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The 13th-ranked team in our Top 15 countdown – the 2006 Fighting Irish.

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

Today, IrishEyes continues the countdown with our No. 13 ranked squad – the 2006 Fighting Irish (10-3).

2006 – By the Numbers

The Irish entered Year 2 of the Charlie Weis era with its best returning core of players since the Lou Holtz era. Breakout junior quarterback Brady Quinn returned for his senior season as did his top pass-catching target, 2005 Biletnikoff finalist Jeff Samardzija.

5th-year senior Rhema McKnight replaced senior star Maurice Stovall at the other wideout spot while senior John Carlson stepped into NFL-bound Anthony Fasano's spot at tight end. Also key to the offense was junior tailback Darius Walker and three of the five starting offensive linemen from last season.

The Irish offense was poised to make a national title run while the defense lost just two starters from the previous season: the linebacker tandem of Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays…both would prove difficult to replace in '06.

Offense: One year previous, new head coach Charlie Weis had transformed a scattered, misguided off-shoot of the West Coast offense into the ultimate pro style attack. The '06 version remained electric, though not as consistent and proficient as its 2005 predecessor. The '06 squad finished 23rd in total offense including a No. 13 ranking through the air. The 31.0 points-per-game ranked 16th nationally and Weis' pupils scored at least four offensive touchdowns in eight separate contests.

Defense: The 4-3 base defense improved vs. the pass, finishing a middling 60th nationally, but dropped nearly 30 spots against the run, finishing at No. 61 overall and a 65th place finish in Total Defense. The '06 Irish gave up 23.85 points per game to rank 67th overall.

The unit put up a solid effort rushing the passer, finishing with 31 sacks for the second consecutive season while accounting for 19 takeaways and three defensive touchdowns.

Notables: statistical and otherwise

  • Brady Quinn threw for a program-record 37 touchdowns (7 interceptions) and completed 289 of 467 passes for 3,426 yards while adding two rushing touchdowns…topped 300 yards passing in four separate contests (MSU, Purdue, UCLA, and UNC)
  • Jeff Samardzija broke his own team record from '05 for receptions with 78 (since eclipsed by Golden Tate) while totaling 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns and adding a rushing score on a fake field goal vs. Purdue…exceeded 100 yards receiving in four different games (MSU, UCLA, UNC, Air Force).
  • Rhema McKnight set career highs with 67 receptions, 907 yards, and 15 touchdowns – tied as the 2nd highest single season TD total to date at the program…exceeded 100 yards receiving in three different games (Georgia Tech, Purdue, and USC)
  • Darius Walker Posted career highs in rushing yards (1,267), attempts (255) and yards-per-carry (5.0) while scoring seven touchdowns on the ground and another through the air…totaled 1,658 yards from scrimmage on the season and left school (one season early) as the program's all-time leader with 109 receptions by a running back, thanks largely to a single-season position record 56 receptions in '06.
  • John Carlson Caught 47 balls for 634 yards and 4 touchdowns – all of which match or exceed the highest total for a tight end since the 1977 season…posted more than 90 receiving yards in games vs. Penn State, Michigan State (a career-high 121) and North Carolina.
  • Tom Zbikowski finished third on the team with 79 tackles while scoring touchdowns on a fumble recovery vs. Penn State and punt return vs. North Carolina.
  • Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri accounted for 30.5 of the team's 78 tackles for loss in '06 and finished first and second on the squad in sacks (Abiamiri 10.5 and Landri 7)…Abiamiri added 13 more hits on opposing quarterbacks while Landri blocked four kicks over the course of the season.
  • ILB Maurice Crum paced the squad with 100 total tackles (10 for loss) as a redshirt-junior...Senior safety Chinedum Ndukwe finished second on the team with 98 stops while adding 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, a sack, and 6 passes defended.

2006 – Personnel Highlights

The 2006 Irish offense boasted a collection of returning skill position talent on par with any in program history, with each of the team's QB, RB, WR, and TE starters setting or tying program records. The squad's seven drafted players following the season tied for the highest team total since the 1994 draft.

Coaching Staff of Note: Rick Minter (defensive coordinator/linebackers) in his final year of his second two-year stint at the University; veteran defensive backs coach Bill Lewis entered his final season at ND after a two-year run as well. Current FBS head coaches Mike Haywood (Miami of Ohio) and Rob Ianello (Akron) coached the running backs and wide receivers, respectively.

  • Team Captains: QB Brady Quinn, S Tom Zbikowski, LB/HB Travis Thomas
  • Unsung Hero: The offense featured plenty of well-documented heroes, but the team's most improved player was 5th-year senior cornerback Mike Richardson. After playing the role of goat late in '04 and struggling mightily throughout '05, Richardson found a home defending the opposing slot. He finished with a career-high and team-leading four interceptions while finishing second on the squad with five passes defended. Richardson recorded 55 tackles including six for lost yardage from his cornerback/slot role.

  • Top position group: Though top-heavy, the Irish wideouts served as the team's most explosive unit again in '06. The Jeff Samardzija/Rhema McKnight duo combined for 145 receptions for 1,924 yards and 27 touchdowns. Sophomore David Grimes added 26 grabs for 336 yards and two touchdowns including a game-tying score in the 1st Quarter of the Sugar Bowl loss to LSU.

  • Seniors drafted following the season: Brady Quinn (1st Round); Victor Abiamiri (2nd); OT Ryan Harris (3rd); DT Derek Landri (5th); CB Mike Richardson (6th); OG Dan Santucci (7th); S Chinedum Ndukwe (7th).

  • Award Winners/All-America Selections: QB Brady Quinn. Including finalist nominations, the list is voluminous, but among his top honors were the Maxwell Award – presented annually to the nation's top player; 2nd Team A.P. All-American; the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and a fourth-place finish in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. TE John Carlson (SI.Com 2nd Team All-American); Jeff Samardzija (Walter Camp Foundation 2nd Team All-American and 2nd Team A.P. All-American), Biletnikoff Award Finalist; Sam Young (Sporting News 1st Team Freshman All-American); Tom Zbikowski (A.P. 3rd Team All-American).

Waiting in the Wings: The following future stars played subordinate roles for the 2006 squad:

  • Sophomore David Bruton logged 85 minutes as a backup safety (18 tackles)
  • Backup nose tackle Pat Kuntz tallied 81 minutes, finishing with 12 tackles and a half-sack
  • Sophomore safety Kyle McCarthy appeared in all 13 games, recording 9 tackles on special teams
  • Freshman cornerback Darrin Walls saw action in 8 games including the opener at Georgia Tech as part of an effort that limited Yellow Jackets star receiver Calvin Johnson to 2 receptions for 16 yards in the second half.

On-Field Results/Irish in the Polls

The Irish finished 9-3 in 2005 and ranked No. 9 in the final AP Poll. The '06 Irish began the season No. 2 overall, flip-flopped between No. 4 and No. 2 in the first three weeks, then plummeted to No. 12 after a blowout home loss to No. 11 Michigan.

The Irish would not lose again until Thanksgiving Saturday, climbing as high as No. 6 prior to the season-finale loss to USC at the Coliseum.

  • Bowl Result: Overwhelmed by LSU, 41-14 in the Sugar Bowl. The Irish came in at No. 17 in the final A.P. poll.
  • Record vs. Top 25 Teams: 1-3
  • Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 5-0
  • Home W/L: 6-1 Road W/L: 3-1 (1-0 neutral)

  • Best Win(s): Penn State – One week after a hard-fought, albeit uninspiring win at raucous Georgia Tech to open the season, the now No. 4-ranked Irish dropped the hammer on No. 18 Penn State in the first meeting between the programs since the famous Snow Bowl 14 years prior.

    The Irish offense began to stress Penn State's vaunted linebacker corps early in the 2nd Quarter, with Quinn finding tight end John Carlson repeatedly down the seam and in middle zones, and, for the second consecutive week, with heavy reliance on the hands and feet of halfback Darius Walker.

    Notre Dame jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead and blew the game open in the first minute of the second half courtesy of a Tom Zbikowski 25-yard fumble recovery touchdown. The Irish rolled up a 41-3 advantage before running out the duration with a 41-17 victory. Walker accounted for 128 all-purpose yards and a touchdown while Quinn racked up 287 passing yards and three scores without a pick.

    The game was the high-water mark of the season and possibly of the Weis era in terms of overall execution vs. quality opposition. The win moved the Irish back to No. 2 in the A.P. Poll, though the ranking would stand for a mere seven days.

  • Toughest Loss: Each of the squad's three losses arrived in grand fashion, but despite a 20-point final margin, the Irish had their chances at USC.

    Notre Dame rallied from two 18-point deficits to trail by just 11, 28-17 entering the final period. A Trojans field goal and ensuing 44-yard touchdown by Irish killer Dwayne Jarrett (stats) effectively ended the proceedings, as did a returned onsides kick touchdown by USC linebacker Brian Cushing after the Irish had drawn to within 13 with just under four minutes remaining.

    The 44-24 decision extinguished the squad's slim national title hopes. Notre Dame was selected for BCS participation for the second straight season despite the lopsided defeat.

  • Worst Loss: Michigan. Seven days after the squad's best performance in nearly a calendar year, the 7-point underdog Wolverines dominated the Irish on both sides of the football, winning 47-21 in South Bend. The game began poorly, with an interception touchdown by Wolverines LB Prescott Burgess courtesy a Quinn-to-Carlson pass that went through the usually reliable target's hands into Burgess's for the uncontested score.

