Notre Dame Football: Michigan Wolverines

Video: Closer Look at Michigan-Notre Dame

September, 20, 2012
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Matt Fortuna says the Irish need to play within themselves to improve to 4-0.

4-star LB Jaylon Smith commits to Irish

June, 2, 2012
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ANGOLA, Ind. -- Long rumored to be a heavy Notre Dame lean, four-star outside linebacker Jaylon Smith (Fort Wayne, Ind./Bishop Luers) ended all speculation with a pledge to the Fighting Irish on Saturday at the inaugural R.A.S Football Camp hosted by Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer at Trine University.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Smith is ranked No. 46 in the ESPN 150 and is the top prospect in Indiana. He reported offers from Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas A&M and USC.

"Every (Notre Dame) coach has the same stand character-wise," Smith said. "Other coaches tell you what you want to hear, and I saw that with my brother." Rod Smith, a running back, is entering his sophomore season at Ohio State.

Smith is Notre Dame's top 2013 commit, its third commit in the ESPN 150 and its 13th overall.
Notre Dame and Michigan will meet again under the lights in 2012, this time at Notre Dame Stadium. Of the Irish's eight home night games, three have come against Michigan, with the Irish winning all three. Notre Dame's first-ever home night game was a 23-17 win over Michigan to open the 1982 season.

Conversely, Michigan's only home night game came last season against Notre Dame, a thrilling 35-31 win before a college football-record 114,804 fans. It will be tough to top that event, but these two squads will try Sept. 22. Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna and WolverineNation's Michael Rothstein look at the next step in this rivalry.

Matt Fortuna: Give Notre Dame fans credit. Everything about the Irish's home night game against USC last year -- the school's first in 21 years -- was well-executed, sans the final score (31-17 Trojans) and the choice of music (I still cringe every time I hear "Crazy Train"). Ergo, the school gets to do it again, this time against a rival that has won three straight thrillers in the series. We don't know who will be under center for the Irish this September, but we do know Denard Robinson is back for Michigan, meaning the potential for another wild ending will be there. Robinson has been Notre Dame's worst nightmare the last two seasons, passing for 632 yards and rushing for 366 more, helping the Wolverines eke out four-point wins in consecutive years. This time he will likely face stud sophomore ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, who, controversially, were not used during last season's contest. Last year this game served as a springboard toward a BCS-season for Michigan under first-year coach Brady Hoke, while the Irish saw their postseason hopes all but vanish with an 0-2 start. What's all this mean for this fall? We can't know for sure, but every time we think this rivalry can't outdo itself, it does just that.Throw in Robinson's final game against the Irish -- under the lights, at that -- and the stage is set for what should be another remarkable finish. No matter the score, just make sure you don't turn the TV off after the third quarter.

Michael Rothstein: What this move signifies to me is that the Notre Dame-Michigan series -- forever a daytime deal -- could be moving to prime time more often. It wouldn't stun me to see this game be at night more years than not now that both Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick are committing to bringing night games to two of the most storied venues in college football. Michigan was pleased all around with its night-game experience -- although some fans loathe the Pop Evil "In the Big House" anthem that debuted this year -- and will do it again. It'll be Robinson's finale against the Irish, but for the first time in a while, this won't be the first marquee game on the Michigan schedule thanks to the season-opener against Alabama. So more will be known about the Wolverines going into this game than in most years. That could be critical when it comes to scouting Michigan and its new-look defensive and offensive lines (new starters in a bunch of spots there). As far as the rivalry goes, this year has the potential to be another good one and could solidify a Heisman Trophy candidacy for Robinson or Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint or, if he has a dominant defensive performance, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. One thing I do know -- I won't be writing much that night until the game's final seconds.

Best ND game atmospheres of 2011

January, 20, 2012
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As you may have noticed this week, my blogging colleagues have been re-visiting the best game atmospheres of this past season. We will do the same here, though the list will be a bit shorter since we're dealing with one team.

Everything is taken into account here -- the tailgating scene, the build-up to kickoff, the fans, etc. As with the other lists, this is limited to games I attended this season. And it is entirely open for debate.

