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Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Wrapping up Notre Dame's regular season

By Matt Fortuna

The warning signs were there from the beginning.

Persistent thunder and lightning rocked South Bend, Ind., throughout halftime of Notre Dame's season opener against South Florida, culminating in a game that ended five hours, 59 minutes after it started. The final tally was Bulls 23, Irish 20, with a quarterback switch and nighttime falling somewhere in between.

Notre Dame's Michael Floyd
Even with Notre Dame's unsettled quarterback situation, receiver Michael Floyd rewrote the Irish record books this season.
The lights came on one week later in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the Irish faced Michigan in the Big House's first-ever night game. But a 17-point lead entering the fourth quarter was not enough for Notre Dame, which surrendered 28 points to Denard Robinson and Co. in the game's final 15 minutes, with a pair of fumbles taking wrong turns, to add to the pain.

An 0-2 start rendered any preseason BCS-bowl expectations meaningless, and the manner in which those defeats took place were as sure a sign as any that this would be one strange season.

Consider:
The Irish won eight of their final 10 games to finish 8-4 and clinch a berth in the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State, another 8-4 team that saw lofty preseason expectations take a hit early. Tommy Rees will start for Notre Dame, the sophomore's 12th consecutive start after replacing Dayne Crist to start the second half against the Bulls in Week 1. Fellow sophomore Andrew Hendrix, who replaced Rees to start the second half at Stanford in the regular-season finale, is slated to see plenty of action against the Seminoles as well.

The status of Crist, meanwhile, is up in the air after the senior was granted his release to explore options outside of Notre Dame for next season, his final year of eligibility after graduating later this month.

Also leaving the Irish is senior receiver Michael Floyd, who re-wrote the school record books and hauled in 95 catches for 1,106 yards this season. Floyd, a projected first-round draft pick, could be joined by junior linebacker Manti Te'o, who is also projected as a first-round pick after leading the Irish defensively for the second consecutive season.

Personnel questions will be answered later. For now, let's take a look back at this campaign and hand out some hardware:

Offensive MVP: Wide receiver Michael Floyd

Floyd took full advantage of one last chance after a third alcohol-related offense last March put this season in jeopardy. The senior's 95 catches this season are an Irish record, as are the 266 for his career. His 3,645 career receiving yards are the most in school history. So, too, are his 36 career receiving touchdowns. Floyd was lined up virtually everywhere this season and dealt with three different quarterbacks. His downfield blocking improved greatly. And, big statistical performance or not, he remained a threat in every game and always required the full attention of opposing defenses. The Irish will certainly miss him next season.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Manti Te'o

Following his 133-tackle output from a year ago, the junior has racked up 115 more tackles through 12 games this season, by far the most on the team. He has become more familiar in the backfield, too, notching 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, both good for team highs. Add in the fact he dealt with an ankle injury midseason, and Te'o had himself quite a junior campaign. A big decision awaits him this offseason, as Te'o is projected as a first-round NFL pick should he choose to forego his final year of eligibility.

Newcomer of the Year: Defensive end Aaron Lynch

The freshman burst onto the scene with a giant Week 3 performance against Michigan State, recording one sack, forcing a fumble and notching six quarterback hurries. To put that into proper context, no Notre Dame player recored that many throughout all of the 2010 season. Lynch enters the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State — a school he once committed to — with 5.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and 13 hurries on the season. He was forced into extended playing time because of injury along the line, and he did not disappoint.

Coach of the Year: Running backs coach Tim Hinton

Hinton helped the rushing game exceed everyone's expectations but its own. Cierre Wood rushed for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns, and Jonas Gray may have joined him in the 1,000-yard mark if not for an ACL tear Nov. 19. Gray, a senior, scored 12 touchdowns this season, including at least one in eight consecutive games, finishing his final campaign with 791 yards and a 6.9-yards-per-carry average. Hinton could draw interest from Urban Meyer at Ohio State, but for now the Irish are thankful for the work he put in this season.

Biggest surprise: Running back Jonas Gray

Speaking of Gray … Kelly said before the Irish's game against Boston College that he had never in his career seen a senior renaissance like Gray's. Gray overcame a potentially devastating Week 1 fumble against USF — one that resulted in a game-changing touchdown the other way — and ended up getting game captain honors against Air Force and starting four games. He spent much of the season in pursuit of George Gipp's single-season yards per carry record of 8.11, finishing with a 6.9 average. He had never scored a touchdown before notching 12 this season. Sadly, the campaign ended prematurely on Senior Day. Here's hoping Gray makes a speedy recovery and left enough of an impression on NFL scouts, as he was playing his way onto their radars before going down Nov. 19.

Biggest disappointment: Punt-return game

The Irish finished the season with a punt-return average of 0.30 yards per return, the worst among FBS teams. The Theo Riddick experiment backfired, as the junior fumbled one away in Week 1, and even the normally sure-handed John Goodman let one get away deep in his own territory Week 3 against Michigan State. Floyd voluntarily went back there to try to make something happen, but he never got a chance to return one this season. The Irish have plenty of work to do in this area in the offseason.

Robinson
The first night game at Michigan Stadium featured a classic final quarter-- but one that didn't go Notre Dame's way in a 35-31 loss Sept. 10.
Game of the Year: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31

The Sept. 10 contest had everything a college football fan could ask for: The first night game in the history of the Big House. Two of the three winningest programs in college football history. College GameDay on campus. The biggest crowd in college football history.

Then the game actually started, and it somehow surpassed the hype.

Michigan came back from a 24-7 deficit after three quarters, scoring four touchdowns in the fourth quarter and two in the final 1 minute, 12 seconds to shock the Irish. Vincent Smith's 21-yard touchdown catch made it 28-24 Michigan, Tommy Rees responded 42 seconds later with a 29-yard scoring strike to Riddick and Robinson closed things out with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with 2 seconds to play, capping off Michigan's third consecutive thrilling win over Notre Dame and a night for the ages. The Big House might as well quit while it's ahead; no night game there will ever surpass the first one.