Notre Dame Football: The disaster that was the 2009 season

The 2009 Notre Dame football team was loaded and there were huge expectations for what they should be able to accomplish — why did so much go wrong?

It’s hard to believe that the 2009 season — the Notre Dame football program’s last before Brian Kelly’s arrival — was 11 years ago.

So much has changed in that time, but for the program and college football as a whole. Back then, the BCS ruled the college football postseason. Tim Tebow had just lead Florida to a National Championship. Western Kentucky was new to the FBS.

Notre Dame football, on the other hand, wasn’t really riding high. Yes, they were coming off a rebound season. But rebound seasons are frowned upon at Notre Dame. Down years are supposed to be 10 win seasons. Not 10 wins over two seasons.

To look at 2009, you have to start with 2008. After a disastrous 2007 where the Fighting Irish lost the most games in a single season in program history with a 3-9, Charlie Weis and company finished 2008 with a 7-6 record and a 49-21 victory over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.

That six-win regular season could have been nine. Notre Dame blew three double-digit leads: 11 points vs North Carolina, which Notre Dame lead up until five seconds left, 14 points vs Pitt, which was a four-overtime loss, and 13 points vs Syracuse, which is still one of the most painful losses in Irish history.

Notre Dame led Syracuse 23-10 in the 4th quarter but gave up the go-ahead touchdown with 42 seconds left. Brandon Walker then missed a 53-yard field goal as time expired, resulting in snowballs raining down on the team from the student section. Syracuse would finish 3-9.

How did the Notre Dame football team respond the following week? They lost 38-3 to USC.

But things were looking up. 2009 was set to be a big rebound year. This was Notre Dame football built in Charlie Weis’ image. By this point, the roster was filled with kids he had recruited.

There was also a new man in charge of the defense: John Tenuta. Tenuta spent 2008 as the linebackers coach, but prior to that, he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. He first grabbed Weis’ attention in 2006, when Tenuta held Brady Quinn and the high powered Irish offense to 10 points. The following year, he held them to three.

The schedule set up nicely. Michigan had lost Lloyd Carr to retirement. UConn was going to be good, but there should always be a talent discrepancy between the two. Both Washington and Washington State were bad — so bad, in fact, that when the west coast schools met later that year in the Apple Cup, it was referred to as the Crapple Cup. Factor in Nevada to open the year and routine Notre Dame punching bag Navy, it’s not out of the question to see a 10 win season. Realistically, the basement should be eight wins.

The Gator Bowl seemed like a likely landing spot for the postseason, being projected by numerous publications including Phil Steele.

The Irish offense was set to be one of the best in a long time. Jimmy Clausen was coming into his own. His top three targets were decent: Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph. Duval Kamara provided some great depth. Armando Allen wasn’t a superstar, but he didn’t need to be in this offense.

On the defensive side, Kyle McCarthy, Brian Smith, and Harrison Smith were the anchors. Two freshmen with sky-high hopes were beginning their college careers as well: Kapron Lewis-Moore and Manti Te’o.

The talent was there.

Ranked 23rd to open the season, Notre Dame opened with a 35-0 victory over the Nevada Wolfpack. It was a solid start, the offense looked great and the defense was solid. The win bumped them up to number 18. A trip to Ann Arbor awaited.

Going up against rival Michigan, things were set up for a Notre Dame win. A new coach, freshman quarterback, Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Mario Manningham gone. But the aforementioned freshman had other ideas.

Tate Forcier, a name that still gets under the skin of Irish fans, played a solid game. By the end of the first quarter, Michigan had built a 14-3 lead. The Notre Dame football team battled back with three straight scoring drives and actually took a 20-17 lead into the half.

After Michigan missed a field goal of their own to start the second half, Notre Dame fumbled their possession on their own 31, giving Michigan short field which the Wolverines capitalized on with a touchdown. It’s a lead they would keep until an Armando Allen touchdown with a little over five minutes left. It looked like Notre Dame was going to escape, needing just one more defensive stop with two minutes to go.

Instead, Forcier threw all over the Irish defense, eventually finding Greg Matthews for the game-winning touchdown with five seconds left. It was yet another defensive breakdown. It was also a sign of things to come.

Notre Dame rebounded after that: wins against Michigan State (which gave us one of the greatest moments in college football history https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Fg-76xzGABE,) Purdue and Washington heading into an open date. Even the bye was eventful as the Irish ended up ranked once again, this time at number 25. It was time for revenge against USC.

