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30 Defining Moments in Notre Dame Football History, 1987-2011: Return to Glory & Jones Rumbles Against Pitt

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This is the fourth post of a weekly series that will take us up to the 2012 season. In each post, we will recount two defining moments from the last 25 seasons in Notre Dame football history, starting in the present and working back to 1987, when the Irish went 8 and 4 under 2nd-year head coach Lou Holtz before heading into their last undefeated season in 1988, their eleventh and last national championship.

The occasion for this series is the 125th anniversary of the Notre Dame football program in 2012. The last 25 years, on which we will focus, have seen Notre Dame rise with dominance to the top of the football world and plunge to what many have called irrelevance, to the losingest four-year period in school history from 2007-2010 and to a time when Notre Dame is struggling to regain its identity, cast its roots again in the fundamentals of the game, in true talent and depth and excellence, and learn how to win consistently week after week, season after season.

And while we look forward, hoping, even with confidence, that the Irish under Coach Brian Kelly are indeed on that arduous path back towards sustained success, we look back now over some of those moments that have defined Notre Dame football over the past 25 years.

Defining Moments

7. October 11, 2003. Julius Jones rushes for school-record 263 yards against Pittsburgh.

Julius Jones was an impact freshman for the Fighting Irish and evolved into a quality running back early in his career, but not many could have expected the season he would have in 2003 and the performance he would put on against Pittsburgh that same year.

As a true freshman in 1999, Jones split carries at running back with Tony Fisher and Tony Driver and ended the season with 375 rushing yards on a very respectable 5.0 yards per carry average. However, Jones' big impact came in the return game where he totaled 798 yards with one touchdown---making him one of the most exciting and dynamic young players in the country.

Jones' sophomore year saw him split carries once again and his production from the backfield dipped a little (Bob Davie's offense did him no favors) as he ended the season with 657 yards with a pedestrian 4.1 yards per carry average. Even though he lost the punt return duties to Joey Getherall, Jones led the Irish with 7 rushing touchdowns and remained dynamic in the kick return game with 427 yards and 1 touchdown on just 15 attempts.

As a junior, the take-off into All-American status that fans had been hoping for Jones didn't happen although he remained a quality player. He continued to split carries in the multi-back option offense but finally became the favored top runner with 168 total carries. Still, Jones couldn't top 1,000 yards and his 4.3 rushing average remained low as did his touchdowns (just 7 total in 2001). He was the starter at both punt and kick returner again---totaling 597 yards---but after 2001 it appeared Jones may have tapped out his potential.

Then disaster struck during the offseason as head coach Bob Davie was fired, Tyrone Willingham was hired, and heading into August of 2002 the university announced that Julius Jones was dismissed from the school. Poor academic performance was cited as the reason and even though the university said Jones could apply for reinstatement in 2003, many expected Jones to spend the year training, transfer to another school, or declare for the NFL draft.

But come back to Notre Dame he did, and even though Jones began the 2003 season behind junior Ryan Grant (who rushed for 1,085 yards and 9 touchdowns while Jones was gone from the team), he wrestled the starting position with a legendary performance in week five against Pittsburgh.

Jones rumbled for a school-record 262 yards on just 24 carries (10.9 average) and scored two touchdowns against the Panthers. After the game Jones remarked,

"It was just a great day for us. Things just opened up for us. I was fortunate enough to get a lot of carries and the line did a great job."

It was a very inconsistent season for Julius Jones as he finished with 54 yards or less and zero scores in 5 of the season's 12 games, but that big playmaking ability flourished in his last season at Notre Dame. Jones became the only player in school history to rush for 200 yards in three separate games in one season (221 vs. Navy & 218 vs. Stanford in addition to the Pitt game) and his 1,268 total rushing yards remains fifth-best for a single-season in school history.

His rise as one of the top backs in the country all started that fateful day at Heinz Field with a school record that still stands to this day. Jones would go on to be selected in the 2nd round of the NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys and rushed for 5,068 yards and 22 touchdowns for three teams from 2004 to 2010.

