Rakes Report #161: Notre Dame's best and worst football of the 21st century (Christmas Giving Bonus Edition)

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Before we dive in, I just wanted to thank everyone who has donated to the Center for the Homeless, bought shirts or shared the GoFundMe link -- the generosity has been overwhelming after such a long and trying year. We’ll have another chunk coming in once the December TeePublic proceeds drop (shirts still available) next month. If you were still considering participating in Christmas Giving, you can do so here. Donations will remain open until the end of the month but this will be the last email about it.

(One more quick note before we move on: Check and see if your company offers matching donations. Would be a nice boost for the Center to start the year as the matches accrue.)


As we close out the week, I thought it might be fun to take a little walk down memory lane. We’ve done best wins and best players so I settled on breaking things down by individual months. I realize this is a rather random way to approach dividing a football season considering the idiosyncrasies of schedules but the calendar provides nice, arbitrary borders within which we can evaluate the performance of the Fighting Irish. What follows is an attempt to pick out the best and worst 30 or 31-day periods for Notre Dame football over the past two decades.

Fair warning that this is a very long one so save it for the weekend if you like since the Irish are idle this weekend. Couple of notes before we start:

  • In some instances, there was rooting for a coach to lose so they would be replaced and our conceptions of worst/best are flipped, but for our purposes we’re going to just say the goal is to win football games. As you’ll see, save for one or two exceptions, this is just about accruing victories and losses.

  • During this I’m going to occasionally mention F+ ratings for teams because it’s easy for me to bounce between years and pull numbers with just the one stat. F+ is pretty simple: It takes the rankings from Brian Fremeau’s FEI system and Bill Connelly’s SP+ system and smashes them together in an attempt to average out any outliers. There’s no perfect way to do historic dives but this one gives us a rough idea of what the advanced metrics thought of these teams at the time. If I say ranked, that’s referring to the Associated Press poll.

Worst: September 2001

I understand the awkwardness of putting this month as a worst month because yes of course but it was also bad for Notre Dame football. Bob Davie was not in great shape after getting humiliated by Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl, 41-9, but he still garnered a No. 18 ranking in the preseason poll. That said: If you’re on the hot seat coming into a season, I don’t recommend going 0-3 in the opening month. A 27-10 road loss to a Nebraska team that would get destroyed by Miami in the title game was followed by a 17-10 home loss to a blah Sparty team and a 24-3 loss in College Station to a decent but by no means great Texas A&M team. The Irish would win five of their final eight but Davie was doomed after this.

Best: September and October 2002

Nothing about the start to Ty Willingham’s tenure was sustainable, as you cannot build your offense out of chewing gum and tin foil while hoping your defense and special teams score a bunch, but just objectively there are so many good wins here.

  • They opened with a 22-0 victory over Maryland. The Terrapins would go on to win 11 games and finish 13th in the final AP poll.

  • After dispatching Purdue, they eked out a 25-23 win over a Michigan team that would go on to win ten games and finish 9th in the final AP poll.

  • After thrashing Stanford to start the month of October, they won 14-6 over a Pitt team that had Larry Fitzgerald and would finish with 9 wins and 19th in the AP poll.

  • Then they went to Colorado Springs to play undefeated Air Force, who was ranked No. 18 in the country. “College GameDay” was there and the Irish won 21-14.

  • The very next week they went on the road to Tallahassee and “College GameDay” was there AGAIN and they won AGAIN, 34-24, against No. 11 Florida State. The Seminoles would finish with 9 wins and No. 21 in the final AP poll.

Was it all downhill from there, save for the upsets of Washington State in 2003 and then Michigan and Tennessee in 2004? Sure, absolutely, but this is an incredible run of unlikely football.

[Sorry, before we move on, I have to talk about Florida State’s non-conference schedule in 2002 because it’s amazing. They opened by playing Seneca Wallace’s Iowa State team at Arrowhead, which if you are not familiar with College Seneca Wallace head to YouTube and enjoy yourself. They played at Louisville (then in Conference USA) on a rainy Thursday night in a game I distinctly remember watching and which is, bless the internet, available in full on YouTube with a booth of Mike Tirico, a bespectacled Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso. Then they played at defending champ Miami (then in the Big East), hosted Notre Dame, hosted Florida and played Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Is that the best non-conference schedule ever?]

Looking through Willingham’s tenure, nobody is better at having one slightly redeeming thing to stave off a month being totally irredeemable. A 1-3 start to the 2003 season is mitigated by that one being a comeback victory over a Washington State team that finished 10-3 and No. 9 in the AP poll. In October, he lost at home 45-14 to the Trojans and at Boston College 27-25 but also slipped in a 20-14 win on the road against a Pitt team that was ranked No. 15 at the time because Julius Jones ran for 262 dang yards. November started with a 37-0 home loss to the Seminoles but ended with three straight wins. December was a one-game embarrassment against Syracuse so maybe that’s your best bet? It’s like Willingham engineered his tenure to avoid having Worst entries here so let’s move to his successor.

Best: November 2005

This is more of a competent best considering everything that preceded it. Were any of the wins particularly sexy? No, but 4-0 to clinch a BCS bowl in Charlie Weis’ first year while putting up a bunch of points was fun, dammit. Notre Dame started the month with home wins of 20 points or more over Tennessee, Navy and Syracuse before closing down Stanford’s old stadium with a thrilling primetime victory. (Podcast about that game here.) Again, none of those teams were good but it was just fun to watch Brady Quinn and the gang scoring a bunch. Overall, from the end of September though Thanksgiving weekend, the Irish closed on a 7-1 run, with the one being the Bush Push.

You could also make the case for September, which included road wins over No. 23 Pitt and No. 3 Michigan* (ranks at time of the game) but it also was marred by a home opener defeat to a Sparty team that finished under .500. Best Months, as a rule, cannot include losses to John L. Smith.

* Michigan finished 6th in the F+ but 7-5 overall.

(Also, Weis doesn’t have all that many fitting candidates for Best Month. Things are about to get dark because of the explosives Willingham stuffed into the depth chart before he departed.)

Worst: September 2007

I vividly remember receiving the text notifying me of the final score of Appalachian State at Michigan and thinking “Wow, college football is the greatest thing.” It wasn’t at all that way, actually. The Irish opened at home against Georgia Tech and lost 33-3 which is bad but what makes it worse is it inspired Weis to hire Jon Tenuta, which is a move we all absolutely loved at the time (don’t let anyone tell you differently) but as you’ll find out soon did not work out.

Then they went to Penn State and lost 31-10, the lone touchdown coming on a pick six. (This game was also paired with perhaps the most destructive tailgate I’ve ever attended, which I’m not saying as an insult or compliment but as a statement of fact about my overall state as we sat in Beaver Stadium.) The following week it was 0-2 Notre Dame at 0-2 Michigan and the Wolverines rolled 38-0, allowing just 79 yards of offense. If you’re keeping track at home, the Irish are yet to score an offensive touchdown because Weis spent the offseason trying to convert to a spread only to see the only mobile quarterback on his roster peace out after one game. The Irish finally scored in a 31-14 home loss to Sparty before a 33-19 loss in West Lafayette. The silver lining of this godforsaken 0-5 month was a two-touchdown loss to Purdue just because a freshman wide receiver had three catches for 104 yards! And trust me, again, that was extremely exciting – people made t-shirts!

We’ll talk about 2016 below, obviously, but there’s such a difference between a talented team that’s snake-bitten and this. Notre Dame did, however, win their first game in October, and we did a podcast about that memorably wretched Rose Bowl visit as well.

Worst: November 2008 and 2009

I’m just lumping these together because we could spend an entire newsletter talking about Weis’ final two Novembers. In order:

  • A quadruple overtime loss to Pitt in which zero touchdowns were scored after the end of regulation. How do you even do that?

  • A 17-0 loss at Boston College in which the Irish turned it over five times and didn’t run a single play in the Eagles red zone.

  • A 27-21 victory against Navy in Baltimore, where a 27-7 game with two minutes left was somehow stressful. Hope you liked this one because it’s the only November win over a two-year span. Also, we ruined the experience of witnessing this victory by going to see a late show of “Quantum of Solace” at Gallery Place that night. A very bad movie. 

  • The Irish then lost 24-23 to a Syracuse team that had already fired its coach before this game started. On Senior Day. As 19.5-point favorites. Notre Dame was outrushed 170-41 by a team that finished 3-9.

  • 38-3 at USC. Do you know when Notre Dame achieved its initial first down of the game? THE LAST PLAY OF THE THIRD QUARTER.

  • Okay let’s flip forward to the following year, where Notre Dame entered November 6-2 and ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll. How should a team handle this pressure? How about losing at home to Navy, 23-20. The Irish were shut out in the first half despite finishing the game with 512 yards and 32 first downs and having an offense that featured Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Theo Riddick.

  • Pitt was good that year but Notre Dame made them look great in a primetime Heinz Field 27-22 loss. Golden’s punt return was the only memorable thing and this pretty much sealed Weis’ fate.

  • If that didn’t seal it, losing 33-30 to UConn in double overtime on Senior Day sure did. The Huskies were actually pretty good that year, finishing 8-5 and 29th in F+, but still. Come on.

  • A 45-38 shootout loss to a really fun Stanford team to close it out.

Best: July 2009

From the July 8, 2009 issue of the South Bend Tribune. This appeared on Page C1.

About eight or nine years ago, when Bill Rees was the director of college scouting for the Chicago Bears, a trip to South Bend surfaced.

He decided that his sons, Danny and Tommy, should come along, in large part to show them the Notre Dame campus.

After a stop in LaPorte, where Rees’ father grew up, Bill told his sons to keep an eye out for the Golden Dome. That perplexed Tommy, the younger of the two boys.

“He looked at me,” Bill recalled Tuesday, “and he said, ‘Dad, Notre Dame doesn’t play in a dome.’”

Tommy Rees may have been a little confused about Notre Dame that day nearly a decade ago, but he’s not today. Rees, a senior quarterback at Lake Forest (Ill.) High School, on Tuesday gave the Irish a verbal commitment to begin playing for them beginning in 2010.

The 6-foot-3, 192-pound Rees became the 11th player to verbally commit to Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2010. He is the second quarterback, joining Cincinnati’s Andrew Hendrix, who committed last month.

The fact that Notre Dame has commitments from two quarterbacks for the 2010 group carries added importance. A few weeks ago, the projected 2010 depth chart at the position included just two scholarship players, starter Jimmy Clausen and backup Dayne Crist. Competition, particularly in his own class, is not something that fazes Rees.

“Not at all,” he said. “It’s part of the game. It makes everybody better.”

Rees last year threw for 2,170 yards and 21 touchdowns on 195-of-344 passing.

"He's a very accurate thrower, very smart quarterback, good athlete, has a nice arm," Lake Forest coach Chuck Spagnoli said. "They didn't recruit him to hand the ball off, I wouldn't think."

Some of Rees' qualities that Spagnoli rattled off were gained in part because Bill Rees has spent the last 15 years in the NFL as a college scout and director of player personnel, and before that was a recruiting coordinator and assistant coach at UCLA, where Danny, now 21, is a punter. Because of his father's affiliation with the game, Tommy, 17, has spent a lot of time around it.

"It's an everyday thing in my house," he said. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

During a couple of Bill's NFL stops, which included San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland and Kansas City, Tommy served as a ball boy. Bill noticed how his son would observe different players.

"He's a little bit of a gym rat in that way," Bill said.

One Notre Dame has been recruiting for a while now. Coaches visited last fall before asking for his film and transcripts, and Tommy made a trip to South Bend for spring practice and again last week for a camp. A week ago today an offer arrived, one Tommy mulled until Tuesday morning.

"I just woke up and knew I wanted to do it today," he said. "My gut was still telling me, 'Notre Dame. Notre Dame.'"

Best: November 2010

You could make a case for either September or October of this year to fall into the Worst category, but we just spent hundreds of words talking about how bad things were with the program so I’m fine with giving a first-year coach a pass in the early going. Generally, a new coach is not working with the best team, save for the instances when you’re replacing someone who retired or moved onto the NFL. Heck, Nick Saban lost to Louisiana-Monroe his first year in Tuscaloosa. It happens.

But noting that the Irish came into November 4-5 with all sorts of darkness swirling about the program is important context for the catharsis that was to follow. Following a bye, Notre Dame had an early Senior Day against Utah, who came in ranked No. 15 in the AP. The Utes were the road favorite as the Irish had to turn to a back-up quarterback making his first start, but Tommy Rees pulled off the upset, ending a variety of Weis Era losing streaks (against AP ranked teams, in the month of November) and sending the beleaguered Class of 2011 out with a field-storming win. (Podcast on that game.) That was followed by taking care of Army at Yankee Stadium in the Shamrock Series and then ending Southern Cal’s winning streak in the series by dunking Lane Kiffin in a soggy Coliseum.

Rees would run his record to 4-0 with an easy win over Miami in the Sun Bowl, earning the Irish a preseason AP ranking of No. 16 the following year. What would they do with that honor?

