A Defining Play

IrishEyes continues its countdown of the Top 15 Notre Dame teams of the last 30 seasons with No. 14 on our list – the 1998 Fighting Irish.

From 1980 through 2009, Notre Dame completed 30 football seasons. Each week this summer, IrishEyes will profile and rank the top 15 of those 30 teams, counting down to the final week of August training camp and our No. 1 overall Irish squad.

Today, IrishEyes continues the countdown with our No. 14 ranked squad – the 1998 Fighting Irish (9-3).

Click here for our Honorable Mention selection and the following link for the No. 15 team in our countdown.

The summer prior to the '98 season brought the Kim Dunbar fiasco (and two subsequent minor NCAA sanctions) to a head. The trying off-season also found the University liable for age discrimination in a lawsuit filed by former offensive line coach and program icon, the late Joe Moore, who was fired by head coach Bob Davie following the 1996 season.

A win over the defending national champions in the season-opener helped stem the tide. But in 1998, the first season of the Bowl Championship Series, Notre Dame took itself out of contention with one poorly executed play in the season's final home game.

1998 – By the Numbers

Year 2 of the Davie era featured a multiple offensive set (3-wide, Power-I, occasional option looks) and the much-anticipated turn for Jarious Jackson under center after four seasons with Ron Powlus at the controls. Autry Denson entered his senior season expected to break Allen Pinkett's career mark for rushing yards and career 100-yard game (he accomplished both vs. Navy in mid-November and remains the program's record holder with 4,318 yards and 22 games topping the century mark).

The team boasted a strong front seven led by the true senior LB trio of Bobby Howard, Jimmy Friday, and Kory Minor, who fought through injury to start 10 games, as well as the emergence of 5th-year senior OLB Lamont Bryant.

Offense: The Irish finished 16th nationally in rushing (after falling to an uncharacteristic 36th overall in '97) while averaging 27.3 points per game over the course of the season. As a unit, the team averaged 4.6 yards-per-carry, an average that hasn't been surpassed at the program since. (Incidentally 4.6 yards-per-rush was the stated goal of the 2009 squad according to Charlie Weis.) They rushed for 22 touchdowns and passed for another 13.

Defense: The Base 3-4 held opponents to 3.5 rushing yards per game while allowing just 10 rushing touchdowns and 11 through the air. It held four opponents to one or no touchdowns. Nationally, the defense finished 27th, allowing 19.2 per contest.

The Irish defense did not allow a 3rd Quarter touchdown in the first nine games of the season and pitched eight 3rd Quarter shut-outs.

Notables: Statistical and otherwise

  • Autry Denson's career rushing mark has stood for 12 seasons and cannot realistically be approached until at least 2013. Pinkett's mark stood for more than 12 years despite the run-heavy offense employed by the coach that followed his graduation: Irish legend Lou Holtz…Denson finished '98 with 1,434 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns.
  • In his first season as a starter, Jarious Jackson finished 13th nationally in pass efficiency rating while earning 2,181 all-purpose yards in his 10-game regular season…Jackson accounted for 16 total touchdowns while throwing just 6 interceptions.
  • Senior WR Malcolm Johnson paced the squad with 43 receptions, 692 yards, and 6 touchdown receptions, including a career-best 150 yards and a touchdown in the team's 31-26 win at Boston College.
  • The inside linebacker duo of Bobbie Howard and Jimmy Friday both earned nominations for the Butkus Award during the season. Howard led the Irish with 118 tackles (6 for loss) while adding two touchdowns including a program-record 89-yard touchdown return in the home finale vs. LSU. Friday finished second with 79 tackles (5 for loss) and made the season's unsung play of the year (described in the section below).
  • Lamont Bryant led the team in tackles-for-loss (7) and finished second in sacks (4) from his OLB position (Bryant added three fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown) while true freshman DE Anthony Weaver notched 6 TFL as well, starting 10 games…FS A'Jani Sanders paced the defense with 3 interceptions, one of which he returned for a score.
  • Punter Hunter Smith finished his Irish career in the school's No. 2 spot all-time. His 41.21 net average trails only Craig Hentrich (44.10) on the program's list to date.
  • Like his 2000 squad that finished No. 15 in our rankings, Davie's '98 group was aided by a proficient performance in the red zone. The Irish scored on 41 of 45 trips (32 touchdowns with just one turnover). The team's red zone defense limited opponents to just 22 TD in 43 trips inside its 20-yard line, while stopping the opponent on downs on five occasions. The D forced two red zone turnovers, both of which resulted in return touchdowns for the Irish.
  • The Irish committed 17 turnovers in '98 – eight of which occurred in the two regular season losses at MSU (3) and at USC (5).
  • Notre Dame finished undefeated (6-0) at home for the first time since the 1989 season. No Irish team has accomplished that goal since.

