12 Plays that Defined Notre Dame Football in 2012

As the final days of 2012 wind down and we inch closer and closer to Notre Dame’s showdown with Alabama for the BCS Championship, today we look back at the plays that defined Notre Dame’s improbable run to Miami.

12. Stephon Tuitt’s fumble return against Navy

image_gone Dublin, Ireland. Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt #7 recovers a fumble during the American Football game between Notre Dame and Navy from the Aviva Stadium. (Photo – Paul Walsh/Actionplus/Icon SMI)

Notre Dame’s season opening win over Navy in Dublin might have lacked the drama that characterized some of Notre Dame’s victories later in the season, but it also had its fair share of highlights and the one play that stands out from this one was Stephon Tuitt’s 77 yard fumble return.  Notre Dame was in clear control of the game and would have won the game whether or not Ishaq Williams jarred the ball loose with Tuitt scooping it up off the turf and rumbling down the field for a score, but the play set the tone for the season – Notre Dame had a defense that was going to make plays.

Notre Dame had lacked a big play defense for years, but Tuitt’s highlight worthy play was the first real indicator that Notre Dame had some players on defense this year.  Not only did it show that Notre Dame had playmakers on defense – it showed Notre Dame had playmakers up front where the Irish lacked such ability since Justin Tuck wore the blue and gold.  Tuitt is a big man.  A man much too big to be able to run down the field as fast as he did back in September, so when he did it raised some eyebrows.

11. Tommy Rees’ 38 yard pass to Tyler Eifert against Michigan

Notre Dame (80) Tyler Eifert makes a catch during an NCAA football game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in Notre Dame, IN. (Photo – Chris Williams / IconSMI)

In week 4 of the season, Everett Golson was pulled early for ineffectiveness with Brian Kelly opting to rely on junior Tommy Rees.  While Rees was steady against the Wolverines, the defense kept Notre Dame in this game by keeping Michigan off of the scoreboard for three quarters.  In the fourth quarter, however, the Wolverines added two field goals to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 13-6.  With Notre Dame facing a key third down and four from their own 31 yard line, Kelly showed just how much faith he had in Rees by letting him drop back and throw for the first down.

On that third down, Rees dropped a well thrown ball right into Tylerr Eifert’s midsection for a 38 yard gain which effectively ended the game with Michigan having just one timeout remaining at the time.  Before that pass, Rees had only attempted 10 passes all game accounting for a just 77 yards.  Without that conversion, Notre Dame would have had to punt and give Michigan the ball back with more than two minutes left on the clock after they had scored on their last two drives.

10. Everett Golson’s 36 yard touchdown to John Goodman against Michigan State

Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver John Goodman (81) catches a pass for a touchdown as Michigan State Spartans safety Isaiah Lewis (9) defends in the first quarter at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

When Notre Dame traveled to East Lansing in week 3, they did so as a big road underdog to then top 10 ranked Michigan State.  After the teams traded punts on the first two series of the game, Notre Dame moved the ball to the Spartan 36 yard line thanks to some great field position provided by the defense and a first down completion to Robby Toma.

On a 2nd and 9 play, Everett Golson dropped back to pass and after stumbling a bit he fired down field to John Goodman whose second catch of the season was a one handed touchdown grab with a Michigan State defender draped all over him.  The play set the tone for the game and was the kind of throw that Notre Dame fans were not used to seeing from Tommy Rees.  It was a glimpse of the potential that Golson brought to the table – potential that would develop at a steady pace throughout the season as Golson grew in confidence week to week.

9. Everett Golson’s long bomb to Chris Brown against Oklahoma

Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Chris Brown (2) attempts to catch a pass as Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Aaron Colvin (14) defends in the first quarter at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of Golson’s confidence growing from week to week, there might not have been any better evidence than that development than when the Irish traveled to Norman to take on Oklahoma.  After leading most of the game, Oklahoma tied the Irish in the fourth quarter at 13.  While spending most of the year relying on his defense and running game, Brian Kelly turned to his sophomore quarterback when the Sooners tied things up.

On Notre Dame’s next drive Golson came out firing hitting TJ Jones for an 8 yard gain on the first down and then on second down, Kelly and Chuck Martin rolled the dice and called a bomb to freshman speedster Chris Brown.  Golson and Brown nearly connected for several passes downfield to this point in the season – including earlier in the game (pictured above – sorry, it was the only picture we had access to for this one), but had yet to actually do so.  On second down at his own 35 yard line though, Golson dropped back and fired a nearly perfectly placed  50-yard bomb to Brown for the frosh’s first career catch.  Four plays later Golson gave Notre Dame the lead for good and the Irish never looked back.