1. Notre Dame vs. Michigan at Michigan Stadium. The first night game in the history of the Big House. Two of the three winningest programs in college football history. The most fans at a game in college football history. Oh yeah, an amazing finish, too. This game had it all, from beautiful tailgating weather for the fans to the almost year-long build-up. Irish fans undoubtedly had sour tastes in their mouths given the way this one finished, but the atmosphere was unlike any other this season. Most of the Michigan fans stayed in their seats long after the final horn sounded, trying to soak it all in.

2. Notre Dame vs. USC at Notre Dame Stadium. Speaking of night games, the Irish's first one at home in 21 years was a success everywhere but the scoreboard. The tailgating scene was vibrant, and, more importantly, without much incident. In-game music choice and blue towels amidst the night sky raised a few questions, but that's to be expected when an institution tries something it hasn't done in more than two decades. In all, it was a successful night for the Irish athletic department, and it may just lead to more night games in the future.

3. Notre Dame vs. South Florida at Notre Dame Stadium. I'm a sucker for new beginnings. Nearly three hours of rain delays, a quarterback switch and sloppy play sucked a lot of the fun out of this one, but the scene of a campus filled with tailgates and optimism amidst a new year is enough to get me going and stands out more than everything that happened after the first half.
The Heisman Pundit's early forecast for the 2012 award Tuesday featured a number of Notre Dame opponents. Ours is no different.

Two of the top four Heisman candidates in Ryan McCrystal's prediction formula are scheduled to face the Irish, as are three of the top six.

The frontrunner, of course, is USC quarterback Matt Barkley:
While the results of the last few seasons have bucked this trend, historically, Heisman voters are drawn to players from traditional powers who enter the year as household names. If Barkley, coming off a sixth-place finish in the Heisman voting, simply matches his statistics from 2011 and leads USC to a BCS bowl game, he'll be a serious contender.

Barkley's biggest challenge could be USC's schedule. It's tough to win the award without playing on the national stage, and Barkley may not get many opportunities. The toughest opponent on the Trojans' schedule is Oregon, which, after losing Darron Thomas and LaMichael James to the NFL, may not be able to provide Barkley with the challenge he needs.

Barkley's Heisman scenario: Lead USC to BCS National Championship Game, 40+ TD; 150 Predictor points

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, another Irish opponent, comes in at No. 4. Oklahoma signal caller Landry Jones is No. 6.

Trojans wide receiver Robert Woods receives consideration after failing to crack the 10-man list.

The Heisman Pundit, as you'll recall, had Barkley and Robinson atop its list, with Jones also at No. 6. The site also listed Wolverines running back Fitzgerald Touissant, who was No. 12 on its 15-man list.

SN has highest ND '12 ranking yet

January, 18, 2012
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The BCS title game may have put a cap on the 20111 college football season a little more than a week ago, but the early projections for 2012 keep coming.

The latest early top 25 is the Sporting News', and Matt Hayes has Notre Dame ranked the highest so far among all early preseason rankings from national outlets, at No. 20.

Hayes writes:
Why they’re here: Because there’s no possible way Notre Dame could have worse luck with turnovers. Coach Brian Kelly has a significantly upgraded roster on the defensive side of the ball, and star LB Manti Te’o decided to return for his senior season. Elite skill players (TB Cierre Wood, TE Tyler Eifert, WR Theo Riddick) and a solid offensive line should mean solid production.

Why it could change: If QB Tommy Rees can’t protect the ball (interceptions, fumbles), Kelly must move on to someone else (Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson?). It’s stunning the Irish won eight games with quarterback production that looked like this: 21 touchdowns, 17 interceptions. Another problem: road games vs. Oklahoma, USC, Michigan State. Woof.

Hayes also ranks Irish opponents USC (No. 2), Oklahoma (No. 7), Michigan (No. 11), Michigan State (No. 12) and Stanford (No. 16).

For a recap of others' early 2012 top 25, click here.
We don't mean to keep harping on Notre Dame's tough 2012 schedule this offseason (though it did catch a break today), but another list lays out just what the Irish might be up against in the coming season.

The Heisman Pundit breaks down next season's Heisman Trophy race, with the top two front-runners facing the Irish in 2012. Three of the top six on the watch list play against Notre Dame next season. Four players on the 15-man list in total will face the Irish in 2012.

The leader in the clubhouse should come as no surprise: USC quarterback Matt Barkley:
Barkley returns for his senior year as the front runner for the 2012 Heisman. He’s got perhaps the best receiving corps in the history of college football catching his passes, so you know his numbers will be stellar. However, he must beat the expectations game or voters could eventually turn on him like they did Andrew Luck.

