Dec 30, 2012, 9:39 PM EDT
No question about it, Notre Dame faced judgment day when Michigan came to town. Ascending to No. 11 in the country after an impressive victory against Michigan State, the Irish now needed to vanquish public enemy No. 1: Denard Robinson and the Wolverines.
Monumental games like this one maintain drama on multiple levels. Get the win and the Irish continue a sparkling start to the season, likely ascending into the top ten with one of the most impressive Septembers in the country. But from a program building perspective, a victory would be a true data point towards restoration, the first 4-0 start in a decade.
Night game. Hated rival. Opportunity for vengeance. It didn’t get much bigger than this one.
Irish fans had to feel cautiously optimistic. Everett Golson just showed himself to be up to the task on a very big stage against an impressive defense. The Wolverines looked to be one of the Big Ten’s biggest paper lions, a preseason top ten team that got undressed against Alabama and barely escaped against Air Force.
But against Michigan, you could throw any logic out the window. Greg Mattison, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator, has long tormented young quarterbacks with exotic pressure schemes. And Denard Robinson played the archenemy better than anybody — with the Irish defense having him all but dead until he came alive to steal the previous installment in Ann Arbor.
With Golson laying an egg, a quarterback controversy was starting to brew.
Once again, Brian Kelly had to turn to Tommy Rees to pilot the Irish offense. Golson started the game with a horrible interception and piled up scary numbers — just 3 of 8 for 30 yards with two interceptions. A week after managing the game and doing so in a hostile environment, Golson couldn’t keep his cool when the team desperately needed it.
“I don’t really believe it’s a matter of confidence as much as he just has to settle down,” Kelly said of Golson. “He was not as comfortable as I would have liked after playing the Michigan State game where he was in an incredible environment. He needs to settle down a bit and he’s going to be just fine.”
Rees came in and completed 8 of his 11 throws for a tidy 115 yards. He found Tyler Eifert for a huge 38 yard reception that iced the game. After a sophomore season where Rees gave the ball away far too, the junior looked like a guy that could manage the Irish offense, especially with a defense that was playing elite football. But there was no doubting the promise of Golson, whose ceiling was undoubtedly more intriguing.
“I think 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, and we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games anyway possible.”
Notre Dame’s defense drove a stake through the heart of the Wolverines.
While the offense was stuck largely in neutral, the Irish defense swallowed Denard Robinson whole. After watching Alabama’s defense destroy Michigan, the Irish put up an even more impressive effort, forcing an astounding six turnovers as the Irish held the Wolverines to under 300 yards and turned Denard Robinson’s birthday into a nightmare.
Bob Diaco’s defense played tremendously, and led by Manti Te’o, they just refused to let the Wolverines beat them. With an Irish offense willing to simply not get in the way, the defense played a magical game.
What would the offensive identity of this football team be?
If we learned anything after the Irish’s ugly-but-glorious 13-6 victory, it’s that Notre Dame’s head coach learned something this offseason. After committing to Golson as the quarterback, Kelly also committed to playing team-first football, unwilling to let the Irish beat themselves with turnovers.
In game’s like this one, that meant pulling Golson in favor of Rees, and playing an incredibly vanilla offense while struggling to run the football. Once again, Theo Riddick was stuck in neutral, gaining just 3.1 yards a carry on 17 totes. Yet Kelly trusted Riddick more than Cierre Wood, who picked up 5.6 yards a touch.
But the discipline of Kelly paid off, and in the end, Riddick picked up a few key yards down the stretch and Rees made one more play than Michigan did, hitting Tyler Eifert on a clutch third down conversion that iced the game.
Is Manti Te’o a Heisman Trophy candidate?
With Notre Dame Stadium filled with leis, the Irish’s emotional leader allowed a stadium of supporters to lift him up as his heart weighed him down with grief. Te’o’s performance — two key interceptions of Robinson and eight tackles — all done on one of the most watched football games of the year — powered the Irish victory.
