It was a new era for the Notre Dame football program in 2005. The school and the alumni base, feeling that the talent base was in decline, made a coaching change and brought in Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. Weis arrived with much fanfare, as the Patriots had just won their third Super Bowl in four years. The new coach said he had a “decided schematic advantage” over the competition. The 2005 Notre Dame football season made it look like the new coach might have a point.
Notre Dame was unranked to start the season, and opened on the road at Pitt, who was in the Top 25. The Irish offense, led by junior quarterback Brady Quinn, lit up the Panthers for a decisive 42-21 win that got Notre Dame into the polls at #20.
The traditional September battle with third-ranked Michigan was next, and on the road in Ann Arbor, Weis’ offense again came out firing. An opening 12-play drive ended with the first of two first-half touchdown passes from Quinn. The Wolverine defense made some adjustments and slowed down the attack the rest of the way, but the early start held up for a 17-10 win that moved the Irish into the Top 10.
Notre Dame had owned the road, so a letdown in the home opener against what was a pedestrian Michigan State team, was a disappointment. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the offense though, as the final score was 44-41.
Quinn had a 1,100 yard rusher in Darius Walker to provide support. The receiving corps was led by Jeff Samardzija, the current ace of the Chicago Cubs’ pitching staff. Samardzija ended up with over 1,200 yards receiving, and Maurice Stovall was not far behind. Rhema McKnight was a good third option in the passing game.
The defense wasn’t dominant, but this side of the ball had its players. Tom Zbikowski became a folk hero in South Bend for his aggressive play and hard hitting in the defensive backfield. Ambrose Wooden was a talented sophomore defensive back, and Brandon Hoyte a playmaking linebacker. Notre Dame won its next two games, both on the road, at Washington and #22 Purdue, to get back into the Top 10 and set the stage for a battle with USC.
USC was the #1-ranked team in the country. Pete Carroll’s program was the gold standard in college football, having shared the national title in 2003 and won it outright in 2004. Quarterback Matt Leinart had won the Heisman Trophy in ’04 and running back Reggie Bush would win it this season. They were loaded up and down the roster and came to South Bend riding a 27-game win streak.
Notre Dame looked to wake up the echoes, breaking out its green jerseys, reminiscent of Dan Devine’s gambit prior to the 1977 game, a year that saw the Irish win a national title. In this game, Zbikowski returned an interception 59 yards to the house and Notre Dame led 21-14 at the half.
The lead was still 31-28 and USC faced a 4th-and-9 on their own 26-yard line with 1:26 left. Leinart threw a fade route to Wayne Jarrett. The receiver made the play, but the first down wasn’t what was damaging. It was the run after catch, as he made it all the way to the Notre Dame 13-yard line.
With seven seconds left, the ball was on the Notre Dame 2. USC had room for two plays. Leinart tried to sneak it, and appeared to be stopped. With aid from Bush pushing him from behind, the quarterback fell into the end zone. It was an illegal play, and lives in infamy as “The Bush Push”, but it stood and Notre Dame lost a crusher, 34-31.
Notre Dame might have lost the game, but they had won huge amounts of respect nationwide, all the more so, when Weis and his son came into the visitors’ locker room to congratulate the Trojans. Notre Dame looked better than anyone might have anticipated and they reeled off four straight home wins over BYU, Tennessee, Navy and Syracuse. The season finale at Stanford was more competitive, but Quinn led the way to a 38-31 win.
It added up to a #5 national ranking at the end of the regular season and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. It was Notre Dame’s first major bowl invite since 2000, and only the second since 1995. The opponent was #4 Ohio State and the matchup was highly anticipated, certainly in the Midwest and around the country.
The Irish played well, and took an early lead on a 20-yard touchdown run by Walker. But they couldn’t deal with the Buckeyes’ explosiveness. Junior quarterback Troy Smith laid the groundwork for what would be a successful Heisman campaign a year later, as he threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to speedy receiver Ted Ginn. Later on, Ginn scored again on a 68-yard touchdown run. Then Smith connected with Santonio Holmes on an 85-yard touchdown pass.
Holmes, and to a lesser extent Ginn, would go on to have a good NFL careers, and the talent gap between Ohio State and Notre Dame, particularly in the area of game-breaking speed, was apparent. With the Buckeyes leading 27-20 in the fourth quarter, Antonio Pittman put on the finishing touches, with a 60-yard touchdown run that all but sealed the game, 34-20.
Notre Dame didn’t get its elusive first major bowl victory since 1993 (a quest that continues to this day), but it certainly seemed that Weis had the program on the right track and that even better days were ahead. Those hopes proved untrue, but in the aftermath of the 2005 Notre Dame football season, all seemed right with the world in South Bend.