8. Everett Golson’s 2-point conversion against Pitt

Notre Dame QB Everett Golston in game action during the NCAA football game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo: Matt Quinnan/Icon SMI)

A week after Notre Dame’s big win in Norman, the Irish sleep-walked through the first three quarters against a mediocre at best Pitt team and found itself trailing 20-6 in the 4th quarter.  Notre Dame came storming back in the final 15 minutes, however, and despite a horrible end-zone interception earlier in the corner, they scored a touchdown with just over two minutes remaning to cut the Pitt lead to two.  That lead was two instead of one because of a missed extra point earlier in the quarter forcing Notre Dame to go for two.

Notre Dame lined up for the two point conversion and for a bit it didn’t like there was anywhere for Golson to go with the football.  A lane opened up for Golson though and the sophomore dashed for the end-zone and lunged forward for the two point conversion to tie the game and send the game into over time.  Had Golson not converted that two pointer, Pitt would have had the ball with two minutes remaining with Notre Dame possessing two timeouts and needing another score to win the game.

7.  Kevin Harper’s missed field goal in overtime

Pittsburgh Panthers kicker Kevin Harper (39) reacts after missing a field goal in the second overtime against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 29-26 in triple overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

While Golson’s fourth quarter heroics got Notre Dame to overtime, the Irish would not have made it out of Notre Dame Stadium unbeaten that night had it not been for a missed field by Pitt’s Kevin Harper.  After Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood fumbled into the endzone on Notre Dame’s second possession in overtime, all Pitt needed to derail Notre Dame’s dream season was a field goal.

Pitt played it conservatively in the second overtime with three straight Ray Graham rushes setting up Harper’s 33 yard attempt that would have ended the game. Harper failed to push his kick inside the right upright, however, and Notre Dame was given another chance to put the Panthers away.  After Harper connected on a 44 yarder in the third overtime, Everett Golson lead the Irish into the endzone with his arm and his legs and Notre Dame escaped unharmed in a game that very easily could have been the one that got away.  Why couldn’t David Gordon do the same thing 19 years ago???

6. Tommy Rees’ third down conversion to John Goodman against Purdue

Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Tommy Rees (11) in game action. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Purdue Boilermakers by the score of 20-17, at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN. (Photo – Robin Alam / Icon SMI)

Notre Dame’s dream season could have been derailed a few times throughout the year, but many people forget that Notre Dame was a desperation heave from Tommy Rees to John Goodman away from overtime against a pretty weak Purdue team in week two.  After pulling Everett Golson in the fourth quarter to let Rees run the two minute drill in a 17-17 game, Brian Kelly and Notre Dame faced a 3rd and 6 from their own 49 yard line.  Purdue blitzed Rees and he threw up a jump ball to Goodman who had yet to catch a pass on the season.  Goodman corralled Rees’ heave and the Irish moved down the field behind Rees for the game winning field goal.

Now that Notre Dame is ranked #1 in the country and preparing to face Alabama for all the marbles in less than two weeks, let that sink in and ask yourself if you ever imagined Notre Dame would be in this position when Goodman came down with that pass to escape with a three point win over Purdue.

5. Tommy Rees’ 3rd down conversion to Theo Riddick in overtime against Stanford

Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Tommy Rees (11) throws the football in game action. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Stanford Cardinal by the score of 20-13 in overtime, at Notre Dame Stadium, in Notre Dame, IN. (Photo – Robin Alam / Icon SMI)

A month after rallying Notre Dame against Purdue, Rees was called on again by Brian Kelly in the fourth quarter against Stanford.  This time, however, Rees was not called to duty because of Golson’s play – his number was called against the stout Cardinal defense because Golson was knocked out of the game with a concussion.  Rees came off the sidelines cold and capped off a drive Golson started by leading the Irish to the game tying field goal to force overtime.

Notre Dame received the ball first in overtime and after Rees was sacked on first down things weren’t looking too good for the Irish.  A 9 yard completion to Davaris Daniels on 2nd down set up Rees and the Irish with a 3rd and 8 in a driving rain.  On 3rd down Rees dropped back and lobbed a perfectly placed pass to Theo Riddick who rolled out of the backfield and hauled in Rees’ pass to set up the Irish with a first and goal.  One the next play Rees hit TJ Jones for a 7 yard touchdown that proved to be the game winner thanks in large part to some more heroics we’ll get to in a bit.

