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Football

Irish end 2014 with bowl victory after late woes

| Friday, May 15, 2015

A single play does not dictate how an entire season will go, but one play did seem to serve as a turning point of sorts in 2014 for Notre Dame, which started 6-0 but finished the season with a final 8-5 mark.

Back on Oct. 18, the then-No. 5 Irish were down four and faced fourth-and-goal against No. 2 and undefeated Florida State with 17 seconds left. Senior quarterback Everett Golson fired a short pass to a wide-open Corey Robinson for what would have been the go-ahead and game-winning touchdown, but junior receiver C.J. Prosise was whistled for a controversial pass interference.

Irish junior offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley celebrates with the Music City Bowl trophy after Notre Dame’s 31-28 win over LSU.Kevin Song | The Observer

Irish junior offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley celebrates with the Music City Bowl trophy after Notre Dame’s 31-28 win over LSU.

The call allowed the Seminoles to pick off Golson the next play to freeze the score at 31-27, and Notre Dame left Tallahassee, Florida, with its first tally in the loss column.

“You gotta take the belt from the champion,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the day after the game. “You can’t leave it up to a decision that’s made at the end.”

However, that defeat at Doak Campbell Stadium kicked off a downward spiral for Notre Dame that lasted the rest of the regular season.

The 2014 slate began with a promising start, an unblemished record sustained until the trip to Tallahassee in Golson’s long-awaited return to South Bend.

The senior lit up the stat sheet and showed he was better than ever in his first game back at Notre Dame Stadium, a 48-17 beat down of Rice on Aug. 30. Golson threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns and ran in three more scores, only the third time an Irish quarterback has tallied three touchdowns on the ground in a single game.

“Obviously, the story of Golson was electric,” Kelly said after the win. “And I thought he did that today extraordinarily well. He came back today and I think really showed the kind of player that he can be.”

Will Fuller paced the receiving efforts with four catches for 85 yards, an early start to a breakout season for the sophomore. He led Irish receivers with 76 receptions and 1,094 yards, averaging 84.2 yards per game, more than double the average of Robinson, Notre Dame’s second-most prolific receiver.

The Irish rolled into their most anticipated game of the season the next week, when they hosted Michigan on Sept. 6 for the final scheduled time. Notre Dame’s defense made the difference in the rivalry matchup, picking Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner off three times and keeping the visitors off the scoreboard as the Irish steamrolled Michigan, 31-0.

The shutout was the first in the series since it was renewed in 1978 and the first time the Wolverines have failed to score since 1984.

“We wanted it bad,” Golson said. “I think that we wanted to just be successful every time we step on the field. I like to think that it added a little bit extra motivation being the last time we played them.”

The Irish cruised to consecutive wins over Purdue, 30-14, and Syracuse, 31-15, the next two weeks on the road before heading back home with a 4-0 mark to face Stanford and the nation’s No. 1 defense.

Notre Dame trailed by four, 14-10, with 69 seconds left in the game, and it faced fourth-and-11 on the Stanford 23, looking to make a late effort to keep its record perfect. Golson hit a falling target, senior tight end Ben Koyack, in the back corner of the end zone for the score, and the Irish earned their first comeback win of the year.

Notre Dame’s defense allowed the team to stay in the game, with sophomore cornerback Cole Luke grabbing two interceptions — he and senior cornerback Matthias Farley tied for the season-high with four apiece — and the unit forcing eight Cardinal punts while giving up just 205 yards of total offense.

“We prepared so great this week,” sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “We all knew going into the week, Stanford week, it was going to be physical. They are going to try to hit you in the mouth, and we just had to match that intensity, and penetration was key.”

After a 50-43, shootout victory against North Carolina at home, the Irish headed down to Florida to take on Florida State and reigning Heisman Trophy recipient Jameis Winston in the country’s marquee matchup of the weekend.

Irish sophomore receiver Will Fuller goes airborne to snag a pass during Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. Fuller grabbed five passes and a score.Kevin Song | The Observer

Irish sophomore receiver Will Fuller goes airborne to snag a pass during Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. Fuller grabbed five passes and a score.

