Season wrap: Notre Dame

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
9:00
AM ET
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly referred to the Fighting Irish's 2013 campaign as a good season that could have been a great one. Tough to argue, considering some of the notable wins (Michigan State, Arizona State and USC) and head-scratching losses (Michigan and Pitt).

Still, a 9-4 record with a bowl win accounts for the program's second-best mark under Kelly in his four years there. And tough as it may be to swallow at the moment, losing both coordinators to head-coaching jobs is a strong endorsement of the direction Notre Dame's program is headed. Many outsiders wrote the Irish off the minute Everett Golson's suspension was announced in 2013, but they withstood a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball and found some young contributors who should be better-prepared for bigger roles this fall.

Offensive MVP: WR TJ Jones. Kelly said the vote wasn't even close when he polled the players on the team MVP award. Jones -- son of the late Andre Jones, an end on the Irish's previous national title team (1988) -- did everything his team asked of him and then some, playing through multiple injuries and delivering a standout senior campaign. He finished with 70 catches for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns, adding nine carries for 67 yards and two more scores. He also volunteered to return punts, a spot the Irish had sorely been lacking at in the Kelly era, giving them a legitimate threat back there with his 106 yards on 14 returns.

Defensive MVP: LB Dan Fox. The senior moved from the Will to the Mike early in the season to help fill the void in the middle left by Manti Te'o. When Jarrett Grace passed him on the depth chart, and then suffered a season-ending knee injury Oct. 5 against ASU, Fox answered the bell the way an upperclassman is expected to: by playing the best ball of his career. He had eight or more tackles a game during a five-game stretch to end the regular season, including 15 at Stanford, and he finished the season with a team-best 95, to go with 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 picks (1 a pick-six) and a fumble recovery.

Best moment: It didn't feel like it at the time, but in retrospect, Notre Dame's 17-13 win over eventual Rose Bowl champion Michigan State on Sept. 21 is easily the highlight of the Irish's season. It was an ugly game, to be sure, with the game ball going to a specialist (Kyle Brindza) who had a punt blocked and missed a field goal, and questionable calls coming from Spartans coach Mark Dantonio (a halfback pass with a freshman while tied in the second half?) and the officials (the Irish were on the receiving end of a number of debatable pass interference calls). Still, it was a well-earned win that may have ended up befuddling the national title picture, and there's no apologizing for that if you're the Irish.

Worst moment: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt is inexcusable, no matter how strong the Panthers ended up playing down the stretch (and no matter how strong they always end up playing the Irish). Losing Stephon Tuitt to a highly questionable targeting call did not help matters, but Notre Dame simply gave away a late-season game it had no business giving away, blowing a second-half lead and throwing a pair of costly fourth-quarter picks to Ray Vinopal that ended up prematurely crushing BCS-bowl hopes.

Matt Fortuna | email

College Football

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