Notre Dame was coming off a disastrous 2007 season. With head coach Charlie Weis now in his fourth year, and sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen having some experience under his belt, the program needed significant improvement. Whether the 2008 Notre Dame football made “significant” improvement, they at least recovered and got back to a bowl game.
Clausen had a highly touted recruit out of high school and the focal point of Weis’ tenure, now that Brady Quinn, whom the coach inherited from predecessor Ty Willingham. Clausen made improvement as a sophomore, with game plans no longer having to be ultra-conservative. He was still erratic, with 17 interceptions, but now there were some big plays to go with it—3,172 yards passing and 25 touchdowns.
The Irish beat a lousy San Diego State team at home to open the year, although the 21-13 win couldn’t have inspired too many people. The next result might have, when Notre Dame hosted Michigan and won 35-17.
This would prove to be a terrible Wolverine team, as the first year of head coach Rich Rodriguez ended as a three-win catastrophe. But that didn’t matter to Notre Dame right now, and even the fact Weis tore an ACL in a sideline collision couldn’t overshadow the win.
What could overshadow the win was splitting the next four games. The rush defense problems that were so prominent the prior year, were again laid bare at Michigan State. The Spartans, a strong Big Ten team this year, got 201 rush yards from Javon Ringer and won 23-7. Notre Dame beat losing teams in Stanford and Purdue, and then went to #22 North Carolina.
It was the first time the Irish had been to Chapel Hill since 1975, a seminal moment in Notre Dame football history, as it was when Joe Montana took over at quarterback, led a rally to win and started his legendary career. This time, an ND rally came up short.
The Irish led 17-9 at the half, but Clausen threw a pick-6 right out of halftime, one of four turnovers after intermission. North Carolina led 29-24, but the Irish quarterback kept battling. He had good receivers this year, with future NFL starters in Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, along with a future pro in Kyle Rudolph at tight end.
Clausen threw for 383 yards and was leading a frantic rally. Floyd caught a pass and reached the seven-yard line with three seconds left, but tried to lateral. The ball came loose and North Carolina recovered.
The 4-2 record might have had some fans grumbling over Weis, but at the very least, the next game two weeks later showed them they hadn’t lost much. Willingham went to Washington after he was let go, with a lot of people—including this writer—harshly critical of ND and believing Willingham would win in Seattle. He didn’t win in 2007—not once. The Huskies finished 0-12 and one of those losses was a 33-17 defeat at Notre Dame.
Consecutive losses to good teams in Pitt and Boston College followed. The Panthers won nine games, while the Eagles reached the ACC Championship Game. The defense failed against Pitt, a 36-33 loss, and the offense was shut out at BC, 17-zip.
With a 5-4 record, Notre Dame needed one win, and with a road trip to powerful USC as the season finale, the Irish couldn’t afford to wait. They hosted a good Navy team and appeared to have the victory in hand, up 27-7. Then the Middies scored with 1:39 left…and covered the onside kick…and scored again in one play…and covered another onside kick. A stunning collapse was possible, but defensive tackle Pat Kuntz got a big sack on fast Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs to finally stop the rally.
Syracuse came to South Bend for the final home game. The Orange were a terrible team and their head coach, Greg Robinson, had been informed he was out. If misery loves company, Robinson made sure to pass on job insecurity to Weis—Syracuse pulled a 24-23 shocker, rallying from thirteen points down. Even crueler was that the winning touchdown pass was thrown by Cameron Dantley, the son of one of Notre Dame’s own, basketball great Adrian Dantley.
Even with a bowl trip secured, it was going to be tough to sell anyone on the notion that this was really a season to be proud of at Notre Dame. They were predictably blistered by USC 38-3, making it zero touchdowns in two years against the Trojans. The bowl trip was nice from a travel standpoint—to the Hawaii Bowl. Although beating the host Hawaii Rainbows wasn’t going to help Weis.
Winning might not have helped Weis, but losing would have buried him, and his players—particularly those in the passing game—made sure that didn’t happen. Clausen threw for 401 yards and five touchdowns. Tate had 177 of those yards and three of the touchdowns. Weis coached from the press box, his persistent knee problems finally forcing him upstairs, and the Irish won 49-21.
The 2008 Notre Dame football season was one of recovery—but if Weis wanted to be around much longer, he was going to have rehabilitate the patient a lot quicker. Unfortunately for him, 2009 didn’t accomplish that, and he had only one more year left in South Bend.