The 1997 Notre Dame football season was the first year of the post-Lou Holtz era in South Bend. The season got off to a disastrous start, before new head coach Bob Davie admirably righted the ship, but the end product couldn’t have left anyone optimistic about the future at Notre Dame.
Davie had been defensive coordinator from 1994-96, a period in which Holtz’s teams showed slippage due primarily to faulty defenses. Whether that was Davie’s fault or pointed to issues with recruiting is a fair enough question, but it did make his elevation to head coach—a job with which he had no prior experience—a little curious. And the questions would only get louder in the first seven weeks of the 1997 college football season.
Notre Dame got by Georgia Tech 17-13 to open the year and went to Purdue. The Boilermakers were unranked, but wouldn’t be much longer. Joe Tiller, their new head coach, was going to turn Purdue into a perennial contender in the Big Ten for several years, and they sent a message on September 13, beating Notre Dame 28-17. The Irish left the national rankings and would never return.
The next game was at home against unranked Michigan State. The Spartans were destined for a pedestrian 7-5 season, although they had a third-year head coach in Nick Saban who turned out to be pretty good. Sparty beat the Irish decisively, 23-7.
Michigan won a share of the national championship in 1997 and had a great defense, led by future Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson. Davie’s Irish played their best game of the season to date in Ann Arbor, but it wasn’t quite enough. The offense couldn’t take advantage of three turnovers in Wolverine territory, getting no points off the mistakes and Notre Dame lost 21-14.
An 18-point loss at Stanford was even worse than it looked—the Cardinal was in the Top 20 at the time of the game, but ended the year at 5-6. Notre Dame was able to go to an average Pitt team and win 45-21, but immediately turned around at lost at home to an equally average USC team, 20-17.
The first year of the Davie era was in ashes, a 2-5 record and only one loss from being eliminated from any bowl game. Notre Dame would play 12 regular season games, but the rules of the time prohibited a 6-6 team from being eligible. There was no slack. The Irish had to win out.
It’s here that Davie deserves huge credit for keeping his team focused. They blew out a bad Boston College team at home, and then nipped a good Navy squad, 21-17. It set the stage for a trip to 11th-ranked LSU, who had already beaten Florida, the defending national champion and came into the game at 7-2.
Notre Dame surprised everyone by simply outmuscling LSU. They got a nine-yard touchdown run from Autry Denson early in the first quarter, and a six-yard scoring run from Clement Stokes late in that same quarter. In between was a field goal, as Notre Dame built a 17-0 lead. They outrushed LSU 260-121, with both backs going for 92 yards. The 24-6 win made bowl talk in South Bend realistic.
Denson’s rushing was the high point of the 1997 season, and he finished with over 1,200 yards on the ground. The problem Notre Dame had was the lack of a consistent passing game. Senior quarterback Ron Powlus was in his fourth year as a starter, and never became the great passer that had been anticipated when he arrived on campus.
Powlus had a nice completion percentage, at 61%, but he only threw nine touchdowns. And the fact he was allowed to throw just ten passes at LSU, and shared snaps with all-purpose QB Jarious Jackson, told you that Powlus’ coaches knew he wasn’t going to become “the guy.”
Notre Dame’s final home game would be on November 22 against West Virginia, who had a good running back in Amos Zeroue, and were ranked #22 in the country. Zeroue proved unstoppable, rushing for 234 yards. No back had gashed a Fighting Irish defense like this since USC’s Charles White did so in his Heisman year of 1979.
But the Irish hung in, and trailed 14-7 in the fourth quarter. Jackson then made a huge throw, connecting with Malcolm Johnson on a 45-yard pass to get the offense close, and Jackson-to-Johnson again worked on a short throw for the tying touchdown.
Zeroue chipped away at the Notre Dame defense, but WVA then tried a play-action pass that was intercepted by Ivory Covington. Now it was Powlus’ turn to deliver a big throw. On 3rd-and-5 from the Mountaineer 11, he lofted a pass to Bobby Brown in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
Getting seven points rather than three proved crucial, because West Virginia drove it back to the Notre Dame 26-yard-line and had time for two plays. On the first the pass into the end zone was complete, but just out of bounds. The second was picked off by Ty Goode. Notre Dame was now 6-5.
By rights, the Irish should have been home free for their bowl bid, with only a trip to play a three-win Hawaii team left. But it turned out to be a hair-raising trip to the islands.
Hawaii led this game 22-14 early in the fourth quarter. After a Notre Dame touchdown, they missed the two-point conversion, but were able to get the ball back. Facing a 3rd-and-17 on their own 44 and the clock ticking down, it looked desperate. This time, Powlus delivered—he threw a strike to Raki Nelson for 47 yards and it set up a winning field goal from Scott Cengia.
The Irish were going bowling, and the days of seeing a minor bowl game as beneath them (like 1996 for instance) were gone. They accepted the chance for a return trip to Louisiana, again to play LSU, in the Independence Bowl.
Notre Dame led 6-3 at the half, but in the rematch LSU would be the one that controlled the ground game. The Irish couldn’t stop Rondell Mealy from gaining over 200 yards, and the Tigers pulled away to a 27-9 win.
The 1997 Notre Dame football season did clearly signal the problems that lay ahead for the program, and by the high standards that exist in South Bend, would never be considered a success. But it is appropriate to admire the fighting spirit and grit that characterized this team in late October. Even when all was lost, they cared enough to keep fighting and salvage something from their season.