The 2001 Peach Bowl was the site of the national title game for the 2000-01 NCAA college football season, and featured the 12-1 No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish against the 12-1 No. 2 California Bears. The Irish wound up winning 34-28 over the Bears to earn their 6th national title and first since 1969.
2000 Football Season
Notre Dame Fighting IrishThe 2000 Fighting Irish were coached by Don Trump, who had been with the program since 1994 after his lengthy and legendary stint at Aroostook had ended with his resignation after the 1992 season due to disagreements with the administration. Trump had built the Notre Dame program back up from its lowly depths, and was given more leeway by the university's administration than had ever been afforded by Aroostook. Trump's success hinged on a defense he had been grooming for years, peppered with veteran studs such as 6'8 defensive end Jonathan Lindsay, linebacker Robert Farmer, safeties Brett Scott and Julio Vaisson, corner Reuben Jones, and nose tackle David "Tubby" McFaighey.
The offense of the 2000 Irish was led by senior quarterback Chris Leach, who had decided to return despite suggestions he would be a high pick in the NFL or AFL drafts, as well as running back Chris Baxton and wide receiver Martin Hall. The offense line was regarded as one of the best in the country.
The 2000 Irish started the season ranked No. 10 due to their strong showing over Texas the year before in a narrow Sugar Bowl loss and the reputation of their championship-caliber defense. The then-No. 3 Irish travelled to No. 1 Huron, which had just defeated No. 2 Texas two weeks prior, in mid-October and defeated the reigning conference and national champion 24-21 thanks to a late field goal made possible by Leach's stellar play downfield. Two weeks later, however, Notre Dame lost to Wisconsin on the road and dropped from their temporary perch at No. 1.
The Irish blasted their opponents throughout November and thanks to an unusually weak year in college football, went to the Lakes title game with an 11-1 record over rival Missouri, which also had an 11-1 record, thanks to a head-to-head victory. ND would enter the rematch with No. 2 Huron at No. 4, which made the Lakes Championship Game an effective national semifinal.
California BearsThe 2000 California Bears were coached by legend Jim Tosher, who had been on the staff at Berkeley since 1980 and won a national championship with the Bears in 1987 as the defensive coordinator, and had been elevated to head coach in 1995. Tosher's Bears had lost a heartbreaking PCC title game to mighty Oregon the year before, but with the entire defense returning and a strong running game in place with tailbacks Rusty Johnson and David Morris, the Bears started the season off ranked No. 15. The initial concern was replacing quarterback Daniel Evans, but Evans' younger brother Jordan, a sophomore, excelled in the pro-style offense that leaned heavily on the running attack as he learned the ropes.
They would lose in the second week to non-conference opponent Clemson on the road, but followed that loss with ten straight victories, including a pasting of Oregon on the road and whipping archrivals USC and Stanford by a combined score of 91-14. This allowed Cal to climb all the way into the No. 6 spot behind a bevy of other schools, although it was argued that with a win in the PCC title game over Oregon State, whom the Bears had not faced in the regular season, the Bears could leap higher. Seven California Bears, including Johnson and Evans, were named to the All-PCC team in 2000 and Tosher was declared the PCC Coach of the Year.
The final weekend of the 2000 football season featured a drastically different ranking order than what would follow once all the games were completed: No. 1 Texas, No. 2 Huron, No. 3 Virginia, No. 4 Notre Dame, No. 5 Nebraska, No. 6 California. All teams were 11-1, except for Nebraska, which was 10-1 and still had a rivalry game with 5-6 Sequoyah remaining. Texas was guaranteed a spot in the title game with a victory over Mississippi in the SouthCo title bout, and observers generally agreed that the winner of the Huron-Notre Dame game in the Lakes Conference championship bout in Chicago would likely head to the title game as well. Virginia, with the country's best defense, needed a Texas loss and a victory over reigning Atlantic champion, No. 9 and 10-2 Florida State, to advance to the championship game. Nebraska needed Texas and Virginia to lose coupled with a win over Sequoyah, and California would need a loss by everyone above it plus a win over a very strong No. 8, 11-1 Oregon State team to enter the title game.
Texas and Huron were heavily favored to win, and as the Highlanders were the only team Texas had lost to all season, and due to the nature of the rivalry between the two programs, coupled with the chance of a game between the past two national champions, raised the anticipation for what sportswriters were prematurely dubbing, "the Game of the New Millennium."
