The Ty Willingham era had started at Notre Dame with a lot of promise in 2002, but ended with disappointment in a season-ending loss and bowl defeat, both by convincing margins. The question facing the 2003 Notre Dame football team was which they would build off of—the promise or the disappointment. It proved to be the latter, in a long season at South Bend.
It didn’t start out badly. Notre Dame hosted Washington State to begin the year. The Cougars had a good team, one that would finish in the Top 10 at season’s end. WSU jumped out to a 19-0 lead, and still led 19-6 early in the fourth quarter when the Irish rallied. Notre Dame got a key turnover, actually took a 26-19 lead before Washington State drove for the tying touchdown. ND was still able to survive in overtime, 29-26.
Carlyle Holiday played a mediocre game at quarterback, 21/34 for 149 yards, while running back Ryan Grant had a good one, gaining 98 yards on 17 rushes. Both players would lose their starting jobs before September was out.
Notre Dame was trying to shift from an option-oriented attack, preferred by Willingham’s predecessor Bob Davie, and the West Coast offense that Willingham reached a Rose Bowl with at Stanford. A freshman named Brady Quinn started getting time the following week in Michigan, as did a new running back in Julius Jones.
The way Notre Dame played in Ann Arbor, it really didn’t matter if Joe Montana was under center. They were routed 38-0. Then they lost at home to Michigan State, again with Holiday and Quinn splitting time. Quinn got the job for good the next week at Purdue and threw four interceptions in a 23-10 loss.
Notre Dame’s schedule is usually pretty good, but the 2003 one was exceptionally so. Their first nine games were against teams that finished the year with at least eight wins. Quinn struggled again at Pitt, going just 5-for-17, but the defense and running game bailed the team out. Jones rushed for 262 yards, while the Panthers as a team got just eight yards. Notre Dame stopped the losing streak, 20-14.
USC was on its way to a share of the national title when they came to South Bend. For one quarter, Quinn was able to trade blows with Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart, and it was tied 14-14. Then USC unloaded, scored 31 unanswered points and won 45-14.
A trip to Chestnut Hill to play their fellow Jesuits from Boston College resulted in a beatdown in the trenches. The Irish only rushed for 47 yards, while the Eagles gained 147 on the ground and escaped with a 27-25 win.
The high point of 2002—indeed of Willingham’s entire tenure—had been an October win at Florida State that vaulted the Irish to #4 in the polls. Florida State was looking for revenge when they traveled north and the Seminoles got it in spades. They were ahead 17-0 in the first quarter. Quinn was forced to put it up 52 times and only completed 20, getting just 175 yards. He threw three interceptions and FSU cruised, 37-0.
There were four games left and if Notre Dame could run the table, they could still get to 6-6 and be bowl-eligible. A victory over a good Navy team made it look possible, as walk-on kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick hit a 40-yard field goal as time expired in a 27-24 win. The next two opponents, BYU and Stanford, were on bad years and Notre Dame cruised to wins by a combined score of 90-21.
All that was left between the Irish and a chance at bowl redemption was a victory at Syracuse. The Orange were playing for bowl eligibility themselves at 5-6. With the season on the line, the Notre Dame ground attack disappeared. So did the run defense, as the final rush yardage margin was 247-62 for Syracuse. The final score was 38-12.
Notre Dame’s season was over, a second 5-7 finish in three years. And though it didn’t seem likely at the time, it was also nearing the end for Willingham, who would only get one more season under the Golden Dome.