Today, IrishEyes continues the countdown with our No. 8 ranked squad – the 2005 Fighting Irish (9-3).
2005 – By the NumbersOffense: After puttering to along to a No. 81 national finish in total offense in 2004, Charlie Weis' first squad vaulted to the No. 10 national ranking in 2005. The offense posted the highest single-season yards per game total (477.3) since Ara Parseghian's 1970 group set a school record with 510.5 yards per contest.
Led by the nation's No. 4 ranked passing attack (330-plus per game), the '05 Irish averaged a decade best 36.7 ppg., the fourth highest in program history ('70, '92, '96). Though not the focal point of the attack, Notre Dame's ground game ranked 55th overall, the third-highest total of the decade and easily the best effort since Bob Davie's run-oriented offense left town following the '01 season.
Defense: Rick Minter's defense was at least two steps behind the team's offense in his first season under Weis, allowing 24.5 ppg., (53rd nationally) including a troubling 264 yards per game via the pass, a total which ranked 103rd overall.
Minter's front seven was solid for most of the season, limiting opponents to 132.3 rushing yards per game (34th nationally) though the unit did allow 17 rushing scores (18 passing).
Notables: statistical and otherwise
- Junior quarterback Brady Quinn, he of the 26/25 TD/INT ratio entering the season, exploded as one-half of the nation's most improved duo in '05, setting program records in single-season attempts (450), completions (292), yards (3,919), TD passes (32 - which he eclipsed in 2006), yards per game (326.6), and completion percentage (64.9). Quinn topped the 300-yard passing mark on five occasions, including three games in excess of 430 yards (Michigan State, Purdue, and Stanford) while tossing at least three touchdown passes vs. MSU, Purdue, BYU (a team-record 6), Tennessee, Navy, and Stanford.
- Quinn's top target was previously non-descript junior wideout Jeff Samardzija. The Shark exploded on the national scene with a diving score in the season opener at Pittsburgh, another TD in a Week Two upset in Ann Arbor, and set a personal best with three scores in the shootout loss to Michigan State. The national media began to pick up Samardzija's story as a breakout player and two-sport star just prior to his sublime diving grab on national television vs. Purdue in a 49-28 upset win (the Irish were actually four point underdogs entering the contest). His legend grew with an athletic leaping score in the first half vs. No. 1 USC and key grabs throughout the course of the contest.
By the time Samardzija scored his second touchdown at Stanford in the season-finale, the Irish single-season record book had been turned upside down with single-season marks set for receiving yards (1,249) and touchdown catches (15) by a player that entered the '05 campaign with nothing but 24 grabs in 24 games to his credit.
- Complimenting Samardzija was senior walking mismatch Maurice Stovall. Inconsistent at best prior to Weis' arrival, Stovall found his groove in the Week Three defeat vs. Michigan State, catching a team-high 8 passes for 176 yards and his first of touchdown grab of the season. Stovall reeled in 69 passes for 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final season, including a team-record four touchdown effort vs. BYU in a 49-23 bloodletting of the blitz-happy Cougars.
The 6'5" 222-pound Stovall reached a level few Irish fans thought he could attain as an outgoing player, and was arguably the team's best possession receiver as the season progressed.
- While Quinn and his pass-catchers received the bulk of the credit, do-everything halfback Darius Walker was the straw that stirred the drink. Walker touched the ball 296 times, accounted for 1,547 all-purpose yards from scrimmage and totaled 11 touchdowns, including each of the team's three scores vs. Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Walker also helped send the Irish to their first BCS-bowl appearance in five seasons with a clutch six-yard touchdown run and direct-snap two-point conversion in the final minute of a 38-31 win at upset-minded Stanford in the season finale.
- Senior tight end Anthony Fasano rounded out the program's most impressive skill position group since the early 90s. An accomplished blocker, Fasano finished with 47 receptions (tied for the second-highest total by a tight end in school history) for 576 yards and 2 touchdowns.
- Defensively the Irish were led by a front four that featured three standouts: nose tackle Derek Landri, defensive tackle Trevor Laws, and defensive end Victor Abiamiri. Abiamiri paced the squad with 8 sacks and 7 additional QB hits. His 15 tackles-for-loss ranked second while his 48 total tackles led all defensive linemen. Landri recorded 43 total tackles including 8 for lost yardage, tying Abiamiri with 7 QB hits. Laws finished with 33 tackles (3 for loss) and 1.5 sacks, including what appeared to be the "sack of the season" vs. Matt Leinart on the Trojans final scoring drive at Notre Dame Stadium.