USC had given Notre Dame problems for a while: the Bush Push in 2005. A crushing loss that ended Notre Dame’s BCS hopes in 2006. And losses in 2007 and 2008 by a combined score of 76-3. The game was in South Bend and USC also had a young quarterback, Matt Barkley. There was a real belief that this was the year Notre Dame defeated the Trojans for the first time since 2001.

But again, USC came out victorious in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score showed for the first three quarters. Sure, Notre Dame did come back from 34-14 to being the game within seven points and had a chance to tie late. Unfortunately, Jimmy Clausen missed a pass in the end zone to Duval Kamara that no doubt would have been caught had Kamara not slipped just before the ball was thrown.

Everson Griffen was beyond dominant with three tackles for loss and three sacks. Even when double-teamed, he couldn’t be stopped.

But once again, the defense was absolutely torched. Matt Barkley threw at will, picking apart the secondary for 380 yards on just 19 completions. It was actually an unbelievable sight as Barkley was the second freshman to light up Notre Dame that season.

But the resilient team wasn’t going to quit, as back to back wins against Boston College and Washington State brought the Notre Dame football team back to number 19 in the polls. At 6-2, Championship hopes were long gone, but a BCS berth was still possible.

And then it completely fell apart.

The Notre Dame football team lost their final four games of the season: Navy, Pitt, UConn, and Stanford.

The Navy game was brutal. The Irish moved the ball well, especially through the air. Jimmy Clausen threw for 452 yards, but Notre Dame could only muster 21 points, all coming in the final 19 minutes. The Irish were simply unable to score from the red zone. Navy’s bend-don’t-break defensive play and physical domination worked as they defeated the Irish for the second time in three years by a score of 23-21. It could have been 21-21 had it not been for Clausen getting sacked in the end zone for a safety.

Pitt was yet another game where late touchdowns made the game look closer than it was. The Panthers lead 20-3 heading into the 4th, but the final was 27-22. This time it was the ground game that cost the Irish. Dion Lewis’ 152 yards was just too much for the Irish to overcome.

UConn’s 33-30 double-overtime victory is one game Irish fans would love to forget. Notre Dame actually had a 14 point lead that they were unable to hold onto. It was once again the rushing attack that did the damage. Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon combined for 244 yards and two touchdowns.

The Stanford finale was the entire Notre Dame season rolled into 60 minutes. This game had it all. Two blown double-digit leads, 205 Toby Gerhart rushing yards, and 14 Stanford points in the final nine minutes. The final was 45-38.

After starting 6-2, the Irish finished 6-6.  It was a downward spiral and it happened against teams that all had better records than Notre Dame, but didn’t have the same amount of talent. And somehow, Notre Dame found ways to lose.

Charlie Weis and his staff were fired. Things were so bad that Notre Dame declined a bowl bid, with athletic director Jack Swarbrick‘s reasoning being “unique circumstances.” Notre Dame had previously declined a bowl in 1996 following the resignation of Lou Holtz.

It was probably the correct decision. The last thing this team needed was to play another game without a head coach or defensive coordinator.

The biggest problem with this team — clearly — was the defense. Tenuta was also dismissed after an abysmal first and only season. The Irish gave up 397.8 yards per game, ”good” for 86th out of 120 teams in the nation.  They also allowed 170.3 yards per game on the ground (89th) and 227.5 yards through the air (76th.) In terms of points per game, they were middle so the pack giving up 25.9.

As bad as the season was, not everything about 2009 was a disaster.

Golden Tate won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver with 1496 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also finished 10th in Heisman voting.

The Irish passing offense was fifth in the country averaging 323.5 yards and Jimmy Clausen threw for 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions. This was the Jimmy Clausen that everyone expected to see when he announced his commitment to Notre Dame after pulling up to the College Football Hall of Fame in a limo. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2006-04-23-0604230222-story.html

The team also produced some NFL draft success. Clausen and Tate were both second-round picks in 2010. Kyle Rudolph was taken in the second round in 2011. Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith were taken the following year in the flesh round. Robert Blanton, Darius Fleming, Sam Young, and Eric Olsen were also drafted.

The season also allowed for a lot of playing time and time to gain experience for Manti Te’o and Kaepron Lewis-Moore, two players that would be major contributors to the 2012 National Championship team. That season legitimized and revitalized the program and Notre Dame to glory. It also provided a huge recruiting boost.

Of course, the biggest success of 2009 was landing Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly. Kelly’s still roaming the sidelines in South Bend with a 92-37 record heading into his 11th season.

Next: Notre Dame Football: Brian Kelly remains optimistic about 2020 season

In some ways, the effects of 2009 are still being felt today.