The 2009 Notre Dame football season marked the end of an era in South Bend. The Irish finished 6-6 on the field after a wild season which saw 10 one-possession games and their third consecutive year of 7-wins or less. Charlie Weis was fired by second-year AD Jack Swarbrick after Weis started his career by giving the Irish a decided schematic advantage. Finally, Brian Kelly was hired to take his place and he has somehow defied the post-Holtz meat-grinder to find success.
This series will explore Charlie Weis’ last year at Notre Dame, a season was predictable only in that you had no idea what would happen next. The team featured one of the best Irish offenses of all-time while also barfing out the worst defense of the S&P era at ND. Both units were loaded with future pros and some of them would go on to play pivotal roles in the 2012 Return to Glory™. It was a chaotic, exciting and ultimately somber season that saw the university fire one of its favorite sons. So prepare yourselves for a blast from the past as 18Stripes takes a week-by-week look at Charlie Weis’ last stand in the 2009 season.
2008 and the Middle of the End
After fielding the worst team in Notre Dame football history in 2007, Weis and the 2008 Irish started 5-2 before collapsing at the end of the year. The end of 2008 was one embarrassment after another, with the Irish getting blanked by Boston College, losing to 1-8 Syracuse on Senior Day, and then only managing 91 yards of offense in a 38-3 loss to USC. After going 19-4 in his first 23 games at ND, Weis was now 9-17 since November of 2006 and the sharks were circling.
Some thought Swarbrick would pull the trigger on firing Weis in his first year as AD, but Savvy Jack demurred and Weis coached the Hawaii Bowl from the press box. It’s an interesting exercise to look back and see who might’ve gotten the job if Weis had been let go, with some reporters pushing guys like Skip Holtz or Gary Patterson, while others thought Urban Meyer was a lock due to his infamous “dream job” comment in December of that year. When you look at that year’s coaching carousel, it was pretty slim pickings overall. I think Swarbrick made the right choice, unless you were smitten with Dan Mullen or Brady Hoke (god forbid).
Somewhat surprisingly, the Irish waxed Hawaii in the Warriors’ home stadium to win the program’s first bowl game since the 1994 Cotton Bowl. Remember when we had that awful bowl losing streak hanging over the program? I think we all forget how dark those times really were, even in hindsight. 2008 wasn’t the beginning of the end, that was clearly the 2007 catastrophe. But it was something like the middle of the end.
People forget that Weis gave up play-calling duties for the 2008 season, instead turning them over to Mike Haywood. The offense was pretty uninspired, but it still improved from a ghastly 115th offensive S&P rank in 2007 to 61st in 2008. Haywood left to take the Miami (OH) job after the season and Weis couldn’t resist going back to running the show. I think Weis knew how important the season was and he wanted to the offense to play by his rules for his last stand.
The players who shined in the Hawaii Bowl would be the leaders of the 2009 squad, especially on offense. Jimmy Clausen had an extremely uneven 2008, but the receiving corps was a treasure trove of future pros. Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd were the jewels of Weis’ best recruiting class at ND in 2008 while Golden Tate was coming off a 1,000 yard season in his sophomore year. All of these players including Clausen would be chosen in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft and would see extensive playing time in the league. For all of his faults, Charlie Weis knew how to recruit and utilize insanely talented skill players.
This was the year that Jon Tenuta officially made the defense his own. After serving as linebackers coach under Corwin Brown in 2008, Weis promoted Tenuta to co-DC and gave him full play-calling responsibilities. Given the context of Weis final years, Corwin Brown’s defenses weren’t that bad, ranking 30th in 2008 and 52nd in 2007 in defensive S&P despite needing to prop up a dumpster fire on offense. Nonetheless, I think Weis was intoxicated by the idea of having a kindred spirit on the defensive side of the ball who would mirror an aggressive offense. In hindsight, it more reckless than aggressive, as one of our own pointed out at the time.
The 2009 defense wasn’t lacking for talent, but it was hilariously miscast by Tenuta. Future Best Safety in the NFL Harrison Smith split time between strong safety and strongside linebacker, while future Pretty Good Safety Jamoris Slaughter played at cornerback. The defense was a strange mix of inexperienced players, decent veterans, and guys who never panned out. Four underclassmen started in the front seven while the back-end was theoretically solid with seniors Kyle McCarthy and Sergio Brown at safety. A five-star freshman named Te’o was also on the roster… behind Brian Smith. Only Harrison Smith and Sergio Brown were rated as 3-stars, making everyone else on the defense a blue chip recruit.
The 2009 schedule looked to be more than manageable for a top-20 team. Michigan was still retooling after RichRod’s atrocious first year in Ann Arbor, Washington and Purdue had new coaches after going a combined 4-20 in 2008, and the Irish would get most of its toughest opponents at home. Phil Steele had the Irish schedule ranked as the 36th most difficult in the nation, a perfectly reasonable assessment. Take out USC’s 12-1 mark, and the combined record of ND’s 2009 opponents from the previous year was 64-76, not at all an intimidating schedule.
In total, the Irish returned 15 starters with David Bruton representing the biggest loss from 2008. Four offensive linemen would be back along with every single skill position player of note. An underrated story-line was the emergence of Nick Tausch, who would prove to be the first above-average placekicker Notre Dame would have since Nick Setta in the early 2000s. Everyone seemed to be in on Tenuta as DC, despite the worrying construction of the defense.
It was for these reasons why the AP Poll pegged ND at 23rd entering 2009, just behind the eventual 11-2 Iowa Hawkeyes and the final Suh-Nebraska team (Fun fact, Kansas ranked 25th). The stage was set for a make-or-break year for Charlie Weis, with the Nevada Wolf Pack up first in South Bend with a dynamic quarterback named Kaepernick at the helm.