Michigan signal caller Denard Robinson is right behind Barkley at No. 2:
Four of the last six Heisman winners have been dual-threat quarterbacks and it is this style that has the most potential to wow the voters. The story with Robinson will be how he turned around a storied program. If the Wolverines challenge for national honors, he’ll be a strong Heisman candidate.

Oklahoma's Landry Jones comes in at No. 6. Wolverines running back Fitzgerald Touissant is No. 12.

Suffice it to say that Notre Dame's defense will have its work cut out for it next season.

McGee: ND early schedule loser

January, 17, 2012
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Colleague Ryan McGee takes a look today at the top 10 teams who could be hurt by their early-season schedules in 2012 . Checking in at No. 8 on the list is Notre Dame.

McGee, who says "take your pick" for the Irish's biggest test, writes:
First, calling Dublin, Ireland (vs. Navy) and Solider Field (vs. Miami) "neutral sites" is a stretch. Those are home games. Second, if I keep using you as a tough game over and over on this list, then your schedule is ridiculous.

Of the 25 teams on [Mark] Schlabach's Way Too Early list, the Fighting Irish play five. Nine of their 12 opponents played in bowls to close this season, and the Irish have to travel to East Lansing, Norman and the Coliseum. Good luck with that.

If it's any consolation, five of the other nine teams McGee lists are Notre Dame opponents in 2012: Oklahoma (No. 2), Michigan State (No. 4), Michigan (No. 5), Stanford (No. 7) and Miami (No. 9).

Where ND's opponents stack up

January, 13, 2012
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ESPN.com's college football bloggers made early 2012 power rankings this week. Here's how Notre Dame's opponents stack up amongst their conference brethren heading into next season:
  • Purdue: No. 8 Big Ten
  • Michigan State: No. 1 Big Ten
  • Michigan: No. 2 Big Ten
  • Miami: No. 10 ACC
  • Stanford: No. 4 Pac-12
  • Oklahoma: No. 1 Big 12
  • Pitt: No. 6 Big East
  • Boston College: No. 9 ACC
  • Wake Forest: No. 7 ACC
  • USC: No. 1 Pac-12
Notre Dame comes in at No. 23 in colleague Mark Schlabach's way-too-early 2012 top 25.

Florida State, which beat the Irish in the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl, is No. 8. (Outside the top-five, which is surprising to some of you who took Schlabach's pre-bowl prediction a little too seriously.)

Irish opponent USC comes in at No. 2, behind LSU. Oklahoma, another Irish opponent in 2012, is at No. 5. Michigan State is No. 9.

Michigan (No. 11) and Stanford (No. 17) make it five Notre Dame 2012 opponents in the way-too-early top 25.

On Notre Dame, Schlabach writes:
The jury still seems to be out on whether coach Brian Kelly can return the Fighting Irish to national prominence. There's no question the Irish are a better defensive team under Kelly, but the offense continues to struggle because of turnovers and poor quarterback play. Kelly will again oversee a quarterback battle during the offseason, with Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson battling for the starting job. They'll be without star receiver Michael Floyd, but tight end Tyler Eifert decided to come back for one more season. The defense should continue to improve as young linemen like Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt get stronger. Notre Dame's schedule in 2012 is daunting, with nine games against teams that played in bowl games, including road contests at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC.

Final 2011 opponent power rankings

January, 10, 2012
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The 2011 college football season is officially over, leaving us 234 long days between now and Notre Dame's Sept. 1 showdown in Dublin against Navy.

In the meantime, let's look back at the Irish's 2011 opponents, seven of whom played in bowl games and three of whom (the Big Ten slate of Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue) won bowl games.

1) Stanford (11-2, beat Notre Dame, 28-14, on Nov. 26): This was a close call between the Cardinal and the runner-up, the USC Trojans. But given Stanford's road win against USC and the fact it beat the Irish convincingly from start to finish — whereas Notre Dame had its chances to close in on the Trojans — the Cardinal get the edge here.

2) USC (10-2, won at Notre Dame, 31-17, on Oct. 22): It's a shame we couldn't see this team in a big bowl game against another quality opponent. These Trojans didn't really register on the national radar until their impressive showing in South Bend, jumping to a 17-0 lead to top their rival for the ninth time in 10 seasons.

