Conference championship weekend for Notre Dame fans is pretty straightforward: wake up early, surround yourself with the necessary beverages and easily graspable food items, pick a comfortable chair strategically placed in front of a massive high definition television and not move for twelve straight hours. And this year’s batch of games did not fail to disappoint, with Missouri and Auburn spinning the scoreboard dials into a frenzy while Michigan State and Ohio State kept everyone on the edge of their seats until the very end. As the evening came to a close and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio choked up when grasping the Big Ten trophy, I received a text message from my best friend, a fellow Notre Dame fan who had witnessed the day’s games with a troupe of euphoric Spartan fans.
“How in God’s name did ND beat these guys?” he wrote.
The question was a reasonable one. Though Ohio State forced a tight game by roaring back from a 17-point deficit with 24 unanswered points, Michigan State appeared largely dominant against the formerly undefeated Buckeyes. How was it that Michigan State’s only blemish in 2013 came at the hands of the Fighting Irish? After a long period of reflection, the answer was simple.
Notre Dame’s a damn good football team, and Saturday’s conference championship games offered plenty of context.
Such a statement is surprising, but only in the sense that it isn’t self-evident. Notre Dame would end up being the toughest opponent of the season for the Big Ten Champion Michigan State Spartans. Dantonio’s squad mustered 254 total yards against the Fighting Irish defense, its lowest output of the season. To put it in proper perspective, Michigan State racked up 438 yards against Ohio State, 70 yards shy of doubling their offensive output against Notre Dame. The same could be said of the Michigan State rushing attack, which averaged over four yards per carry in 9 out of its 13 games, only failing to eclipse that mark against Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Notre Dame. At 3.4 yards per carry, the Spartans had their worst game of the season trying to move the ball against the Brian Kelly-led Fighting Irish.
How did Notre Dame beat the dominant Michigan State Spartans? By being the better, tougher team.
The Pac-12 championship game also offered a perfect measuring stick, with both Stanford and Arizona State having been a common opponent. Though Notre Dame fell short in disappointing fashion against the #8 Stanford Cardinal, the Irish took Stanford to the final drive of the game despite being down three starting offensive linemen, an All-American nose tackle in Louis Nix, and two safeties in Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate due to a violation of team rules.
Stanford blew Arizona State off the ball and out of the stadium while cruising their way to back-to-back Pac-12 titles. The Cardinal managed to gain 100 more yards against Arizona State than they did against Notre Dame, and went from averaging 8 yards per pass against the Fighting Irish to 15 yards per pass against the Sun Devils, an impressive accomplishment for a Notre Dame defense that was attempting to patch in holes against the future Pac-12 champion. Most impressively, Arizona State’s 9th ranked scoring offense was held to 14 points, 6 points less than Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees was able to put on the scoreboard with an inexperienced offensive line.
Why was Notre Dame able to take Stanford to the wire with a second-strong offensive line while Arizona State was physically punished en route to a 38-14 Pac-12 championship game loss?
Because Notre Dame is a damn good football team.
The 2013 season entailed dreams of redemption after a heartbreaking loss in the national championship game to Alabama, dreams that were derailed by countless setbacks incurred throughout the off-season, including the devastating loss of starting quarterback Everett Golson for academic reasons. While the Fighting Irish failed to reach their BCS aspirations, Saturday’s conference championships offered some perspective as to how successful Notre Dame truly was during its 2013 campaign, as well as glimpses of what the future may have in store. The 1,200 combined yards and 101 combined points between Auburn and Missouri’s dual-threat quarterbacks surely did not go unnoticed by Kelly or future Heisman candidate, Golson.
Before the reins are once again handed over to Golson, the Notre Dame faithful should take a moment and give senior quarterback Tommy Rees one final ovation for leading the Fighting Irish to victories against two of the three programs that were represented in this past weekend’s conference championships.
That’ll do, Tommy. Bring on Rutgers.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, as well as appeared on MSNBC as a sports contributor. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org