The Bob Davie era at Notre Dame had gotten off to a middling start in 1997, with a strong regular season finish mitigated by a poor start and a bad bowl game. The 1998 Notre Dame football season was much more positive, getting started with a signature upset and steady consistency throughout the year.
Notre Dame opened the season at home with Michigan. This season-opening game between the rivals wasn’t new, but Michigan’s status was—the Wolverines were the defending national champions for the first time in the modern era. They also had a quarterback who would develop a certain renown in future years, one by the name of Tom Brady.
The Irish trailed 13-6 at the half, but turned it on in the second half. They covered a pair of third-quarter Michigan fumbles into touchdowns and poured on 30 second-half points, en route to a 36-20 win. The victory vaulted Notre Dame from #22 in the polls all the way to #10.
What was just as impressive is the balance that Notre Dame showed offensively. They were breaking in a new quarterback. After four years of Ron Powlus behind center, the job was now Jarious Jackson’s. He’d gotten snaps under Davie the prior year and with the Powlus-to-Jackson shift, Notre Dame had gone from a pure dropback passer to a run-pass dual option threat.
Jackson threw a pair of touchdown passes in the second half assault on Michigan, and ND got two more rushing touchdowns on the ground from their steady running back Autry Denson. Now in his senior year, Denson would put together his second straight 1,000-yard campaign in South Bend.
Notre Dame had veterans on the offensive line and at linebacker, and now they had a signature victory to start the 1998 season. Maybe the glory days of the Lou Holtz era were on their way back.
Then again, maybe not. One week later Notre Dame went to Michigan State and gave back all the good will the Michigan win had built up. The Spartans led 21-0 in the first quarter and had an astonishing 42 points at halftime and ultimately won 45-23.
It needs to be pointed out that this edition of Michigan State was being coached by Nick Saban, and these same Spartans would go on the road and stun top-ranked Ohio State later in the year. Having said all that, they were still a marginal six-win team and 42 points in a half isn’t acceptable against anyone. The polls dropped ND back to #23.
The schedule didn’t get easier in the short-term. In fact, one week later it got tougher. Purdue had jumped back on the map the prior year under the new coaching of Joe Tiller and a wide-open offense. This year Tiller had his quarterback, a sophomore in Drew Brees. The Boilermakers were starting what would prove to be an eight-win year that ended in a signature bowl upset of a Kansas State team that was a play away from competing for a national championship.
Everything was set for Notre Dame to fold, but backed by the home crowd, Davie’s Irish turned their season immediately back in the right direction. In a back-and-forth game, ND trailed 30-28 when defensive back Tony Driver intercepted a pass to set up a field goal. Then Driver picked off one more pass to seal it.
Though it didn’t seem noteworthy at the time, Notre Dame had just completed a September that saw them beat Tom Brady and Drew Brees. With the schedule about to get softer, the question was if the Irish could be something that they had not been under Davie—and that’s consistent.
The answer was yes. Notre Dame played seven consecutive games against teams that finished with losing records, and were able to steadily take care of business. They won home games with Stanford, Army, Baylor and LSU. The Irish went on the road to beat Arizona State, Boston College and Navy, the latter a road-neutral game at the Washington Redskins’ Fed Ex Field.
LSU was the last of the wins and after the 39-36 shootout, Notre Dame was ranked #9 in the country. They were poised to get a major bowl bid if they could go to Los Angeles and beat a 7-4 USC team.
But the LSU win came at a cost—Jackson was injured at the end, and unable to play. The result was an impotent Notre Dame offense on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They turned it over six times in the Coliseum and lost 10-0.
Notre Dame settled for a Gator Bowl bid to face 12th-ranked Georgia Tech. The Irish broke out the green jerseys, although doing it for a minor bowl that had no revenge implications seemed to be forcing the motivational issue. ND fell behind early, though they made the game competitive and had two chances to drive for the tying score, before losing 35-28.
The Gator Bowl matchup would prove to be ironic in that Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary was the man ultimately tapped to replace Davie following the 2001 season. O’Leary would ultimately have to step down five days after the hiring after it was revealed there were lies in his resume.
In the immediate aftermath of the game though, there was some reasonable optimism that Davie would last longer in South Bend. His team won a couple big games, overcame the inconsistency problems that had hurt them in 1997 and might have achieved greater heights if not for an untimely injury. If you were looking for some hope for the Davie era, the 1998 Notre Dame football season gave you just enough to latch onto.