1998 – Personnel Highlights

The '98 Irish seniors rank as the most successful crop of recruits ('95 recruiting class) in the program's last 16 seasons (33-15). As well, three '98 assistant coaches, (Mattison, Meyer, and Strong) went on to earn national championship rings at the University of Florida.

Coaching Staff of Note: Jim Colletto (offensive coordinator/tight ends); Greg Mattison (defensive coordinator/defensive line); Urban Meyer (wide receivers/special teams); Charlie Strong (defensive line/linebackers).

  • Team Captains: ILB Bobby Howard; OLB Kory Minor; OT Mike Rosenthal.

  • Unsung Heroes: Jimmy Friday: Made the "Stop before the Stop" crushing Boston College running back Mike Cloud short of the goal line to set up fourth down in the team's dramatic, game-ending goal line stand to secure victory in Chestnut Hill.
  • Deke Cooper is best remembered for this game-saving hit to beat BC, but Cooper also led the Irish in forced fumbles (3) and finished third in tackles (78) from his strong safety position.
  • Part-time starting safety Tony Driver converted in the off-season from tailback, played the role of hero in September's 31-30 win over Drew Brees and Purdue. Driver picked off Brees twice in the game's final four minutes to help the Irish erase a 9-point deficit and seal the victory. Driver finished fourth on the squad in tackles in '98 despite starting just 7 games.

  • Top position group: The Irish offensive line boasted a trio of future NFL draft picks in offensive tackles Luke Petitgout and Mike Rosenthal and quick guard Jerry Wisne. First-year starters John Merandi (center) and Tim Ridder (strong guard) rounded out the group that allowed just nine quarterback sacks while paving the way for 2,338 rushing yards and 22 rushing scores. No member of the 5-man line missed a start in '98.

  • Seniors drafted following the season: Offensive tackle Luke Petitgout (1st Round); offensive guard Jerry Wisne (5th); offensive tackle Mike Rosenthal (5th); split end Malcolm Johnson (5th); punter Hunter Smith (7th); tailback Autry Denson (7th); and linebacker Kory Minor (7th).

  • Award Winners/All-America Selections: TB Autry Denson (Associated Press 2nd team All-America and Team MVP); OT Mike Rosenthal (Walter Camp 1st team All-America, Associated Press 2nd team All-America and Notre Dame Lineman of the Year); DE Anthony Weaver (Football News All-Freshman Team.)

On-Field Results/Irish in the Polls

The Irish finished 7-6 the previous season – Davie's first at the helm – and out of the national polls. ND opened the '98 campaign ranked No. 22, but after a season-opening upset of Michigan, the Irish moved up 12 spots to No. 10. A bludgeoning at the hands of Michigan State the following week dropped the Irish back to No. 23.

The slow rise back to the top 10 took nine weeks and seven wins. It was also short-lived. A win over LSU in the home finale lifted the Irish to No. 9 before a loss to conclude the regular season at unranked USC dropped them back to No. 17 entering the Gator Bowl matchup with No. 12 Georgia Tech.

  • Bowl Result: Lost 35-28 to Georgia Tech, January 1, in the Gator Bowl. (In related news, I moved from Southwest Michigan to Atlanta the following morning).
  • Record vs. Top 25 Teams: 1-1
  • Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 7-0
  • Home W/L: 6-0 (The '98 Irish are the last in the program to finish a home slate undefeated)
  • Road W/L: 2-2 (1-0 neutral)

  • Best Win: The home opener vs. No. 5 and defending national co-champion, Michigan. Led by quarterback Tom Brady, the Wolverines took a 13-6 lead into intermission. Notre Dame responded by scoring the game's next 30 points before Michigan managed a mercy score with 2:09 remaining. Denson finished with 163 yards and two touchdowns in the 36-20 ND win.