3) Michigan State (11-3, lost at Notre Dame, 31-13, on Sept. 17): Few could have envisioned Sparty coming within a few plays of the Rose Bowl following the beating it suffered at Notre Dame Stadium. But the way Kirk Cousins and Co. handled the rest of their Big Ten slate proved that, if nothing else, the Irish certainly had at least one big "quality" win in 2011.

4) Michigan (11-2, beat Notre Dame, 35-31, on Sept. 10): Another case in which a team's game against the Irish was not at all telling about what the rest of the season had in store. You wonder what would have happened to the Wolverines in coach Brady Hoke's first year had the fourth quarter against Notre Dame never happened. Instead, Michigan rode the momentum of a miracle comeback to a renaissance season that culminated with a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

5) Florida State (9-4, beat Notre Dame (in Orlando, Fla.), 18-14, on Dec. 29): The Champs Sports Bowl proved the Seminoles were the most worthy of opponents for the Irish. Both followed disappointing four-loss regular seasons with a defense-dominated, turnover-plagued contest that featured a late FSU comeback, allowing one team to end 2011 on a high note.

6) Wake Forest (6-7, lost to Notre Dame, 24-17, on Nov. 5): The Demon Deacons were responsible for one of the more surprising close contests the Irish played in all season long, jumping ahead early but not having enough gas left in the tank to finish off Notre Dame. Wake Forest did manage to beat FSU earlier in the season and gave eventual conference champion Clemson all it could handle a week after its loss to the Irish.

7) Air Force (7-6, lost at Notre Dame, 59-33, on Oct. 8): The Falcons certainly didn't lack for excitement, helping to put on an offensive clinic in their loss to the Irish and averaging nearly 35 points per game on the season. Their 42-41 Military Bowl loss to Toledo in many ways encapsulated all that was good and bad about this one-sided team.

8 ) Purdue (7-6, lost to Notre Dame, 38-10, on Oct. 1): What is it about Notre Dame and these Big Ten teams? The Irish were clearly much better than the Boilermakers all season long, but their thrashing of them at Ross-Ade Stadium looked all the more impressive after Purdue managed a solid season the rest of the way, beating a ranked Illinois team, Ohio State and winning the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Western Michigan.

9) Pitt (6-7, lost to Notre Dame, 15-12, on Sept. 24): An underwhelming Panthers squad made the Irish earn their second win of the season in the ugliest of fashions, as their meeting at Heinz Field was brutal on the eyes before a late Tommy Rees touchdown drive sealed the win for Notre Dame.

10) Navy (5-7, lost at Notre Dame, 56-14, on Oct. 29): Perhaps no team had worse luck on the field all season long. Navy lost a couple nailbiters on a couple of questionable calls but managed to win three of its final four games after getting blown out in South Bend.

11) South Florida (5-7, won at Notre Dame, 23-20, on Sept. 1): No excusing this loss. The Bulls followed this win and three more nonconference victories by falling flat on their face, losing their first four Big East contests en route to a 1-6 record in conference play this season. Oh, and Pitt beat them 44-17 five days after the Panthers' loss to the Irish.

12) Boston College (4-8, lost at Notre Dame, 16-14, on Nov. 19): Two wins in the Eagles' final three games was too little, too late for a team that could never get it together this season. BC's defense was stingy — and that unit and its special teams units made for a much tighter contest in South Bend than anyone had reason to expect — but the Eagles could never get it clicking on all cylinders this season.

13) Maryland (2-10, lost at Notre Dame (in Landover, Md.), 45-21, on Nov. 12): Where do we even begin? The Terrapins lost their final eight games of the season, beat just one FBS opponent all year and capped their campaign by blowing a 27-point second-half lead in a 56-41 loss at North Carolina State.

Notre Dame picks rewind

January, 4, 2012
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Here at the Notre Dame blog, we are all about accountability. So with 2012 upon us and the bowl season winding down, it is now time to (painfully) revisit game predictions from yours truly from Notre Dame's season. (As a side note, the blog got started after prediction time for the Irish's opener against South Florida. For what it's worth, like everyone else outside of Tampa, Fla., I did not expect Notre Dame to lose that game.)

In recapping my season, I'll choose to stick with the mantra of a former Irish coach: "9-3 is not good enough."

Sept. 10 at Michigan
Predicted score: Notre Dame 31, Michigan 27
Actual score: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
Hindsight: I was feeling pretty good about myself with 30 seconds remaining in this one, as the Irish held a 31-28 lead. Alas, a Denard Robinson drive for the ages created a memorable first night game at the Big House, pushing Notre Dame to 0-2 and starting my picks off on the wrong foot.

Sept. 17 vs. Michigan State
Predicted score: Notre Dame 23 Michigan State 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13
Hindsight: Aaron Lynch didn't even play the week before, so we still had no clue what to expect from him. A sack, forced fumble and six quarterback hurries later, and our eyes were open. Lynch keyed an angry Irish team that unleashed the frustrations of an 0-2 start on Kirk Cousins and the Spartans, notching what was the Irish's biggest win of 2011.

Sept. 24 at Pitt
Predicted score: Notre Dame 35, Pitt 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12
Hindsight: Do we really need to relive this one? It wasn't easy on the eyes, but Tommy Rees' eight straight completions on the Irish's game-winning drive were enough for Notre Dame to edge out the Panthers and get to .500.

Oct. 1 at Purdue
Predicted score: Notre Dame 24, Purdue 13
Actual score: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10
Hindsight: Purdue ended up playing much better later in the season, but the Irish's offense was simply too much in this one. Gary Gray's pick on the game's first play, Michael Floyd's ensuing touchdown catch and Notre Dame's first zero-turnover performance keyed this rout.

Oct. 8 vs. Air Force
Predicted score: Notre Dame 31, Air Force 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 59, Air Force 33
Hindsight: And we all thought Air Force had the offense that could be the difference. If you blinked you might have missed something in this one, as the Irish scored touchdowns on their first six possessions in a game that featured 1,125 yards of total offense.

Oct. 22 vs. USC
Predicted score: Notre Dame 35, USC 24
Actual score: USC 31, Notre Dame 17
Hindsight: No apologies here. The Trojans had shown nothing before this game to indicate they would jump all over Notre Dame, let alone go on to a 10-2 season that has them as an early title favorite for 2012. Despite an early 17-0 deficit, the Irish managed to come within a play of tying the game in the third quarter, a play that ultimately resulted in a fumble that USC returned 80 yards to stomp out any chance the Irish had.

Oct. 29 vs. Navy
Predicted score: Notre Dame 34, Navy 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 56, Navy 14
Hindsight: This prediction was in the books before Brian Kelly's controversial comments about his players and Charlie Weis', but that doesn't really change anything here. The only thing working for Navy was recent history, and that was not nearly enough to stop an Irish team that came together the day before in a team meeting that helped them move on from what could have been a debilitating episode.

Nov. 5 at Wake Forest
Predicted score: Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 24, Wake Forest 17
Hindsight: A slow start plagued Notre Dame in this one, but a key forced fumble deep in its own territory closed the door on the pesky Demon Deacons, who hung around all game but ultimately didn't have enough to break through and notch the upset.

Nov. 12 vs. Maryland (in Landover, Md.)
Predicted score: Notre Dame 34, Maryland 10
Actual score: Notre Dame 45, Maryland 21
Hindsight: Maryland was bad, as expected. Notre Dame's offense didn't take its opponent for granted, playing at a pace unforeseen in routing the Terrapins in a "home" game in the home state of its opponent.

Nov. 19 vs. Boston College
Predicted score: Notre Dame 38, Boston College 16
Actual score: Notre Dame 16, Boston College 14
Hindsight: Jonas Gray's season-ending ACL tear took a bit of the life out of the stadium and Irish offense, and BC's defense nearly capitalized. The Eagles pinned Notre Dame deep in its own territory time after time and scared everyone on Senior Day, which almost went the wrong way for the Irish. Sensing disappointment in his injury and the close result, Gray gave a speech in the locker room afterward to remind all that Notre Dame had just won.

Nov. 26 at Stanford
Predicted score: Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20
Actual score: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14
Hindsight: Stanford's front-seven made life miserable for Tommy Rees and the running game, Andrew Luck was his top-pick self and the Cardinal's tight ends were too big for the Irish's secondary as Notre Dame missed its chance at a marquee win.

