A season to remember
Observer Football Writers | Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Irish coach Brian Kelly entered his third season at Notre Dame with what seemed to be many question marks and few answers. With an unresolved quarterback situation, off-season turmoil with disciplinary issues and player departures following a bumpy 2011 season, a daunting 2012 schedule – ranked the most difficult in the country before the season – awaited the Irish. The sentiment among the fanbase was clear, if unspoken: 2012 would be a rebuilding year, with 2013 the coming-out party. But Kelly had different plans.
As has been the case with so many Irish coaches before him, Kelly’s third year marked the breakthrough – the defense reached championship levels, he found his quarterback in sophomore Everett Golson and his squad learned how to win close games, a characteristic the Notre Dame program had missed for years.
Behind a 12-0 regular season, the Irish asserted themselves among the nation’s elite and reached the BCS National Championship Game. Their star linebacker set a record for national awards won and finished second in the Heisman trophy balloting.
Most of all, they showed that the program so desperate for a resurgence has finally found a coach capable of returning the Irish to the pinnacle of college football.
Notre Dame 50, Navy 10
The 2012 season began across the Atlantic Ocean as Notre Dame played in Dublin for the first time in 16 years. The Irish were without junior quarterback Tommy Rees, senior linebacker Carlo Calabrese, junior defensive lineman Justin Utupo and senior running back Cierre Wood, all of whom were left in South Bend due to various suspensions.
In Golson’s first game action, Notre Dame trounced Navy 50-10. The Irish jumped ahead 27-0 in the second quarter when sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown.
“Stephon is a tremendous athlete with some speed,” senior linebacker Manti Te’o said. “When you see No. 7, he can outrun pretty much any skill player on offense.”
The Irish held Navy’s triple-option rushing attack to 149 yards, while Notre Dame amassed 293. Sophomore running back George Atkinson scored his first career offensive touchdown with a 56-yard score in the first quarter.
“I think we’re just carrying on where we were last year as a defense that’s very stingy against the run,” Kelly said. “That’s a huge reason why. We’re very blessed with a physical group, a great scheme, they’re well-coached and it’s not often you can hold Navy down to 10 points.”
Te’o recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass in the victory – both career firsts.
Roughly 35,000 Americans traveled to Ireland for the game and 49,000 fans packed sold-out Aviva Stadium to see the Irish win the season opener.
Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17
After beginning the season in a foreign country, the Irish returned home September 8 to the most familiar of territory – Notre Dame Stadium.
As celebrations rang out across campus to ring in the 125th season of Notre Dame football, inside the Stadium the Irish tangled with a physical Purdue team in Golson’s home debut.
Golson’s debut in front of the home faithful took an unexpected turn after a late turnover, as Rees came off the bench to lead Notre Dame on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. A 27-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza in the game’s final seconds secured a 20-17 victory and a 2-0 start.
After the game, Kelly heralded his team’s resiliency after several key starters were relegated to the bench due to injury.
“The story for me as the head coach is our mantra: next man in,” Kelly said. “We had seven guys go down today. Our key players. We had two captains go down. … Our guys just kept fighting. The next guy came in and battled. And as you know, the story finishes with Tommy Rees coming in for Golson and leading us on a two-minute drive to win the game.”
Golson and his Purdue counterparts under center – Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve – struggled to put points on the board in the first half against fierce pass rushes, and the teams entered the locker room tied at seven.
On the strength of a third-quarter touchdown pass to junior wideout T.J. Jones and Brindza’s first career field goal, the Irish held a late 17-10 lead. Golson, who finished the day with 289 yards passing, was stripped of the ball inside his own 25-yard line and Purdue capitalized with another touchdown to Edison to tie the score at 17. That set the stage for the former starter Rees to enter the game, to a chorus of boos, and lead the Irish to victory.
“[Golson] had trouble gripping the ball. I think he could have probably still have gone,” Kelly said. “We also made the decision with the flow of the game that Tommy could come in there and manage our two-minute [drill] and he did a great job.
“Tommy’s a guy, if you look at it in baseball terms, he’s a closer. He can close for you.”
With the win, the Irish moved to 2-0 for the first time since 2008 and set the stage for a primetime clash with also-undefeated Michigan State.
Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 3
This was supposed to be the one that got the No. 20 Irish.
Golson, fresh off a late-game benching the previous week, was about to face his first true road game in a raucous East Lansing, Mich., environment. Spartans junior running back Le’Veon Bell (who would finish the season third in the NCAA with 138 rushing yards per game) was still a Heisman Trophy candidate.
