End of an Era

The 11th-ranked team in our Top 15 countdown – the 1996 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. 11 ranked squad – the 1996 Fighting Irish (8-3).

1996 – By the Numbers

Offense: The Irish boasted the nation's 10th ranked offense and 8th ranked rushing attack. The squad's 463.7 yards-per-game average was the highest since the '92 squad reach 470 per and remains the fifth highest per game total in program history (the '05 squad has since moved into third on the list, ahead of both '92 and '96).

Notre Dame scored 37 points per game, largely the result of 34 rushing touchdowns (15 more through the air). The Irish topped 5,000 yards on the season, 2,965 from the ground game that churned out 5.2 yards-per-rush – a total that hasn't been approached in the 13 seasons since. The squad scored 54 or more points on four occasions, though admittedly against extremely poor competition with the exception of the Naval Academy (9-3).

Defense: Defensive coordinator Bob Davie's 3-4 scheme finished 11th in total defense including a decade-best 8th vs. the pass. They allowed 16.5 points per game (14th nationally) – the lowest total since 1989 and one that was approached only by the 2002 squad (16.7) since.

The Irish defense pitched two shutouts and held two more foes to seven points or fewer. The defense set a still standing program-record with 41 sacks (Notre Dame began tracking the statistic in the early 80s).

Special Teams: Record-setting return man Allen Rossum brought back three punts and a kick-off (the first of the home opener in Week Two) for scores. The Irish as a team scored five times on punt returns with a gaudy 16.2 average while limiting opponents to just 7.8 per punt return. Future NFL stalwart Hunter Smith hit for the fifth-best net punting total in program history at 43.3 per offering.

Notables: statistical and otherwise

  • Sophomore tailback Autry Denson led the Irish with 1,179 rushing yards (5.8) per carry and paced the squad with 11 total touchdowns (8 rushing/3 receiving). A true sophomore, Denson posted seven games in excess of 100 rushing yards, including each of the team's final five contests. Though held in check vs. Ohio State, Denson totaled 350 rushing yards in a three-week span vs. consecutive top 16 opponents Texas, OSU, and Washington. His 5.8 ypc average marked a career best for the school's all-time leading rusher. He added a 74-yard punt return touchdown as well.

  • Senior combo-back Robert Farmer settled in as Denson's backup tailback in '96 and produced his finest season, finishing with 660 rushing yards on just 78 carries. (Farmer's 8.5 ypc average would rank as the program's all-time best had he not fallen 22 rushes short of the qualifying total.) Farmer tied Denson and fullback Marc Edwards for a team-best eight rushing touchdowns including an 81-yard burst vs. Boston College that ranks as the 11th longest run from scrimmage in program history.

  • The last great fullback at Notre Dame graduated following the '96 campaign. Senior Marc Edwards fought through two injuries in his final season but still managed to tie for the team lead in rushing scores (8) and finish second in overall touchdowns (10) to Denson. In seven full games, Edwards ran for a career-low 381 yards (4.6 per carry) after previously setting personal bests of 6.4 yards per rush as a sophomore and 717 yards (with 9 touchdowns) as a junior in '95. Edwards was never dropped for a loss on 83 carries as a senior in '96.

  • Junior quarterback Ron Powlus completed 57.3 percent of his passes for 1,942 yards and 12 touchdowns vs. just four interceptions. Powlus broke the career touchdown mark (twice since eclipsed) with his 43rd Irish TD toss (Powlus finished his career with 52 touchdown passes following the 1997 season.)
  • Senior tight end Pete Chryplewicz led all pass-catchers with 27 receptions and four touchdowns. The underrated tight end's scoring total still ranks as the highest single-season total since Ken MacAfee's position record of six touchdowns in the 1977 championship season. Chryplewicz, who ranked third on the squad with 331 receiving yards, was named honorable mention All-America by Football News. Following the team's 54-20 win over then No. 16 Washington, head coach Lou Holtz praised Chryplewicz for playing the best overall game he could recall by a tight end during his tenure at the school.

  • The linebacker quartet of Lyron Cobbins, Kinnon Tatum, Bert Berry and Kory Minor set the tone defensively. A four-year starter from 1995-98, Minor finished with 53 tackles (7 for lost yardage), 8 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 5 pass break-ups, and an interception from his outside linebacker spot.