4. Cierre Wood’s long touchdown run against Oklahoma

Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Cierre Wood (20) scores a touchdown in the first quarter against the Oklahoma Sooners at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. (Photo: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE)

Early on in the Oklahoma game it looked like the Sooners were not going to have too much trouble moving the ball on the Irish defense.  After two drives Oklahoma had just three points, but a very costly botched snap on their first drive derailed what looked like a promising drive and Notre Dame had Oklahoma to thank for the Sooners having just three points almost as much as they could thank themselves.

Faced with a 3-0 deficit on the road in a hostile environment, the Notre Dame offensive line opened up a hole that Cierre Wood could have drove a truck through before racing 62 yards downfield untouched for an Irish touchdown.  The run was a sign that the Oklahoma defense was not some immovable object that Irish offense was not going to be unable to get around and showed that the Irish meant business despite being a double digit underdog to a team they were ranked higher than… Wait a minute, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

3. Notre Dame’s goal line stand against USC

Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te’o (5) and safety Matthias Farley (41) react after stopping USC Trojans tailback Curtis McNeal (22) near the goal line in the fourth quarter at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Notre Dame won 22-13. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

While not Notre Dame’s biggest goal line stand of the season (more on that soon), Notre Dame’s stop of USC on 4th down from the one yard line in the final minutes of the game on Thanksgiving weekend was the cherry on top of the sundae for an Irish defense that made big play after big play whenever called upon throughout the 2012 season.

After three straight Trojan runs from the 1 yard line netted no gain for the USC offense, Lane Kiffin decided to try a pass with his freshman quarterback.  Manti Te’o got pressure on Max Wittek and his 4th down toss fell incomplete giving Notre Dame the ball back with a 9 point lead, two and a half minutes, and just one timeout for USC.  Had Kiffin just kicked the field goal, he could have put the pressure back on the Notre Dame offense, but he rolled the dice thinking that Notre Dame couldn’t possibly stop his offense four times from the one yard line.  Kiffin lost that bet and the game and the Irish are headed to Miami.

2. Manti Te’o’s interception of Landry Jones against Oklahoma

Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te’o (5) celebrates an interception in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma Sooners receiver Jalen Saunders (18) at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The Irish beat the Sooners 30-13. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

After taking the lead 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame had to once again stop Landry Jones and the Oklahoma offense in order to escape with the road upset.  Jones converted a 3rd and 3 to set up the Sooner offense was a first down at their own 41 yard line before dropping back to pass again on the ensuing play.  When he did, his pass was batted up in the air and Manti Te’o, as he did all season, found himself in position to make a game changing play.  Te’o made a diving attempt to pick off Jones and just barely got his hands under the ball to secure the interception and give the Irish offense the ball back at the Oklahoma 45 yard line.

Once Notre Dame had the ball back, they added a field goal to give themselves a two possession lead with just 2:31 remaining.  The play was the signature play that firmly put Te’o in the Heisman debate and made him the front runner until Johnny Maisel led Texas A&M to an upset of Alabama a few weeks later.  The play, however, will live on as the signature moment in Te’o’s Notre Dame career… unless of course the Hawaiian native comes up with another game changing play on January 7.

1. Notre Dame’s goal line stand against Stanford

Stanford Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor (33) attempts to dive over the goal line as Notre Dame Fighting Irish nose guard Louis Nix (9) and linebacker Manti Te’o (5) defend in overtime at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 20-13. Photo: Matt Cashore / US PRESSWIRE)

Any list of top plays for Notre Dame in 2012 has to end up with what will go down as one of the most epic goal line stands in Notre Dame history regardless of what happens in Miami on January 7.  After Tommy Rees led the Irish into the endzone to start overtime, it looked like the Cardinal was going to quickly respond when they moved the ball to the Irish 4 yard for a first and goal three plays into their overtime possession.

What happened over the next four plays will live on in Irish lore for years to come.  Stefan Taylor moved the ball to the Irish 1 yard line with two carries to set up a 3rd and goal.  Stanford’s offensive line vs. Notre Dame’s defensive line.  Strength vs. Strength.  Taylor surged toward the goal line on 3rd down when Manti Te’o came up and met him before he crossed the plane and repelled him back.  Fourth and 1.  Driving rain.  Perfect season on the line for the Irish.  Notre Dame sold out for the run again and Stanford obliged with another Taylor run and despite twisting and turning, Taylor was stopped short of the goal line.  Video replay confirmed the call and Notre Dame stormed the field for their 6th win of the season.

After being pushed around by Stanford the previous two seasons, Notre Dame pushed back and sealed their 6th win of the season in a very fitting away given their opponent and given how they ended up navigating their schedule enroute to a 12-0 regular season.