Even as the bright autumn sun dances off the Golden Dome, a dark cloud hangs over the Notre Dame football program.
That cloud formed through the frustration of a 1-3 start to the 1999 season, a season that began with hope but has evolved into one loaded with mistakes and short on confidence. It is the Fighting Irish's second 1-3 start in three seasons. They have lost five of their past six games, including three in a row. A loss to No. 23 Oklahoma (3-0) here Saturday would give them a four-game losing streak for the second time in Coach Bob Davie's two-plus seasons and the second time since they lost the final five games of the 1963 season.
Even more ominously, Notre Dame officials have reported three more possible NCAA rules violations involving the football program to NCAA officials, compounding an already tenuous situation surrounding what the NCAA enforcement staff has determined to be a major infraction involving the football program.
In other words, now is not an easy time to be a Notre Dame fan.
"I don't think I'm bursting anyone's bubble; we're a young football team with a tough schedule and we're sitting here 1-3," Davie said recently. "That's the reality."
What's worse than the reality of the on-field problems is the way those problems have been brought about:
A penalty for excessive celebration and another for a late hit in the final minutes of the second game of the season, against Michigan, made a 26-22 loss to the Wolverines a controversial one.
The inability to score from the 1-yard line on the final play of the following week's game against Purdue gave the Irish a 28-23 loss, and made clock-management problems by Davie and his staff at the end of the half and the game even more obvious.
Using a rollout pass, which fell incomplete, rather than running up the middle on third and one from the Notre Dame 45 after falling behind 20-13 on an 80-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter of Game 4 here against Michigan State, and then deciding to punt on fourth and one sent a message that Davie has no confidence in his offensive line and running backs. (The move also didn't work out, as the Spartans followed the punt with a 72-yard drive to a clinching field goal.)
"I'm not worried about the message I send to them," Davie said shortly after the Michigan State game. "I'm more concerned about the message they send to me."
Fullback Joey Goodspeed sent this message about Davie's third- and fourth-down decisions, via the South Bend Tribune, earlier this week: "That's what the fullback's for, in my opinion. Where I came from, second and short, third and short, fourth and short, give the ball to the damn fullback. That's what we're for, to get those rough yards. If we can't get one yard on a dive play, we shouldn't be out there. Take us out. Quit."
Those remarks take some of the edge off the Irish's hope of using a week off after the loss to Michigan State to regroup for the remainder of five consecutive home games.
"Hopefully, this team has enough unity to bounce back," senior tight end Dan O'Leary, who endured the 1-3 start in 1997, said immediately after the Michigan State game. "We can't keep letting it go on week after week. We have to come inside ourselves and say, 'Who are we?' "
Before this season the only major question revolved around a retooled, but talented, offensive line. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jarious Jackson was the focus of new offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers's attack. Rogers made his system work at Syracuse with Donovan McNabb. The defense looked like it would be anchored by a ferocious front four. In other words, the Irish had potential and a national ranking, which rose from No. 18 in the preseason poll to No. 16 following a season-opening victory over Kansas.
But as Davie said: "You don't put a 'P' next to a loss for a team with potential. It's time that we start delivering."
The running game has been ineffective, averaging just 108 yards in the three losses. While Jackson has moved the team by throwing the ball despite playing most of the season with a turf toe injury, he also has played a major role in nine of the 14 turnovers Notre Dame has committed (six interceptions and three lost fumbles). The Irish had 18 turnovers all of last season.
"We're just making mistakes that have killed us," said senior wide receiver Raki Nelson. "Once we get those corrected, we will show people how explosive we are. When we put it together, we'll come out and score 50 points, whether it's Oklahoma, USC, Tennessee or whoever.
"All we need to do is get this straightened out and start winning. We can win our next eight games and people will be talking about us for a [Bowl Championship Series] bowl. We aren't finished yet."
Before the Irish are allowed to even remotely dream about a BCS berth, they must first worry about qualifying for any kind of bowl by winning at least six of their final eight games, among which are matchups against Arizona State, Southern California, at Tennessee and at Stanford.
Notre Dame must also contend with the possibility of sanctions for the alleged NCAA rules violations. The NCAA Committee on Infractions met in Tucson this past weekend, and one of the items on its agenda reportedly was the Notre Dame case that involved Kimberly Dunbar. Considered a booster of the university, Dunbar allegedly used some of the $1.4 million she pleaded guilty to embezzling from her employer, a private contractor in South Bend, to provide gifts and trips for players with whom she was involved. Dunbar, who had a child with one of the players, Jarvis Edison, was jailed for more than a year and is set to be released soon.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has self-reported three other alleged rules violations. Eric Chappell, a third-string quarterback who started against USC last season when Jackson was injured, allegedly accepted gifts from an alumnus and tried selling his complimentary tickets--allegations that Chappell has denied. Also, the university reported that an unnamed tutor allegedly wrote a paper for an unnamed athlete, who, according to the South Bend Tribune, is a former football player.
"There's too much going on now for us to worry about the NCAA stuff," Nelson said. "We only worry about what we can control. We don't know much about what's going on with the NCAA. All we can do is try to straighten things out on the field. That's a big enough job for us."