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Sunday, December 4, 2005
Notre Dame a far different team than a year ago

Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame is going back to Arizona for a bowl game for a second year in row -- this time, though, under dramatically better circumstances.

Instead of trying to win one for fired coach Tyrone Willingham in the low-profile Insight Bowl as they did last year, the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish are cashing in on their turnaround season under first-year coach Charlie Weis and playing No. 4 Ohio State in the high-profile Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The bowl appearance is worth at least $14 million for Notre Dame.

Linebacker Brandon Hoyte said the Irish feel a lot better about this year's berth.

"I smile a lot more," he said. "For me as a fifth-year senior, for our fifth-year seniors who have no eligibility left, it gives us a chance to go out on top and feel as if we left a mark on the Notre Dame program, to leave it in the right hands."

Willingham was fired two days after Notre Dame accepted the Insight Bowl berth last season and some players weren't sure they wanted to play. They lost 38-21 to Oregon State, playing under interim coach Kent Baer.

Now they head back to Arizona under Weis, who in October signed a 10-year contract extension and promises the Irish won't be one-year wonders.

"It just feels really fortunate because we as a team realize where we came from and where we are now," Hoyte said. "I think it's just something you have to hold on to and use as motivation."

There had been some controversy about Notre Dame (9-2) and Ohio State (9-2) being selected ahead of Oregon (10-1) for the at-large Bowl Championship Series berth. But the final BCS standings settled that.

The Buckeyes clinched an automatic berth by finishing fourth in the standings, while the Irish clinched an automatic berth by finishing sixth.

It will be the first time the fifth-ranked Irish face the Buckeyes since a 29-16 loss in 1996, when the Irish were also ranked No. 5 and Ohio State was No. 4. The teams have played four times. Notre Dame won the first two games in 1935-36 and the Buckeyes won in 1995-96.

Quarterback Brady Quinn remembers being an Irish fan growing up in the Columbus suburb of Dublin and seeing the Irish lose those games.

"Being a Notre Dame fan in Columbus was kind of hard, especially two years back-to-back like that," he said.

The No. 5 ranking is their highest ranking to end the regular season since the Irish finished No. 4 with a 10-1 record in 1993. The Irish beat No. 7 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl that season and finished ranked No. 2 behind Florida State.

That was the last time the Irish finished a season ranked in the top 10 and the last time they won a bowl game. Since then, the Irish have lost seven straight bowl games: the Fiesta Bowl to end the 1994 and 2000 seasons, the Orange Bowl to end the 1995 season, the Independence Bowl to end the 1997 season, the Gator Bowl to end the 1998 and 2002 seasons, and the Insight Bowl in Phoenix last year.

Irish players say ending the bowl losing streak will be a big motivation.

"That's something that obviously needs to end. It's been going on far too long," Quinn said.

This will be the last time Notre Dame receives the same amount a conference earns for having a BCS team. Starting next year, the Irish will receive the same amount a conference receives for placing a second team in the BCS -- about $4.5 million.

Under the agreement, though, the Irish also will receive about $1.3 million from the BCS even if it doesn't advance to a BCS game. Under the current rules, the Irish received no money from the BCS in years it didn't advance to a BCS game.