The Charlie Weis era that started in South Bend with fanfare, bold talk and looked to be backed up, with major bowl appearances in 2005 and 2006, came to a crashing end when the 2009 Notre Dame football team collapsed in November and continued a three-year pattern of performance that ranged from the mediocre to the poor.
No one could deny that Weis coached a great passing game. His handpicked quarterback, Jimmy Clausen, continued to develop in his third year as a starter. Clausen threw 28 touchdown passes against just four interceptions, and over 3,700 yards.
The receivers were even more talented, with Golden Tate racking up nearly 1,500 yards and Michael Floyd getting near 800. If you devoted too much coverage to the outside, tight end Kyle Rudolph made you pay underneath. There just wasn’t enough classic football—power running and defense—to go with it.
Notre Dame still got the season off to a strong start. They were ranked #23 and immediately shut out Nevada at home 35-0. This was a good Wolfpack team and had a quarterback named Colin Kaepernick, so the blowout—a shutout no less–is more impressive than it might appear on the surface.
But a road trip to Ann Arbor ended in heartbreak, an untimely injury and Weis’ game management called into question Clausen and Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier staged a back-and-forth passing duel. Notre Dame led 34-31 and had the ball with three minutes to play. Armando Allen rushed for a first down, but got injured on the play.
Weis lost confidence in the running game, even though backup Robert Hughes had shown some flashes of potential. The coach tried to close the game through the air and two incompletions helped the Wolverines preserve their timeouts. They needed them all, as Forcier threw the game-winning touchdown pass with five seconds left.
Michigan was the first of three Big Ten opponents that lost seven games in 2009. Notre Dame escaped Michigan State 33-30. Clausen threw for 300 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown pass to Tate to give his team the lead with 5:18 left. Defensive back Kyle McCarthy preserve the win with an interception near the end zone.
The Irish then survived Purdue 24-21 and needed overtime to beat Washington 37-30. McCarthy was again a defensive hero, forcing a fumble near the goal line in OT. In the bigger picture though, Notre Dame was playing dead-even football against teams that would finish anywhere from 5-7 to 6-7. It would prove to be prophetic.
USC came to South Bend and not since the Trojans won a classic game here in 2005 had this rivalry been remotely competitive. It looked like more of the same when USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley threw for 380 yards and had the Trojans up 34-14. But Clausen threw his own punches back in return. He pulled the Irish to 34-27 and had three chances to throw into the end zone and force overtime, but just couldn’t do it.
It was an impressive comeback against a good team, but this was also the USC team that effectively ended the glory years of the Pete Carrol run, which were 2002-08, when the Trojans defined college football. This USC edition ended up losing four games, and Carroll hustled out of town to avoid coming NCAA sanctions.
The following game saw a much-needed win over Boston College. The Irish defense came through, forcing five turnovers and shutting down a good Eagle running game. Notre Dame won 20-16. They followed that up with a trip to San Antonio and a blowout of lowly Washington State 40-14.
Notre Dame didn’t have the look of the major bowl-caliber team, but they were 6-2 going into November and while all four coming opponents were pretty good, there was no reason to think the Irish couldn’t sweep them. A sweep was coming all right, but it was a broom that would sweep Weis out of town.
The Irish, had gone from 1964-2006 without ever losing to Navy. In 2009, they lost to the Middies for the second time in three years, dropping a 23-21 decision. Trailing 21-14, Clausen was sacked in the end zone with a minute left for a safety that all but sealed the Irish fate.
A road trip to eighth-ranked Pittsburgh saw Notre Dame rally from a 27-9 hole to get within 27-22 and have the ball at the end. Clausen lost a fumble to kill the threat and any major bowl hopes.
The next game was the home finale against UConn, who was a nice bowl-caliber squad, but shouldn’t have been able to beat the Irish. They did, 33-30 in double overtime.
No one was in any serious doubt about Weis’ fate, even if he had foolishly been given a 10-year contract extension when things were good in his rookie year of 2005. Regardless of the economic conditions, a school will find the donors to buy out a contract.
Notre Dame went to Stanford, who was now a rising force under head coach Jim Harbaugh, a Heisman-contending running back in Toby Gerhart and a sophomore quarterback in Andrew Luck. Gerhart ran for 205 yards and Luck played efficient football, 14/20 for 198 yards. Clausen battled nobly, completing 23/30 passes for 340 yards and throwing five touchdowns. But the defensive problems were too much in a 45-38 loss.
On the Monday after the game, Weis was fired and the Irish announced they would not play in a bowl game. Clausen went to the NFL where his career did not pan out. Weis got another head coaching job in Kansas, which did not pan out. Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly and began another new era.