History was against Notre Dame, too. It had been 10 years since Notre Dame began the season 3-0 and seven since the Irish topped a top-10 opponent. Michigan State had not yet allowed an offensive touchdown and carried a 15-game home winning streak into the matchup.
So when Notre Dame pulled off a 20-3 upset of No. 10 Michigan State, which eventually finished 7-6, Kelly had a simple way of describing the win.
“It’s a signature win,” Kelly said. “There’s no question that when you go on the road against the No. 10-ranked team in the country and you beat them, it’s definitely going to build some confidence in that locker room.”
The Irish defense, led by Te’o’s 12 tackles, stifled Bell and the Spartans. Bell was held to just 77 yards and sacked Spartans junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell four times. Michigan State’s only points came on a first-half 50-yard field goal as the Spartans totaled only 237 yards of offense.
“Obviously we felt like if we can get [Bell] under control and force [Michigan State] to throw the football, we would much rather have that scenario than him grinding the football at us,” Kelly said. “I think once they started to throw the football more, that was exactly where we’re hoping the game would kind of shift towards, and it did.”
Te’o’s performance came on the heels of one of the toughest weeks in his life. Within 24 hours, Te’o found out about the deaths of both his grandmother and his girlfriend but still played just days later with a heavy heart.
He also recovered a fumble, recorded a tackle for loss and broke up two passes.
Golson finished the game an unimpressive 14-for-32 for 178 yards but it was one play that proved the difference for the Irish.
On 2nd-and-9 from the Michigan State 36-yard line, Golson rolled to his right and evaded pressure before stopping and launching a cross-field pass to graduate student receiver John Goodman. Goodman fought off a Spartan defensive back before making a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch to give the Irish an early 7-0 lead.
“That’s who I was looking for. It wasn’t really designed in the play,” Golson said. “I think that’s one of the things I talked about previously about improvising. I think me and Goodman kind of connected a little bit and we scored a touchdown.”
Through three games, the Irish had yielded just 30 points, the lowest total since the 1988 team allowed 27 during Notre Dame’s last national championship season.
“The most important thing is that our defense continues to be the group that we had committed to in building when we started this process, and they’re starting to get to that level that can play against anybody,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6
Denard Robison had tormented the No. 11 Irish for the previous two years.
The senior quarterback’s 944 total yards and eight touchdowns were impressive, but his two last-second, come-from-behind wins over the Irish meant Notre Dame seniors were 0-3 against the hated Wolverines.
But thanks to another inspired showing by Te’o and another relief appearance by Rees, the Irish notched another win and moved to 4-0 with a 13-6 victory.
Te’o, a week after a 12-tackle performance in a 20-3 win over Michigan State, tallied eight tackles, two interceptions and added two quarterback hurries as the lei-wearing fans in Notre Dame Stadium rallied around him in a difficult personal time.
“[Manti] is the guy in there,” Kelly said. “I mean, it all evolves around him, his personality, his strength. He’s a special guy. Take advantage of him while you’ve got him now, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.”
Te’o and the Notre Dame defense forced the Wolverines into six turnovers and limited them to 299 total yards. At one point in the first half, the Irish intercepted five consecutive Michigan passes.
“Defensively, what can I say, six turnovers, limited what we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns,” Kelly said. “[It was] just an incredible performance by our defense.”
The win marked the second straight week the Irish did not allow a touchdown. It was the first time since 1943 that Notre Dame kept Michigan out of the end zone.
“I think, for us, we are trying to not let [the offense] get any points,” Te’o said. “I think, you know, when your defense is disappointed that they kicked a field goal and made it, that’s when you know, like, ‘Dang, we are going to be good.’ “
A week removed from a solid road showing at Michigan State, Golson could not get the offense going. He threw two interceptions on his first eight passes and finished with just 30 yards before Kelly pulled him in the second quarter. Golson threw a pick on his first pass and one on his last pass into the end zone.
Rees replaced Golson and finished 8-for-11 for 115 yards. He also added a two-yard touchdown plunge for his first career rushing score after starting 12 games the previous season.
“We’re fairly comfortable if we need Tommy to come in and handle some of the offense for us, if we feel like it’s necessary, we will,” Kelly said. “He’s a great asset to have if you need him. To close out a game, we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so that we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games anyway possible.”
Despite forcing six turnovers and holding Michigan in check, the Irish still needed late heroics to seal the win. Rees found senior tight end Tyler Eifert for a 38-yard strike on third-and-four and senior running back Theo Riddick converted another third down three plays later to close the game out.
The win push
d Notre Dame into the top 10 for the first time since 2006. The Irish would not leave the top 10 the rest of the season.
