The question, it turns out, is not whether the Fighting Irish can win eight or nine games this season, but rather, Can Notre Dame rush for 12 yards in a game?
That would be progress. Dazed and confused by a blitz-happy Brigham Young defense whose leading tackler was the aptly named linebacker Brady Poppinga, Notre Dame's offensive line opened few holes last Saturday night in Provo--which is to say, it picked up where it left off last year. Despite the return of four starters to the line, three Fighting Irish running backs combined for only 24 yards on 16 carries. Factor in sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn's minus-13 yards rushing, and the Irish's rushing total was a paltry 11.
"That's crazy," said Notre Dame tight end Marcus Freeman of the abysmal figures. "We couldn't really pick up their blitz packages." But, he admitted, the Irish weren't always confused: "Sometimes we just got beat." Taking no joy from his own contributions--three catches for 28 yards-- Freeman said, "We expected a lot more of ourselves."
Didn't we all. With most of the offense returning from last year's 5-7 team, the time had finally come (or so it was thought) for third-year coach Tyrone Willingham's West Coast offense to take off. Didn't happen. Because of the lack of a ground game and a 13-3 halftime deficit, Quinn had to pass on 47 of 68 snaps and looked more flighty than mighty. He was skittish in the pocket and took very few shots downfield but did show an uncanny ability on third-and-long to complete the five-yard dump pass to a tight end. The Cougars hung on for a 20-17 victory--it took a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown with 8:19 left to give Notre Dame a chance to win it--and handed Willingham his 10th loss in his last 15 games.
Asked whether his wide receivers weren't getting open or his quarterback wasn't seeing them, a weary Willingham answered, "All of the above."
It was a stunningly inept performance by an offense thought to have nowhere to go but up. Yes, featured running back Ryan Grant was held out of the game with a sore hamstring. And, yes, BYU has become a stout defensive squad under second-year coordinator Bronco Mendenhall. (The Cougars ranked 14th in the nation in total defense last season, impressive for a 4-8 team.) Still, we're not talking about the '85 Chicago Bears here. We're talking about a team Notre Dame beat by 19 points in South Bend last November, a team for which the Irish had an entire off-season to prepare. (Notre Dame had even asked that this game be rescheduled from Oct. 30 so it wouldn't have to open against Michigan.) Yet on Saturday night, the Irish's eight first-quarter possessions resulted in six punts, a fumble and a field goal that their hosts all but handed to them thanks to two long penalties.
Despite the possibility of a 1-4 or 0-5 start (up next for Notre Dame are the Wolverines, Michigan State, Washington and Purdue), you can keep Willingham's name off the list of coaches whose jobs are in danger. He'll be the beneficiary of the same institutional patience that gave Gerry Faust and Bob Davie at least five years in South Bend. Willingham's defenders point out that he's still saddled with two classes of players recruited by his predecessor, Davie. Of course, that argument presumes that Ty's guys are a cut above; the class his staff brought in last spring was notable for its lack of star power. And the Irish undercut their recruiting efforts on Dec. 6, when they got drilled in their final game of the season, 38-12, by a Syracuse team that had lost to Rutgers the previous week.
"These kids have short memories," a Notre Dame athletic official said before the BYU game. "They don't remember Rocket Ismail. They don't remember Tim Brown. They only know what you've done lately, and we haven't done much."
Indeed, the Irish have had three losing seasons in five years--the first such stretch for the program in 115 years, and they have not won a bowl game or finished in the top 10 in a decade. This winter a group of Notre Dame alumni circulated a petition demanding that Willingham be fired. He has not heard the last from them.
"You're going to have highs and lows," said offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick after the game. "This is a low. This one hurts, but it doesn't stop here."