Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: One of the most storied programs in all of sports was
pretty much flying under the radar when the 2012 campaign kicked off, but once
the final gun sounded in the BCS Championship Game Notre Dame ended up turning
more than a few heads, for a multitude of reasons.
The Fighting Irish began their 125th season of football in the most obvious of
locales, Dublin, Ireland as they clashed with a familiar foe in Navy. Notre
Dame had received some votes in the AP Top-25 poll heading into the event in
early September, but still the rest of the nation wasn't too sure what to make
of the squad and head coach Brian Kelly at that stage.
A year earlier, UND had thumped the Midshipmen at home by a score of 56-14, so
perhaps there were similar expectations being set up for the Emerald Isle
Classic as well. The Irish faithful got what they expected as Notre Dame
thrashed Navy in a 50-10 decision, setting in motion a somewhat unexpected
campaign for the Fighting Irish.
By the second game of the season the team was ranked 22nd in the country as it
settled in to face Purdue at home. The Irish had their hands full with the
Boilermakers, to the point where coach Kelly pulled starting quarterback
Everett Golson (due to injury) in favor of Tommy Rees who led the squad on a
game-winning drive in the final minute of regulation, culminating with a Kyle
Brindza 27-yard field goal with seven seconds left on the clock in what turned
into a 20-17 triumph.
A week later the team made sure to make it not as intense as it defeated
Michigan State on the road, 20-3. The Irish pushed their win streak to four in
a row with a 13-6 victory against Michigan at home.
After a break in the action Notre Dame clashed with Miami at Soldier Field in
Chicago and, as a top-10 team, used the opportunity to deliver a major beating
to the Hurricanes, 41-3.
One of the toughest tests during the regular season came against an undefeated
and nationally-ranked Stanford squad that required overtime, before the Irish
could put a 20-13 decision into the win column. A week later, Notre Dame
pulled out another close call, grabbing a 17-14 win over BYU.
The enigmatic Fighting Irish were up to seven straight wins when they visited
Oklahoma, a meeting that was presumably a potential stumbling block, yet the
team still came away with a convincing 30-13 triumph,
During the first week of November, the team was ranked fourth in the country
as it awaited a visit from Pittsburgh, the Panthers at that point sporting a
mere 4-4 mark, and yet the Irish were pushed to three overtime sessions before
claiming a 29-26 win.
"We made uncharacteristically some mistakes turning the football over
obviously twice in the end zone," said coach Kelly of the challenge. "Last
year that would have been a loss for us. But our team kept fighting, kept
playing. I told them that they have to understand that everybody they play
against will play their absolute best."
Despite the huge target on the backs of the Irish, the team marched on with
wins over Boston College, Wake Forest and USC, giving them a record of 12-0
and a shot at the national championship against Alabama. Notre Dame had the
stats to back up its invitation to the big game, but some of the attention on
the actual team was taken away by persistent issues with Golson.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the team didn't stand a chance against the
Crimson Tide, falling behind 28-0 at halftime and 35-0 in the third, before
finally suffering the 42-14 defeat in front of a national audience.
Still a successful season, the lopsided finale led some to believe that coach
Kelly was exploring other options, particularly in the NFL, but eventually he
decided to return to Indiana.
"This decision was motivated purely by my love for Notre Dame and the entire
Fighting Irish community, the young men I have the great fortune to coach, and
my desire to continue to build the best football program in the country."
OFFENSE: Initially, Golson was supposed to be returning as a key figure for
the Notre Dame offense in 2013, but the signal-caller won't be found anywhere
near campus during the season due to the fact that he was suspended by the
university in late May. Golson, sent packing due to "poor academic judgment,"
completed close to 59 percent of his pass attempts for 2,405 yards and 12
touchdowns, and also ran for another six scores in 2012.
With Golson out of the picture, Kelly now turns his attention to pushing Rees
to be the best he can be on the field. A starter in two games in 2012 and
appearing in 12 games overall, Rees converted 57.6 percent of his pass
attempts for a mere 436 yards and two touchdowns, which means he'll be thrown
into the fire moving forward. Rees had been a primary figure for the offense
in the second half of 2010 and all of 2011, but this is a new age for Notre
Providing Rees with some comfort in the backfield will be George Atkinson III,
the top returning ball carrier who was responsible for 361 yards and five
touchdowns as he started three games and appeared in 12 last season. Filling
the void left by Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, who combined for more than
1,600 yards and nine TDs on the ground, will be tough. Riddick was also
responsible for 36 catches for 370 yards and two more TDs through the air.
In terms of receivers, yes, Tyler Eifert is no longer playing on Saturdays,
but at least TJ Jones is back on campus after he produced nearly similar stats
(50 receptions, 649 yards, four touchdowns), albeit from a wideout position
which isn't quite the same as Eifert who was an All-American and Mackey Award
winner at tight end. DaVaris Daniels also showed good hands with 31 grabs for
another 490 yards in 2012, but he never made it into the end zone.
Troy Niklas is listed as a returning starter at tight end, but he was used
rather sparingly last year with just five receptions. Niklas obviously has a
long way to go if he wants to be considered anything close to Eifert.
The offensive line will have to be retooled after losing All-American center
Braxston Cave and offensive guard Mike Golic Jr. The squad still boasts
Christian Lombard, Zack Martin and Chris Watt in the trenches, which is good
news for the skill players.
DEFENSE: While the offense deals with the change at quarterback, the defense
for the Fighting Irish tries to move beyond linebacker Manti Te'o who, before
heading to the NFL, captured a record seven individual major awards -- the
Walter Camp, Maxwell, Lombardi, Butkus, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lott trophies.
Unfortunately for Te'o, who seemed to disappear during the national title
game, he'll be remembered more for his imaginary girlfriend fiasco than
anything he might have on his mantle.
Because of Te'o and his teammates, Notre Dame was seventh in the country in
total defense, allowing just 305.5 ypg, and second in scoring defense with a
mere 12.8 ppg. Five times the program held an opponent to seven points or less
in 2012, with much of the credit going to Te'o.
However, returning to patrol the middle of the field for the Fighting Irish
are linebackers Dan Fox and Prince Shembo. While Te'o was taking home all of
the postseason awards, Shembo was placing second on the squad with 10.5
tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, not to mention pacing the group with 12
quarterback hurries. A quick and lively bunch at the line of scrimmage, UND
recorded 70 TFL overall and had almost twice as many sacks (34) as the
Danny Spond was supposed to be among the returning starters at linebacker,
after posting 38 tackles a year ago, but he just recently informed the team
that he was retiring from the game after dealing with concussions and severe
migraines over the last two campaigns.
"What was pretty apparent was that it was an emotional decision and it didn't
come without a lot of thought," coach Kelly told the Chicago Tribune. "He
spent the day speaking to a lot of specialists and his family was here. This
was not a decision that came easy. He loves his teammates. But what's most
important is he did what's in his best interest for the future. He's got a
Hopefully the secondary can make up for some significant losses in the middle,
what with Bennett Jackson, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley all planning
on making a return. Jackson was not only third on the team in total tackles
with 65, he was also second with four interceptions and logged eight passes
defended to rank first in the latter category. Russell and Farley also had
their moments and combined for another three picks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: One area that could use some added attention this season is in
punt returns. Notre Dame was not only last among the Independent teams a
season ago, the squad was a dismal 116th nationally with an average of just
2.2 yards per a return. Obviously not a strong suit for the program, it is
hard to imagine that even by accident the group didn't produce a couple of big
gains in that particular category.
Davonte Neal handled all of the punt returns for the team in 2012 but barely
made an impression. Atkinson, who was the primary returner on kickoffs,
averaging 20.0 yards per attempt, could be the replacement for Neal, just as
long as taking on all of these added responsibilities doesn't negate his
productivity as a primary running back.
Brindza came on strong for the Irish when it came to kicking the ball,
converting 23 of his 31 field goal attempts. Despite having a long of 52
yards, Brindza did have some issues between 40-49 yards where he connected on
only three of seven tries. Nevertheless, as one of the nation's top returning
kickers, he still figures to be the go-to-guy on field goals and might even
take over the punting duties, depending on how that competition plays out.
Nick Tausch could give Brindza a run at placekicker after missing almost all
of last season with an injury.
OUTLOOK: Not only does Notre Dame have to deal with the annual scrutiny and
skepticism that comes with being one of the most beloved and hated sports
teams all at the same time, the squad has to figure out how to overcome a few
unexpected missing parts, as well as those who have exhausted their stay in
Remaining on the North American continent for the entire regular season, the
Fighting Irish settle in against visiting Temple in the opener before taking
on familiar rivals in Michigan and Purdue on the road. The matchup versus the
Wolverines could shape the rest of the season for sure, depending on how UND
Two more familiar foes in Michigan State and Oklahoma drop by before the end
of September and after that is the Shamrock Series against Arizona State at
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas of all places.
Back on track two weeks later, the Irish play the first of three home dates in
the second half of the season versus USC, with Navy and BYU to follow in
November. Trips to Air Force, Pittsburgh and Stanford will all be challenges,
but only the latter should be a tough matchup for a Notre Dame program that
enters 2013 as the 14th-ranked team in the country according to the AP.
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