Fifteen years after Michigan’s Charles Woodson won college football’s most prestigious award, Te’o’s name rightfully joined the conversation.
“He’s the guy in there,” Kelly said of his Te’o’s candidacy. “I mean, it all evolves around him, his personality, his strength. He’s a special guy. Take advantage of him when you’ve got him now, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.”
Was the magic returning to Notre Dame?
Games like this help redefine a school and its pursuits. With Te’o as Notre Dame’s fearless catalyst, perhaps this was the year that the stars would eventually align. After years of toxicity from a frustrated fanbase overwhelmed anything that was happening on the field, Notre Dame community’s overwhelming support of Te’o as he battled immense grief helped turn a tide that had been overwhelmingly negative for years.
“Man, I said it before. Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn’t know why,” Te’o said in an impromptu pep rally speech. “It’s starting to unveil itself why, why I felt that I was told to come here. I can’t thank my team enough. I can’t thank the students and just the fan base around the world, Notre Dame and non-Notre Dame fans. They’ve just been great. It’s very humbling for me and my family.”
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6.
Put simply, the Irish refused to lose. While Everett Golson had a crisis of confidence that put the offensive future of the Irish up for grabs, the defense put the team on its shoulders, and repeatedly held back Michigan as it knocked on the door.
The Irish offense was truly abysmal, racking up just 239 yards of offense as it continually put the defense in a next to impossible spot. Yet Te’o and company rose to the occasion time and again, dominated in possession but unwilling to break. The Wolverines entered the red zone five times. They exited with no touchdowns. Denard Robinson pointedly called that Saturday night the worst he’s ever had on a football field.
While the victory against Michigan State was considered a signature win by Kelly, the Irish head coach almost raised the bar in his post game comments.
“I think this is another step in the process of consistency that I’ve talked about,” Kelly said after the game. “Before you can go from being a good team to a great team, you have to exhibit some form of consistency in performance, and you have to play week in and week out.”
While it was difficult to notice then, this Irish team was showing one true characteristic of a great team. The ability to win ugly and close games. In beating Purdue, the Irish won without their best. While cruising against the Spartans, the offense converted just a single third down. Now stopping the Wolverines, the Irish dispatched another key opponent while letting Everett Golson go through some painful growing pains.
Coaches often say an ugly win is the best teaching moment. Constructive criticism holds its grip much stronger after a victory, teachable moments ring much truer after snatching victory from near defeat. With a bye week to get the quarterback situation straightened out, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin would continue to find plays that Golson could execute. But nothing bonded this group more than learning that this team had the mental and physical toughness necessary to win close games.
And nothing helps build that confidence like stopping Denard Robinson and the Wolverines offense in its tracks.
May 29, 2015, 6:05 PM EDT
If a picture is worth a thousand words, KeiVarae Russell’s most recent post on Instagram is worth plenty more than that. The Notre Dame cornerback, who spent last school year serving a university suspension, has announced his return to the university via Instagram.
May 29, 2015, 1:43 PM EDT
Ishaq Williams’ future at Notre Dame was thrown off course last August, when he and four teammates were caught up in an academic dishonesty case. Nine months later, the defensive end, a projected senior starter in 2014, appears to have some clarity on the school front, though his on-field future is still cloudy.
May 28, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
On Signing Day, nobody wants to talk about the kicker. But come September, Notre Dame’s most important true freshman won’t be a five-star tight end or blue-chip cornerback, but rather kicker Justin Yoon.
May 28, 2015, 1:24 PM EDT
As he has from the beginning of this odyssey, Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman has been out front on the Everett Golson transfer news. Releasing Golson’s original statement and getting the first comments out of the former Notre Dame quarterback, Feldman is back at it, talking with Golson about the thought process that led him to pick Florida State.
May 27, 2015, 1:03 PM EDT
Everett Golson left Notre Dame for Florida State. Degree in hand, free agency well earned. But for some who thought Golson left South Bend because he wanted nothing to do with a quarterback competition that Malik Zaire seemed to embrace, the fifth-year quarterback’s arrival in Tallahassee won’t mark the end of a position battle.
May 26, 2015, 5:29 PM EDT
Matt Hegarty is transferring to Oregon. While the news wasn’t as well chronicled as the departure of his Notre Dame batterymate Everett Golson’s was to Florida State, Hegarty’s move to the Ducks puts another starter from the 2014 Irish offense onto a team that played in last year’s College Football Playoff.
May 26, 2015, 1:23 PM EDT
As Notre Dame’s finishes up a May spent on the road visiting recruits, one of the keys to a successful 2016 recruiting campaign is to restock the safety position. While graduate transfer Avery Sebastian comes onto campus providing immediate experience, the position is one of the lone worrisome spots on the fully-stocked Irish roster.
May 22, 2015, 1:36 PM EDT
Just like spring marks the end of winter, it also begins another unofficial season on the gridiron. The emergence of spring stars. These breakout stars sometimes burnout before fall rolls around, but it doesn’t make their emergence any less interesting.
May 20, 2015, 2:51 PM EDT
Monday, Notre Dame announced that 16 student-athletes would be spending three weeks in South Africa, earning credits in a new study abroad program examining the cultural, historical and social effects racism has had on South Africa. Five more will be going to Greece, learning about archaeological sites and museums in Ancient Corinth.
May 20, 2015, 1:17 PM EDT
If you were looking for anything official out of Notre Dame after Everett Golson announced his intention to play next season at Florida State, think again. But yesterday, Brian Kelly was the head speaker at the ninth annual West Michigan Sports Commission Luncheon in Grand Rapids, and he shared a few comments about the move.
May 19, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
After graduating from Notre Dame over the weekend, Everett Golson has decided to play out his eligibility at Florida State. The former Irish quarterback visited Tallahassee last week before coming to a decision on Tuesday morning, according to Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman.
May 19, 2015, 12:37 PM EDT
In a profile with Sports Illustrated, KeiVarae Russell spoke on the record about his departure from Notre Dame, his impending return, and the motivations that push him.
May 18, 2015, 2:35 PM EDT
In a one-question, part-two of the mailbag, a reader points out one of the most important factors entering the 2015 season: Brian VanGorder’s defense.
May 15, 2015, 9:18 AM EDT
For as much as we’re ready to move on from the quarterback talk… we’re not really ready to move on from the quarterback talk.
May 14, 2015, 11:41 AM EDT
We close out our post-spring stock reports with a look at the defensive line.
May 13, 2015, 2:47 PM EDT
For all the attention paid to Everett Golson’s decision to leave Notre Dame, the Irish might be welcoming back an even better football player when KeiVarae Russell returns this June.
May 13, 2015, 11:12 AM EDT
The mailbag is open. Also, a quick bit of housekeeping as we address some problems in the comments.
May 12, 2015, 2:03 AM EDT
First came the news that Everett Golson was leaving. Now comes the circus, as we take to the rumor mill to speculate where Golson ends up.
May 11, 2015, 12:18 PM EDT
We continue our look at the post-spring depth charts with the linebackers. A talented group of athletes might provide one of the most misleading depth charts in recent memory.
May 9, 2015, 2:36 PM EDT
Just to get our mind off the big quarterback news. Let’s tackle a few mailbag questions… that don’t talk about the guys playing behind center.
- For Golson, challenges won’t disappear now that he’s at FSU 52
- After high-profile academic mistakes, Notre Dame wisely examining new options 38
- Everett Golson transferring to Florida State 105
- KeiVarae Russell’s Return (or the greatest story we’re not talking about) 31
- Five things we’ve learned: Analyzing Everett Golson’s departure 125
- It’s official: Everett Golson will transfer (UPDATED) 172