Here is what's new at Notre Dame: 21,150 ideational seats that increase stadium capacity to 80,225, expanded locker rooms ("If you're trying to put on your socks, you're not going to elbow someone in the face anymore," Irish defensive end Melvin Dansby says), Friday-night pep talks by former players and, of course, the coach, Bob Davie.
Based on last Saturday's season opener against Georgia Tech, here's what needs to be fixed at Notre Dame: One of the stadium's main water valves, which locked up and flooded the concourse level; the goal line offense, which stalled twice; and any perception that the Irish are ready to contend for a national title.
Notre Dame showed grit in dominating the fourth quarter to turn back the Yellow Jackets 17-13. That the Irish struggled against a mediocre Atlantic Coast Conference team didn't escape Davie's notice. "We have a long way to go," he said, "but I do think we have a good foundation."
That in itself is an improvement. Three years ago, after his first spring as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Davie expressed astonishment at the Irish's lack of talent. He looked at the roster and named just 27 players he thought could have played for the Texas A&M team he had left. Davie sensed the 6-5-1 record to come the following fall.
After practice last Thursday night Davie pondered what was then and what is now. "We're still a recruiting class or two away from being where we need to be," he said. "We'll play five true freshmen on Saturday, and that's with a pretty good veteran team."
Senior quarterback Ron Powlus started strongly, completing 16 of 23 passes over the first three quarters, but threw interceptions on consecutive passes in his own territory in the fourth quarter. He then drove Notre Dame 70 yards in 11 plays for the winning touchdown. He finished with 18 completions in 29 attempts for 217 yards and no touchdowns. Dansby, a senior who has roomed with an ice pack most of his career, led the defense with 12 tackles. He sealed the victory by sacking quarterback Joe Hamilton at the Georgia Tech seven on the Yellow Jackets' final possession.
But two Irish freshmen also played vital roles. Wide receiver Joey Getherall, only 5'9" and 165 pounds, became the first true freshman to start a Notre Dame opener in 14 years and made five catches for 47 yards in the first half before spraining his left knee. (He'll be out two to three weeks.) After junior Bobbie Howard tore a ligament in his left knee, 6'5", 224-pound linebacker Grant Irons acquitted himself well during crunch time late in the game, even though he still has a foal's gawkiness. "Unbelievable," Irons kept saying after the game. "I wasn't used to that many people [in the stands]." Then he unlocked his bike, which was propped against a wall outside the locker room, and pedaled away.
No freshmen needed to apply on the offensive line, where three fifth-year seniors started. While junior tailback Autry Denson rushed for only 71 yards on 24 carries, to the line's credit he gained 33 yards on the final drive. Nowhere were the offensive line's shortcomings as evident as when Notre Dame was inside the Georgia Tech 10. In the second quarter, a first-and-goal at the Yellow Jackets' six yielded minus-two yards and a missed 25-yard field goal attempt. In the third quarter, with first-and-goal at the Georgia Tech four, the Irish ran not four but, thanks to a Yellow Jackets penalty, five plays and gained only three yards before turning the ball over on downs.
A lack of preparation was the primary reason for the impotent attack. With a banged-up defensive line, Davie chose to run just four full-contact, goal line plays against the starting defense during Notre Dame's 29 preseason practices, lest he bring further injury to his defensive front. "When you're blocking bags and scout-team guys, it ain't quite the same," offensive coordinator Jim Colletto said. "We're not very good inside the 10 right now."
Last Friday night former Notre Dame All-America defensive back Dave Duerson, who played 11 seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears and New York Giants, spoke to a roomful of enthralled players. "I would give up both of my Super Bowl rings, as God is my witness, to win a college national championship," said Duerson, who will be followed by such alums as Joe Theismann (Sept. 20) and possibly Joe Montana. "You bleed together, you live together, you die together for one purpose."