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NCAA Football Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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*** NCAA Football Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish ***

From The Sports Network By John Agovino, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: After surprising the college football world in 2002 by starting the season 8-0 and finishing with a 10-3 mark, the Irish were predicted for good things in 2003. However, the optimistic outlook did not come true. Despite the opening day 29-26 overtime victory over Washington State, not much went right for the Fighting Irish in 2003. After the opening day victory, the Irish dropped three straight games, including a 38-0 drubbing at the hands of Michigan. Coach Tyrone Willinghamâ¿¿s team rebounded with a shocking 20-14 victory over the nationally ranked Pittsburgh Panthers, but dropped three straight games to USC (45-14), Boston College (27-25) and Florida State (37-0). At 2-6 Notre Dame was able to pull off three straight victories, including a dominating 57-7 win over the Stanford Cardinal, but the Irish were unable to finish the year on a positive note as they fell to Syracuse 38-12. Notre Dame finished the 2003 season with a losing record of 5-7, making it the 10th straight year the team did not finish in the top 10. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: After averaging only 20.3 points per game last season, the Fighting Irish come into the 2004 campaign with a much more improved offense. Eight players return this year, including young quarterback Brady Quinn. After Carlyle Holiday went down with an injury early last season, Quinn came in and instantly impressed everyone. By season's end he had compiled 1,831 yards through the air, breaking Steve Beuerleinâ¿¿s freshman record of 1,061 yards. Although Quinn had a ratio of nine TDs to 15 INTs in his freshman season, he should be much better this year. The loss of Julius Jones at tailback is somewhat concerning, considering he did lead the team last year with 1,268 yards and 10 scores, but replacement Ryan Grant does have experience starting in the backfield. In 2002 when Jones was ineligible due to academics, Grant served as the team's main back and did a fine job, racking up 1,085 yards for the Irish. The receiving corps looks extremely dangerous this season as Quinn's two main targets from a year ago, Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall return for their junior seasons. McKnight led the squad last season with 47 receptions and 600 yards, while Stovall contributed with 22 catches and 421 yards. Another advantage for the Irish in 2004 is the overwhelming presence on the front line. With four of the five starters from last season back, including junior guard Dan Stevenson, this young offensive line could surprise a lot of people. DEFENSE: Six players return from last season's unit that allowed 26.3 points per game, the team's worst performance since the 1999 season when the unit allowed 27.6 points per game. Without question the top player on this defensive unit is end Justin Tuck, who recorded a school record 13.5 sacks last season. With the presence of Tuck up front, the Fighting Irish come into the 2004 season with a tremendous upside on the line. The outside linebacker spot belongs to Derek Curry, who as a junior made 66 tackles and 4.5 sacks a year ago. The linebacking corps is filled out by Brandon Hoyte (74 tackles, two sacks) and Mike Goolsby (redshirted last year). This unit, along with the stronger defensive line should give problems to any opponents' rushing attack. With the departure of CB Vontez Duff, Notre Dame comes into the season with a questionable defensive backfield, as FS Quentin Burrell, who had a team-high four interceptions in 2003, is the only starter returning from last year's secondary. With that said, the defensive backfield looks to be the Achilles' heel of this otherwise promising defense. SPECIAL TEAMS: Last season, DJ Fitzpatrick had to take over the kicking and punting duties for the Irish after star kicker Nicholas Setta went down with an injury. Fitzpatrick did a fine job, netting 12-of-17 field goals, but struggled with the punting, averaging just 36.8 yards per punt. Vontez Duff and Julius Jones are no longer with the squad, leaving a vacancy at the return posts. As of yet the Irish have not found a solidified replacement for either player, but Corey Mays could try to fill the void. OUTLOOK: The Fighting Irish come into the 2004 season with a very young team on both sides of the football. Expect Coach Willingham to have this group ready for the 2004 year, but preparation might not be enough as the Irish must face one of the toughest schedules in the college ranks. The Irish are slated for just five games away from South Bend, but those contests come against Michigan State, Navy, BYU, Stanford and USC. The rest of the schedule is filled with home games, but against tough competition such as Michigan, Washington, Purdue, Boston College and Pittsburgh. With everything said and despite the tough schedule, Notre Dame could post a winning record and subsequent bowl bid.
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