The pressure of Charlie Weis’ new job certainly will be a relief.
I witnessed his first season at Notre Dame from the bleachers. I attended nine games that season, but one sticks out.
In 2005, Pete Carroll and USC came to South Bend, ESPN “GameDay” set up shop on the quad in front of Touchdown Jesus, and the Irish and Trojans played one of the greatest games in a rivalry that dates back to 1926.
Before the 3-9 season in 2007, the program’s worst ever in many ways — the utter failure on defense in the fourth quarter game after game, the losses to Navy, the loss to hapless Syracuse in 2008, consecutive losses to the academies — before all that, Weis and Notre Dame nearly dethroned Carroll and the Trojans in the midst of the greatest part of USC’s run.
I distinctly remember after yet another inspiring 80-yard drive organized by Weis and orchestrated by his student, Brady Quinn, to put Notre Dame ahead 31-28 with 2:04 remaining that there was only one way USC could win: an epic defensive collapse by the Irish. Through the clouded remains of all the brain cells destroyed that day, I had that thought.
It was a bad thought, because, of course, it materialized.
A sack on second-and-10 of Matt Leinart for a nine-yard loss put USC back on its 16-yard line with 1:44 left. A complete pass for 10 yards to Reggie Bush made it fourth-and-nine with 1:32 left.
We all thought the game was over.
But Leinart dropped back and lofted the ball to Dwayne Jarrett up the east sideline, and Jarrett caught the ball at his knees. Jarrett went 61 yards to the Notre Dame 13. Bush then did most of the work on two carries and pushed Leinart for the final yard with three seconds left, and USC won, 34-31.
Weis’ highlight in five years at Notre Dame was the loss to USC. Then, following the 2005 season, Ohio State drubbed Notre Dame in all the major statistical categories in the Fiesta Bowl and won, 34-20.
Still, the Notre Dame base was riding high going into 2006. At the Blue and Gold spring game that year after the 2005 season, Joe Montana and Tim Brown came back to be on the sidelines for a practice game because Charlie asked them to. The tradition was alive and well because Charlie rallied the army. Everyone was on board.
But things went downhill from there. The 2006 season, though highlighted by 10 wins to compliment the nine of 2005, included three results which clearly kept Notre Dame from the ranks of the nation’s top teams, a 41-17 loss to Michigan, 44-24 loss to USC and a 41-14 setback to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
The defense experienced new lows in 2007, with consecutive losses to Navy and Air Force, in which Notre Dame gave up 46 and 41.
In 2008 losses to North Carolina, Pittsburgh, USC and, most embarrassingly, Syracuse, the defense could not be depended on.
In four losses to end the overall decline that was his career at Notre Dame, Weis’ defenses could not withstand Navy, Pitt, UConn and Stanford.
And I should have known it in 2005. No fan in Weis’ tenure believed Notre Dame was going to win at the end of a game, not when the other team had the ball.