Dec 24, 2012, 11:48 AM EST
The Irish have taken a long and winding road to Miami. The trail they’ve forged — crossing the Atlantic to open the season and playing their season finale just miles from the Pacific — gives you an idea of the literal distance this team had to travel to fight their way into college football’s finale. Yet the emotional journey might have been far more harrowing, starting the season as a team that was left for dead, and only after nobody else was left standing, finally, almost begrudgingly, accepted as one of the nation’s elite teams.
With apologies to The Hobbit, this was an unexpected journey that every Irish fan found entrancing. As we enter a holiday week that gives each of us an opportunity to look back at 2012, we’re spending the week looking back at the games and players that made this memorable 12-0 season possible.
Let’s get started with Notre Dame’s trip to Dublin.
For those in need of a trip down memory lane to remember August, it wasn’t exactly rainbows and lollipops for Notre Dame or its fans. Entering week one, the Irish were dealing with a number of off-the-field headaches, and quite a bit of white noise that came from the media.
Rick Reilly, the ESPN writer/personality paid like an NBA first round draft pick, had just put down the shovel after digging a grave for the Irish football program. Brian Kelly had his own minor misstep blown out of proportion, when his quote, “I’m not a big fan of playing football games in Ireland,” was turned into referendum on the Irish coach who many saw as a dictatorial kill joy. And then add in Allen Pinkett’s silly “a few bad citizens” radio interview, and you start to remember that this season started out like far too many recently.
On the field, Notre Dame was dealing with its own issues. Would the loss of Aaron Lynch doom a front-seven that was in desperate need of pass rushers? In the days leading up to the game, we broke the news that Cierre Wood wouldn’t be traveling to Dublin, leaving the Irish’s leading rusher home to watch the game with Tommy Rees, Carlo Calabrese, and Justin Utupo. If you were looking for a safety net for newly named starting quarterback Everett Golson, keep looking.
Entering the season opener, here were a few key questions we were asking:
How ready was Everett Golson?
The debut of Golson was one of the few energizing offseason developments. The young quarterback showed flashes during the Blue-Gold game, but beating Navy was another thing.
“He’s going to make some mistakes and we know that we’re going to have to overcome those,” Kelly said of Golson back in August. “But if he’s not out of character on Saturday, I will safely say, he will do a very good job of taking care of the football. But that’s why they play the game.”
Will Bob Diaco’s untested secondary hold up?
Even with a full deck, Irish fans were concerned about the status of Notre Dame’s secondary. The loss of Austin Collinsworth to a season-ending shoulder surgery was a critical blow to the Irish’s ability to play nickel coverage. An Achilles tendon tear to Lo Wood cost the Irish their starting cornerback in preseason camp. While Irish fans felt comfortable about Bennett Jackson taking over the boundary cornerback position, freshman KeiVarae Russell, who started camp with a different number on his back and playing a different position, had a bunch of responsibility heaped on him as the team’s starting field cornerback.
Seniors Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter were two rocks that the Irish could depend on (not for long as it turned out), but this was a huge question mark heading into the Navy game, and all eyes were on Diaco, co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks and new safeties coach Bob Elliott.
What would the Irish offense look like with Chuck Martin running it?
The faith of Notre Dame fans in Chuck Martin was almost universal, a pretty bizarre occurrence for a group that’s known to be skeptical on just about everything. Yet Kelly’s unusual move of turning his safeties coach and recruiting coordinator into the offensive coordinator seemed solid from the start.
Yet Martin was given no small task. Transition to a redshirt freshman quarterback that had yet to see live game action. Replace Michael Floyd, the school’s record-setting wide receiver. Rebuild a running game with an offensive line that had a new position coach, solid talent, but little depth.
More importantly, Martin was tasked with finding a way to stop the Irish from getting in their own way, as the 2011 edition was plenty prolific, but often its own worse enemy. That objective on its own was tough enough. But doing that while breaking in a young quarterback, finding some dependable receivers, and starting the year without Cierre Wood? Well, maybe the faith in Martin was more a leap than anything.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Notre Dame 50, Navy 10.
The benefit of the early kickoff — a 9 a.m. EST start — meant most hard core college football fans were spending breakfast watching Notre Dame. And as the Irish went out and pummeled Navy, it sure seemed like Notre Dame was taking out a lot of their offseason frustrations on the outclassed Midshipmen.
