Following a seven-game winning streak that allowed Bob Davie's squad to close out last year's regular season with a 9-2 record, the Fighting Irish were jolted back to reality in a one-sided, 41-9 loss to Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. The problem: an overall lack of big-time talent and speed at certain positions.
Remember, the Irish were extremely fortunate to pull out several wins along the way, most notably their victory over Air Force. In late October at South Bend, a missed chip-shot field goal in the final seconds by Air Force allowed the Irish to pull out an overtime victory. So while Davie and his staff had to be extremely pleased with the effort and enthusiasm that contributed heavily to the satisfying nine-win season, the way they were dominated by Oregon State exposed the areas that need to be upgraded if they hope to catapult themselves back into the national-championship hunt.
Irish at a glance
Sept. 8 at Nebraska
Sept. 15 at Purdue
Sept. 22 vs. Michigan St.
Sept. 29 at Texas A&M
Oct. 6 vs. Pittsburgh
Oct. 13 vs. West Virginia
Oct. 20 vs. USC
Oct. 27 at Boston College
Nov. 3 vs. Tennessee
Nov. 17 vs. Navy
Nov. 24 at Stanford
Texas A&M W 24-10
Nebraska L 27-24
Purdue W 23-21
at Michigan St. L 27-21
Stanford W 20-14
at Navy W 45-14
at West Virginia W 42-28
Air Force W 34-31
Boston College W 28-16
at Rutgers W 45-17
at USC W 38-21
vs. Oregon State L 41-9
While the Irish generated 28 or more points in each of their final six regular-season games, they lacked the quick-strike potential that was a key element during the Lou Holtz era. Long, grind-it-out drives, highlighted by mistake-free football, were the key. In fact, the Irish set an NCAA record for fewest turnovers in a season with just eight.
The igniter on offense was definitely freshman signal caller Matt LoVecchio. He played a smart game, allowed for the necessary diversification of the attack and proved to be a QB who knew what it took to move the Irish into the win column. Still, Davie and the offensive staff allowed sophomores Carlyle Holiday and Jared Clark to take part in basically an equal number of snaps in the spring. Holiday is a big, extremely elusive 6-3, 205-pounder whose specialty is running the option. Clark also has ideal size (6-4, 223). He's viewed as the best pure passer of the three.
While all three QBs have accounted themselves well, only one is proven in big-game situations, and that is LoVecchio. With a brutally tough early season schedule that includes road trips to Nebraska, Purdue and Texas A&M, you have to believe that LoVecchio's experience will be needed. If he struggles, Davie has the option of either Holiday or Clark, where the pressure would be lessened.
With Julius Jones, Tony Fisher and Terrance Howard, the Irish also have outstanding depth at the tailback position. All three will have plenty of opportunities to carry the football, with Jones also excelling as a punt and kickoff returner. Of this group, Jones has the most home-run potential, but till now he hasn't developed into the dynamic feature back that was expected. The Irish hope this will be his year for a few exciting coast-to-coast runs that dramatically change the complexion of a game. Over the last few years, the Irish have utilized the fullback almost exclusively as a blocker. Opportunities to carry the ball have been minimal. In the spring, Mike McNair showed he could be a factor at this spot, although fellow senior Tom Lopienski has more game experience.
David Givens, who has developed into one of the more versatile wideouts in the country, and fellow senior Javin Hunter will be the focal points of the pass offense. Givens does it all -- he catches passes, is used on reverses, returns kickoffs,and can also block punts. Another receiver to watch closely is converted signal caller Arnaz Battle. While the 6-1, 222-pound senior needs more reps catching the football and has to work on route-running, by the time Sept. 8 rolls around Battle could be a vital contributor to the attack. With his open-field capabilities, getting his hands on the football with shorter passes will be the key.
Tight end is an obvious area of concern. Both Jabari Holloway and Dan O'Leary have moved on to the NFL. Senior John Owens, who has also worked at defensive end during his stay with the Irish, is currently being projected as the starter, with former QB Gary Godsey the backup. It certainly remains to be seen how productive this spot will be, considering all the inexperience.
Up front, the key loss was that of blue-chip OG Mike Gandy, now a member of the Chicago Bears. Senior Sean Mahan will operate at LG, with a battle taking place on the right side between Sean Milligan and Ryan Scarola. With the questions at guard, the Irish are fortunate to have proven performers back at both tackle spots and at center. LT Jordan Black is steady and consistent, while RT Kurt Vollers is entering his fifth year in the program. The lone All-American type is pivot man Jeff Faine. Only a third-year sophomore, the 6-3, 290-pounder has already established himself as one of the elite anchors in the country. By the way, a youngster to watch at either TE or OT is freshman Mark LeVoir. The 6-7, 310-pounder has intriguing potential.