- The linebacker corps performed well-above pre-season expectations, due largely to the emergence of 5th-year senior Brandon Hoyte, who produced far and away his best season in the program after a solid but unspectacular career. Hoyte led the team with 16.5 tackles-for-loss and 92 total stops, including six sacks – the highest single-season total for an Irish inside linebacker since the program began tracking the statistic in the early 1980s. Hoyte's running mate was fellow 5th-year ‘backer Corey Mays. Mays finished second on the squad with 80 tackles (12.5 for loss) and five sacks while forcing and recovering three fumbles. He had started just one game prior to the 2005 season.
- The secondary had two playmakers on the back line in former wide receiver recruit Chinedum Ndukwe and the all-purpose weapon Tom Zbikowski. Of Ndukwe's six turnovers (four fumble recoveries and two interceptions), two occurred in the end zone of chief rivals Michigan and USC. Zbikowski was a revelation in '05, scoring four touchdowns (two punt returns and two interception returns) while averaging 16 yards every time he touched the ball following a punt or turnover. Zbikowski finished fourth on the defense in total tackles (71) and first with 5 interceptions totaling 136 return yards.
2005 – Personnel HighlightsA star-laden cast of characters helped raise the Irish program from also-ran to national contender, albeit for a period of about 11 months. When the Irish offense employed its three-wide sets it was without an exploitable hole in its starting 11. The starting defense featured nine players that eventually made an NFL roster: (Ronald Talley, Laws, Landri, Abiamiri, Hoyte, Mays, Zbikowski, Ndukwe, Richardson).
On-Field Results/Irish in the PollsThe 2004 Irish finished 6-6 and out of the final polls. Notre Dame entered the 2005 season unranked, but an overwhelming opening-game upset at No. 23 Pittsburgh placed the Irish at No. 20 heading into a Week Two contest at No. 3 Michigan. The Irish topped the Wolverines and vaulted to No. 10 for Week Three, but an overtime home loss to Michigan State dropped Weis' squad back to No. 16.
After consecutive impressive wins at No. 22 Purdue and at Washington vs. former head coach Tyrone Willingham, the Irish stood at No. 9 entering their showdown vs. No. 1 USC. Despite the loss, the Irish remained at No. 9 and inched forward to No. 5 at season's end following five consecutive victories over unranked teams (with previously highly ranked but struggling Tennessee on the slate).
The Fiesta Bowl loss to No. 4 Ohio State dropped the 5th-ranked Irish to No. 9 in the final A.P. Poll.
- Bowl Result: Lost to No. 4 Ohio State, 34-20. Sophomore halfback Darius Walker starred for the Irish, totaling 127 yards on 23 touches and scoring all three of the team's touchdowns. The defense let down miserably, allowing 607 yards of total offense to the powerful Buckeyes – a group that picked up steam as the season progressed.
Despite the defense's failures, Weis' Irish had a chance to tie, trailing 27-20 and forcing OSU into a 3rd and 11 at its own 25-yard line with just under two minutes remaining. Future Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith escaped the grasp of Irish defensive end Ronald Talley, completed the first down pass, and the Buckeyes scored one play later on a 60-yard sprint by tailback Antonio Pittman for the 34-20 final margin.
- Record vs. Top 25 Teams (at game time): 3-2
- Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 7-0
- Home W/L: 4-2. Road W/L: 5-0 (0-1 neutral)
- Best Win: At No. 3 Michigan. The Wolverines finished 7-5, so the victory has since been diminished by Weis' supporters and detractors alike, but there's no question Notre Dame's 17-10 win in Ann Arbor sent ripples across the fan base and a disbelieving college football landscape.
The Irish offense picked up where it left off the previous week in Pittsburgh, marching down the field on the opening drive with surgical precision, never facing a third down during a 12-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that culminated in a Quinn to Rhema McKnight touchdown toss and a 7-0 lead for the visitors. ND took a 14-3 lead late in the 2nd Quarter when Quinn found Samardzija on a deflected pass for the score and the Irish extended the lead to 17-3 entering the final period.
The story of the day was the Irish defense, which limited Michigan to 337 total yards and without a touchdown until the 3:47 mark of the 4th Quarter. Cory Mays knocked Wolverines star tailback Mike Hart from the contest with a crushing tackle late in the first period and Notre Dame used a goal line stand and two red zone turnovers (an interception and fumble recovery) to hold back the home team's major advances on the day.
The contest's unsung hero was Irish cornerback Ambrose Wooden, whose hustling tackle at the one yard-line on the Irish sideline kept wide receiver Jason Avant from scoring after a 54-yard gain with just over five minutes remaining. Wolverines QB Chad Henne fumbled the ensuing snap, Ndukwe recovered, and the momentum swung back to the Irish midway through the final period.