Champs Sports Bowl vs. Florida State
Predicted score: Notre Dame 21, Florida State 13
Actual score: Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14
Hindsight: Another game where I felt really good about my pick until the fourth quarter. Notre Dame jumped to a 14-0 lead and FSU's offense could not do a thing until late in the third. A timely forced turnover and ensuing touchdown pass changed everything, and the Irish offense was no better, turning it over three times in the season-ending loss.

Irish second-most valuable team

December, 26, 2011
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Notre Dame is the second-most valuable college football team, according to Forbes.

The magazine's list of the 20-most valuable football programs placed the Irish second only to Texas, which is valued at $129 million.

Notre Dame is valued at $112 million, producing $72 million in revenue and $47 million in total profit. Texas produced $96 million in revenue and $71 million in total profit.

Penn State, LSU and Michigan rounded out the top five.

Regular-season report card: Secondary

December, 9, 2011
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The regular season is over and the end of the semester has arrived. Here, we grade Notre Dame's 2011 campaign by position. Part eight of the 10-part series brings us to the secondary.

SECONDARY

Grade: C+

Summary: The Irish pass defense made tremendous strides during the regular season, leaping from 67th in the nation at the season's midway point to a tie for 34th by the end of the regular season. But it is impossible to overlook its fourth-quarter collapse Week 2 at Michigan, ultimately ending in a Notre Dame loss.

Gary Gray received the brunt of the criticism for that one, surrendering the game-winning touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with 2 seconds remaining. Quietly, Gray put together a nice season in that game's aftermath, however overlooked that might have been. He finished with 60 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Fellow cornerback Robert Blanton had himself a strong season as well, finishing third on the team with 69 tackles, notching eight tackles for loss and recording a pair of picks, both coming near the end zone.

Fifth-year senior and lone team captain Harrison Smith was the anchor of the secondary and, really, the defense, finishing second on the team with 84 tackles and first in pass breakups, with 10. But Smith's impact was felt even more in the locker room, particularly after the USC loss, as he held the team together in wake of defeat and controversial comments from coach Brian Kelly. Opposite him, Jamoris Slaughter all but locked up an invitation to return for a fifth year and next season will be the anchor of a unit that loses everyone but him and Zeke Motta, who split time opposite Smith. Slaughter's versatility was key in nickel packages and he was effective against the run.

As stated earlier, however, this is a unit that was largely responsible for a major collapse at one of its rivals. The main wide receiver of one of its other rivals, the Trojans' Robert Woods, had a great night against it as well, catching 12 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns. At Stanford to close out the regular season, Notre Dame's corners were simply no match for the Cardinal's giant tight ends, who were responsible for three of four touchdowns, though that's to be expected against a team that utilizes its tight ends in the passing game like few other, one that also had the likely No. 1 draft pick throwing the football as well.

Backups: Motta started seven games, hardly falling into this category. The real reserves, however, will need to step up next year, as the unit will have three open spaces. Lo Wood rebounded from getting beat by Woods on a crucial touchdown in Week 8 to record a pick-six against Maryland three weeks later. Bennett Jackson, another candidate to start next season, was featured mostly as a kick returner. Austin Collinsworth played well on kick coverage and on kick returns, bringing one back 41 yards at Wake Forest. He could emerge as a punt-return candidate next season, and the former wide receiver will challenge for a starting spot at safety as well.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks
Defensive line
Offensive line
Linebackers
Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight ends
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.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Michael Floyd
Charles LeClaire/USPRESSWIREEven 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:

  • Notre Dame then routed Michigan State 31-13 in Week 3, one of only two regular-season losses for a Spartans team that ended up falling a few plays shy of the Rose Bowl.
  • The Irish faced a third-and-goal from the 1, down seven, in the third quarter in Week 8 against USC before a fumbled snap resulted in an 80-yard touchdown the other way, effectively killing any chance of a win. It was the second fumble returned for a touchdown against the Irish when facing third-and-goal from the 1 during the season. (USF did it on Notre Dame's first drive of the season.)
  • Five days later, Brian Kelly made controversial comments about the difference between the players he recruited and those he inherited, leading to player backlash on Twitter and an apology to the team the next day.

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
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireThe 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.

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ESPN 300 athlete Porter Gustin (Salem, Utah/Salem Hills) took time out to talk recruiting and more with WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz on Tuesday at The Opening.
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