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Notre Dame-Duke 2016: Maybe Not What Cutcliffe Had Planned

Sept. 21, 2016

By John Heisler

Maybe this isn’t exactly how David Cutcliffe had mapped out his future Notre Dame Stadium appearances more than a decade ago when he came to South Bend.

He probably thought he would be spending his time wearing blue and gold on the west sideline of the Irish home facility–as opposed to sporting a different shade of blue and occupying the east sideline as he will Saturday as Duke’s head coach.

On Jan. 3, 2005, Cutcliffe joined the staff of newly named Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis — with Cutcliffe, coming off seven seasons as the Ole Miss head coach, slated to tutor Brady Quinn and what was expected to be a high-flying Irish offense (also including receivers Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight).

However, health issues changed all those plans for the 50-year-old Cutcliffe. He underwent triple bypass heart surgery in March and then ultimately resigned June 1. The man who mentored Peyton Manning at Tennessee and Eli Manning at Ole Miss became something of a footnote or an asterisk at Notre Dame since he never actually coached in any games for the Irish.

Cutcliffe ended up sitting out that 2005 season before returning to Tennessee as an assistant in 2006 and 2007 and then taking over at Duke in 2008.

“I was there for a brief period of time, and I’ve just got incredible respect for the institution and the beauty of the place. I’ve been in that home locker room–all of that brings back some memories and also some memories of a very difficult time in my life,” Cutcliffe told the ACC Digital Network this week.

“We’ve got something to really look forward to. It’s going to be unique, it’s a great setting, it’s early in the season, we’re excited about the opportunity.”

But don’t think Cutcliffe is completely unfamiliar with that east sideline. During his first 17-year stop in Knoxville, he was part of the Tennessee staff in 1990 and 1991 when the Vols played a pair of games against Notre Dame–and what a pair of games it turned out to be.

The 1990 contest–won 34-29 by Notre Dame in Knoxville–was as entertaining a game as any fan could expect. The top-rated Irish were helped by a career-best afternoon from Ricky Watters, who ran for 174 yards, including TD runs of 66 and 10 yards. Raghib Ismail scored what proved to be the game-winning points on a 44-yard run with 3:33 left in the contest. Quarterback Andy Kelly completed 35 of 60 throws for ninth-rated Tennessee for 399 yards.

A year later, Cutcliffe and the 13th-ranked Vols returned the game in Notre Dame Stadium, and this time Tennessee came back from a 31-7 deficit to stun the fifth-ranked Irish 35-34. That time Kelly completed 24 of 38 throws for 259 yards and three scores, including the game-winning 26-yard TD pass with 4:03 remaining. Rob Leonard missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt for Notre Dame as time expired.

The comeback resonated so strongly at Tennessee that the Vols’ athletic department produced and marketed a VHS cassette titled “Miracle at South Bend” about that contest.


Irish fans wondering what to expect moving on from a tough start to a season might want to harken back to 1978. That Notre Dame team, after winning the consensus national championship the previous year, began by dropping consecutive home games to begin the season to first Missouri and then Michigan in the renewal of that series after 35 years between Irish-Wolverine clashes.

Dan Devine’s club rebounded to win eight straight games–including against ninth-rated Pittsburgh, 11th-ranked Navy and 20th-rated Georgia Tech. The Irish lost their regular-season finale 27-25 at USC on a late field goal–then defeated ninth-ranked Houston 35-34 in the Cotton Bowl in the game that became famous as much as anything based on Joe Montana’s consumption of chicken broth on a bitterly cold afternoon in Dallas. Notre Dame rebounded from a 34-12 fourth-period deficit to win that game on a Montana-to-Kris Haines scoring pass as time ran out (with Joe Unis’ PAT providing the margin).

In all, Notre Dame has had 16 previous seasons that included 1-2 starts. The only two of those that included two losses sandwiching a second-game victory came in 1956 and 1985. That 1956 campaign (that ended with a 2-8 record) qualifies as the only one that featured a road loss to open the season followed by a home-field victory and then a home defeat.

