On paper, 1999 looks like a year of destiny for the Irish.
In the past three decades in years ending with the same double digits — 1966, ’77, ’88 — Notre Dame finished its season with a national title.
Former head coaches Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz won championships in their third seasons. Bob Davie enters his third year at the helm with fans wondering if he will find similar success.
“It’s fun to talk about that,” Davie said at Tuesday’s press conference. “It’s also fun to take a look at the records the year before they won the national championship. But when it comes down to running the fullback trap, that stuff goes out the window.”
The mediocre seasons prior to those national championship years are eerily similar to the 1998 record.
In 1965, a year after Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte graduated, the Irish recorded a 7-2-1 season.
In 1976, Notre Dame ended the season 8-3 after posting a victory in the Gator Bowl against long-time rival, Penn State.
In 1987, after starting the year with an 8-1 record, coach Lou Holtz pulled what was to be considered a quarterback blunder in the 10th game of the season.
Trailing 14-7 at halftime to Penn State in Beaver Stadium, Holtz benched quarterback Tony Rice and replaced him with Kent Graham. Graham threw three interceptions in the 21-20 loss.
The next week, the Irish lost to the Hurricanes in Miami, to end their regular season on a sour note.
Last year parallels these campaigns. Although Huarte was more successful than Ron Powlus, there still was a question mark at quarterback entering the 1998 season.
Also, last year’s season ended with three losses and a Gator Bowl appearance, their first appearance there since 1976.
In the 11th game of 1998, with one loss and a chance at a BCS appearance, Davie was also involved in a quarterback controversy.
With three seconds left in a apparent win over LSU, Davie kept Jarious Jackson on the field, where he was injured while attempting to take a safety.
The following week, like in 1987, the team flew to a warm climate (USC), only to suffer another setback.
Davie is not letting the focus of the season blur. His concentration is on solely on Saturday’s home opener against Kansas.
Although Kansas is the underdog, Davie was quick to point out that the Jayhawks are an explosive club that can cause trouble for his team.
“It’s really important to keep your eye on the target. You really don’t know what you have yet, especially in college football,” Davie said. “The other night our players were watching Green Bay and Denver on Monday Night Football. We don’t have the luxury of playing the exhibition games. Even high school teams scrimmage against each other. But that’s what makes college football exciting.”
On the injury front, defensive linemen Tony Weaver is doubtful for Saturday’s game due to a sprained left knee. Lineman Lance Legree sprained his right knee Aug. 10th and is out for the Kansas game.
The thin cornerback position is the biggest area of concern on the Irish defense. With Brock Williams out for the year, Deveron Harper and Clifford Jefferson will join safeties Deke Cooper and A’Jani Sanders in the defensive backfield.
Freshman Joey Hildbold has the edge at starting punter for Saturday. Senior Jim Sanson will once again assume the placekicking duties for the Irish.
There are two honorary captains for the game. 1956 Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung will serve as Notre Dame’s captain, while the “Kansas Comet” Gale Sayers, a Jayhawk alum, will be on the Kansas sidelines.
Freshman tailback Julius Jones is likely to handle kickoff returns for the Irish alongside Joey Getherall. Davie said Jones reminds him of Greg Hill, whom he coached at Texas A&M and now plays for the St. Louis Rams. Jones is currently battling junior Terrance Howard for third string.
Bobby Brown and Getherall are expected to start at split end, but senior Raki Nelson and sophomores Javin Hunter and David Givens are expected to see playing time.
Seniors John Merandi and Mike Gandy were the only returning offensive linemen who saw considerable playing time last season.