Worst: September 2011

Blow it to hell as quickly as possible. Notre Dame literally doubled up South Florida in yardage, 508 to 254 and outgained them in yards per play 6.5 to 3.5 but five turnovers — including a 96-yard fumble return on the opening drive — doomed the Irish. The Bulls’ postgame win expectancy in this contest (what chances the SP+ system would tell you they had of victory if you fed them the final stats of the game devoid of any further context) was 0.1%, meaning that this was the one time out of a thousand they could have pulled off the upset playing that way.

I have no desire to dive deep into the Michigan game the following week but long nightmare short the Irish started 0-2 and put themselves behind the chains for the rest of the season. This team is probably the biggest missed opportunity of the Kelly Era, as it had the bones of the 12-1 team of the following season plus Harrison Smith, Michael Floyd, Jonas Gray and Robert Blanton. It finished 10th in F+ even with an 8-5 record! The worst part is if you flip those first two results but the rest of the season plays out exactly the same the Irish would have been 10-2 and likely headed to a winnable Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech. WE LOST A CHANCE AT A NEW ORLEANS TRIP. Sigh. Onward.

Best: October 2012

You’ve got three undefeated months to choose from but I think this is the easy winner, even though September is compelling with the opener in Dublin and wins over Sparty and Michigan teams that were ranked at the time. October began with the Shamrock Series game at Soldier Field, where the Irish drummed the Hurricanes to the tune of 41-3. Then they went home for the dramatic overtime victory over a Stanford team that would finish as 12-2 Pac-12 champions.

The following weekend is a sneaky good win: Everett Golson was unable to play so it was back-up Tommy Rees against a BYU team that was more than solid, finishing No. 18 in the F+. Theo Riddick (143 rushing yards on just 15 carries) and Tyler Eifert (4 catches for 73 and a score) did just enough to squeak by, setting up the monster match up in Norman, where the Irish prevailed in a primetime battle of Top 10 teams. (Podcast on that game.) You could make the case that two of Kelly’s best five wins at Notre Dame are in this section – just a whole lot of fun.

Worst: January 2013

Being run over by the Alabama train on the biggest stage of them all and then having the Deadspin story on Manti drop the following week was not the most enjoyable stretch to be a Notre Dame fan. If it had just been one or the other, maybe we push forward, but that was a brutal one-two combo.

October 2013 isn’t flashy enough to qualify for this list, but it was really solid and at least worth noting: 3-0 with the Shamrock Series win over Arizona State, the 14-10 slugfest over USC and a blowout victory on the road against Air Force.

Worst: November 2014

The Irish walked into a five-game month as the No. 6 team in the country. What could go wrong? Almost everything.

  • They won against Navy but it was the most sparsely attended Notre Dame game I’ve ever been to, on a cold and gross night in Landover, Maryland. The Irish blew a 28-7 lead, falling behind by three in the early going of the second half but rallying to what would be the final regular season win.

  • Let’s talk about the game at Arizona State, which managed to combine the feeling of being blown out twice with the crushing sadness of a close loss. The Irish fell behind 34-3, managed to claw back all the way to make it 34-31 and then proceeded to give up the final three scores of the game to lose 55-31.

  • They were still ranked No. 15 after that, but don’t worry, it wouldn’t last long with two home games lined up: First the Irish blew a late lead against Northwestern before losing in overtime then followed that up by dropping Senior Day to Louisville.

  • USC was 7-4 and coming off an ugly loss to UCLA, but that didn’t stop them from going up 35-0 in the Coliseum on the way to a 49-14 victory. This remains the earliest I’ve ever left a Notre Dame game, as we were at Father’s Office getting burgers by the time it concluded.

Somehow following everything I just listed, Notre Dame would not just win their bowl game against LSU but would go 11-1 over their next 12. This is a stupid sport.

Best: October 2015

This is on the softer side of “Best” because it has a loss but I wanted to talk a little bit about the 2015 season so here we are. They opened the month by losing a two-point game in a hurricane to eventual national runner-up Clemson. Do you want to know how little was thought of the Tigers at this time, prior to any of their playoff appearances or even ACC titles? The Irish fell nine spots after the defeat. Times change.

The rest of the month was a good time: A comfy 17-point win over a Navy team that finished 11-2 and 21st in the F+ followed by the insane shootout with Southern Cal that ended 41-31 good guys. (A podcast on that game.) The month closed out on Halloween, as it always does, with the Irish going into Philadelphia and winning the biggest game in Temple’s program history against a future NFL coach with “College GameDay” in attendance. Like I said, kind of soft compared to a lot of these, but it was at least a fun time.