- Most Impressive Victory: The season-opening win at Pittsburgh served as a wakeup call for skeptical Irish fans and pundits who believed Weis was in for a rough start vs. a daunting first half schedule. The 42-21 hammering of the Panthers at Heinz Field was highlighted by Darius Walker's overall excellence; the goal line efforts of fullback Rashon Powers-Neal, and an incredible diving catch by the then little-known Samardzija
The Irish piled up 502 yards of total offense, 33 first downs, saw six different players catch multiple passes from Brady Quinn, and received five touchdowns from the backfield duo of Walker (2) and Powers-Neal (3), the highest single-game total by an Irish backfield tandem since Autry Denson (2) and Marc Edwards (3) turned the trick vs. Navy in November 1996.
Defensively, ND held the Panthers to 323 yards and 21 points; just two contests removed from the same Pittsburgh program's 41-point outburst at Notre Dame Stadium the previous season.
- Toughest Loss: Come on…if you have to ask, you're probably reading the wrong column: Click Here for a compelling video review of one of the top five games ever played at Notre Dame Stadium. (Enabling your computer's audio adds to the highlight experience.)
- Head-shaking Loss: The home-opener vs. Michigan State. The Irish returned from a two-game road stint to open the season – the first such occurrence at the program since 1979 – and forgot to bring their defense and overall back from Ann Arbor, surrendering three first half touchdowns, an inexcusable defensive score on Brady Quinn's worst pass of the season to start the second half, and a total of 488 yards of offense to what became a middling Michigan State team.
Notre Dame fell behind 38-24 in the 4th quarter but stormed back to force overtime, only to fall 44-41. The Irish produced 594 yards of total offense, including Quinn's personal best 487 through the air with five touchdowns (three to Samardzija).
2005 – Final Analysis
Why the 2005 Irish could rank higher/are appropriately ranked: After much deliberation, I'm certain Weis' first squad can't legitimately rate higher in our countdown (the seven teams that follow fared similarly or better vs. much stronger competition). The '05 team received the nod over our No. 9 ranked team of the last 30 seasons, the 1995 Fighting Irish, due largely to the Eye Test: while it's difficult to compare across a 10-season span, I'm confident Weis' first team was closer to college football's top tier than their '95 predecessors 10 years prior.
The '05 offense was the program's best since the balanced juggernaut of the 1992 season. The unit accounted for 53 offensive touchdowns vs. just 13 turnovers; racked up 314 first downs, and averaged a program-record 330 passing yards per contest.
The offensive line was by far the program's best over the last nine seasons, yielding just 21 sacks in 454 passing attempts while paving the way for 147.1 rushing yards per contest.
The defense, no better than average nationally, was nonetheless buoyed by timely big plays in wins at Michigan and vs. Tennessee, as well as in the classic loss vs. No. 1 USC in October. The Notre Dame D forced 20 fumbles, recovered 11, and in total caused 24 turnovers, including three miscues returned for touchdowns.
The 2005 special teams ranked as the Weis-era best, led by the determined toughness of punt returner Tom Zbikowski's two scores (with a key apparent touchdown called back in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State) and a punt coverage group that held opponents to just six yards per return (compared to Zbikowski's 14.1 yard average – the fourth best single season total at the program over the last four decades).
Two regular season losses were by a total of six points; one in overtime, the other on a technically illegal play.
Why the 2005 Irish could rank lower: The three ranked teams the Irish defeated over the course of the season finished: 5-6, 7-5, and 5-6 and the bulk of the schedule, outside of a dominant USC squad, were middle-of-the-road (eight opponents finished with 5-6-7-or-8 wins). The defense's lack of speed in the back seven was exposed in the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State.
Comparatively, three teams ranked below the '05 Irish in our rankings would give them a heck of a game, as the '95 and '87 squads boasted powerful running games with capable quarterbacks and dynamic playmakers on the outside (Derrick Mayes in 1995 and Tim Brown in 1987). The 2002 squad had a defense that would have given the '05 offense a run for its money though Willingham's '02 team would have struggled to score enough points to challenge Weis' polished ‘05 unit over 60 minutes. The powerful but one-dimensional offense of the '96 squad, coupled with its strong pass rush, would have also presented a major test for this group.
The Eye Test/Atmosphere Surrounding the 2005 Squad: Regardless of what occurred in the four seasons since, Charlie Weis' first Notre Dame team was a source of great pride for 99 percent of the team's fan base. The 2005 Irish were markedly better in two of the three phases of the game than the similarly-talented group that followed in 2006 (the '06 defense yielded fewer yards but made far fewer big plays).
Weis' '05 offense was a revelation for a program that had struggled to move the ball vs. quality competition since the end of the '96 season.
From a fan/analyst perspective, there haven't many seasons since Lou Holtz left campus that are re-watchable on video in their entirety…the 2005 season is.
Next Week: Our No. 7-ranked Irish team of the last 30 seasons.