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Season Recap: Irish finish season 9-4

| Friday, May 16, 2014

Standing in front of the media following his team’s Pinstripe Bowl victory, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was asked how he would remember the 2013 season.

“A good year that could have been a great year,” Kelly said.

Kelly pointed to strong wins, like a gritty victory over USC in mid-October, but, in the end, the Irish finished 9-4, suffering losses against Michigan, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Stanford.

“I would say a couple of missed opportunities in some games where we very easily could have been a team that’s looking at double-digit wins,” Kelly said. “And that’s where we want to be every year.”

Following an undefeated regular season and a trip to the BCS National Championship in 2012, expectations were high for the Irish in 2013. Notre Dame, however, was tasked with replacing a host of departed seniors, most notably linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o. Before the Irish even began summer workouts ahead of the 2013 campaign, they were without their other No. 5 — junior quarterback Everett Golson, who was suspended for the fall semester for academic reasons.

Senior Tommy Rees took over as the starter, and the veteran quarterbacked the Irish offense to 27.2 points per game, slotting Notre Dame at 74th in the nation. The defense took a step back from the unit that finished second in the nation in scoring defense in 2012, yet Notre Dame still ended the season ranked 27th, allowing 22.4 points per game.

The defense was stout in the season opener against Temple, as the Irish surrendered just one touchdown en route to a 28-6 victory at home. The offense surged out of the gates too, scoring on its first two drives in just three plays each. Rees threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns.

“Obviously a lot of questions coming in is ‘Could we push the ball down the field?’” Kelly said after the win. “I think we answered a lot of those questions right away.”

The receiving corps set the tone, as senior receiver TJ Jones notched six receptions for 138 yards, junior receiver DaVaris Daniels tallied two touchdown receptions and junior tight end Troy Niklas posted one of his own.

But in Week 2 against Michigan (7-6, 3-5 Big Ten), it was the Wolverines’ passing game that torched the Irish. Playing under the lights in Ann Arbor, Mich., before an NCAA-record crowd of 115,109, Michigan jumped out to a 27-13 halftime lead and held on down the stretch to earn the win in the rivalry game, 41-30.

Wolverines redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner threw for four touchdowns and added 82 yards and a score on the ground. Wolverines redshirt senior receiver Jeremy Gallon sliced through the Irish secondary to the tune of 184 yards and three touchdowns.

“This was one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us,” Kelly said afterward. “And we just came up short on a couple of key plays for us.”

“We were really, really close but not good enough, not good enough,” Kelly mused.

The next week against Purdue, Notre Dame picked up a 31-24 win to move to 2-1 before heading home to host Michigan State.

The Irish eked out a 17-13 win over the Spartans (13-1, 8-0 Big Ten), who would not lose for the rest of the season, which culminated in a Rose Bowl win.

Michigan State committed 10 penalties for 115 yards against the Irish. A pair of defensive pass interference penalties on the Spartans extended two Notre Dame drives, both of which ended in touchdowns.

But Notre Dame couldn’t carry the momentum from the tight win into the following week against Oklahoma (11-2, 7-2 Big XII). Rees threw interceptions on the first two Irish possessions, and Oklahoma led 14-0 just 2:45 into the game. The contest was essentially even from there, and the Sooners prevailed, 35-21.

“They were kind of freak interceptions, not normal interceptions,” Jones said after the game. “I think it was Oklahoma just catching a little bit of luck and really capitalizing off our mistakes.”

The Irish, though, then embarked on a four-game winning streak, beginning with a 37-34 victory over Arizona State in the Shamrock Series in Arlington, Texas. Two weeks later, Notre Dame rode a stifling defense and defeated USC (10-4, 6-3 Pac 12), 14-10, under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Irish didn’t allow a point in the second half, and the Trojans mustered only 32 total yards in the third quarter.

“USC is a great team, a great, powerful team,” junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “They’re our rivals, so they’re going to come and play hard. For us to stop them was awesome. It was a great team effort and a great defensive effort as a whole.”

Tuitt, after a slow start to the season, looked like his 2012 self in the game. The defensive end racked up seven tackles and two sacks, including a momentous takedown on fourth down in the final minutes of the game.

After wins over Air Force and Navy, the Irish slipped up against Pittsburgh (7-6, 3-5 ACC) on Nov. 9, effectively ending any hope for a BCS bowl appearance. Tuitt was ejected in the first quarter for targeting, and the Panthers outscored Notre Dame, 28-14, the rest of the way.

“I tried to get momentum from it, get guys going, but losing Tuitt to the defense is a big difference,” Irish senior cornerback and tri-captain Bennett Jackson said. “It’s a big hole to fill. And we just tried to come together as a defense and continue to pull it out.”

Rees completed just 18 of 39 passes and tossed two interceptions, and Jones fumbled inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line. The Irish committed five penalties and failed to scoop up a live ball ¾ believing the play to be dead ¾ fumbled by Panthers redshirt senior quarterback Tom Savage in the fourth quarter.

“The execution on offense was awful,” Kelly said. “Defensively, we kept drives alive ¾ pass-interference penalties, personal fouls. We weren’t alert enough to get on the ball for the fumble. … It’s on everybody. You can’t single out one thing. To a large degree, though, the execution was very poor.”

The loss dropped Notre Dame to 7-3, and, following a win over Brigham Young and a loss to No. 8 Stanford (11-3, 7-0 Pac 12) to finish the regular season, the Irish accepted an invitation to the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York. Notre Dame downed the Rutgers, 29-16, to finish 9-4.

Irish graduate student left tackle Zack Martin, who was named MVP of the Pinstripe Bowl, closed his career by making his 52nd consecutive start, a school record. Martin is just one of 18 two-time captains in program history, and the 6-foot-4, 308-pounder was named Notre Dame’s top lineman in each of his last four seasons.

Martin’s fellow captain, Jones, led the squad with 70 receptions for 1,108 yards and 11 total touchdowns.

Defensively, Tuitt and senior Louis Nix manned the line, though both battled injuries at opposite ends of the season. Freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith emerged as a solid starter from day one, and the rookie finished third on the team with 67 tackles.

Notre Dame was hit with injuries throughout the season, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. With freshman safety Max Redfield earning his first career start in the Pinstripe Bowl, he became the 19th different player to start a game on defense during the season.

Still, injuries aside, Kelly said the season came down to missed opportunities for the Irish.

“A good year, but it’s not enough for us,” he said. “9-4 is a good year for Notre Dame. It’s not what we sign up for every year.

“We wanted a little bit more out of this year.”

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike