It’s hard to imagine a season being labeled a success when it’s only halfway finished, but that’s exactly the label the 2012 Irish squad has earned. The halfway point offers a perfect opportunity to reflect upon just what has been accomplished in the first six games, and a great way to start is to refer back to my preseason prediction as to this team’s overall record for the year: 6-6.
Despite what many may think, my low expectations at the start of this season had nothing to do with my opinion of Notre Dame head coach, Brian Kelly. In fact, the opposite is true. As a Michigan native, I am very familiar with Kelly’s career from Grand Valley State all the way to Cincinnati, and I was elated when he was named the head coach of Notre Dame. Though there are no certainties in college football, I believed in Kelly and felt he would be the one to turn
around two decades of Irish woes. My skepticism involving this season was rooted in our brutal schedule and the youth and inexperience in several key areas.
There was a reason Notre Dame was tabbed as having the toughest schedule in the nation this year, with the Irish preparing to face five Top 25 teams, four of which were in the Top 15 and three that would be on the road. Notre Dame would face preseason #1 USC, #4 Oklahoma, #8 Michigan, #13 Michigan State and #21 Stanford, not to mention unranked but dangerous programs BYU and Miami. That murderer’s row would be difficult for any team to navigate, but Notre Dame was set to begin a transition season of sorts.
What kind of year could the Irish expect to have with a redshirt freshman QB with no experience – though tons of potential – against such a brutal lineup? How could the Irish stop so many prolific offenses when their best defensive lineman, Aaron Lynch, transferred to South Florida? How could ND possibly replace the one-man wrecking crew of Michael Floyd, a player who appeared to be responsible for seemingly all offensive production from the previous year? And perhaps most ominously, how could the Irish seriously expect to compete with a patchwork secondary that involved starting a converted running back and wide receiver at the cornerback positions? None of the answers to these questions were very positive.
My goal for this season was very simple: showcase the future. I wasn’t going to focus on Notre Dame’s record as much as what I saw on the field. I knew quarterback Everett Golson would struggle as a first-time starter. What I wanted to see were glimpses, such as a broken play that Golson morphed into a huge gain with his dual-threat capability. In essence, I expected Notre Dame to take its lumps this year but show enough flashes that no ESPN pundit could deny what a special season the Irish would have in store for 2013.
Skip forward to mid-October and many of the previous questions in my head seem rather silly, though they were perfectly reasonable when raised. Arguably the most impressive part of ND’s current success comes courtesy of the secondary. Bob Elliott, Notre Dame’s safeties coach, has my vote for coach of the year. The Irish secondary appeared to be a panicked assortment of offensive misfits moved to defense, sprinkled in with true and redshirt freshman as complements. The Irish secondary should be a disaster but instead it has been a true source of strength. Notre Dame’s secondary is tied for 8th nationally in interceptions. They’re 14th in pass defense, only giving up 173 yards through the air per game. And, perhaps most impressively, ND’s defense is 5th nationally in pass efficiency.
Notre Dame’s success leading up to Stanford was cause for celebration. The Irish handled Navy with ease. They flexed moxie in their two-minute drill victory against Purdue. They went on the road to a hostile East Lansing at night and pushed around a Spartan team known for its trench toughness. They finally slew the Denard Robinson dragon that had circled and haunted the program for years, and they ran circles around the Miami Hurricane defense. But Stanford would be different – Stanford was the true measuring stick.
Stanford’s program leaves little to the imagination – they line up and physically dominate. If Notre Dame was to be able to say they had truly turned the corner, beating Stanford would be key. The Fighting Irish not only fought back against its annual bully, they pushed the Cardinal back yards at a time. Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor came to South Bend averaging 4.6 yards per carry and at least one touchdown per game. In Stanford’s victory over-then #1 USC,
Taylor ran wherever he pleased, earning 153 yards and a stunning 5.7 yards per carry against the Trojans. Notre Dame proved its toughness by limiting Taylor to 3.6 yards per carry and no touchdowns, a full yard less than his season average and two yards less than what he gained against former #1 USC.
Notre Dame’s win over Stanford wasn’t a solitary flare launched above the college football landscape to signal the Irish’s return to prominence – it was a barrage that lit up the entire sky. Though many Irish fans held signs during ESPN’s College GameDay bemoaning the lack of respect nationally, it’s hard to argue why many critics remained. ND has had several “return to glory” false starts this past decade, and many had fallen into “show me” mode before believing the Irish had seriously returned. Their hesitation was answered on Saturday. You don’t beat Stanford with luck or schematic advantages that mask your weaknesses. You beat Stanford by dominating them physically, something very few had done considering their 27-4 record in the previous two-and-a-half seasons. Notre Dame may not be ready for a national championship, but beating Stanford made it clear that the Irish will no longer be a program brushed off as a has-been not to be taken seriously.
With the likes of Oklahoma and USC still to be played, Notre Dame’s season could still take a number of different turns. But at the halfway point, the Irish have already obliterated the highest of expectations.
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