COLLEGE FOOTBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : Down and Out in South Bend? How Did This Happen?


You know Notre Dame football has sunk to new lows when Coach Lou Holtz, poor-mouther extraordinaire, bemoans the supposed shortcomings of his team . . . and no one disagrees.

That’s what happens when you have won only two of your last eight games and haven’t defeated a ranked opponent in 21 months--and counting.

It happens when Northwestern, a 28-point underdog, goes into South Bend, Ind., and beats Notre Dame for the first time since 1962.

And it happens when Purdue, which has lost its last nine games against the Irish by an average of 30 points, actually thinks it can beat the Irish today at West Lafayette.


“[We] just aren’t the type of football team that we’re used to having,” Holtz said in his weekly news conference.

Theories for the demise, however temporary, are as easy to find as black crepe at Notre Dame. The roll call:


Ridiculous, but predictable. Holtz has already been asked about the possibility of getting fired. It happened exactly one day after the first game of the season.

“I don’t worry about that,” he said. “As long as I have been coaching, all I am going to do is coach my heart out as best as I possibly can for each and every player. That is the only thought on my mind. . . . Good Lord knows, I have never worried about a job. I have never worried about anything else. I am not going to look over my shoulder. I am not even going to contemplate that.”

Nor should he. With today’s victory over Purdue (sorry, Boilermakers), Holtz becomes only the sixth active coach in Division I-A to reach 200 victories. And he’s only 21 short of tying Knute Rockne’s record of 105 victories at Notre Dame.


Northwestern Coach Gary Barnett instructed his players not to carry him off the field after the Wildcats beat Notre Dame. Thing is, he told them before the kickoff.

Meanwhile, the Irish, 6-6-1 in their last 13 games, look as if they’re suffering from a facial tic.


“It isn’t a type of football team where they have great togetherness and respect and they’ve been through the wars,” Holtz said. “And I think it’s one of the things that I’ve noticed last year and this year. It’s just that, well, maybe it was because we were young and too confus[ed] and tried to simplify things. That doesn’t necessarily help.”


In previous years, the Irish used to scrimmage for more than 750 plays during spring practices. And during the regular season, Tuesday and Wednesday practices were legendary for contact.

Not anymore. Down to 73 scholarships--76, if you count the three walk-ons who recently received one-year scholarships--the Irish can’t afford any self-inflicted injuries. So Holtz has eased up, mostly because he has no choice. Notre Dame has only 11 scholarship offensive linemen and five of them are freshmen.

“If there’s one major mistake I’ve made, it’s the fact that we do not have the number of people to practice against with the intensity with which we’ve done in the past and which I’m used to doing,” Holtz said. “I wish we could go out and just hire a scout squad. If you played football before, come in, we’ll pay you $5 an hour. Come in, 4-6 [p.m.], get all your vindictiveness out.”


With four seniors and two juniors in the offensive line, quarterback Ron Powlus was supposed to be as safe as a kitten. Instead, Northwestern sacked him four times and knocked him down nine others. At this pace, Powlus will surpass last year’s dreadful 25-sack total by the end of Game 7.


Derrick Mayes, the preseason All-American wide receiver, had eight catches against Northwestern. The combined total for Notre Dame’s other receivers, tight ends and running backs was nine. You see the problem. Northwestern assigned everybody but the Wildcat percussion section to guard Mayes and took its chances with the rest of the Irish. It worked.


“We don’t have anybody on our football team right now that I see is going to require double coverage or has the speed to go deep,” Holtz said. “And I think everybody knows that.”


Of the top 46 players on the roster, 38 are expected to return next season. And one more boffo recruiting class like last year’s and nobody’s asking Holtz about 0-1 starts.

For now, though, Holtz has his problems. After Purdue, Vanderbilt goes to South Bend. Normally that’s a gimme victory, but who knows now? Then comes Texas, followed by tough trips to Ohio State and Washington. A 5-1 record isn’t out of the question, nor is a 3-2 mark.

After that, a breather against Army and then home games against USC, Boston College and Navy. The regular season ends at Air Force, which, as Brigham Young can attest, is no fun place.

“It’s not the good ol’ days right now,” Holtz said. “But I’m going to tell you one thing about Notre Dame. Notre Dame will always be back. If you think Notre Dame is down forever, you’re wrong. Notre Dame will be back.”

The question is, when?