    Though the Irish tied the score at 7 they were never in the contest, falling behind 20-7 in the first quarter and 34-7 late in the second before trimming the lead to 20, 34-14 at the break. The Irish drew to within 19 in the 4th Quarter before a LaMaar Woodley interception touchdown sealed the unexpected blowout win for the visitors.

    The contest marked the largest margin of victory by the Wolverines over the Irish in South Bend in series history.

    Notre Dame was also hammered in the Sugar Bowl, 41-14 by a powerful LSU squad, though the fan base had come to expect such beatings from top tier teams after earlier losses to Michigan and USC.

  • Game of the Year: at Michigan State. One week after the season-derailing loss to Michigan, the Irish ran into a nighttime buzz saw in East Lansing against the hungry, physical Spartans.

    Notre Dame fell behind 17-0 early and 31-14 at intermission. But a shaky Quinn regrouped in the second half, throwing touchdown passes of 63, 42, and 14 yards to bring the Irish to within four points with less than four minutes remaining.

    Bludgeoned on the ground the entire evening, the Irish defense stiffened to force the Spartans into a precarious 3rd and 3 at their own 19-yardline. Notre Dame dialed up a blitz, and linebacker Mo Crum's pressure forced an errant throw by MSU QB Drew Stanton. The resulting interception was returned 27 yards by senior CB Terrail Lambert for the go-ahead touchdown, 40-37.

    Lambert added to his heroics with a diving tipped interception of Stanton to finish the proceedings with under 15 seconds remaining.

    Quinn threw for 319 yards and 5 scores while both Samardzija and Carlson topped the 100-yard receiving mark while combining for three scores. Rhema McKnight chipped in with two difficult touchdown receptions.

  • Play of the Year: The greatness of Brady Quinn and determination of Jeff Samardzija erased 59 minutes of sleepy, uninspired football in what would become the defining play of the Weis-era.

    Trailing 17-13 with 1:02 remaining, the Irish faced 80 yards of pasture with no timeouts in tow. A Quinn-to-Samardzija sideline pass ate up 21 yards with a Quinn-to-David Grimes bullet earning 14 more. Now at the USC 45 yard-line, Quinn, who had been under fire all day, escaped the Bruins three-man rush and found Samardzija late on a crossing route.

    The Shark handled the rest, first sprinting, then stumbling and fighting through the UCLA secondary for a 45-yard, heart-stopping, game-winning touchdown reception with just 27 seconds remaining.

2006 – Final Analysis

Why the 2006 Irish should rank higher: If pressed, I think they'd probably beat the No. 12 team that will appear in this spot next week (but that squad fared much better vs. quality opposition than did this '06 group). The '06 squad could score, and at its best, could compete with any of the next 3-4 teams to be previewed on the list.

Irish fans could definitely argue for the '06 squad ahead of next week's edition, though I'll obviously present arguments to the contrary.

Why the 2006 Irish should rank lower: Irish fans need to separate the '05 team from the '06 squad: though many of the names remained the same, few players or position groups on the '06 squad (with the exception of Darius Walker) played on par with their predecessor(s) of '05.

Most notable in the drop-off was the team's offensive line that allowed 10 more sacks and contributed to the team's drop in ground production at nearly 0.4 yards per carry fewer than in ‘05. (Likewise, the '05 Irish converted 49 percent of its 3rd down tries vs. the '06 group's 40 percent success rate.)

In a head-to-head scenario, either of Bob Davie's '98 or '00 squads featured previously could have controlled the clock with their running games and frustrated the '06 offense with solid pressure from their respective front sevens. The 2006 team's 1-3 finish vs. Top 25 competition is difficult to justify, and though the wins over Michigan State and UCLA were thrilling, those squads dropped a combined 14 games during the '06 season.

The Eye Test/Atmosphere Surrounding the 2006 Squad: Considering the lofty expectations, the end product was a bit of a disappointment. Though the '06 squad would have hammered any of the program's next three teams on the field of play, much was expected after a thrilling 2005 rebirth and consensus top 5 pre-season ranking for '06. The team ultimately fell short, posting its best wins vs. mere Top 30-level teams such as Georgia Tech, Penn State, and UCLA.

Each of the three blowout losses took their toll, with the home defeat to Michigan bringing the program back to reality; the loss at USC ending any dream of a storybook finish; and the beating at the hands of LSU rubbing salt in the wounds of what became a nationally referenced 9-game bowl losing skid.

While teams ranked No. 14 and No. 15 on our list both overachieved, this is the first squad featured that failed to meet expectations.

The '06 team, however, will be remembered fondly, both for the incredible comeback win at Michigan State and the heart-racing ending vs. UCLA. The thrillers occurred within a 28-day span, and both kept the squad theoretically in the national title hunt.

Next Sunday: Our No. 12-ranked Irish team of the last 30 seasons.

Honorable Mention the 1986 Irish

No. 15 the 2000 Irish

No. 14 the 1998 Irish Top Stories