The first three years of the Bob Davie era at Notre Dame hadn’t gone well, and they hit a low point in 1999 with the program’s first losing season in fourteen years. Davie turned things around immediately and answered with his best season in South Bend. But even though the 2000 Notre Dame football team made a major bowl game, the warning signs continued to abound.
Notre Dame was ranked #23 to start the year and opened at home with #25 Texas A&M, where Davie had built his reputation as a defensive coordinator before taking the same position in South Bend. Davie’s defense did the job, holding the Aggies to 60 rushing yards, while a balanced running game of their own spread the ball around and produced 194 yards on the ground. Notre Dame won it 24-10.
One week later was the kind of game that has historically defined Notre Dame—a visit from the #1 team in the country. The Nebraska Cornhuskers were coming in. What happened turned out to be a colossal embarrassment.
We aren’t talking about what happened on the field. Davie’s team acquitted themselves well. While they didn’t have a passing game, quarterback Arnaz Battle ran for 107 yards and the Irish took the Cornhuskers into overtime before losing 27-24. What happened in the stands was a different story.
Nebraska was allotted 5,000 tickets for the game. By the time kickoff arrived, the Cornhusker Faithful numbered about 30,000 in the stands, turning the ground trod by Rockne, Parseghian and Holtz into an Indiana-based version of Lincoln. Notre Dame officials made no attempt to hide their embarrassment.
ESPN commentator Lee Corso has said over the years that if you want to know if a head coach is in trouble, start by looking at the attendance. The willingness of so many Notre Dame fans to sell their tickets before such a prestige game told you Davie was in trouble.
In an attempt to find some offense, Davie turned to Gary Godsey at quarterback. He went 14/25 for 158 yards in the following week’s home game with Purdue. It was enough to keep the Irish in the game with the Drew Brees-led team that would end up in the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame trailed 21-20 late, but Shane Walton picked off a Brees pass and it set up a last-play field goal for a thrilling 23-21 win.
The problems resurfaced in a trip to Michigan State, in their first year since the departure of Nick Saban to LSU. Godsey completed four passes for 20 yards, the Irish lost 27-21 and Davie again tried a new quarterback. The next man up was freshman Matt Lovecchio.
This time, the change stuck. Lovecchio played well enough to at least make the pass a viable option and Notre Dame began to steadily churn out wins. They beat mediocre Stanford 20-14, and then scored 87 points in consecutive wins against Navy and at West Virginia. A 34-3 thrashing of a good Air Force squad moved the Irish to #11 in the polls.
Wins were coming and a major bowl bid was in the works, but one couldn’t help but notice that Notre Dame was being outgained yardage-wise in every game except the wins over A&M and Navy. Perhaps that was the reason for the fan skepticism.
Notre Dame broke that pattern in consecutive wins over Boston College and Rutgers. The Irish dominated BC on the ground, with running back Tony Fischer going for 196 yards, Terrance Howard chipping in 84 and Lovecchio running for 73 more. Notre Dame won that game 28-16 and the trip to Rutgers ended with a 45-17 win.
The chance at a big bowl bid was now squarely in ND’s hands. They needed to win at USC. Irish fans had seen other seasons come to tough ends in Los Angeles—notably 1980, when they lost their chance at the national championship and two years later, another push for a major bowl spot crashed and burned in this spot. But this USC team was dragging a 5-6 record in and Notre Dame won decisively, 38-21 and closed the regular season ranked #10 in the polls.
A bid to the Fiesta Bowl was the reward and Oregon State was the opponent. The name might not have been marquee, but the Beavers were under the direction of head coach Dennis Erickson, who won national titles at Miami in 1989 and 1991. The speed of this Oregon State team was evident from the outset and they had future NFL players at wideout, with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmanzadeh. A 29-point avalanche in the second quarter led to a 41-9 Oregon State rout.
The legacy of the 2000 Notre Dame football team is, first and foremost, that it was the high point of the Davie era with the major bowl invite. But the attendance fiasco, the unimpressive wins and the bowl humiliation to a program with no pedigree—and that hasn’t been back to a big bowl game since—all foreshadowed the end for Davie. It was an end that was just a year away.