Monday, December 22, 2008

History of the Bowls, Part I

Editor's note: In keeping with the Mel Brooks-ian tradition, there will be no Part II.

The Irish continue to soak up the sun in Honolulu as they prepare for Wednesday night's game, and there are two big stories dominating the headlines out on the Pacific Island. One is the rumor taking hold in the Hawai'i camp that some Irish player joked that everybody on the island "lives in huts", which they've taken as the rallying cry for their team. Second, there's the nasty side issue of Notre Dame's NCAA record 9 consecutive bowl losses.

How did this happen? Thru their first 18 postseason games (17 of them played after 1970, when the University finally lifted its bowl ban) the Irish were a respectable 12-6, and practically all of those games were on the big stage against big-time opponents. Even the middling bowl bids of the Faust years were still against Heisman winner Doug Flutie in the Liberty Bowl and against #8 SMU in the Aloha Bowl. In the 9 games since their last bowl victory (24-21 over pesky Texas A&M on January 1, 1994) the Irish have stayed on the big stage for the most part but seemed more like the court jester matched up with the leading actors. A quick blow-by-blow of where it's all gone wrong over the past 15 years:

January 2, 1995 - Fiesta Bowl vs. Colorado

The entire 1994 season was awash in controversy and heartache, almost as if the effects of the soul-crushing loss to end the '93 regular season were still blanketing the campus. At 6-4-1, Notre Dame was hardly deserving of a plum bowl bid on New Year's Day, but Lou Holtz's team accepted the challenge against their old bowl nemesis, fourth-ranked Colorado. Featuring Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam (saying it now makes it sound like a practical joke, doesn't it?) and future Pittsburgh Steelers malcontent Kordell Stewart, current Notre Dame QB coach Ron Powlus and his team promptly got overwhelmed, falling behind 31-3 in the first half before losing 41-24. Holtz began to open himself up to charges of "going to the well once too often" with a decision to wear green jerseys, perhaps hoping for a repeat of the '92 Sugar Bowl when road versions of the alternate uni were worn for an upset of #3 Florida.

January 1, 1996 - Orange Bowl vs. Florida State

The last truly admirable Notre Dame bowl performance, even in defeat. Holtz and the Irish came in on a six-game winning streak and, with Tom Krug subbing for an injured Powlus, looked to have the game in hand early in the fourth quarter after forcing Danny Kanell out of the endzone for a safety and taking the ensuing free kick in for a touchdown and a 26-14 lead. But Kanell threw a pair of scores in the final minutes and Krug was forced into a safety of his own for a 31-26 Florida State victory. It turned out to be Holtz's final bowl game, as a loss to USC the following year left the 8-3 Irish electing to skip a lesser bowl as the regime changed hands to Bob Davie.

December 28, 1997 - Independence Bowl vs. LSU

The first (and so far only) time that Notre Dame has been involved in a bowl rematch, having defeated the Tigers just six weeks earlier in Death Valley by a score of 24-6. On this cold and uninspiring evening in Shreveport, LA, the Irish capped the first year of the Bob Davie era with a sloppy performance that still, somehow, saw them leading 6-3 at halftime. But wasted red zone chances came back to haunt them and Tigers running back Rondell Mealey ran wild in the second half, finishing with 220 yards in a 27-9 LSU win.

January 1, 1999 - Gator Bowl vs. Georgia Tech

Apparently not a student of history, Davie broke out the green jerseys at the request of his seniors, but the uniform color didn't matter when it came to defending speedy receiver Dez White. Jarious Jackson (whose absence with a knee injury was the prime factor in a 10-0 loss to USC that cost ND a shot at a major bowl bid) made a game effort alongside Autry Denson (130 yards and three touchdowns in his final game), but the Irish couldn't keep up in a shootout as the streak reached four with a 35-28 loss.

January 1, 2001 - Fiesta vs. Oregon State

In many ways the most humiliating of all. It's one thing to get outclassed by Ohio State and LSU as the Irish would in recent years, but to see ND so thoroughly depantsed by a school that had only recently broken a string of 28 losing seasons made you wonder just what Bob Davie had been working on during the month between games. Of course, Oregon State had a couple of future NFL studs in TJ Houshmanzadeh and Chad Johnson, but that doesn't make it any less embarrassing. The 41-9 blowout was also, amazingly, not the most lopsided loss ND ever suffered in a bowl game; that "honor" remains with the 1972 squad which lost the '73 Orange Bowl to Nebraska by a score of 40-6.

January 1, 2003 - Gator vs. North Carolina State

Matched up against Philip Rivers and long-time Bobby Bowden lieutenant Chuck Amato, first-year coach Tyrone Willingham was looking to atone for the 44-13 shellacking given out by USC in the season finale. It didn't happen as a punchless Notre Dame offense sank in the 13th game of the year, falling 28-6 and losing all hope after Carlyle Holiday was knocked from the game with a re-injured shoulder. A barrage of Wolfpack trick plays in the second quarter put the game safely out of reach from Pat Dillingham and an offensive unit that went 4-for-19 on third down conversions. Most telling stat: early in the 3rd quarter, NC State wideout Bryan Peterson had more passing yards (27, on two flea-flicker plays) than either Irish quarterback.

December 28, 2004 - Insight Bowl vs. Oregon State

Nothing good happens when the Irish and the Beavers have a postseason date in Arizona. This game was basically over before it started, with the Irish accepting a bid and then about 36 hours later firing Willingham, sparking off a long and dubious chain of reactions over "institutional racism" and other hogwash. The game itself was the definition of anti-climactic, as the Irish under interim coach Kent Baer did everything but win one for Ty. It was 21-o early in the second quarter and Oregon State cruised to the finish with a 38-21 final score.

January 2, 2006 - Fiesta vs. Ohio State

Things were looking up in early in Charlie Weis' bowl debut as the Irish took the opening kickoff and promptly marched straight down OSU's vaunted defense for a 7-0 lead. Then the Buckeye offense took the field and shredded Notre Dame for 617 yards, gaining huge chunks on long pass plays to Ted Ginn and Santonio Holmes as well as a long reverse to Ginn. For all the Buckeye firepower, Notre Dame was somehow still in the game heading to 4th quarter, down 24-13. They would cut it to 27-20 with 5:27 to play but couldn't hold up, allowing Troy Smith to pick up two huge third downs before a 60-yard touchdown run by Antonio Pittman iced the game. People still haven't forgotten about Laura Quinn's hideous half-and-half jersey, which I guess was meant to "honor" brother Brady and then-boyfriend, now-husband AJ Hawk.

January 3, 2007 - Sugar Bowl vs. LSU

The Irish never shook the funk of the Fiesta Bowl completely, grab-bagging their way to a 10-2 record in 2006 that lost a lot of luster when you factor in their two losses were by a combined 46 points to Michigan and USC. The bowl game didn't provide redemption either, even as the Irish hung tough in the first half once more. The turning point came after a Quinn-to-Jeff Samardzija touchdown knotted the score at 14 with just over two minutes to play in the second quarter. LSU's JaMarcus Russell found that to be plenty of time to march straight back upfield for the go-ahead score, and the Irish never threatened again as the Tigers tacked on a pair of touchdowns in the second half to win going away, 41-14.

So now comes the Hawai'i Bowl. To wrap up, a final bit of bowl history: This will be the 11th different bowl game the Irish have played in (1 Rose, 1 Insight, 1 Independence, 1 Liberty, 1 Aloha, 3 Gator, 3 Fiesta, 4 Sugar, 5 Orange, & 7 Cotton), and they are 5-5 in their first appearances, having lost their last two bowl debuts (Independence and Insight).

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