The expectations were soaring for the 2006 Notre Dame football team. The first year under head coach Charlie Weis had been filled with promise, as the Irish returned to the major bowl stage in 2005. Now it was time to take that proverbial next step, and Notre Dame opened the season #2 in the country.
But while the season was good, with another big bowl trip and a big year from quarterback Brady Quinn, the ultimate lack of big wins left a “blah” feeling with the Irish faithful.
Quinn was in his senior year and coming off a junior campaign that saw him finish fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He had talented, experienced receivers in Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, who combined for almost 2,000 yards receiving. Darius Walker rushed for over 1,200 yards. Perhaps the first ominous sign came in the season opener at Georgia Tech, when it took Notre Dame nearly all of the first half to put points on the board.
Georgia Tech, unranked at the time (though they would eventually win the ACC Coastal Division) led 10-0 on their homefield. Quinn finally broke through with eleven seconds left, running in from five yards out. Notre Dame was able to pull out a 14-10 win when Walker ran for the game-winner.
In spite of the unexpectedly close game, there were still good signs. The Irish defense, the team’s weak point in 2005, had played well. The Yellow Jackets had a receiver you may have heard of, one by the name of Calvin Johnson, and in the second half he caught just two passes for 16 yards.
The notion of the game’s first half just being a slow start that had no long-term meaning gained credence a week later when Notre Dame routed #19 Penn State 41-17, a game they led 20-0 at half. Quinn tossed three touchdowns. It set the stage for a visit to South Bend from #11 Michigan.
Michigan’s demise was being predicted around the country. They suffered through a pedestrian 7-5 season in 2005, and had looked unimpressive in winning their first two games. All that went out the window on a stunning Saturday afternoon. The Wolverines forced Quinn into three interceptions and a fumble. They didn’t allow Samardzija or McKnight to catch a pass until the lead was 34-7. It ended 47-21.
The Wolverines would eventually reach their season finale with Ohio State undefeated. In the meantime, the question marks about Michigan were transferred to Notre Dame, as the Irish dropped to #12 in the polls.
Notre Dame’s schedule got easier and Quinn’s offense systematically churned out wins over unranked teams. The Irish survived a 40-37 shootout in Michigan State, then won home games over Purdue, Stanford and UCLA. Notre Dame went to Baltimore and beat Navy decisively, came home and beat North Carolina, and went to Air Force and dropped a 39-17 win on the Falcons. A 41-9 win over Army on November 18 moved ND to 9-1.
While none of these teams were really good, most weren’t all that bad either and Notre Dame had scored 289 points in the eight wins (36ppg). While the Irish had only a longshot hope at the national title, they were up to #6 in the country. And the chance for redemption against really good teams was still there. The season finale with third-ranked USC was up, and regardless of the outcome, the landscape for a major bowl invite was favorable.
The results showed though, that Notre Dame was still not ready for prime-time. The Irish looked completely overmatched at Southern Cal, losing 44-24. Notre Dame got a Sugar Bowl bid to play fourth-ranked LSU, and looked even worse, losing that game 41-14. That progress from the defense that seemed real after the season opener, ended with giving up 132 points in the season’s three biggest games (the Michigan game, along with USC and LSU).
After the long stretch Notre Dame spent in the wilderness following the Lou Holtz era, it seems tough to call back-to-back major bowl bid years a disappointment. Quinn went on to finish third in the Heisman balloting. But with a #17 final ranking, a season of great expectation had fallen considerably short. And nobody’s mood in South Bend would have been improved had it been known that the Weis era was about to fall completely apart.