Nov. 12, 2004
By Alan Wasielewski
The Rolling Stones produced the hit song `19th Nervous Breakdown’ in 1965. Nearly 40 years later, it might be said that the 2004 version of the Notre Dame football team has created its share of nervous breakdowns for Irish fans and supporters over the past three months.
This season has been a rollercoaster ride for the Irish in terms of team performances, critical praise (whether positive or negative) and unexpected results.
Just a quick glance at the 2004 schedule before the season might have conjured visions of a 6-3 record, but odds are the Michigan and Tennessee contests would be flip-flopped in terms of the win/loss category. The same can be said about the Brigham Young and Boston College contests.
It all adds up to Notre Dame (6-3) bringing at least its fifth different emotion into a match up with Pittsburgh (5-3) in Notre Dame Stadium this afternoon.
The five distinct emotions produced by the Fighting Irish this season have been: apprehension (after the BYU loss), infinite hope (after the win over No. 7 Michigan), frustration (after the Purdue loss), recovery (two wins over Stanford and Navy), inconsolable despair (after the Boston College loss) and a renewed hope for the future (after last weekend’s victory over No. 9 Tennessee).
While the Boston College loss might still linger for some Irish fans that demand perfection, credit should be given to the Notre Dame coaches and players for last weekend’s performance at Tennessee in what is widely regarded as one of the toughest environments in which to play college football.
Mike Goolsby’s interception return in the third quarter, which ended up as the game-winning score for Notre Dame in last weekend’s 17-13 victory, was more than just a defensive touchdown. As Goolsby crossed the goal line with the football held high, it symbolized Notre Dame’s dedication to proving that the Irish belong back in the national college football picture.
Just one week after putting that position in doubt with a devastating loss to Boston College, Notre Dame is back in the hunt for a major bowl game and has already produced a solid turn-around season. Just 12 months ago, Notre Dame was 3-6 entering this week of the year. Entering today’s game, the Irish are 6-3 – a recovery harking back to the 2000 (when Notre Dame rebounded from a 5-7 year in ’99 to finish 9-3 with a Fiesta Bowl berth) and 1987 (after 5-6 in ’86, the Irish ended up 8-4 with a Cotton Bowl appearance in `87) seasons.
The Boston College setback will be fresh in Notre Dame’s memory today, as Pittsburgh is in much the same scenario as the Eagles found themselves three weeks ago. The Panthers are 5-3 and eyeing a bowl berth. Notre Dame is factored into the BIG EAST bowl picture, in which Pittsburgh will be hoping to add itself today. Six victories make a team eligible for postseason play and the Panthers hope to join West Virginia (8-1), Boston College (6-2) and Notre Dame (6-3) in that category. Among the possible bowls for BIG EAST teams are the Insight.com, Continental Tire, Gator, Motor City (if the Big Ten doesn’t qualify enough teams) and the automatic BCS berth.
The Panthers suffered 38-31 overtime loss at Syracuse, but will bring, as it seems of all Notre Dame opponents, a very dangerous team to South Bend. Prior to the overtime loss to the Orange, Pittsburgh has won three straight against Temple (27-22), Boston College (20-17) and Rutgers (41-17).
Pittsburgh possesses a balanced offense, led by junior quarterback Tyler Palko. Palko boasts a solid 130.27 pass efficiency rating, throwing for 1,906 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He is ranked 25th in the nation for total offense per game (130.27). His top target is sophomore wide receiver Greg Lee (40 receptions, 832 yards), another stellar Pitt wide out in a long line of Panther receivers (Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant are two of the most recent).
The defense has been Pittsburgh’s Achilles heel this season, as Panther opponents are averaging 391 yards per game (including 265 through the air). In eight games played this season, Pitt has held its opponents to under 17 points just once – the first game of the year (a 24-3 win over Ohio).
Notre Dame, on the other hand, possesses one of the top defenses in the nation. The Irish are 10th in the country in run defense (95.2 yards per game) and 45th overall – including 28th in scoring defense (18.8 points per game).
The Irish defense is coming off one of its’ signature performances of the season at Tennessee last week. Brandon Hoyte’s big hit on Volunteer starting quarterback Erik Ainge during the last play of the first half was just a precursor to Notre Dame’s outstanding defensive effort in the final 30 minutes. The Irish held the home team to three points in the second half, employing a zone defense that allowed Notre Dame’s experienced linebackers to have a dominating impact on the game.
Senior linebacker Mike Goolsby was named the National Defensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Foundation after his 14 tackle, one interception and one sack last Saturday versus Tennessee.
No one was more effective than Goolsby, who was named the National Defensive Player of the Week after his 14-tackle, one-interception and one-sack performance. Brandon Hoyte was right behind him with 11 tackles, while Derek Curry added eight tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.
Throw in Justin Tuck’s dominating performance at defensive end, (eight tackles, two for a loss and two sacks) which punctuated his rise to the top of the Notre Dame career sack chart (24.5), and the Irish enjoyed arguably their top team defensive effort of the year.
While the defense the defense produced one of its best efforts, the Irish offense is still looking for consistency. Notre Dame was held to a season-low 216 yards of total offense against Tennessee, but called upon the running game when it was needed (44 yards in five plays late in the fourth quarter). Senior Ryan Grant (4.3 yards per carry) and freshman Darius Walker (567 yards, four touchdowns) have developed into a solid one-two punch for the Irish running game. Walker is averaging 70.9 rushing yards per game in the past eight contests and needs 190 yards in Notre Dame’s last two games to reach Jerome Heavens’ freshman record (756 yards in ’75).
The football contest in the Stadium today will be another in-season test for Notre Dame this year. The Irish will look to maintain the momentum from Saturday’s win at Tennessee. A win over the Panthers would provide great incentive for the season finale against top-ranked USC in two weeks.