JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Ticker) -- The lopsided loss to Southern California on Thanksgiving weekend cost Notre Dame a BCS bowl berth and a payday of at least $11 million.
The 12th-ranked Fighting Irish still will have an opportunity to put a successful stamp on Tyrone Willingham's first season as coach when they battle No. 17 North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl.
Notre Dame's payoff will be about $1.5 million, but this game offers a chance for the Fighting Irish (10-2) to remove the doubts that surfaced down the stretch, especially after the humbling 44-13 loss to USC on November 30. Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer passed for 425 yards, the most ever against the Fighting Irish.
Willingham became an instant celebrity on campus, printing up "Return to Glory" T-shirts that quickly sold out. With the former Stanford coach restoring a winning attitude to college football's most storied program, the Irish won their first eight games, climbed as high as third in the BCS rankings and entertained aspirations of playing for the national championship.
But the Fighting Irish stumbled in the final month, prompting some observers to suggest their were overrated. Notre Dame suffered a 14-7 home loss to Boston College and needed a late rally to get past Navy, 30-23.
North Carolina State (10-3) tries to validate a season in which the Wolfpack were criticized for playing a soft schedule.
Like Notre Dame, North Carolina State was one of the biggest surprises over the first two months of the season. The Wolfpack set a school record by winning their first nine games and was ranked as high as eighth. However, the Wolfpack suffered a three-game streak to Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia before closing the regular season with a 17-7 victory over Florida State.
The victory over the Seminoles gave North Carolina State a school record for wins in a season.
The Wolfpack feature an efficient offense led by junior quarterback Philip Rivers that could give the Irish problems.
Rivers passed for 3,125 yards, just 44 shy of the school record Freshman running back T.A. McClendon rushed for 1,083 yards and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery had 1,065 receiving yards. It marked the first time in school history North Carolina State had a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver in the same season.
North Carolina State led the Atlantic Coast Conference in total defense, allowing 301.9 yards per game. The Wolfpack recorded 46 sacks, 15 more than any other ACC team.
With an offense ranked near the bottom in Division I-A, Notre Dame's strength all year was defense and special teams. Linebacker Courtney Watson, who paced the Irish with 90 tackles, and cornerbacks Vontez Duff and Shane Walton led the defensive unit.
Walton recorded a team-high seven interceptions, including a school record-tying three in Notre Dame's season-opening 22-0 win over Maryland. Duff became the first defensive player in school history to have touchdowns in three consecutive games, returning an interception, punt and kickoff for scores.
On offense, Ryan Grant rushed for 1,017 yards, becoming the first Notre Dame back to run for 1,000 yards since 1998. Carlyle Holiday passed for only 1,766 yards, but tied a school record with four TDs passes in a 42-0 over Rutgers. His favorite target was Arnaz Battle, who had 48 receptions for 702 yards and five TDs.
Notre Dame is 14-11 in bowl games, but is looking to snap a five-game losing streak in the postseason, including a 41-9 setback to Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2000 season in its last bowl appearance. The Irish's last bowl win was a 24-21 victory over Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.
North Carolina State has a 9-10-1 bowl mark, including a 34-19 loss to Pittsburgh last year in the Tangerine Bowl. The Wolfpack will be facing Notre Dame for the first time.