Notre Dame got out to a quick start, never trailing until the 7:39 mark of the fourth quarter, and limited Winston to 273 yards and two touchdowns, while Golson outdueled him with 313 yards and three scores.

After the Seminoles’ go-ahead score in the final minutes, the Irish had two final drives to overcome the deficit but couldn’t find the end zone, forced to punt on the first and called for the decisive pass interference on the second.

After that point, Notre Dame was hit by the injury bug and struggled for the rest of the regular season.

The Irish lost senior linebacker Joe Schmidt to a broken and dislocated ankle the next weekend in a close 49-39 win against Navy, when they encountered their annual problem of containing the Midshipmen’s option offense.

After that game, injuries began to pile up on defense, and Notre Dame was forced to play inexperienced freshmen who did not expect to see time on the field in their first seasons.

In the secondary, senior safety and captain Austin Collinsworth, hampered by MCL and shoulder injuries, dressed for just five games, graduate student Cody Riggs missed the Arizona State (Nov. 8) and USC (Nov. 29) contests with a stress reaction in his foot, and freshman safety Drue Tranquill’s early emergence was cut short by an ACL tear suffered Nov. 22 against Louisville.

On the line, junior captain Sheldon Day sprained his MCL against Northwestern, missing the losses to Louisville and USC, while fellow junior Jarron Jones suffered a Lisfranc injury against Louisville and was sidelined the rest of the season.

After the victory against Navy, Notre Dame did not taste another win until Dec. 30 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl against LSU, with losses to Arizona State and USC on the road and Northwestern and Louisville at home.

Notre Dame fell behind early Nov. 8 versus the Sun Devils, trailing by as many as 31, before making a late push and cutting the deficit to 34-31 in the fourth quarter. However, it gave up three touchdowns in the final five minutes, including a pick-six off Golson, whose struggles to hang on to the ball became a trend in the second half of the season.

“If you look at it really closely, we turned the ball over five times. You can’t turn the ball over. Our guys were ready to play, and you can’t play sloppy like that,” Kelly said after the game, referring to it the next day as “the debacle in the desert.”

The Irish failed to rebound the next weekend against Northwestern, allowing the Wildcats to kick a field goal to tie the game at 40 with 19 seconds left. Senior kicker Kyle Brindza missed a three-pointer in the extra period, and Northwestern responded with a make to hand Notre Dame a second straight defeat.

The Irish missed a key opportunity to put points on the board in the fourth quarter, when Kelly decided to go for two instead of kick an extra point after a touchdown. The conversion attempted failed, letting the Wildcats stay within reach.

“I went for two when I should have kicked the extra point,” Kelly said three days after the loss. “ … I’m not getting paid to make stupid decisions like that. You fall into that. I can’t let our players fall into that.”

Similar heartbreak ensued the next two Saturdays, with a close, 31-28 loss to Louisville on Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium and a 49-14 pounding at the hands of rival USC on Nov. 29.

With a 6-0 start ending in a 7-5 regular season, the Irish accepted a bid to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 30 to face LSU.

With Golson’s struggles late in the season, especially hanging on to the football, Kelly named sophomore Malik Zaire the starting quarterback against the Tigers, though he and Golson split drives during the game. They switched off on the afternoon’s final drive, which set up a game-winning field goal from Brindza as time expired to halt the losing streak and end Notre Dame’s season on a high note.

“Coming off the losses we had, I think it was important that we took advantage and did whatever it took to win, and when we focused on winning, this team came together, and we got the job done,” Zaire said after the game.

Until last week, the only significant losses for 2015 the Irish faced to graduation were Koyack, Riggs, Brindza and running back Cam McDaniel, with nine players planning to exercise fifth-year options at Notre Dame.

However, Golson announced May 7 he would transfer to another university for next season, making Zaire the nearly clear-cut starter in 2015.

“We, of course, have approached our preparations for the upcoming season with this possibility in mind,” Kelly said in a statement. “The emergence of Malik Zaire, based on his performance in the Music City Bowl win over LSU, and throughout spring practice, has given our staff supreme confidence that he can lead our team to great success in 2015.”

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About Mary Green

Current Assistant Managing Editor, former Sports Editor of The Observer | Follow Mary on Twitter: @maryegreen15

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