Worst: September 2016

Oh brother. Let’s set aside the Week Two win over Nevada and focus on the rest. Did this team lose in double overtime on a special Sunday night opener in front of the entire country to a Texas team that ended up 5-7 and got its coach fired? Yes. (Texas went from unranked to No. 11 in the country after beating the Irish, which is hilarious.) Did they then fall behind 36-7 on the way to losing to a Michigan State team that would finish 3-9? Yes. Did they then lose as three-touchdown home favorites to a Duke team that would finish 4-8? You know where this is going.

I genuinely don’t know how often in the history of the program the Irish lost to three teams that ended up with losing records in the same month. Think about how hard that is, particularly since you’re contributing a win to each team’s cause. Really impressive, in a way.

Best: October 2017

Only three games, but extended a great streak of football that had started in September. First, it was going on the road and winning 33-10 in Chapel Hill despite it being Ian Book’s first career start in relief of Brandon Wimbush. Then the fireworks show started: 49-14 against No. 11 Southern Cal (who would win the Pac-12 and would likely have been in the playoff with a win in South Bend) followed by 35-14 over No. 14 NC State, avenging two of the uglier losses from the prior season. In those two home games, Josh Adams ran for 393 yards and four touchdowns, the peak of 33 Trucking. Even though they only played this trio of games, the Irish entered the month of October ranked No. 21 and exited it No. 5, a quick and deserved ascent.

Worst: November 2017

Then the darkness came. As far as just record, this is far from the worst November on here, as the Irish went 2-2, but that second deuce was ugly. The wins were a 48-37 shootout over Wake Forest in which the defense started to get a little leaky and an ugly 24-17 Senior Day survival against Navy. The losses? Well, there was the destruction in South Florida, the third-ranked Irish losing a top ten battle 41-8 against the Canes. They had a chance at redemption, however, taking a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter in Palo Alto to end that losing streak and earn a New Year’s Six bowl and get to ten wins and….nope, they were outscored 21-0 to close and lost by 18.

Much like the disaster of November 2014, this was also followed by a bowl win over LSU which started a streak of 13 straight wins. I don’t know.

Best: September 2018

Again, it’s tricky with three undefeated months. You could make a case for the barnstorming in November where the Irish went from Evanston to South Bend to the Bronx to Los Angeles to close out 12-0 but it’s hard to dismiss a 5-0 month with two big primetime wins. Were the victories over Ball State and Vanderbilt gross? Oh yeah, one hundred percent, but you also get Book’s second career start (a smooth 56 points scored at Wake Forest) and the real good stuff: The primetime opener against Michigan in the final game played between the two programs and the top ten clash against Stanford that ended with a throwback dagger to Alize Mack and Jerry Tillery running roughshod. Retroactively somehow neither of those games count as Big Wins but boy would they have been Big Losses the other way around.

Best: November 2019

The month that got us to where we are now, starting the current 16-game winning streak with a 5-0 run. It was a wobbly start, with Book engineering the game-winning drive against Virginia Tech to avoid losing two in a row for the first time since 2016. From there, it was nothing but destruction. The Irish were single-digit favorites in Durham but won 38-7. The next week Navy came in ranked No. 21 and with all kinds of hype about their new defense and ah whoops says here Notre Dame opened the game up 38-0 and Chase Claypool started an international incident? Followed that up by thrashing Boston College 40-7 on Senior Day before ending the losing streak at Stanford 45-24. Navy was pretty good (finished 25th in F+), Virginia Tech was solid and the rest of this slate wasn’t all that inspiring but it was more about combining one gutsy comeback with a lot of utter destruction.

Best: November 2020

Only three games, but kind of good ones?

  • Defeated the No. 1 team in the nation in double overtime in a game everyone will remember forever because of the news events earlier in the day. Included a drive from Book at the end of regulation that will go down in Notre Dame lore.

  • Went on the road the following week in a game with so much narrative potential (hangover game, former quarterback getting a chance at his old team, echoes of a previous disastrous loss) and took care of business against Boston College, leading by double digits the entire second half.

  • Went on the road in a game that was billed as a perfect upset trap and shut out a prolific, top 5 North Carolina offense in the second despite losing one of their two best defenders to targeting before the break.

Nothing would make me happier than having having to make the addition of December and/or January to this list, so here’s hoping.

Thanks to everyone for reading. I will make one final call for donations to the Center for the Homeless and issue one final reminder about the awesome shirt designs available to you (with all proceeds also going to the CFH). It’s been both an exhausting and fun season and I’m glad we could go on the ride together.

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