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Football: Irish return to relevance

Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The 2012 season was not supposed to go this way for Notre Dame.

The Irish were facing one of the toughest schedules in the country, breaking in a new quarterback and waving goodbye to their all-time leading receiver. Notre Dame was never supposed to have a Heisman Trophy finalist or win 12 games on its way to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the national title game – but that is what happened.

The Irish (12-1) ended with a thud, though, with a 42-14 drubbing by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

Crimson Tide running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon ran through and around the Irish defense for 248 yards and two touchdowns while redshirt junior quarterback A.J. McCarron added four touchdown passes.

“We were beat today by a better football team,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “They beat us today, and we’ve got another step that we have to take in the development of our program, and it’ll be left up to those that have been led by these seniors, and that’ll be the challenge moving forward.

“As for the game, it was pretty clear. I mean, we had a hard time getting off the field, and a lot of that had to do with Alabama.”

The Irish defense that had allowed less than 11 points per game in the regular season was gashed for 42 points and 529 yards of total offense.

On the game’s first possession, the Crimson Tide (13-1) needed just five plays and less than three minutes to travel 82 yards for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown drive of more than 75 yards Notre Dame had allowed.

“I think coach Kelly told us before the game that there are eight minutes that are very important in the game,” Irish senior linebacker Manti Te’o said afterward. “The first two minutes of the game, the last two minutes in the second quarter, the first two minutes of the third quarter and the last two minutes of the game, and obviously the first two minutes of the game didn’t pan out the way we thought it would go.”

Notre Dame fell behind 35-0 and only got within four touchdowns after senior running back Theo Riddick’s 6-yard touchdown snag with 7:51 left in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve got to get physically stronger, continue to close the gap there, and just overall you need to see what it looks like,” Kelly said. “Our guys clearly know what it looks like. When I say, ‘know what it looks like,’ a championship football team. They’re back-to-back national champs. So that’s what it looks like. Measure yourself against that, and I think it was pretty clear across the board what we have to do.”

Notre Dame began its best season in 25 years (when the 1988 Irish won the national championship) in unfamiliar territory – Ireland. The Irish returned to the Emerald Isle for the first time since 1996 and dominated Navy on their way to a 50-10 win.

Te’o notched eight tackles and his first career fumble recovery and interception. He would end the season with 113 tackles and seven interceptions as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson earned his first start in an Irish uniform and completed 12 of 18 passes for 144 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

The Irish running game rumbled for 293 yards on the ground despite the absence of senior running back Cierre Wood, who, along with junior quarterback Tommy Rees and junior defensive end Justin Utupo, was suspended for the opener.

Rees returned in a big way the next game, in a 20-17 victory over Purdue on Sept. 8. Golson’s fumble with less than four minutes left led to a Purdue game-tying touchdown.

After Golson sustained a wrist injury, Rees stepped in to lead the Irish on the game-winning 55-yard drive. Sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza nailed a 27-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining to secure the win over the Boilermakers (6-7).

The Purdue touchdown in the final minutes would be the only offensive touchdown the Irish defense would allow in the next 40-plus days, a stretch spanning four games.

The Irish earned a 20-3 win at Michigan State on Sept. 15, marking the first time in a decade Notre Dame started 3-0. The win over the Spartans (7-6) was the first win over a top-10 opponent since 2005.

Te’o led the Irish on defense with 12 tackles and a fumble recovery after a week in which he was believed to lose both his girlfriend and his grandmother. A week later, in a 13-6 win over Michigan at Notre Dame, students donned leis to support Te’o. He responded with eight tackles and two interceptions in Notre Dame’s first win over Michigan (8-5) in three years.

“I mean, it all revolves around him, his personality, his strength,” Kelly said. “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.”

The Irish defense totalled six takeaways and stifled Wolverines senior quarterback Denard Robinson, making up for two years of torment by the Michigan signal caller. Rees relieved Golson again and provided the only touchdown of the contest with a 2-yard dive in the second quarter.

After a 41-3 domination of Miami (7-5) at Soldier Field in Chicago on Oct. 6, the Irish returned to South Bend to take on Stanford and for the first time since 2005, “College GameDay” was on campus.

Notre Dame held on to a 20-13 overtime win in the rain after stuffing Stanford senior running back Stepfan Taylor four consecutive times inside the 5-yard line.

“It comes to fruition in the way the game ended and our team coming up with a great goal-line stand,” Kelly said. “Classic.”

Rees replaced Golson, who suffered a concussion on a hit in the fourth quarter, again and tossed the game-winning score in overtime, hitting junior receiver TJ Jones on a 7-yard slant.

The Irish held the Cardinal (12-2) to 272 total yards on their way to a 6-0 start.

“It’s great anytime you can get a win,” Rees said. “The atmosphere was great tonight. The students did a great job. The defense obviously played really, really well again, and it feels good to get the win.”

After dispatching BYU (8-5) the next week with a tough 17-14 Golson-less victory in which Riddick ran for a career-high 143 yards, the Irish were set for a date at Oklahoma. The Sooners had only lost in Norman, Okla., four times under coach Bob Stoops.

The Irish broke open a 13-13 game late in the fourth quarter to run away from Oklahoma (10-3), scoring 17 points in less than four minutes. Te’o put on another fine performance, tallying 11 tackles, a sack and an interception, and the Irish defense clamped down despite giving up the first rushing touchdown of the season.

The Irish survived a triple-overtime threat from Pittsburgh the next week before easily toppling Boston College and Wake Forest. Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 in the country and all that stood between them and a national title game berth was USC.

Brindza hit five of six field goals to lead the Irish past the Trojans, 22-13, and onto Miami. USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley was sidelined with a shoulder injury, which pushed redshirt freshman Max Wittek into the starting role and into the spotlight.

The Irish made life difficult for Wittek, yielding only 186 passing yards while snagging two interceptions. Riddick paced the Irish offense with 146 rushing yards and a score.

“We’ve brought a lot of pride back to Notre Dame,” Te’o said. “I’m grateful to be a part of it.

“We’re the best team. We’re No. 1.”

In 2013, the Irish return eight starters on defense and, for the first time in the Kelly era, will have the same starter at quarterback for consecutive seasons. The Irish open the 2013 season against Temple on Aug. 31.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu