To the objective observer, the 1999 Notre Dame football season was about as exciting as a year could get, with multiple significant games going down to the wire. To the Irish faithful, it could only be seen as discouraging though—1999 went into the books as the first losing season in South Bend since 1985.
Notre Dame had played well in 1998, in the second year under head coach Bob Davie. No one was necessarily expecting “third-year magic” from Davie—the Notre Dame phenomena that had seen Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all win national titles in their third year, and would later see Brian Kelly reach a national championship game in his third season—but there was reason to be optimistic.
The Irish opened at #18 in the polls with a senior quarterback in Jarious Jackson that two years of starting and three years of significant playing time under his belt. They rolled Kansas in the opener and then went to seventh-ranked Michigan. Jackson threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jabari Holloway with four minutes left, and with a 22-19 lead, things were looking good.
It was year Notre Dame’s season started to unravel. Michigan, led by Tom Brady at quarterback, drove down and scored with 1:38 left to take a 26-22. Jackson led one more rally from the Irish, but they ran out of time on the Wolverine 12-yard line.
More heartbreak followed at Purdue, ranked 20th and quarterbacked by Drew Brees. Notre Dame led 10-0 early, 16-14 at the half and still clung to a 23-22 lead in the fourth quarter. Brees led two drives for field goals to give the Boilermakers a five-point lead, but Jackson again led the Irish to the doorstep of a comeback.
With the ball on the one-yard line, the team’s leading rusher, Tony Driver, was stopped. Notre Dame took their final timeout. But even after the timeout, there was a miscommunicating on the offensive line, resulting in a sack on the ensuing play. The clock ran out and Notre Dame fell out of the Top 25.
A return home didn’t help. Michigan State was waiting, and Nick Saban had the best team of his tenure in East Lansing, the one that would go 9-2 and get Saban the LSU job. The Spartans handled the Irish 23-13.
After a week off, the schedule didn’t get easier. Oklahoma was coming to town and rookie head coach Bob Stoops had the Sooners playing well. His quarterback, Josh Heupel was prolific, and the Sooners were just one year away from a national title that would finally put this proud program back on the national stage, a place they’ve more or less stayed ever since.
OU led 30-14 early in the second half and it looked over. Then, the Irish began to rally and turn their season back in the right direction.
Jackson hit Holloway for one touchdown and an interception set up another, cutting the lead to two points before the third quarter was out. In the fourth quarter, Jackson made a big 23-year scramble that keyed another touchdown drive and the Notre Dame defense held firm. The 34-30 win stopped the bleeding.
Notre Dame then played two mediocre Pac-10 teams at home, Arizona State and USC. The Irish blasted the Sun Devils 48-17. Then Davie’s team again showed its mettle, rallying from 21 points down to beat USC 25-24. A little luck of the Irish didn’t hurt either—with 2:40 left, Jackson fumbled the ball into the end zone where Holloway recovered it for the winning score.
Another nailbiter came in a home date with Navy at the end of October. Trailing 24-21, Notre Dame faced a 4th-and-9 with 1:37 left. They converted the first down, literally making it by about a centimeter. The Irish won that game 28-24.
The 1997 season had seen Notre Dame start poorly, be left for dead, but rally and get to bowl eligibility. They were now 5-3 and needed to split their remaining four games (the rules then required teams to finish over .500 to make a bowl) to do it.
But the schedule turned tougher and Notre Dame’s season had one more plot twist left in. They went to Tennessee, the defending national champion and Fiesta Bowl-bound this year. The Vols smoked the Irish 38-14.
Up next was a trip to Pittsburgh. The Panthers would narrowly miss a bowl, but were fired up to play their final home game in the old “bowl”, the stadium shaped like a bowl whose top rows were at ground level. When the ND defense was gashed for 158 yards rushing, and a 10-10 halftime tie turned into a 37-27 loss, you got the feeling it was the only bowl the Irish were going to visit in 1999.
There was still a chance to win the last two. Boston College came to South Bend, but this was a good Eagles team, one that was 8-2 coming into the game. They led 31-23 in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame got into the end zone, but couldn’t get the two-point conversion. Then their last chance ended with an interception.
One more final dose of salt went on the wound at Stanford over Thanksgiving weekend. The Cardinal were Rose Bowl-bound and had a future Notre Dame coach in Ty Willingham on the sideline. A 37-30 loss sent the Irish to a 5-7 finish.
It was all very entertaining, but the pressure was now on Davie. The third-year magic had become a third-year curse and he needed to prove he could take the Irish back to a major bowl game. At least the darkness of the 1999 season was to be followed the dawn of better days in 2000.