Oct. 20, 2005
By Alan Wasielewski
Lost in the post game buzz of last weekend’s Notre Dame – USC battle was a key statistic that the Fighting Irish will need to address this afternoon. The team has lost its last four games played in Notre Dame Stadium. Brigham Young visits today and the Cougars’ high-powered offense has the ability to hand Notre Dame its fifth consecutive loss in `The House that Rockne Built.’ That is something that has never happened in the history of the program.
Notre Dame has lost four-in-a-row in its own stadium just three times (between 1933-34, 1960 and 2004-05). The previous two streaks marked some of the darkest days in the program’s history. The 1933 team finished 0-3-1 at home and brought about the end of the Hunk Anderson era. For the 1960 season, Notre Dame finished 2-8 overall with four consecutive losses at home to Purdue, No. 14 Michigan State, No. 14 Pittsburgh and Iowa.
The home-field losing streak the Irish are on at this time is possibly the most frustrating and unusual in school history. Last season, Notre Dame lost to Boston College by one point (24-23) with the final score determined in the last minute. Pittsburgh followed up two weeks later with a last-second touchdown pass to down the Irish 41-38.
The streak has continued in 2005. Charlie Weis has recorded four wins on the road, but is 0-2 at home in his brief Notre Dame career. The two losses were battles to the end, as the Irish lost to Michigan State 44-41 in overtime on Sept. 17 and 34-31 to No. 1 USC on the last play of the game seven days ago. That is four losses in four games decided in the final seconds.
The current losing streak has a much different tone than the other two times it has occurred. Notre Dame has the look and feel of a team on the rise, going toe-to-toe last weekend with the best team in college football.
A look in the rear view mirror will not be allowed in the Notre Dame program this weekend. Even in the aftermath of the Irish-Trojan instant classic, Weis spoke of the team’s next challenge.
“I knew as disappointing as this loss is, I would have to talk about BYU,” Weis said after last Saturday’s game.
“(The team) is disappointed, but it is our job to bring them back.”
Weis will need to bring his players back quickly to avoid a letdown against BYU today. The Cougars appear to be finding their identity this season. After starting the year 1-3, BYU has responded with two consecutive victories at New Mexico (27-24) and at home against Colorado State (24-14).
As usual for BYU and a Mountain West Conference team, the Cougars can put up yards and points in a hurry. BYU’s offense is ranked 26th in the nation, averaging 432 yards per game. The passing offense, as per BYU tradition, is supremely efficient and rated 11th in the country at 317 yards per game.
Junior quarterback John Beck makes the BYU offense go, as the Mesa, Ariz., native is completing 65 percent of his passes to go along with 1,902 passing yards and 12 touchdowns (eight interceptions).
The BYU passing offense has always been a difficult one to defend because the team has the ability to spread the ball all over the field and utilize a number of different receivers. Five players have posted 20 or more catches for the Cougars this season, led by sophomore tight end Johnny Harline (20 catches, 450 yards) and senior wide out Todd Watkins (23 catches, 365 yards, five touchdowns).
While BYU will always be known for its passing game, the rushing attack earned the team’s headlines last weekend in the victory at Colorado State. The Cougars threw just 18 passes while rushing for 274 yards. Junior RBI Curtis Brown rushed for 147 of those yards while scoring two touchdowns and leads the team with 531 total rushing yards. Cougar head coach Bronco Mendenhall, in his first season at BYU, will bring a dangerous and developing offense into today’s game.
On the defensive side of the ball, BYU’s opponents have enjoyed some success rushing the football. The Cougars surrender 145 yards on the ground and 386 total yards per game. A pair of junior linebackers has developed into the playmakers on the BYU defense. Cameron Jensen (39 tackles, three for a loss) and Justin Luettgerodt (six tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) key the team’s production in BYU’s 3-4 alignment.
While BYU’s passing offense has always been the team’s traditional strength, Notre Dame has quickly established itself as one of the top passing teams in the nation under Weis. The Irish are putting up 489 total yards, 36 points, 318 passing yards and 170 rushing yards per game. Those statistics add up as the 12th-rated offense in the nation. The diverse offense has made the Notre Dame offense difficult to stop and even more challenging to push to the sidelines. Notre Dame owns a tremendous advantage in possession time this season over its opponents (35:12 to 24:48).
Junior quarterback Brady Quinn has captured the nation’s attention by completing 64 percent of his passes, throwing for over 300 yards three times and amassing 1,885 passing yards. His top target, junior wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, is putting up impressive All-American-type numbers with 24 catches, 598 yards and nine touchdowns.
Samardzija will be looking to put his name in a special part of the Irish record books today as well. This season, he became the first Notre Dame player to catch at touchdown pass in the first six games of a season. That streak ties Malcolm Johnson’s 1996 school-record run of touchdown passes. A scoring catch this afternoon will give Samardzija his own unique spot in Irish football history, becoming the first Irish player to nab a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games.
One of the many positives that Notre Dame can take from its loss to No. 1 USC last weekend was the performance of the team’s defense. Notre Dame’s defense has been somewhat porous, giving up 431 yards per game, with 305 of those yards coming in the air.
Further examination of the statistics, however, will provide a better picture of the defense’s performance this season. The unit, led by senior linebacker Brandon Hoyte (49 tackles, four sacks, 11 tackles for loss) and junior safety Tom Zbikowski (37 tackles, two interceptions, four passes defended), is yielding 25 points per game (ranked 62nd in the nation and effective when the offense is putting up 36 points per game) and allowing a pass-efficiency rating of 149.56 – a mark that is ranked 17th in the nation.
Notre Dame also is close to eclipsing its interception total of last season (nine) through the first half of the 2005 season. The Irish have picked off seven passes this year, led by Zbikowski, senior Mike Richardson and junior Chinedum Ndukwe with two each.
Senior linebacker Cory Mayes has played a key role in the success of Notre Dame’s defense through the first six games. He is fifth in tackles with 30 (18 solos), has one sack, three tackles for loss and has recovered a pair of fumbles this season.
Speaking of Zbikowski, he has given the Irish special teams a much-needed boost. With his spectacular 60-yard punt return against USC, he vaulted the Irish punt return team to eighth in the nation with a solid 16-yard average per return.
The theme for this weekend’s game is a familiar one for the ’05 Notre Dame team and its fans. The first loss of the season came at home in overtime to Michigan State after a stirring comeback. That heartbreaker was followed by a road contest at Washington, with the Irish facing their former head coach in a game they were expected to win.
Today, Notre Dame faces another foe with a bit of history after a heartbreaking loss. BYU dealt the Irish a loss in the season opener in Provo last year, holding on for a 20-17 victory. The Cougars have been a threat in the series with Notre Dame as well, winning two of the five previous meetings – including a 21-14 victory in Notre Dame Stadium in 1994.
For Notre Dame to earn its fifth victory of the year today and end its home-field losing streak, the Irish will need to follow the pattern they established after the Michigan State loss. Going into the Washington game, Notre Dame focused on fundamentals and did not give in to the possibility of a letdown.
Weis and his coaching staff accepted the responsibility of this mission immediately after the loss to USC last week. Today, we will find out how well the assignment is completed.