Nov. 14, 2003
by Bo Rottenborn
This Saturday, 31 seniors will don their Irish uniforms and run out of the tunnel of the “House that Rockne Built” one final time, as Brigham Young (4-6) comes to Notre Dame Stadium in the final home game of the season for the Irish (3-6). Over the last four years, this group helped Notre Dame to its first Bowl Championship Series appearance and a return to the national top five after a six-year absence.
The importance of the class of 2004 to the current Notre Dame team is evidenced by the fact that 19 members have made at least one start this season, while two more played major roles in the past before sustaining injuries this season.
Running back Julius Jones returned to the Irish this season after a one-year hiatus and has been spectacular at times. Among the highlights of this season for him have been breaking the school record for rushing yards in a game (262 vs. Pittsburgh), becoming just the fourth player in the storied history of Notre Dame football to have multiple 200-yard rushing games in a season, and moving into fifth place on the all-time Irish rushing list. He also ranks as the school recordholder in kick returns and kick return yards. On the season, he has 835 yards rushing, an average of 5.5 per carry.
Carlyle Holiday is now a contributor at wide receiver after making 24 career starts at quarterback. In 2001, he became the first quarterback in Irish history to post three 100-yard rushing games in his career, let alone a season. Holiday set an Irish record in ’02 with 126 consecutive passes without an interception.
Wide receiver Omar Jenkins has been a two-year starter and has accrued more than 1,000 yards receiving, ranking second on the team this season.
The tight end position will be hit hard by the departure of this class. Billy Palmer, Jared Clark, and Gary Godsey all have been major contributors over the years. The trio combined for 42 receptions for 468 yards and 26 starts.
Left tackle Jim Molinaro and right guard Sean Milligan provided veteran leadership on the Irish offensive line this season. The two combined for 31 career starts. Milligan was the only returning first-stringer from last year’s squad, while Molinaro was instrumental in clearing the way for Jones’ school-record rushing day.
On defense, Notre Dame loses major contributors at nine positions. Courtney Watson has established himself as one of the top linebackers in the nation. As a three-year starter, he has averaged more than nine tackles per game. He also has 6.5 sacks and five interceptions and has made 10 or more tackles in all but one game this season.
Derek Curry has been a two-year starter at linebacker, while Mike Goolsby was a force a year ago, but has been injured this season. Curry has 86 career tackles, including seven sacks; Goolsby had 75 stops in ’02.
End Kyle Budinscak, tackle Darrell Campbell, and nose guards Cedric Hilliard and Greg Pauly have been the heart of the Irish line. The quintet has combined to make 79 starts and 246 tackles, including 52 behind the line of scrimmage.
The defensive backfield will see five important cogs depart: cornerbacks Jason Beckstrom, Vontez Duff, and Preston Jackson and safeties Glenn Earl and Garron Bible. Duff is a three-year starter who has been a big-play threat throughout his career. In addition to setting an Irish record for season kick return yardage in ’02, he became the first Notre Dame player to return a kick, punt, and interception for touchdowns in a season.
Earl and Beckstrom have been four-year contributors, though the latter missed last season with an injury. Bible and Jackson moved into full-time starting roles this season, combining for 47 tackles.
Nicholas Setta, a big factor in the Irish success over the past few seasons, will depart as one of the top placekickers in school history. He set a Notre Dame record by making a field goal in 16 consecutive games and ranks among the top three all-time in field goals attempted and made and points by kicking. His current string of 92 consecutive extra points is the second-longest streak in Irish history, while his five field goals against Maryland in 2002 are the most-ever in a single game by a Notre Dame player. This season, he took over the punting duties, as well, averaging over 40 a boot.
Brigham Young comes in with a 4-6 record, including a 3-3 mark in the Mountain West Conference. The Cougars have been involved in five games decided by 10 points or fewer, winning three of them, but have not been able to string together back-to-back victories this season. They opened the year rallying from a 13-7 halftime deficit for a 24-13 home win against Georgia Tech and have road wins vs. New Mexico (10-7), San Diego State (44-36), and UNLV (27-20 in overtime). BYU dropped close decisions to Stanford (18-14), Air Force (24-10), and Wyoming (13-10). The other three Cougar defeats – vs. USC, Colorado State, and Boise State – were by a combined 100 points. Against the Trojans, Brigham Young strung together 18 unanswered points to pull within 21-18 with five minutes remaining before two final USC touchdowns.
BYU boasts a strong defensive unit that is limiting opposing teams to just over 310 yards per game – good enough for 18th in the nation. The Cougars also are 16th in pass defense, yielding under 185 yards through the air. Air Force, which led the nation in rushing when the teams met, managed just 194 yards rushing against BYU, 144 below its average.
That unit is led by junior safety Aaron Francisco, who has registered 92 tackles, including 45 of the solo variety, while intercepting a pair of passes, forcing three fumbles, and recovering two more. His tackle total is 31 more than any other Cougar, and his interception on fourth down in overtime clinched the BYU win over UNLV.
Junior James Allen has been the top BYU cornerback, with 46 tackles, including seven behind the line of scrimmage, and four sacks.
Senior linebacker Colby Bockwoldt also has been strong, making 59 tackles, including 14 behind the line of scrimmage. He has a team-high 4.5 sacks, while intercepting a pass and recovering a fumble. Mike Tanner, another senior at that position, has 61 tackles, while freshman David Nixon has stepped in as an immediate contributor, with 45 tackles, three sacks, and nine stops for loss.
Junior end Brady Poppinga anchors the line after leading the MWC in sacks a year ago, earning first-team all-conference honors along the way. This season, he has four sacks, 41 tackles – nine for loss – as well as an interception and a fumble recovery.
Offensively, Reynaldo Brathwaite has been effective on the ground, accumulating 735 yards on 5.6 per carry. Meanwhile, sophomore quarterback Matt Berry is completing 64.2 percent of his passes for an average of more than 200 per game. Freshman John Beck also has seen a great deal of playing time, throwing for 864 yards and five scores.
Toby Christensen is Berry’s leading receiver, having 48 receptions for 497 yards and four touchdowns. One of his scores was the game-winner in overtime against UNLV.
Brigham Young has scored in 360 consecutive games, an NCAA-record streak dating back to 1975.
One of BYU’s strengths is the leg of junior Matt Payne, who ranks ninth nationally in punting (44.9) and has hit 14 of 17 field goals. A year ago, he was tops in Division I-A with a punting average of 47.6, earning all-MWC first-team recognition.