From top-ranked to rank and file to just plain rank. That is
what has become of Notre Dame football since David Gordon's
faith-rattling 41-yard field goal with five seconds remaining
lifted Boston College to a 41-39 defeat of the Fighting Irish on
Nov. 20, 1993.
A week earlier second-ranked Notre Dame had toppled Florida
State in a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown to claim the top spot in
the country. But then came the heartbreak at South Bend, and
since that loss the Irish have won just seven of their 13 games.
In '94 they were 6-5-1 and were outscored 103-69 in the fourth
quarter. Notre Dame also failed to defeat a single ranked
opponent for the first time since 1981. Ultimately, in the wake
of a 41-24 Fiesta Bowl abasement at the hands of Colorado in
which the Irish raised diffidence to a higher plane, they found
themselves deservedly--and for the first time in eight
years--unranked at season's end.
"Last year was the most frustrating year I have ever had as a
football coach," says Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz. "We just never
got the problem solved."
The Irish were a Rubik's Cube of problems in '94, with no
positions more troubled than those on the offensive line, where
there were nine lineup combinations. "You could never get in a
rhythm because you just never knew who was going to be next to
you," says senior right tackle-right guard-left tackle-left
guard Jeremy Akers.
Notre Dame's ground attack, the heart of any Holtz offense,
averaged 216 yards per game, the lowest total since 1986, his
first season in South Bend. And junior quarterback Ron Powlus,
who threw a team-record 19 touchdown passes, was sacked 25
times. TV viewers who tuned in to Notre Dame home games could
not recall NBC's televising such dubious efforts to block since
Charo appeared on Hollywood Squares.
What happened? "That's the million-dollar question," says senior
center Dusty Zeigler, the only offensive lineman to start all 12
games, the first six at left guard. "We were under the
microscope, and it got confusing for everyone. Then people just
weren't having any fun, and we lost confidence."
That crisis in confidence worries Holtz, who hasn't helped
alleviate it with recent public comments. Despite signing the
nation's top recruiting class two of the last three years, Holtz
said in March, "We aren't going to be a particularly talented
football team." A month later Holtz asked Dr. Mick Franco, a
psychologist in the university counseling center, to conduct a
leadership seminar for 16 players, mostly seniors.
"The word leader implies a responsibility, not an honor," says
Franco. "Coach Holtz wanted me to make them aware of that, and
during spring practice we started seeing leaders emerge."
That didn't help in the first half of the spring game, in which
the second unit played the starters to a 0-0 tie. At halftime
Holtz had the scorekeeper award the scrubs three touchdowns,
hoping to get the first team to play desperate football.
So we know that Holtz can put points on the scoreboard. But what
about his offense? Number 1 wideout Derrick Mayes--who last year
caught as many passes (47) as receivers two through
four--returns, as does the team's leading rusher, Randy Kinder
(5.9 yards per carry). Holtz appears intent on not mixing the
ingredients of his offensive line into an Irish stew again. And
when evaluating the 6'2", 225-pound Powlus, who has shed 10
pounds since the Fiesta Bowl, Holtz points to the 19-9
touchdown-to-interception ratio and says, "If you really look
objectively at what he did last year, you would have to be
Dr. Franco asserts that to be a great leader one must be humble,
something the Irish defenders must be after their performance
the last couple of years. In fact, if there's no improvement in
this area, critics might begin to suggest that the ND on the
Irish jerseys stands for No Defense.
Humble is not a word usually associated with Holtz, who comes
into this season one victory shy of 200 for his career. And
according to Franco, the word shy doesn't fit Holtz either.
"Coach Holtz has rededicated himself to being the best leader he
can be," he says, "and in football you need a General Patton
type at the top."
Which may explain why Holtz will soon break rank with tradition.
For the first time, Notre Dame enters fall practice without any
elected team captains. The team will also work out at a military
academy. "We need these guys to come together," says Holtz of
the intended bivouac 42 miles south of the campus, at Culver
Military Academy. If you're scoring at home, Culver is not one
of the three military academies on the soft Notre Dame schedule
No captains. A secluded training post. The Irish are trying to
close ranks. They may not return to Tempe for the national title
game, but they will regain respect. And if the Irish should
invade Sun Devil Stadium on Jan. 2? Patton always did well in
THE DATA BOX
Head coach: Lou Holtz
Career college record: 199-89-7
10th year at Notre Dame (83-24-2)
1994 RECORD: 6-5-1
W at Northwestern 42-15
L Michigan 26-24
W at Michigan State 21-20
W Purdue 39-21
W Stanford 34-15
L at Boston College 30-11
L BYU 21-14
W Navy 58-21
L at Florida State 23-16
W Air Force 42-30
T at USC 17-17
L Colorado 41-24 (Fiesta Bowl)
Final '94 ranking: unranked
Lettermen lost: 16
Lettermen returning: 41
Returning starters, offense: 8
Returning starters, defense: 4
Oct. 7 at Washington
Oct. 21 USC
Oct. 28 Boston College
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Given protection, Powlus could put the Irish back in the hunt. [Ron Powlus in game]
PLAYER TO WATCH
Following Notre Dame's 1994 season opener, a 42-15 win over
Northwestern in which the Irish surrendered 350 yards and were
outrushed 166-161, coach Lou Holtz told his players, "You are
never going to be a great football team until you are
outstanding on defense. And being outstanding on defense starts
with the ability to stop the run."
Enter noseguard Paul Grasmanis. That game was the last one at
Notre Dame that the 6'2" 275-pounder did not start. In the next
game, against Michigan, he had a team-high nine tackles and a
sack. In fact, his 49-tackle total last season is tops among
Notre Dame's returning front seven.
The Irish, who allowed an average of 333 yards per game in '94,
haven't finished higher than 20th overall in total defense since
1989. Things don't figure to get too much better this season,
because Notre Dame will start seven new defenders. But with
Grasmanis in the lineup, one thing is certain--there won't be
woes at the nose.