Davie and pluck of the Irish Football: Replacing a popular coach at a storied program, Bob Davie has overcome a rough start to guide Notre Dame to a 7-1 record and a No. 12 ranking.

November 12, 1998|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

One of the overwhelming changes Bob Davie discovered last year in going from assistant to head football coach at Notre Dame was the amount of mail from the legion of Irish supporters.

"You realize how important this school is to so many people," said Davie, preparing his team for Saturday's game with Navy at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. "There's no lack of opinions on things that happen at Notre Dame."

Predictably, a lot of the opinions were negative when Davie started his inaugural season 1-4 as a replacement for popular Lou Holtz. The Irish recovered to win six of their next seven, but were beaten by LSU, 27-9, in the Independence Bowl.

With seven starters returning on both sides of the line, Notre Dame opened this season with a 36-20 victory over defending national co-champion Michigan. A week later, however, Michigan State administered a surprising 45-23 whipping and Davie again heard some strong opinions about his coaching ability.

"We were shellshocked by the Spartans," said Davie, "but we weren't going to let the team go into a four-game slide like last year. We're better than last year. This football team will stay together."

Davie was on the money, and the e-mail and letters have been almost entirely favorable as the Irish have reeled off six straight victories and a No. 12 ranking.

"We didn't pay a whole lot of attention to outside opinions when this season started," said Davie, "and it would be silly to change now. But I get a kick out of watching the TV shows. All of a sudden, we're going to be 10-1 and people are arguing whether we should go to the Rose Bowl or whatever."

Except for a 27-3 rout of Baylor, nothing has come easy for the Irish this season. They rallied in the closing seconds to beat Purdue, 31-30, needed a field goal with 66 seconds left to edge Army, 20-17, and a goal-line stand last week to hold off Boston College, 31-26.

The fact that Army, Baylor and BC had losing records did not elude the Notre Dame critics, but Davie won't buy the argument that his team is feasting on chopped liver.

"We don't have any reason to ever apologize for our schedule at Notre Dame," he said.

In the next breath, Davie said that his team's 7-1 record is a bit deceiving.

"We're doing good things, and we complement each other as a team, but we're nowhere near a great football team right now. That's obvious. But I'm comfortable with this team. The seniors have done a great job, and I think the best is ahead of us."

Certainly, senior tailback Autry Denson has done everything possible to keep the Irish bowl-bound.

"The smartest thing I did in my first year was not moving Autry back to cornerback," joked Davie.

Denson, with 1,008 yards rushing this season, needs 147 more to surpass Allen Pinkett (4,131) as Notre Dame's career leader. It is hard to imagine that Denson began his freshman season as a defensive back.

"I was a running back in high school and always believed I should be a running back in college, even when the coaching staff tried to switch me," Denson told the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press. "I'm just the type of person that once I set my sight on something, I stick with it to the end.

"People said I was too slow or small [5 feet 10, 200 pounds] when I came to Notre Dame. But my mom raised me to turn negatives into positives. Next year, I'll be in the NFL and I'll still be too slow and small. But I still want to be remembered as the best tailback to ever play at Notre Dame. Who wouldn't?"

Denson's production in running behind a veteran line was a given this season. But no one, particularly Davie, knew what to expect when senior quarterback Jarius Jackson, who understudied Ron Powlus for two years, took command of the offense.

Now, Jackson is getting good-natured kidding from teammates that he's the second-most famous person to come out of Tupelo, Miss., since somebody named Elvis.

"The best thing about Jarius is that he's a tremendous leader," said Davie, who incorporated the option into his offense to take advantage of Jackson's elusiveness.

"Anytime you get a quarterback that can run around a bit, the percentage of big plays goes up. Last year, with Powlus, I didn't think we needed to run. But I think that's what we have to do to win consistently at Notre Dame, and the option is critical to our success."

Jackson has averaged more than 200 yards in total offense, but it is his passing (1,305 yards, 10 touchdowns) that has been the most pleasant surprise.

"It's really been remarkable, just in the mechanics of throwing the ball," said Davie.

Senior split end Malcolm Johnson, who has served as Jackson's favorite target with 33 receptions for 533 yards, said: "When Jarius gets a few licks on him, he's fine, a lot like Brett Favre. Once he calms down, there's not a better passer in the nation."

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