Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Notre Dame: Oh so close ...
By Matt Fortuna
Notre Dame finished the regular season 8-4 for the second time in three seasons. It is not where the Fighting Irish want to be, but the fall was not without its high points, either. As the Irish await their bowl fate in the next several days, here is a look at some of the things that went right and some of the things that went wrong for the program during these past 14 weeks.
Where it all started: Notre Dame made no secret of its goals entering the 2013 season: To get back to the BCS title game, and to finish the deal this time around. The Irish posted the date of this year's title game on the schedule displayed in the auditorium of their football complex, and they entered the season ranked No. 14 in the preseason AP poll and No. 11 in the preseason coaches' poll. Everett Golson's semester-long suspension, announced this past spring, certainly made Notre Dame's goals more difficult, but with seven starters back from a defense that finished No. 2 nationally in scoring last season, the Irish did not expect to miss a beat in 2013.
Where it went wrong: From a title standpoint, everything fell apart for Notre Dame in a Week 2 prime-time loss at Michigan, which at the time looked like a legitimate Big Ten title contender (with its quarterback, Devin Gardner, looking like a potential dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate). Of course, the Wolverines ended up losing five games, making that Irish loss look worse by the week. Notre Dame's Nov. 9 loss at Pitt, meanwhile, was the final nail in the coffin for the Irish's BCS bowl hopes.
Where it got back on track: OK, so a four-loss team cannot exactly complain about bad breaks here and there. You are what your record says you are. But the point of this exercise, in the case of Notre Dame, is to look at this from the opposite side of things, which makes it easy to see the Irish as one of the ultimate spoilers of this college football season. Consider two of the teams playing this weekend for spots in the Rose Bowl: Michigan State and Arizona State. Notre Dame's 17-13 win over the Spartans on Sept. 21 was hardly a work of beauty -- kicker/punter Kyle Brindza received the game ball in a game in which he missed a field goal and had a punt blocked. But, nearly three months later, here Michigan State is, ranked No. 10 in the latest BCS standings and playing for the Big Ten title against Ohio State, which is likely playing for a spot in the national title game. Had the Irish not beaten the Spartans, then Saturday's showdown in Indianapolis could very well have ended up being a battle between unbeatens for a shot at the sport's grand prize.
Now look at Arizona State, which fell to 3-2 back on Oct. 5 when the Irish handed it a 37-34 loss in Arlington, Texas. All the Sun Devils have done since then is win seven straight, rising to No. 11 in the BCS standings. Their only other loss on the season? A Sept. 21 loss at Stanford. Who do they play Saturday in the Pac-12 title game -- in Tempe, no less? No. 7 Stanford. Had ASU escaped the Irish, they would have been carrying an eight-game winning streak and higher BCS ranking into a home contest against the one team that beat it earlier this season. Win that one this weekend -- making it the champion of the second-best conference -- and you have a 12-1 outfit whose lone loss was avenged. If Ohio State loses this weekend, those Sun Devils would have as strong an argument as anyone to be included in the BCS title game.