Notre Dame 41, Miami 3
The annual home-away-from-home contest known as the Shamrock Series took the Notre Dame home game experience just down the road to Chicago against old rival Miami.
The trip to the Windy City proved to be a breeze for the rising Irish as running backs Cierre Wood and George Atkinson broke out to lead a 376-yard rushing performance for Notre Dame. The Irish ran the Hurricanes off the field in a 41-3 blowout at Soldier Field.
“Clearly, we felt like we found a way to run the football today,” Kelly said. “We felt like if we could keep them from getting the big plays, and we could run the football, that was going to be our recipe for success.”
The Irish got a break in the early going as Miami wide receiver Phillip Dorsett got behind the Notre Dame secondary on two early plays, but dropped two certain touchdown passes. The Irish recovered and shut down Miami’s offense for the remainder of the game.
Though they held a slim 13-3 lead at halftime, the Irish offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half as Wood, Atkinson and sophomore running back Cam McDaniel combined for four second-half rushing touchdowns to complete the rout.
“When you start to break the other team’s will, it starts to show,” senior guard Chris Watt said. “We were able to do that – that was our goal going into the second half. We knew we had
established the running game. We wanted to keep up with it too.”
Moments after Notre Dame completed the victory to go 5-0, ESPN’s “College GameDay” announced on social media it would bring its weekly on-campus pregame show to South Bend for the clash between the Irish and Stanford the next week.
Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13
With a 5-0 record and “GameDay” on Notre Dame’s campus for the first time since 2005, the Irish welcomed Stanford to Notre Dame Stadium as the seventh-ranked team in the nation.
The game turned out to be exactly what pundits expected – a defensive brawl between two of college football’s most physical teams.
Stanford did not score an offensive touchdown during the entire game and Notre Dame didn’t reach the end zone until the first minute of the fourth quarter, when Eifert hauled in a 24-yard pass from Golson in the end zone.
The game went to overtime after Rees led the Irish down the field for a game-tying field goal after Golson suffered a concussion.
In the extra period, Rees connected with junior T.J. Jones on a seven-yard touchdown pass to give Notre Dame its first lead since midway through the second quarter.
The Irish defense, after allowing Stanford to reach the 5-yard line, achieved a goal-line stand that secured the 20-13 overtime victory.
“It comes to fruition in the way the game ended and our team coming up with great goal line stand,” Kelly said. “Classic.”
With four downs and three yards from the end zone, the Cardinal gave the ball to star running back Stepfan Taylor four times, and four times he was denied a score.
“That’s what Stanford does,” Kelly said. “I don’t think you can fault [Stanford] for doing what they do. That’s their offense.”
Following the fourth-down stop, players and coaches ran onto the field, but the officials cleared the playing area to review the play. The decision, however, was upheld, and Notre Dame was 6-0 and eyeing a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) berth for the first time in six years.
Golson fumbled in Notre Dame’s end zone in the second quarter. Stanford recovered it for a touchdown and, for the first time all season, the Irish trailed. Notre Dame, however, did not allow the Cardinal offense to score a touchdown, extending the Irish defense’s streak of not allowing a touchdown to four games.
Notre Dame’s defense came up with some critical plays to halt a few early Stanford drives. Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson intercepted a pass at the 1-yard line in the first quarter to end a five-play, 27-yard drive. Two possessions later, Farley returned an interception 49 yards to the Stanford 16-yard line. After a 12-play, 67-yard drive by the Cardinal, sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt blocked a field goal.
“I think they know that they are a good football team more than anything else,” Kelly said. “I think they feel they earned the win today. They came from behind, right. They didn’t luck into it. They won in overtime. I think if they lucked into it, you know, maybe a fumble on the goal line or something happened, maybe you could make that case.
“But they won that game. They earned that win. And so I think I would rather have them believe that each and every week, if they prepare, that they can beat any opponent.”
For the third time this season, Rees replaced Golson (though this time for injury reasons), and led Notre Dame to the win.
“Tommy is level-headed, locked in,” Te’o said. “As the game gets on, it’s easy to let your guard down a little bit thinking you’re not going to go in. But Tommy is always locked in and taking notes from where he’s standing so that when he gets in opportunity, he can go in there and help our team win, just like he did today.”
Notre Dame 17, BYU 14
Sandwiched between an emotional overtime win over Stanford and a giant road test at Oklahoma, the matchup with the Cougars was heralded as a trap game.
When Golson was ruled out because of a concussion, Rees again took the reins of the Irish offense and No. 5 Notre Dame squeaked out a tight 17-14 win over BYU.