Forget about Golson (for a minute), the Irish ground game was new and improved. Running early and often, Theo Riddick looked at home at tailback, pacing the Irish with 107 yards and two touchdowns. George Atkinson looked like the home run threat many had hoped he’d become, and his 56-yard sprint for the end zone was a dazzling display of speed. Harry Hiestand’s offensive line dominated the point of attack, and Martin and Kelly seemed happy putting Golson under center, running a throw-back offensive attack that took the pressure off a young quarterback getting his feet wet.
Golson played a solid game, completing 12 of 18 passes for 145 yards, finding Tyler Eifert for an easy red zone touchdown pass, but also forcing a ball into coverage for an interception. Yet the young quarterback looked calm, and while Andrew Hendrix saw the field, it was as a mop-up quarterback.
“We knew what we were going to get with Everett,” Kelly said after the game. “This wasn’t something where we didn’t know what was going to happen. There is always going to be some learning and he’s going to continue to learn all year. We would not have put him out there unless he had a good grasp of the offense. This was really just getting live snaps and experiencing the flow of the game. He’s going to be a much better player each and every week, today was just the start.”
Any concerns about the front seven seemed more than a little premature. Stephon Tuitt played relentlessly, and returned a fumble for 77 yards and a touchdown. Manti Te’o recovered a fumble and had an interception. And Prince Shembo played fast off the edge.
Still, no worries were allayed in the secondary. Navy quarterback Trey Miller completed 14 of 19 passes with freshman Russell getting beat over the top for a touchdown. Matthias Farley, at the time one of the true unknowns on the team, got a surprise start at outside linebacker, passing fifth-year senior Danny McCarthy with an excellent camp. While Irish fans expected the coaches to game plan a way into protecting their secondary as the season moved forward, Kelly seemed legitimately unconcerned about Navy’s ability to make plays through the air.
“I thought they did some great things,” Kelly said of his secondary. “I’m really excited about their ability to go out there and compete. The learning experience that we got today is something invaluable.”
Perhaps just as important, the easy 50-10 victory got Kelly and his staff the opportunity to get young players on the field. Seventeen players saw their first action of their Notre Dame career, many of whom would be important contributors this season.
“We all know this is going to be a long season,” Kelly said after the game. “We need all those players to play certain roles for us.”
Mar 6, 2014, 12:08 PM EST
As we look for subplots to cover with practice now on a two-week hiatus, the schedule of this “spring’s” 15 sessions is definitely worth discussing. It’s no secret that football coaches are creatures of habit. So it’s likely that a ton of thought went into determining the unorthodox set-up for the Irish’s 15 critical workouts. Planning for…
Mar 5, 2014, 11:33 PM EST
The Fighting Irish took the field Wednesday morning for their second session of spring practice. With two weeks off and the university’s spring break sandwiched between practice two and three, it’s certainly an interesting time for the football program to get work done. Yet it’s clear that there’s work to be done and the team…
Mar 4, 2014, 10:00 AM EST
There was no question that by the end of the 2013 season, Notre Dame’s coverage teams were a mess. The product of a ravaged depth chart, the Irish were miserable covering kicks, likely a deadly mix of mismatched personnel and some questionable schemes. After a commitment to putting better players on the special teams units…
Mar 3, 2014, 8:40 PM EST
Well, it’s finally that time of year. (Again.) Let’s get to over-analyzing UND.com practice videos! With the Irish taking the practice field bright and early Monday morning, our friends at UND.com released their first practice video of the new year. Let’s spend an unhealthy amount of time talking about what we see here: Enjoy. 0:06…
Mar 3, 2014, 4:29 PM EST
Everett Golson is finally back where he belongs. After a season away from the Irish, Golson took his first snaps with the football program Monday morning and addressed the media after the team’s first spring practice. While he didn’t want to rehash the situation that forced him away from the program for a season, Golson…
Mar 1, 2014, 6:24 PM EST
In addition to Brian Kelly’s opening press conference, UND.com brought us a behind the scenes peek at winter workouts. With some footage from Camp Kelly, a few epic tire fights, and a whole lot of sweat, steam, and hard work, it’s a fun watch and good update on the team’s progress since the bowl game.…
Feb 28, 2014, 9:55 PM EST
It was a slightly more newsworthy opening press conference than you might expect from Brian Kelly. While the usual introductory remarks were certainly there, Kelly also broke a fair amount of news as the 2014 Irish begin their work in earnest. We’ve already talked about the tweaks to the coaching staff. But some significant roster…