    Fellow outside ‘backer Bert Berry led the team with 10 sacks (tied as the third-highest single-season total since the school began tracking the statistic in the early 1980s). Berry finished fifth on the squad with 60 total tackles (5 for lost yardage) in his final season.

    Tatum paced the Irish in '96 with 77 tackles (9 for loss) while Cobbins finished second with 72 stops (3 for loss) adding 4 sacks, 3 pass break-ups, a fumble recovery, and an interception. (Cobbins set an Irish linebacker record with 5 interceptions in 1995.)

  • While the Irish linebackers made the bulk of the big plays, the defense's top player was 5th-year senior defensive end Renaldo Wynn. Wynn finished with 9 sacks, 6 tackles-for-loss, and 61 total tackles from his left defensive end spot.

1996 – Personnel Highlights

The offensive backfield of Denson, Edwards and Powlus, along with backups such as Farmer and Randy Kinder ranks as an accomplished group: Kinder finished his career sixth on the school's all-time rushing list while Powlus and Denson owned nearly every passing and rushing record at the school by the time they graduated.

The Irish placed five defensive starters (Wynn, Berry, Tatum, Rossum, and Minor) on NFL rosters over the next three seasons.

Coaching Staff of Note: Joe Moore, in his final season before his shockingly ill-advised firing (offensive line). Five future head coaches: Urban Meyer (wide receivers); Bob Davie (defensive coordinator); Charlie Strong (defensive line); Kirk Doll (special teams, linebackers); Mike Sanford (quarterbacks).

  • Team Captains: Lyron Cobbins, Marc Edwards, Ron Powlus
  • Unsung Heroes: Sophomore safety Benny Guilbeaux led the team with four interceptions despite starting just eight contests. Guilbeaux added 62 tackles, 5 pass break-ups and a sack from his strong safety spot. Guilbeaux's four pass break-ups and end zone interception vs. USC helped stake the Irish to a (blown) 20-12 lead with just 3:52 remaining.

  • Wide receiver Malcolm Johnson served as Powlus' chief outside target. The 6'5" junior caught 25 passes for 449 yards and two scores, including a key 3rd and 14 catch at Vanderbilt to keep alive the game-winning touchdown drive and avoid a shocking loss to the 2-9 eventual Commodores. Johnson repeated the feat at No. 6 Texas, catching a 10-yard pass with five seconds remaining to set-up the game-winning field goal.

    Backup tight end Kevin Carretta led the team squad in special teams appearances with 265 (for the sake of reference, Steve Filer led last year's team with 209). A former walk-on, Carretta won the team's regarded Nick Pietrosante Award (voted by the players). The statistical highlight of his season occurred vs. No. 4 Ohio State when the fleet tight end made his first career start and produced Notre Dame's longest play of the day, a 42-yard reception to set up a Marc Edwards touchdown.

  • Top position group: Running backs. The backfield quintet of Autry Denson, Robert Farmer and Randy Kinder at tailback, along with fullbacks Marc Edwards and Jamie Spencer accounted for 2,689 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. Three players: Denson, Edwards, and Farmer scored 8 touchdowns apiece and accounted for an average of 214 rushing yards per game. Edwards, Denson, and Spencer caught an aggregate six touchdown passes, giving the backfield 38 of the teams 49 total offensive touchdowns on the season.

    Farmer and Denson produced back-to-back 100-yard rushing outings in tandem in late-season home blowouts of Pittsburgh and Rutgers.

  • Seniors drafted following the season: Defensive end Renaldo Wynn (1st Round); fullback Marc Edwards (2nd); outside linebacker Bert Berry (3rd); inside linebacker Kinnon Tatum (3rd); tight end Pete Chryplewicz (5th).

    The senior class (recruiting class of 1993), led Bert Berry, Lyron Cobbins, Pete Chryplewicz, Marc Edwards, Robert Farmer, Randy Kinder, and Kinnon Tatum, finished their careers with 34 wins, 12 losses, and 1 tie. The win total and winning percentage has not been eclipsed by any of the 14 classes that have followed (guaranteed through the class of '07; the class of '08 has matched the loss total through two seasons).

  • Award Winners/All-America Selections: Guard Jeremy Akers was named 2nd team All-America by College and Pro Football Weekly. Defensive end Renaldo Wynn won the team's Most Valuable Player Award and was named the squad's Lineman of the Year.

Waiting in the Wings: The following future stars played subordinate roles for the 1996 squad:

  • Sophomore linebacker Jimmy Friday (2 tackles)
  • Sophomore linebacker Bobbie Howard (20 tackles, 2 sacks)
  • Sophomore linebacker Lamont Bryant (19 tackles, forced fumble)
  • Sophomore wide receiver Bobby Brown (eight games, 2 receptions)
  • Sophomore quarterback Jarious Jackson (10-15 passing, 3 TD)

On-Field Results/Irish in the Polls

The Irish finished 9-3 in 1995 and No. 11 in the final A.P. Poll. Holtz's '96 squad began the season ranked No. 6 but dropped to No. 9 following an unimpressive victory at Vanderbilt. A Week Four win at No. 6 Texas moved the Irish up one spot before a home loss to No. 4 Ohio State knocked the Irish out of the top 10.

ND climbed as high as No. 8, but the shocking overtime loss to Air Force caused the Irish to plummet to No. 19. Over the next five weeks, ND worked its way back to No. 10 heading into the season-ending showdown vs. USC. A loss to the unranked Trojans resulted in a No. 19 end-season finish for the bowl-less Irish.

  • Bowl Result: Elected not to participate at 8-3 with head coach Lou Holtz retiring at season's end.
  • Record vs. Top 20 Teams: 2-1
  • Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 5-0
  • Home W/L: 4-2 Road W/L: 3-1 (1-0 neutral)
  • Best Win: At No. 6 Texas. The Notre Dame program began its first ever three-game stretch vs. ranked foes with a trip to Austin to battle the No. 6 Longhorns. Ranked No. 9 at 2-0, but without panache thanks to an ugly 14-7 win at lowly Vanderbilt to begin the season, Holtz registered his last great victory as Irish head coach, erasing an 11-point first half deficit en route to a 27-24 win over the talented ‘Horns.

    Texas was led by the backfield of future Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and future NFL record-setter Priest Holmes, but it was quarterback James Brown (the Godfather of Soul) that tipped the scales in the Irish favor. Leading 24-17 with seven minutes remaining, Brown, who is best remembered for a key 3rd down pass to upset No. 1 Texas in 1998, fired an ill-advised sidearm throw that was tipped by Kory Minor and intercepted by Lyron Cobbins.

    The Irish drove 34 yards in eight plays, finally capitalizing after being driven back on three plays from the goal line with an Autry Denson touchdown run on 4th and Goal from the 6-yard line. An Irish defensive stop; a shanked Longhorns punt; and a 6-play, 35 yard drive engineered by Ron Powlus set up Jim Sanson for the game-winning 27-yard field goal with 0:05 remaining.

    The game marked Holtz's 21st and final win vs. a top 10 team as Irish head coach.

  • Toughest Loss: At USC. Ranked No. 10, the 8-2 Irish traveled to the Coliseum in possession of a staggering 13-season run without a loss (12-0-1) to their chief rival. Notre Dame, 13-point favorites, looked to send the legendary Holtz out with a victory in his final regular season game and what was then referred to as an "Alliance Bowl" berth.

    The Irish fought through four lost fumbles to lead 20-12 after an Autry Denson touchdown with 3:52 remaining, but Sanson shanked the ensuing extra point, giving the Trojans hope and a one possession deficit. Eight plays, 67 yards, and two minutes later, USC scored on a Delon Washington 15-yard scamper. Washington added the necessary two-point conversion run and the teams headed to overtime.

    USC struck first to take a 27-20 edge but Notre Dame could not manage a first down on their only extra session possession, with a batted down Powlus pass finishing the contest and the Holtz era at Notre Dame.

  • Worst Loss: Home vs. No. 4 Ohio State. One week after Notre Dame's dramatic win at Texas, the Buckeyes proved the Irish were not quite back at championship level with a thorough 29-16 whipping of ND in South Bend.

    Ohio State handled both lines of scrimmage, rushing for 206 yards while limiting Notre Dame's run-heavy attack to 126 and holding Powlus to a 13-30, 2 interception effort through the air. Notre Dame ‘backs were stopped for gains of 2 yards or fewer on 23 of 41 carries.

    Denson provided the Irish faithful with a glimmer of hope, but his late 83-yard punt return touchdown was called back due to an obvious hold in the open field.

    The Buckeyes finished the season as Rose Bowl Champions and No. 2 in the final A.P. Poll.

  • Head-shaking Loss: At home vs. unranked Air Force. One week after bludgeoning No. 16 Washington for 650 total yards (397 rushing) in a 54-20 whipping, the Falcons held the eighth-ranked Irish to a Holtz-era low 67 yards on 37 head-shaking carries en route to the 20-17 overtime upset in front of a shocked fan base in South Bend.

    Led by diminutive quarterback Beau Morgan, Air Force gained 304 yards on the ground vs. Notre Dame's previously stout defense.

    The game marked the first overtime battle in Notre Dame's 108-year history. It ended quickly, when Powlus suffered his second fumble of the game on the extra session's first snap. The Falcons secured the upset five plays later with a 27-yard field goal by Dallas Thompson. It was Holtz's first and only loss to a service academy in 21 matchups as Irish head coach.

1996 – Final Analysis

Why the 1996 Irish should rank higher/are appropriately ranked: The numbers are staggering: 407 points scored vs. 181 allowed. The 10th ranked overall offense and 11th ranked overall defense. More than 2,100 yards gained than their 11 aggregate opponents. 49 offensive touchdowns scored vs. 23 allowed. A staggering 8 non-offensive touchdowns for a total of 57 (the '09 Irish, for the sake of reference, scored just 44 touchdowns in 12 games – 43 offensive).

Perhaps the most impressive statistic of all: a 40-point 2nd Quarter, highlighted by three punt return touchdowns by two different players, vs. (sub-.500) Pittsburgh in mid-November.

When compared to our No. 12 ranked team of 2002 (click the link at the bottom of this column), it's hard to imagine the '96 squad not dominating up front, defensively, and finding a way to churn out enough points on the ground for a hard-fought victory. And if you're one that believes I've ranked the No. 12 team too high, consider the '96 team's pass rush – technically the program's best of the last three decades – operating vs. Brady Quinn's leaky senior year offensive line as our No. 13-ranked squad on the list.

Why the 1996 Irish should rank lower: Lost in all the gaudy statistics produced by the '96 squad was a key missing ingredient, one that had previously defined the Holtz era: consistency.

No team should blow through No. 16 Washington for 650 yards then bumble around the same home turf seven days later, managing just 67 yards vs. a service academy.

The team was faced with two overtime scenarios and crumbled under the pressure of the moment in both, getting off five total snaps with two penalties, a lost fumble, and a batted 4th down pass intermixed.

It rose to the occasion in Texas, then was overwhelmed one week later at home vs. Midwest foe Ohio State (a team that lost its starting quarterback, Heisman Trophy-winning running back, and two more of the draft's top 10 picks from the previous season).

The Irish blew out poor teams in November and lost to three of the five squads that showed up to test them over the course of the season (the win in Texas was impressive, but No. 16 Washington was on life support from the moment they emerged from the Stadium's north tunnel).

The '96 Irish were mentally weak compared to 9 of Holtz's 10 previous well-schooled squads; sloppy to boot, as the team lost 23 fumbles in 11 contests.

The Eye Test/Atmosphere Surrounding the 1996 Squad: The bitter end.

At a time in the program's history when three-loss seasons weren't celebrated with triumphant books chronicling the season, those of us that were there (I was two years removed from college) know the final season of Lou Holtz's 11-year run was considered a major disappointment.

The '96 team was a record-setting group, and with 8 wins in 11 contests – and a missed extra point away from a top four bowl bid – they're a quality selection for our No. 11 spot. But for the second consecutive week, I'm certain this team could rank no higher.

Next Week: Our No. 10-ranked Irish team of the last 30 seasons.

Honorable Mention the 1986 Irish

No. 15 the 2000 Irish

No. 14 the 1998 Irish

No. 13 the 2006 Irish

No. 12 the 2002 Irish

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