  • Toughest Loss: The season-finale at USC (8-4). The Trojans halted Notre Dame's 8-game winning streak and knocked the Irish from BCS contention. The Irish offense was punch-less with starting QB Jarious Jackson sidelined by an MCL sprain (described below. The Trojans prevailed 10-0, sending the Irish to the Gator Bowl.

  • Worst Loss: At Michigan State (6-6 final record) – Seven days removed from a 16-point beating of the defending champs, Notre Dame slept-walked through a first half barrage in East Lansing during which the Spartans out-hit, out-ran, and out-fought the Irish to the tune of a 42-3 halftime lead. The Irish lost 45-23; embarrassed by one of the worst nationally televised performances in program history.

    Davie took responsibility for the loss, post-game. (Thanks)

  • Head-shaking Loss: At USC – the Irish offense was woefully unprepared with a pair of backup quarterbacks (Arnaz Battle and Eric Chappell) not yet ready for the main stage.

  • Game of Note: No review of the 1998 season would be complete without a breakdown of the madness that was the 39-36 home-finale win over LSU and the season's defining play.

    The contest featured three blocked PAT and another that missed; three missed field goals (one tipped, one blocked); a 53-yard INT return TD by LSU; a 13-yard fumble return TD by Notre Dame; a program-record 89-yard INT return TD by Notre Dame; six total turnovers; an 88-yard kick return TD by LSU; and 19 consecutive Notre Dame points.

    But the contest will be remembered for an avoidable injury with :03 remaining.

    Holding a 39-34 advantage, ND attempted to run out the final 21 seconds inside its own 20-yard line. LSU used each of its three timeouts vs. QB kneel downs to set up a 4th down for the Irish with 8 seconds remaining.

    Pinned inside his own 10-yard line, Jarious Jackson ran to the back of the end zone, instructed to kill time and kneel for a safety. He was instead blindsided (Jackson saw the defender at the last moment and began to kneel) and the twisting, awkward fall resulted in a sprained MCL for the do-everything QB.

    The rudderless Irish were shut-out at USC the following week and received a consolation Gator Bowl bid rather than a berth in the first Bowl Championship Series.

1998 – Final Analysis

The '98 Irish lost three contests: one an epic blowout early in the season, the other two largely the result of an injury to their blossoming quarterback (Jackson was nowhere near full strength when he returned for the 35-28 Gator Bowl loss to Georgia Tech).

Why the 1998 Irish should rank higher: Jackson and Denson rank as either the first or second best QB/TB combo of the last 16 seasons (Brady Quinn/Darius Walker). The team boasted a sound offensive line that yielded just 9 sacks while the offense as a whole lost just 7 fumbles in 507 rushing attempts. The defense held seven opponents to two touchdowns or fewer, and the squad's 8-game winning streak after an embarrassing blowout loss in Week Two speaks to the team's character.

Why the 1998 Irish should rank lower: Any team that falls behind 42-3 to a MSU team that finished at 6-6 loses the right to state its case, as our list begins to feature top-tier Irish teams going forward. Their lack of prepared depth (or even competence) at the critical quarterback position was another downfall.

The Eye Test/Atmosphere Surrounding the 1998 Squad: They weren't short of heart. Between the goal line stand at Boston College and finding a way to win in the crazy home finale vs. LSU, the '98 Irish fought to within a game (and one freak injury) of a legitimate chance at a BCS berth.

An argument can be made for Davie's 2000 Irish, ranked one spot behind this '98 group, for the No. 14 spot on our list as the '00 team finished with an identical record vs. a tougher slate of opponents.

But the '98 team had a far more explosive offense, a stronger run defense, the school's most productive runner of all-time in Autry Denson, and an offensive line that boasted three future NFL vets. More important, it had Jarious Jackson, one of the most underrated performers in the program's last 30 seasons.

Next Sunday: Our No. 13-ranked Irish team of the last 30 seasons.

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