Feb 28, 2014, 4:35 PM EST
It didn’t feel like spring this morning in South Bend when Brian Kelly started his car, the temperature well below zero as the Irish head coach headed to the Gug. But after a week skiing with his family, Notre Dame’s fifth-year head coach prepares to start one of the more unique spring schedules he’s ever…
Feb 27, 2014, 4:09 PM EST
No unit in the country is looking at bigger shoes to fill than Notre Dame’s defensive front. Gone are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two once-in-a-decade talents who left South Bend after injury plagued and underachieving seasons. With injuries marring the development of linemen young and old, there’s no question that the defensive line is…
Feb 27, 2014, 3:24 PM EST
With Brian Kelly set to kickoff spring football tomorrow, one of his key players not taking part in practice opened up about life away from Notre Dame. DaVaris Daniels, the Irish’s leading returning receiver, is away from school after failing to achieve a 2.0 grade-point-average during the fall semester. He spoke with CBS Sports’ Jeremy…
Feb 26, 2014, 4:40 PM EST
Notre Dame had nine players at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. To a man, they all left town improving their proverbial draft stock. We’ve already touched on what the nine-man Irish contingency meant to the football program. Speed, strength and athleticism were on display by Irish prospects, with statistical gains under Paul Longo’s direction…
Feb 25, 2014, 7:31 PM EST
Notre Dame headed into last season without a All-American candidate to catch the football. After a pretty incredible run at the position — from Jeff Samardzija-to-Golden Tate-to-Kyle Rudolph-to-Michael Floyd-to-Tyler Eifert — the Irish had TJ Jones to anchor the position, a solid yet far from spectacular veteran receiver. Jones flourished in his final season in…
Feb 24, 2014, 1:56 PM EST
One of the more competitive positions on the Irish depth chart has 15 practices to gain some clarity. Running backs coach Tony Alford has one of the deepest position groups to sort through this spring, though the unit is still looking for a breakout star at the position. While rising sophomore Tarean Folston showed some…
Feb 24, 2014, 2:13 AM EST
After reaching his weight loss goals for the NFL Scouting Combine, Stephon Tuitt suffered a setback in his quest to be taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. The former Irish defensive end has a small fracture in his left foot, according to a report by NFL.com. According to the report, Tuitt won’t work out…
Feb 23, 2014, 1:16 PM EST
Former Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo spoke publicly for the first time about the death of Lizzy Seeberg, a former St. Mary’s student who committed suicide a week after accusing a Notre Dame football player of a sexual attack. While the player’s name had stayed anonymous in media reports, Shembo acknowledged that he was the…
Feb 21, 2014, 5:54 PM EST
Notre Dame has set the home kickoff times for 2014. And before Michigan goes off the Irish schedule for the immediate future, they’ll play one more time in primetime. The evening kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium is the highlight of the home 2014 slate, with the Irish also playing their Shamrock Series game against Purdue…
Feb 19, 2014, 4:04 PM EST
Yesterday, Mike Mayock hosted a conference call with reporters to discuss NFL Draft prospects. The NFL Network draft analyst, who also calls Notre Dame football games with Dan Hicks, held a marathon conference call, a multi-hour event that showcased Mayock’s ridiculous knowledge base. Throughout the call, Mayock talked about various Notre Dame players that will…
Feb 19, 2014, 11:57 AM EST
Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame sports information department officially announced the addition of Florida defensive back Cody Riggs. The graduate school transfer will join the Irish in summer school and play out his eligibility next season at Notre Dame. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound defensive back signed a scholarship agreement with Notre Dame. Riggs played 40…
Feb 18, 2014, 1:22 PM EST
After a year where everything seemingly went wrong at quarterback, it appears that things are on track to get back to normal. In the span of a calendar year, Notre Dame has had immense turnover at the quarterback position. Consider this snapshot heading into spring practice last year: Everett Golson: Three years of eligibility left,…
Feb 17, 2014, 6:07 PM EST
If there was a complaint over the past few years of Notre Dame recruiting, it’s that Brian Kelly and his staff didn’t do a good enough job in Illinois. With some elite prospects like Laquon Treadwell, Ty Isaac and Ethan Pocic choosing to go elsewhere, the Irish staff seemed to have lost its luster in…
- Golson returns to the practice field 20
- Spring Solutions: Wide receivers and tight ends 23
- Cody Riggs officially joins the Irish 39
- Academic casualties proof that foundation at Notre Dame remains 120
- Irish succeed with 2014 class, even against the odds 121
- Notre Dame announces Campus Crossroads Project 39