Depending on how you slice it, 2007 wasn’t the worst of all time—but it’s pretty darn close. While it does stand as the Irish’s first nine-loss season ever, the 1956 and 1960 seasons (both 2-8, or .200) and the 1963 season (.222) were worse percentage wise.
Of all the losses, the 38 point shutouts versus Michigan and USC were painful, though the loss to Navy—the first since 1963—may have been the worst.
So what happened?
At first it was easy to blame a lot of the problems on former coach Tyrone Willingham, whose last two recruiting classes were horrifically bad (of the 16 recruits in the 2004 class, only seven remain). But as the losses began to pile up and the blowouts became routine, it was clear much of the blame belonged elsewhere.
Throughout 2007, the Fighting Irish were a team without direction and with little of the “nasty” that Weis promised upon his arrival. Instead, it was a squad that gave up points by the bucketful, routinely went backward on offensive drives, and had some of the poorest special teams in the Bowl Subdivision.
The whole “Demetrius Jones running the spread option” was the most obvious gaffe, and Weis’ penchant for trying to outsmart his opponents through scheme meant a lack of emphasis on fundamentals and hitting. He concentrated on winning one game too much, at the expense of the type of building the team needed. Though Weis denied 2007 would be a rebuilding year, it became increasingly clear it was such a season.
The head coach realized his mistake after the third game, and went to full-contact practices, which had an immediate and noticeable effect on the field. Yet all of this points to the fact Weis, whose reputation was made as the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, is still learning how to be a head coach. Hopefully next year he’ll concentrate on fundamentals, make changes to his staff, and learn how to balance his QB development and offensive strategy with the macro-management required by a head coach.
If there’s one positive takeaway from the season, it’s this: youth.
Freshmen led (by class) in rushing, receiving, and passing this year. It’s become apparent, especially over the past few weeks, that freshmen and sophomores comprised the bulk of the team's talent—by season’s end, true freshmen were starting at quarterback (Clausen, healthy and often impressive in his last few starts, appears firmly entrenched as the future of the program), wide receiver (Duval Kamara), runningback (Robert Hughes and Armando Allen), nose tackle (Ian Williams), and linebacker (Kerry Neal and Brian Smith).
Sophomores are also littered throughout the depth chart, and with the exception of Trevor Laws, John Carlson, and Tom Zbikowski, no full-year starters have run out of eligibility. It became increasingly evident as the season wound down that Notre Dame has some true gamers on both sides of the ball—and that these young men will be the cornerstone on which the foundation for the team’s future is built.
The returning starters in '08 include the entire offensive line that protected Clausen in the last game of the season. The line was clearly the Achilles’ heel of the team, giving up over 50(!) sacks (well above the Notre Dame single-season record) and failing to run-block adequately throughout the year.
Yet this season of adversity, coupled with the expected (or at least, widely hoped for) departure of O-line coach John Latina and other assistants, may bode well for the future of the program. An anecdote about left tackle Sam Young (who has started every game at Notre Dame since he arrived) showing up at Weis’ office at 5:30 AM and asking to take more of a leadership role is heartening, especially in the face of the four mid-season transfers this year. Beyond that, Notre Dame currently sits on one of the best recruiting classes it has had since the Lou Holtz era, with a boatload of talent on the way.
Several of these incoming freshmen are expected to contribute immediately, and Weis has shown that he isn’t afraid to play younger guys if they prove to be more talented. 2008's squad will still be full of youth as the program builds, and a lot depends on how the spring and summer unfold. That being said, the belief that this will be a much more seasoned and competitive team in 2008 and beyond means expectations are running high for Notre Dame.
As they always are, always have been, and always should be.