Defensively, the Irish welcome back senior RDE Grant Irons from the injury list, but also suffered a few major graduation losses when ILB Anthony Denman, CB Brock Williams and FS Tony Driver moved on to the NFL.
Up front, Anthony Weaver is the major headliner. Operating at LDE, the 6-3, 275-pounder makes his presence felt on an extremely consistent basis, ranking as one the top defensive linemen the Irish have produced in recent years. The hope is that Irons becomes a force on the right side to complement Weaver. A separated shoulder early last year against Nebraska sidelined him the rest of the way. He was also held out of spring practice. His performance off the edge will be critical this season.
Along the interior, NG Andy Wisne qualifies as an overachiever. The 6-2½, 279-pound fifth-year senior may lack imposing size but gives you everything he has for 60 minutes. At 6-4 and 285 pounds, third-year sophomore Darrell Campbell is being counted on to develop into the performer his physical talent indicates. Till now, though, Campbell has yet to really surface. Listed behind Campbell on the depth chart, redshirt freshman Greg Pauly flashed the necessary potential during spring practice. The former Parade All-American is a tall, rangy 6-5½, 270-pounder who has the frame to carry additional weight as he continues his college career with the Irish.
As far as the linebacking corps, replacing the consistent and reliable Denman at inside linebacker won't be easy. But the Irish return the heart and soul of their second line of defense in senior OLB Rocky Boiman. The rugged 6-3½, 239-pounder is a major-league disrupter, operating as a rushing end in certain situations. At the inside spots, senior Tyreo Harrison returns as a starter, but Courtney Watson lacks experience. In the mix behind Watson is sophomore Mike Goolsby.
Shane Walton returns at left cornerback, but on the right side Clifford Jefferson will have to make up for the graduation loss of Brock Williams. Last year, Williams was an energizer for the Irish, with his aggressive approach carrying over to the rest of the defense. He would sell out against the run while also delivering bone-jarring hits in coverage. The 5-9, 175-pound Jefferson does have some starting experience. Vontez Duff, a super-quick sophomore, is Jefferson's backup and figures to help with the return game. At the safeties, the Irish have a great deal of experience with Ron Israel and Donald Dykes. Quality depth is provided by Gerome Sapp and Glenn Earl, who came through with the blocked field goal that saved the day against Air Force last year.
On special teams, the Irish return their incumbents in punter Joey Hildbold and kicker Nick Setta, both juniors. In the return game, Julius Jones will be a key performer, especially with Joey Getherall's graduation loss. Last year, Getherall was superlative as a punt returner, averaging 16.3 yards per return and taking two back for touchdowns.
Overview: Like last year, the Irish must find a way to survive their rugged early schedule. The hope would be that they are at least 2-2 in September before returning to South Bend to host Pittsburgh, West Virginia and USC. Later, they have an interesting battle at home against Tennessee.
Offensively, QB LoVecchio is a proven performer and there's great depth, with Holiday and Clark pushing the incumbent. At tailback, we'll have to see if Jones develops into the top feature back that his brother Thomas did at Virginia. Until now, he's just flashed that kind of ability. That's why Fisher and Howard are heavily in the mix. If LoVecchio can get them the ball, the Irish have the ability at WR led by the versatile and underrated Givens. It will also be interesting to see how much of an impact converted QB Battle provides. Owens has to be at least adequate at TE, not allowing for a huge dropoff at this spot with the graduation loss of Holloway and O'Leary. While the offensive line lacks a big-time blue-chipper outside of pivot man Faine and isn't experienced at guard, this group should be able to hold its own. Both OTs, Black and Vollers, are battle-tested.
Defensively, Weaver is exceptional up front and Boiman is a top-flight attacking OLB. The key is keeping DE Irons at full strength and hoping that DT Campbell surfaces as a quality starter. They also have to make up for the graduation loss of Williams and Driver in the deep patrol. And don't underestimate what Getherall meant as a superior punt returner; Jones or Battle must pick up the slack. With such a tough schedule, especially early, an eight-win season for Davie and his staff would, I believe, be more than satisfactory. Anything better, and Irish fans should be doing cartwheels. Remember, while the talent level is gradually improving, the Irish don't have the overall personnel that was evident during the Lou Holtz era.