Irish don't skip a beat as LoVecchio steps in to start at quarterback
By KATHLEEN O'BRIEN
Associate Sports Editor
The 18-year-old freshman pulled his teammates together in the huddle. Quarterback Matt LoVecchio told his offensive unit the play it would run and said, "Look, guys, this is going to be a touchdown. Just do your jobs."
Offensive lineman Mike Gandy, a fifth-year senior, thought LoVecchio's statement was pretty bold for a rookie. But when LoVecchio followed through and the Irish scored, Gandy jumped on board the LoVecchio bandwagon.
"He got it done," Gandy said. "I think that really did it for me. It just seemed like he had complete confidence in his abilities and in the offense and the whole team."
LoVecchio wasn't trying to be brash or presumptuous by predicting the touchdown. He just had a sense his team would find the end zone.
"That's something that I truly believe," LoVecchio said. "I say we're going to score on this play, and that's the bottom line. If we all execute, and we work together and play as a team, I think we can score on every play."
Confidence is a trademark for LoVecchio, who has every reason to expect success after leading the Irish to a 7-0 record in his seven starts. But LoVecchio didn't start forecasting wins and calling out touchdowns after he notched a couple of victories; he was as poised as an NFL veteran from his first game at the helm.
LoVecchio's maturity and cool demeanor won him the starting spot as signal caller over fellow freshmen Jared Clark and Carlyle Holiday when junior Arnaz Battle broke the navicular bone in his left wrist and sophomore Gary Godsey didn't fit into the Irish offense.
"He commands the respect of the older guys," offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers said. "I felt like he had that presence early, and that essentially was the reason that we went with him — because of that presence."
All three freshman quarterbacks were drooled over by recruiters in high school. Clark and Holiday, from football havens Florida and Texas, actually pulled in more national attention than LoVecchio, in part because LoVecchio committed to Notre Dame well before Signing Day.
On the advice of Texas quarterback Chris Simms, who lives near LoVecchio in New Jersey and got caught up in the sea of rumors and phone calls recruits receive, LoVecchio tried to get his decision out of the way early. LoVecchio made the rounds to about 10 colleges with his father during his junior year at Bergen Catholic High School and attending football camp at Notre Dame sealed the deal.
"I wanted to make an early decision," LoVecchio said. "That was my goal during the recruiting process. I didn't want it to get too dramatic because I didn't think that was necessary for me."
LoVecchio was hooked on Notre Dame, but his dad Larry began to wonder if Notre Dame was as enthused about his son when it signed three other quarterbacks.
"I was very concerned. Matt was not," Larry LoVecchio said. "I said, `Matt, they're signing three other quarterbacks.' He said, `Dad, if I'm better, I'll play. If I'm not, I'll have to work harder.'"
At season's end, though, LoVecchio clearly leads the three freshmen in the ranks of media darlings. Sports Illustrated listed LoVecchio as one of five very early Heisman hopefuls for 2001. CBSSportsline's Chris Dodd also touted LoVecchio as a prospect for the top award in college football next year.
"That's the kind of stuff I don't want to see," LoVecchio said, "especially being an 18-year-old right now. Just going out each game and helping this team win games is all I really think about."
The Franklin Lakes, N.J., native doesn't impress by hitting high notes on the scale of spectacular moves; he fires up fans by never striking off-key.
Other quarterbacks have put up flashier numbers than LoVecchio, who's thrown for 980 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games.
But they haven't matched him for productivity.
LoVecchio's completed 73 of 125 attempts, the fourth best single season completion percentage in Notre Dame history. He's thrown just one interception the whole season, a miscue that came against Navy in just his second game as a starter. If LoVecchio had played in 75 percent of Notre Dame's games and was eligible for the efficiency rating, he would rank seventh in the nation in efficiency.
More important than LoVecchio's passing numbers is his undefeated record.
"I always point to Joe Montana," Rogers said. "He was a guy that didn't necessarily have the greatest arm or wasn't necessarily the biggest guy or the fastest guy. All he did was win. And so I think there are intangible qualities that go into the evaluation of a quarterback. I felt that Matt LoVecchio was closer to being that way at this point in his career than the other two kids were."
LoVecchio got to 7-0 as Notre Dame's starting quarterback by finding a way to win. Unflappable in any situation, he nonchalantly threw a touchdown pass to receiver Joey Getherall in overtime to beat Air Force 34-31 Oct. 27.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound LoVecchio probably can't remember what it's like to lose.
As a starter, he's only had that feeling once in three years, a regular-season loss as a senior at Bergen Catholic High School. He captained the Crusaders to a 12-0 record and the Parochial Group 4 state playoff championship as a junior in 1998, followed up by a 10-1 record and another state championship in '99.
The multi-sport athlete got his start in soccer at age 6, when his dad ordered the coach to take him out of the game after LoVecchio scored five goals in the first quarter. LoVecchio later turned to basketball, playing for a national AAU team and starting for four years in high school.
But football always came first. In fourth grade, he took the No. 10 on his jersey and began playing quarterback. As LoVecchio got older and earned Honorable Mention All-American status from USA Today, his parents hoped he would pick an Ivy League school, while he wanted to play Division I ball.
Notre Dame was the perfect compromise.
Coming into college, LoVecchio had formed few expectations.
Whether he would redshirt, play as a reserve or start didn't concern him. He pored over his playbook after practice, asked for help from his teammates and coaches and focused on improving each game. When he became Notre Dame's first freshman quarterback to start since the 1980s, LoVecchio didn't lose any sleep over the change.
"I took the approach of just taking it day by day," LoVecchio said. "If you look too far ahead down the line, even in the beginning, that can really play games with your head. If it's Monday, and I'm worrying about Saturday already, that's not going to help me or anyone else."
With that perspective, LoVecchio has yet to lose a game and the Irish are on their way to the Fiesta Bowl.
But he failed to achieve his No. 1 goal when he stepped on campus — to be a normal freshman. That setback hasn't hurt LoVecchio's opinion of Notre Dame.
"It's everything and more than I expected it to be," LoVecchio said. "I can see why so many people dream to come here."
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, December 12, 2000