What ensued was referred to as "Armageddon" by most observers. Virginia was shell-shocked by the FSU passing attack, their championship-caliber defense getting bludgeoned for 391 passing yards and five passing touchdowns en route to a 42-27 loss. Later in the day, Huron was beaten by Notre Dame for the second time that season as Irish quarterback Chris Leach led a heroic fourth-quarter drive capped with a touchdown to pull out a gutsy 34-31 win and guarantee Notre Dame a spot in the national title game.
The biggest upsets came at night, when Sequoyah defeated Nebraska 34-20, and Mississippi blasted Texas in one of the greatest college football upsets of all time, beating the Longhorns 38-17. California went on to beat Oregon State 21-13 and, thanks to the improbable upsets above it, was headed to the national title game.
It was the first time in college football history that the top three teams all lost in the same day, and that four Top 5 teams lost on the same day. The final rankings following the weekend: No.1 Notre Dame, No. 2 California, No. 3 Sequoyah State, No. 4 Nova Scotia, No. 5 Missouri, No. 6 Florida State, No. 7 Texas, No. 8 Huron. The Top Ten had never seen such radical shifts before in history. Chris Leach went on to win the Bosch, largely thanks to his heroic drive against Huron.
Pre-Game and Buildup
The game's hype had died enormously after the cataclysmic weekend of losses, and the Peach Bowl was denied its coveted Texas-Huron matchup. Still, with Chris Leach's Bosch trophy and the presence of the only 11-1 conference champions from major conferences, it was billed as a good game.
Notre Dame got on the scoreboard first with a touchdown pass from Chris Leach to Martin Hall on the opening drive, but Cal roared right back at the end of the first quarter to tie it up with a Rusty Johnson 31-yard run to make the score 7-7 starting the second quarter. The Irish scored a touchdown and a field goal on successive drives to take a commanding 17-7 lead going into halftime.
However, on the opening drive of the fourth quarter, Jordan Evans led the Bears downfield and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Doug White. On the ensuing drive, Irish running back Chris Baxton fumbled the football at the 31, and the ball was recovered by Bears linebacker Mike Beaver. Four plays later, Rusty Johnson scored on a six-yard run to give the Bears a 21-17 lead with ten minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Irish managed only a field goal on the ensuing drive, but managed to stop the Bears of 3rd-and-1 at the 47 yard line with a critical John Lindsay tackle of David Morris to force a punt, and Leach led the Irish 95 yards downfield to score on a Baxton 3-yard run to take a 27-21 lead.
The Bears were forced to punt once more, this time placing the Irish at the 20 yard line, and a long Hall reception put the Irish in great scoring position. While it seemed they would have to settle for another field goal after failing to convert on 3rd-and-2 from the 11 yard line, a flag was thrown for pass interference against Bears cornerback Marvin Franks on Hall, despite questions on whether or not there was any interference. Two plays later, Leach threw a perfect pass to Baxton from 8 yards out to take a commanding 34-21 lead going into the fourth quarter.
On the opening drive of the fourth quarter, Rusty Johnson ran five times for 62 yards, punctuated by a 1-yard touchdown run, and the Bears pulled within six. The Irish drove downfield furiously but the Blake Dewey 34-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right, giving the Bears excellent field position. However, they were once again forced to punt from midfield due to a dropped pass by Collin Rogers on 3rd-and-7. The Irish began to drive successfully downfield to seemingly put the game out of reach when Franks redeemed himself by stepping in front of an ill-advised Leach pass towards tight end Charles Franklin at the 11 yard line and returned the interception fourteen yards to give the Bears terrific field position at their own 25-yard line with just over three minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Evans drove the Bears down the field, converting a 3rd-and-15 after a false start penalty with a perfect pass to Morris, and the Bears lined up in 1st-and-goal from the six primed to take the lead on Notre Dame with just under a minute left in the game. However, on 2nd-and-goal from the four, after a two-yard gain by Johnson, Irish linebacker Robert Farmer struck the football with his helmet, popping it out of Morris' grip on a run play, and Notre Dame safety Brett Scott recovered the ball at the two-yard line. Baxton took the ball out for a fourteen yard gain on the next play and the Irish safely ran out the clock to earn their sixth national championship and first since 1969, a 31-year drought.