8. Fall 2002. Tyrone Willingham starts 8-0 in first year as head coach at Notre Dame.

With the benefit of hindsight the beginning of the 2002 season feels like the sham it turned out to be, but it was difficult to feel that way in the middle of the winning streak which started that fall. The play on the field didn't necessarily match the record, but it was hard not to get caught up in the hype that grew from game to game.

Notre Dame didn't look spectacular in all phases of the game in Tyrone Willingham's first season in South Bend, but the defense was stout, they generated copious amount of turnovers, and it appeared that the good ol' Irish magic was back as the team started winning each Saturday.

The season began as Notre Dame shutout ranked Maryland in the Meadowlands and came home and defeated Purdue by one score. In both games the Irish scored zero touchdowns on offense, while the defense caused 5 turnovers and scored 4 touchdowns. In week three the Irish defeated a highly ranked Michigan squad and actually scored 3 offensive touchdowns---but the difference in the 2-point win was a safety and 4 turnovers caused by the defense.

Week four found Notre Dame slipping past Michigan State despite being outgained and only mustering 325 total yards, but at least the offense was responsible for putting up all three scores in the 21-17 victory. Next up was a 31-17 win over Willingham's former team in Stanford, but again the Irish scored twice on defense, caused 3 turnovers, and only outgained the hapless Cardinal by 116 yards.

The magic continued at home against Pittsburgh where Notre Dame was outgained by 217 yards, but forced 3 more turnovers and kept the Panthers out of the end zone in a 14-6 victory. The next week, the Irish put away a tough ranked Air Force team, gained a season-high 447 yards on offense, but lost three fumbles and escaped with just a touchdown victory.

At 7-0 and ranked 6th in the country heading into a road game in Tallahassee against eventual-ACC champion Florida State, everyone around the country wondered if, despite some of the problems on offense, this was going to be a truly special season for Notre Dame. Once again, Notre Dame forced four turnovers, were outgained by over 100 yards, but the offense was efficient in scoring 4 touchdowns in a 34-24 victory to push the season record to 8-0---the best start for the Irish in 9 years.

The Return to Glory™ slogan that followed the team began in earnest after week four when Notre Dame graced the cover of Sports Illustrated following the defeat of Michigan State, but after the road win at Florida State it reached a fever pitch.

After week 8 it seemed like the Irish had a real shot of finishing the regular season undefeated: Boston College had already suffered 3 losses and looked only mildly threatening, Navy and Rutgers were both awful with 7 losses a piece at that point, and even USC had lost twice and we didn't know they were morphing into the elite team they'd become over the rest of the decade.

As many are aware, it all came tumbling down against Boston College as the dream came to an end in brutal fashion. Wearing green uniforms at home for the first time in 18 years, Notre Dame doubled the Eagles in total yardage but lost 3 fumbles and couldn't score until very late in the 4th quarter, ultimately losing 14-7 with a 71-yard interception return touchdown for Boston College being the back-breaking difference.

There would be some happy moments over the next 2+ seasons for Tyrone Willingham in South Bend, but it never got better than the 8-0 start in 2002.

The offense entered the Boston College game 109 out of 117 teams nationally, averaged only 313 yards a game, lived off the back of 21 turnovers from the defense, and the lack of production finally caught up to the team. Notre Dame sneaked past Navy by a touchdown and obliterated Rutgers at home, but Southern California gave the Irish a beating for the ages---44-13 with a 501 total yard advantage---that was the first of an eventual 8-straight losses to the Trojans.

The offenses inability to score touchdowns also killed them in the bowl game against NC State where the Irish fell 28-6 to Philip Rivers and the Wolfpack. Notre Dame did end the season 10-3---the first double-digit win season since the last great Irish team in '93---but the way the season ended took away from that amazing 8-0 start. Still, that (false) Return to Glory remains one of the top 30 defining moments in Fighting Irish football since 1987.