Dec. 19, 2000
by John Heisler
Notre Dame in 2000 protected the football better than any team in the history of college football -- and that, more than anything, paved the way for the 10th-ranked Irish to return to a traditional New Year's Day bowl game, this time against first-time opponent and fifth-ranked Oregon State (10-1) in the 30th annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
The Irish will be making their third appearance in the Fiesta Bowl (they also played there in 1988, while winning the national championship, and 1994). It marks Notre Dame's first appearance in a major bowl since going to the Orange Bowl following the '95 campaign. The Irish are looking for their first postseason win since a 24-21 triumph over Texas A&M to end the '93 season.
The Irish committed only eight turnovers all season long, breaking the NCAA season record for fewest turnovers per game and tying the all-time record low previously set by Miami of Ohio in 1966 and Clemson in 1940. Notre Dame pulled that off while playing a freshman quarterback in Matt LoVecchio in its last seven games, all victories, as the Irish finished the regular season with the third-longest winning streak in the country (Oklahoma has 12, Miami nine).
LoVecchio played a key role in limiting turnovers, as he threw 11 touchdown passes against only a single interception. Had he played in enough games to qualify for the final NCAA statistical rankings, his passing efficiency rating (151.7) would have ranked him seventh in the country.
Notre Dame's 9-2 campaign featured a 5-1 record against teams that eventually qualified for postseason play, as the Irish opened the year against four ranked opponents -- only the second time that has ever happened in the history of college football (Central Florida also did it in '99). The Irish came out of that series at 2-2 (losing only to top-ranked Nebraska in overtime and at 23rd-rated Michigan State on a late TD pass), then embarked on the seven-win streak that earned them their first-ever invitation to a Bowl Championship Series contest.
The Irish prospered behind a workmanlike and productive offense that saw Notre Dame finish 14th nationally in rushing and 17th in passing efficiency. The Irish ground game came to life late, thanks to an average of more than 270 rushing yards per contest over the last five games.
Meanwhile, the defense exhibited major improvement early on, as the Irish scheme featured a much more aggressive pass rush and a tendency toward man-to-man coverage in the secondary. That sort of attitude enabled the Irish to match their sack total from '99 by the sixth game and finish with 33.
Maybe more than anything else, it was the play of the Irish special teams that served as the hallmark of this Notre Dame season. Sophomore Julius Jones was named a first-team All-American as a kickoff returner by CNNSI.com after ranking fourth nationally in kickoff returns at 28.5 each, including a 100-yarder versus Nebraska. Meanwhile, Joey Getherall ran punts back for TDs versus both Nebraska and West Virginia while finishing ninth individually in that category. In terms of coverage, Notre Dame set a school record for lowest opponent punt return average at 4.7, breaking the mark of 5.0 from 1951 -- while also ranking 10th as a team in net punting.
In addition, the Irish received a Nick Setta game-winning field goal as time ran out to beat Rose Bowl-bound Purdue, a Glenn Earl field-goal block as time ran out against Air Force (permitting the game to go to overtime, with the Irish winning on a Getherall run), plus five blocked punts. Notre Dame ran back two fumbles for TDs (Tony Driver tied an NCAA single-game record by accomplishing that in one half versus Navy) -- and the Irish scored two TDs on fake field goals
In addition to Jones' first-team honors by CNNSI.com, senior inside linebacker Anthony Denman won second-team All-America honors from Associated Press and The Sporting News and was selected the team MVP by vote of his teammates. Senior offensive guard Mike Gandy won third-team honors from The Sporting News, while Getherall rated third-team mention from Collegefootballnews.com and fourth-team recognition from CBSSportsline. com. Gandy was honored as Notre Dame's top offensive lineman, while senior nose guard Lance Legree won the lineman of the year award from the Moose Krause Chapter of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame.
All that helped Notre Dame improve its record from '99 by four and a half games, marking the third-best turnaround in Notre Dame history. That helped earned Bob Davie recognition as one of three finalists for the
Football News coach-of-the-year award -- and also earned him a new, five-year contract to continue coaching the Irish through 2005.