Rees, who led Notre Dame to victories over Purdue, Michigan and Stanford, finished the game 7-for-16 for 117 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Kelly said he went with Rees despite Golson’s desire to play.
“[Golson] wanted to play,” Kelly said. “He made his case. I just felt like where we were during and my evaluation of him cumulatively, I felt like this was the best thing to do… We feel like we’ve got a kid now that’s 100 percent ready to go for Oklahoma.”
Riddick added a career-high 149 yards while Wood chipped in 114 of his own on the ground. The Irish defense allowed just 66 rushing yards to the Cougars.
“It was pretty clear that we were going to be able to control both sides of the ball on the offensive line and defensive line,” Kelly said. “And you know, [we] really stuck with our game plan. Came in here wanting to run the football. Thought we controlled that quite well.”
The Cougars became the first team since Purdue to score an offensive touchdown against the Irish with a touchdown midway through the second quarter. They scored again two minutes later.
“We weren’t used to [giving up touchdowns],” Te’o said. “It made me mad, and it made a lot of guys mad and when they scored again, it really made us mad.”
Notre Dame 30, Oklahoma 13
Despite being No. 5 in the BCS standings, Notre Dame went into Norman, Okla. as heavy underdogs to the No. 8 Sooners. Yet the Irish emerged with more than just a 30-13 win, but also a legitimate shot at contending for a national championship.
“Our kids were confident,” Kelly said. “They came in well prepared. I told them that I was very confident in their ability to go out on the road and play very good football.
“I thought that they exhibited that confidence in the first half and in the second half the focus was on physical and mental toughness.”
The game-changing play of the night came from a pair of underclassmen with 8:29 left in the fourth quarter and the score knotted at 13. On second down at the Notre Dame 35, Golson dropped backed to pass and pinpointed freshman receiver Chris Brown 50 yards downfield behind the Sooner secondary at the Oklahoma 15.
“We saw that they were in man coverage and I think the play action set it up,” Golson said. “[Brown] ended up winning with a great move and I just kind of stepped up in the pocket and gave it a little bit of air and let him run under.”
Golson ran the ball into the end zone five plays later to give the Irish a lead they would never give back in a game that proved to be a big step in the development of a first-year starting quarterback.
“I don’t think six or seven weeks ago I could’ve done something like that,” Golson said. “I didn’t have the same feel for the guys then.”
The Irish gave up their first rushing touchdown of the season to backup quarterback Blake Bell but also limited the Sooners to only 15 rushing yards in the entire game.
“That always is tough when you’re not able to run it and when you throw it more than you want,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said.
With his performance Manti Te’o recorded his 400th tackle in his collegiate career jumped to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race. Te’o recorded eight tackles in the first quarter alone and also added an acrobatic interception that sealed the game in the fourth quarter.
“He represents all of the things the Heisman Trophy espouses: integrity, character, a great football player,” Kelly said.
Te’o wasn’t the only one to turn heads on the defensive side of the ball. Freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell led the secondary with nine tackles against Landry Jones and a vaunted Oklahoma passing attack.
“There’s a young man that keeps getting better and keeps competing,” Kelly said. “Who would’ve thought a true freshman would be able to go out and do the things he’s done? He’s been so instrumental in what we’re doing on the back end of the defense.”
After the game, Kelly warned his team against looking past Pittsburgh the following week.
“They’re a pretty smart group and know if they start with what we’ve done and the process of preparing for Pittsburgh, they’ll be fine,” Kelly said. “That’s what I told them in the locker room – I said to enjoy a great victory against Oklahoma. Now let’s find a way to beat Pittsburgh.”
Notre Dame 29, Pittsburgh 26
After making a national statement in Norman, No. 3 Notre Dame returned home to face what appeared to be the beginning of the easiest stretch of its schedule. Sitting pretty at 8-0, it appeared finding a way to surpass the two unbeaten teams ahead of the Irish would be a more challenging task than the visiting 4-4 Panthers.
But Pittsburgh gave Notre Dame the biggest scare of the season, as the Irish would need a heroic late-game performance from Golson, a couple fortuitous breaks and three overtimes to defeat the Panthers 29-26 and keep the dream season alive.
“We all believe in each other,” Riddick said. “I think we showed a lot of courage and a lot of belief out there today, because there were a lot of times we could have gave up.”
The Irish came out uninspired after their best performance of the season and trailed for most of the game, including by a 20-6 margin at the end of the third quarter. Early in the fourth quarter, however, Notre Dame showed signs of life with a Golson-to-Jones touchdown pass, immediately followed by a missed extra point.
With just minutes remaining, Golso