On five occasions, Notre Dame has come back from 1-2 starts to play in bowl games:

–1978–Cotton Bowl win over Houston and final 9-3 mark

–1983–Liberty Bowl win over Boston College and 7-5 record

–1997–Independence Bowl loss to LSU and 7-6 mark

–2010–Sun Bowl win over Miami and 8-5 record

–2011–Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State and 8-5 mark


Here are some of the highlights of Brian Kelly’s meeting Tuesday with the media:

–On the Irish start: “Obviously, (it’s) back to work for us. Obviously, a bad start to our season, poor start, whatever way you want to characterize it. Three games into the season, nobody wants to be where we are, but we are 1-2. I’m a 1-2 coach. We’ve got to work to get better.”

–On his team: “We obviously compete unevenly, if you will, in a manner that we would probably characterize as we lack a sense of urgency in the way we play. We play in spurts. We play really well for a period of time, and then we kind of don’t play at the highest level necessary against really good competition. So it’s finding that sense of urgency, that attention to detail that’s absolutely crucial to being a really good football team–we can’t be the kind of football team that we want to be unless we play with a sense of urgency for four quarters. We do some really good things, and then we do some really sloppy things. To be the kind of football team we want to be, we have to eliminate that. We have to eliminate it in our preparation. We have to eliminate it in the way we go to work every single day.”

–On Duke: “David Cutcliffe has taken this team and really transformed it into a physical, tough, aggressive defensive club. They like to bring pressures, they’re very stingy in what they do. They have manufactured a lot of pressures and sacks and turnovers. They’ll do a very good job on the defensive side of the ball getting after you. Daniel Jones has been as good as anyone in the country as far as running their offense. They are so very diversified on offense. They’ve got some guys that certainly can make some big plays on the offensive side of the ball.”

–On his team’s identity: “Now, three weeks into it, it’s pretty clear that we’ve got a group that will compete. There’s no quit in them, but they can’t turn it on and turn it off. So the realization of knowing who we are and what our weaknesses are — a lot of us could go to work on that. You do that by, first of all, getting that out on the table. Hey, here’s who we are. Let’s go work on that. Let’s be cognizant and aware of it and prepare better in practice. We shouldn’t be waiting for the ebbs and flows of games to carry us. We should be the ones initiating the flows of the games, and that is the makeup of this team right now that needs to change.”

–On his defense: “I have to be able to know that everything in the program is being taught, being effectively communicated on a day-to-day basis. So, physically, does that mean on the practice field I have to stand on the defensive practice field to get that done? No, it doesn’t mean that. What it means is that I have to be in defensive meetings. It means that I have to be aware of what the game plan is. It means that I have to know how we’re teaching things and communicating them, which I do. I don’t need a headset. I don’t need to be on the defensive side of the ball coaching tackling. I’m very confident that I’ve got good coaches to do that, but I’m the head coach and I’d better be certain that I know exactly what’s going on in all facets of my program — offense, defense, special teams, recruiting, all of those things. From an optic standpoint, I don’t need to be standing on the defensive end of the field to make sure that gets done. I believe the group’s going to get better each and every week. Some of the mistakes that were made out there are fundamental errors that are correctible errors. That’s why I believe we’re going to continue to get better in that area.”

–On his team’s strength: “They’ve got a competitive resolve. They want to win. They’re got pride. When you’ve got pride and a competitive spirit, that’s a big piece. They don’t like to lose, but they have to understand that to win, you can’t start winning until you stop losing. They do some things that prevent them from winning.”


Duke brings to South Bend two of the most productive players in the country in terms of their career statistics:

–Senior cornerback Breon Borders has 12 career interceptions and that makes him the current active NCAA career leader in that category (Damontae Kazee of San Diego State also has a dozen).

–Safety DeVon Edwards has 326 career tackles and that ranks him third among all Football Bowl Subdivision players and tops among individuals from Power 5 programs.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Notre Dame football scene for Fighting Irish Media. He has been part of the Notre Dame athletics communications staff since 1978.