Orlando -- It was a 49-21 Christmas Eve beating on the Big Island that started what Notre Dame fans hope will be a second notable bowl winning streak for their Irish. After a promising 4-1 start, the 2008 season devolved into a 6-6 regular season that afforded Charlie Weis’ squad a shot at 15 additional practices and a chance to end the program’s oft-referenced, over-publicized, but admittedly embarrassing 9-game bowl losing skid.
Ten current Irish played in that game including four starters (Robert Blanton, Darius Fleming and Ethan Johnson on defense; Michael Floyd for the offense).
A pair of said seniors–Ethan Johnson and Trevor Robinson– remember it well and offered insight as to why the victory meant more inside the program’s walls than to the post-season starved fans who relished the decisive streak-snapper.
“Starting in Hawaii, the seniors were just so happy to go to a bowl compared to the previous year. Just the relief of it all, because I’ve heard how bad that 3-9 season was…just bad,” said Johnson then a true freshman who enrolled following the 2007, 3-win debacle.
“So the excitement was contagious as a freshman. If there’s anything that 3-9 season has given our senior class, it’s that excitement of going to a bowl game. We were going to Hawaii and this year we’re going to Orlando and Disney World,” he continued. “We’re all just really excited. I’ve never been as excited to play in a bowl as this one: senior year, it’s going to be a great atmosphere, and a great team we’re playing.”
That team resonates nationally for every college football player, because for most of them, the Florida State Seminoles dominated their sports-viewing childhood. Though they’ve fallen from the elite over the last six years, FSU once finished with at least 10 wins and ranked among the nation’s Top 5 in an incomprehensible 14 consecutive seasons.
“For me Florida State is one of those teams as a Huskers fan growing up that you don’t necessarily like,” said Robinson of the Seminoles bullies of his youth. “There’s that, and I know Notre Dame and Florida State going back to the early 90s is the same way. It’s one of those programs in the country that’s a top tier program if you’re looking at it (nationally). I don’t think anyone’s sleeping on Florida State.”
Head coach Brian Kelly echoed his players’ sentiments Tuesday as the Irish hit the final stages of bowl game preparation.
“Two teams with great tradition (that have) won a lot of football games,” he said of the Champs Sports Bowl matchup. “I think there's brand recognition with both programs. It's a great matchup, but it's really about the present. The present is you've got two football teams that are building and playing some younger players and starting to develop their programs.
”We're excited with the matchup, there's no question because of the tradition. But it's two good football teams that will get a chance to play as well.”
Making their Mark
The 1993 Fighting Irish seniors (class of ’94) won three consecutive bowl games following a pseudo-national title game loss as freshmen following their 1990 season. Their 3-1 mark in four major bowl games was a regular occurrence at the program that won five major bowls including a national title while losing just one from 1988-1993.
But prior to that ’93 group, one led by the likes of first-round picks Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor, and Jeff Burris, only three other graduating classes enjoyed at least three bowl victories: the 1977 national champions; 1978 crew led by Joe Montana, Bob Golic, and Jerome Heavens; and the 1976 seniors (Ross Browner, Willie Fry and Ken MacAfee were the headliners).
Each finished 3-0 rather than 4-0 due to a 1975 season without a bowl appearance (Dan Devine’s first team finished 8-3 that season).
The 1991, 1992 and 1993 seniors each finished 3-1 thanks to the aforementioned Orange Bowl defeat following the 1990 season.
And though none of the seniors that will play their last game on December 29, 2011 ever played in a major bowl, they can nonetheless join the ’78 unit as a 3-0 bowl class, no small consolation for a group that enrolled at the University following the program’s worst modern season.
“Our senior class looks at it as maybe a final opportunity to leave a mark that we may have fallen short of over the last few years,” Robinson said. “If there’s a way we can be remembered we don’t want it to be for back-to-back losses going out.”
Juniors Manti Te’o and Cierre Wood have their own feelings regarding the matchup. Both are 1-0 in bowl games after the 33-16 humbling of Miami last New Year’s Eve. Both know the matchup with FSU brings national appeal.
“We just want to win,” said Te’o laughing. “I want to win. There’s no excuse (for a loss) because Coach Kelly and the staff do a good job in balancing bowl prep and bowl fun,” he explained of the team’s recent post-season success. “You have to have a balance. Those who concentrate so much on prep are all tight and not loose. Those that focus on the fun are too loose with no concentration. They do a good job balancing them. I think that’s where our success comes from.”
Said Wood of the matchup: “Playing Miami then FSU…that’s pretty ‘tight’ – it’s going to be a really good matchup full of athletes.
Like Robinson, Johnson will be playing his final game in an Irish uniform on Thursday. He put up two sacks in his first bowl game; three tackles last year. On his way out, Johnson took time to remember the first, fondly.
“I think it was contagious as a freshman and we haven’t looked back,” he said of the euphoria on the field after the season-ending victory. “There’s no reason not to be excited to play your last game of the year. We’ve always been trained to finish strong, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Only 14 Notre Dame senior classes have ended their careers with a bowl victory. Only six have won three bowls during their collective tenure; only one of those – the 1978 team that won a championship one year prior – was never defeated in post-season play.
The 2011 group hopes it will be next, posting three consecutive wins following nine previous program defeats.
Note: Notre Dame first accepted a bowl bid in 1969, losing 21-17 to No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl. It won six of its next seven over a nine-year period, then managed just one bowl win over the next nine seasons (four appearances). Lou Holtz teams then prevailed in five major bowls over a six-year span before the program dropped nine straight from 1994 through 2007 – five of the nine in that span were major/BCS bowls.
The Irish enter Thursday’s game with 15 wins and 14 losses in post-season action. Florida State is 24-17 all-time in bowl games and has appeared in a bowl in 30 consecutive seasons – currently the nation’s longest streak and second-best in college football history.