as shocking as any suffered during the Holtz era.
  • 1996: No. 5 Notre Dame is beaten, soundly, by No. 4 Ohio State. There was no shame in the loss, though the beating along the line of scrimmage was a surprise for a Holtz-led squad. Later that season, the magic was officially lost as the Irish dropped a 20-17 overtime decision to Air Force, marking the first loss to a Service Academy in 20 matchups under Coach Holtz.

In five seasons after Holtz's departure, Bob Davie guided the Irish to a solid 24-7 home mark, including an undefeated 1998 season (the last unblemished home season for the program), but Davie was an aggregate 3-7 vs. USC, BC, and MSU (0-5 vs. the Spartans) at home. His squads dropped three home games by double digits: (No. 17 MSU '97; unranked MSU '99; and No. 7 Tennessee '01). Five of his seven defeats occurred vs. ranked teams.

Tyrone Willingham brought a respite of home magic, winning his first four, including three that came down to the final possession vs. Purdue, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, before suffering a defeat to unranked Boston College. The 14-7 loss followed the Irish ascension to a No. 3 BCS ranking and 8-0 record. Willingham finished 11-7 at home with three epic blowouts (USC ‘03, FSU ‘03, and less understandably, Purdue in ‘04) that, to date, put to rest any false sense of home field security.

Charlie Weis' home field woes have been well-documented, dropping two in '05 (both barn-burners, the first vs. unranked, but red-hot Michigan State in overtime and the classic vs. No. 1 USC); one in '06 as the No. 2 ranked Irish were badly outclassed by visiting (No. 11) Michigan. The '07 Irish dropped (an incredible) six home games and last year's group fell in two ridiculous home-field defeats vs. middling Pittsburgh and miserable Syracuse. Weis-led teams have been shaken for double-digit defeats on six occasions at home, though five occurred in the lost season of 2007. He's 15-12 at home with six of those losses coming in (of course) 2007…four of which were understandable given the team's talent level.

And for you 21st Century season-ticket holders, an additional dose of reality: Since Bob Davie's contract extension following the 2000 season, the Irish are 30-20 in their last 50 home contests.

Return to Normalcy

A home win over USC isn't the measuring stick for 2009. Home wins over both MSU and BC or failing that, a 6-1 home mark should be. If the Notre Dame football program is to return to anything resembling elite status, it must first protect its home field from its peers and the also-rans…which is every 2009 home opponent with the exception of USC.

To consider home losses to Michigan State and Boston College in 2009 as anything other than "completely unacceptable" is an indictment of this coaching staff. It's subscribing to the theory that this staff's only chance of success is to field a team supremely talented to that of the given opponent.

Excuses (real or imagined) have been exhausted. Any margin for error disappeared the day Syracuse, with its lame-duck coach, limped into South Bend 2-8 and somehow emerged victorious.

Fair or not: Saturday, September 19 will serve as a portent for the Notre Dame Football Program. You'll know all you'll need to know about the Irish as you sit down to dinner while the Spartans board their bus north to their second home.

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