Most sports fans have a mental catalog of instances where their favorite team was screwed by horrible officiating. Bulls fans despise Hue Hollins for the phantom foul on Scottie Pippen in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. Cardinal fans revile Don Denkinger for the 1985 World Series. Otherwise rational, calculating Oriole fans become livid at the mention of Rich Garcia in the 1996 ALCS. English soccer hooligans have the “Hand of God” in the 1986 World Cup, Washington State fans have the final two seconds of the 1998 Rose Bowl, and USA Basketball has the extra chances given to the USSR in the 1972 Olympics. When it comes to Notre Dame football, the obvious examples from my lifetime are Michael Harper's uncalled fumble in 1982 at the Coliseum, Joel Williams in 1986, and Rocket and the phantom clip in the Orange Bowl.
Of course, sometimes the Irish were the lucky ones, and I started combing my memory for instances where the Irish were the beneficiaries of a crucial blown call. In the 2006 season, the Irish were the beneficiaries of an extremely generous spot in the UCLA game, but this call was not game-changing. On the first play of Notre Dame’s final drive, Brady Quinn rolled away from Bruce Davis’s rush and hit Jeff Samardzija on the sideline, a yard shy of the 40-yardline. However, the ball was spotted one yard past the 40-yardline. The play went 19 yards, but was spotted as a 21 yard gain. While this was clearly an erroneous call, in light of the down, time remaining, and subsequent plays, one would be hard-pressed to argue this mistake affected the outcome of the game. However, I can think of a spot several years earlier that did affect the outcome of the game.
In 1999, a 2-5 Navy squad rolled into South Bend riding a 35-game losing streak against the Fighting Irish. With 5:51 left in the fourth quarter, Navy kicker Tim Shubzda hit a 33-yard field goal to give the Midshipmen a 24-21 lead over Bob Davie’s Irish squad. Jarious Jackson then began to lead the Irish offense back down the field. With 1:39 left in the game and down to their final timeout, the Irish faced 3rd and 1 at the Navy 28. Daryl Hill then sacked Jackson for a nine-yard loss, putting the Irish in 4th and 10 and forcing them to burn their final timeout. On 4th down, Jackson completed a pass to Bobby Brown, but from my vantage point in the stands, the play looked to have covered 9 ½ yards. Yet the spot seemed to favor the Irish, and the subsequent measurement revealed the play had just covered the requisite 10 yards by a hair. Shortly thereafter, Jackson found Jay Johnson in the endzone for the go-ahead score and the longest winning streak against an opponent in Division I-A football was preserved.
What if...the spot had been a nose short?
Had the Irish come up just short of the first down, Navy almost certainly would have won. The Irish were out of timeouts, and Navy would have taken over with just 1:20 left in the game. The Midshipmen could have taken a knee and walked out with the first Navy victory over Notre Dame since Roger Staubach was under center.
Dropping the first game to Navy in decades would be a devastating emotional blow. However, the tailspin produced by such a blow would not have changed the outcome of any of the remaining games that season, for Davie managed to lose every single game in his “November to Remember.” Thus a different spot in the Navy game would only have led to a one-game change in the 1999 record, regardless of how demoralized the team was.
The real question raised by this hypothetical is whether Davie would have been fired. While, as mentioned above, his third-year record could only have dropped from 5-7 to 4-8, a loss to Navy would have touched off a firestorm. Alumni would have been outraged and the media would have descended on South Bend in droves. Would Davie have cracked under the pressure? Would the November games have turned into a month of blowouts? Would Davie’s post-A&M locker room meltdown (I don't have any answers, a shellshocked and bewildered Davie told his team) have occurred two years earlier? Could some combination of such events have made the necessity of a coaching change painfully obvious to the administration?
While things would have gotten incredibly ugly on campus, I don’t think we would have seen a coaching change. Davie still had his supporters in the athletic department (Wadsworth) and administration (Beauchamp), so action by the internal powers-that-be would have been unlikely. The fecklessness of the administration during the Davie era mobilized frustrated alumni and led them to build the networks that would allow them to exert external pressure in subsequent years. Unfortunately such efforts were still in their nascent stages during the 1999 season. Intervention by the Board of Trustees in 1999 seems unlikely, and Davie probably would have still graced the sidelines in 2000, and we still would have been subjected to blunders like the one Pete excoriated in the previous post.
Other potential tipping points:
1999 was not the only time in the Davieham era when a loss to an academy was narrowly avoided.
- 1997, Navy - On the game's last play, Navy trailed the Irish 21-17. The Midshipmen needed a touchdown, but had more than half the field to cover. Navy quarterback Chris McCoy threw the ball as far as he could, only to have the ball bounce off Deke Cooper's helmet and land in the grasp of Navy receiver Pat McGrew. It looked like McGrew would race into the endzone, giving Navy the win on a 69-yard Hail Mary. Unfortunately for the Middies, the Irish defense had Allen Rossum in the secondary. Rossum had the speed to earn All-America honors in track, to set an NCAA career record with 9 return touchdowns (3 interceptions, 3 punts, 3 kickoffs), and to win the NFL's "Fastest Man" competition in 2005. On the game's final play, Rossum used that speed to fly to McGrew and push him out at the 1 yardline, saving the day. Had Rossum not saved the Irish, Notre Dame would have dropped to 3-5 on the season. It's hard to imagine a team that lost to Navy turning around and pounding LSU like the Irish did in their next game. Instead of winning the next three games against LSU, WVU and Hawaii, it would not be surprising to see a team whose confidence was shaken by a Navy loss drop at least two of those games. Could Davie have survived a 4-8 record in his first season? We never found out, as Rossum's ability bailed out inept coaching.
- 2000, Air Force – what if Glenn Earl had followed orders? With 3 seconds left in a tie game, Air Force lined up at the Notre Dame 11-yardline for a field goal that would have won the game. Irish safety Glenn Earl had been instructed to stay in position and guard against a fake. Instead, Earl blocked the attempt and Notre Dame went on to win the game in overtime on a Joey Getherall reverse. In addition to winning the game, did Earl’s block buy Davie another year?
- 2002, Navy – what if Battle drops the 2-point conversion? During Willingham’s first year, Navy led Notre Dame 23-15 late in the fourth quarter. A long Omar Jenkins reception set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Rashon Powers-Neal with 4:28 left. Carlyle Holiday and Arnaz Battle hooked up for the 2-point conversion and the game was tied. Holiday then hit Jenkins for a 67-yard touchdown with 2:08 left to give Notre Dame the lead. If the 2-point conversion attempt had been unsuccessful, would this have given Navy the momentum necessary to hold onto their lead? If so, how different would the narrative of Willingham’s firing been? Of course, it's hard to see Battle dropping that pass, given that a recent article in ESPN's magazine recognized Battle for the "Best Hands" in the NFL and noted that, "Of the 80 passes thrown at him last season, he dropped only one, giving him the lowest dropped-pass % in the league." As in 1997, weak coaching was saved by talent.
- 2003, Navy – what if Fitzpatrick missed the field goal? In Willingham’s second year, the Irish found themselves tied with Navy heading into the game’s final play. D.J. Fitzpatrick kicked a 40-yard field goal as time expired to give the Irish a 27-24 victory. If Fitzpatrick had missed, could Navy have pulled out the victory in overtime? Again, how would this have affected the narrative of Willingham’s firing?