Notre Dame Football: South Florida Bulls

The hardest part for Aaron Lynch was not Notre Dame's sudden resurgence without him. The Fighting Irish did just fine after his departure -- they ran the regular-season table and making the BCS national title game -- but it did not really matter much to the ballyhooed South Florida defensive end.

But Lynch could not avoid the talk last season of what he was missing out on roughly 1,000 miles to the North -- be it from classmates on his new campus in Tampa, Fla., or from teammates inside the Bulls' locker room, where the televisions were always tuned to ESPN, inevitably serving as a talking point about what could have been.

[+] EnlargeAaron Lynch
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAaron Lynch never looked back with regret on leaving Notre Dame, even as the Fighting Irish were making a run to the BCS title game.
"The only thing that was tough was always having to hear about it," Lynch told ESPN.com. "People were always talking to you about it; that got annoying. I was like, 'You're the reason why I came here, and you need to understand that none of that really matters to me because I left that place for a reason.'

"If I was feeling a certain way about that then, I should have never left. People would be like, 'Why are you so mad?' That's all you guys talk about: 'Oh, you could've done this and done that.' I don't want to hear that, because if that's what I wanted, I would've stayed there."

A precocious pass-rusher who was out of his comfort zone two years ago at Notre Dame finds himself more at home now as a junior, some two hours away from his mother, Alice, who is now in Fort Myers. He had his long-awaited breakout for the Bulls in his last game, returning a fumble 44 yards for his team's only touchdown in a 13-10 win over UConn. He recorded his first sack in a USF uniform as well. Teddy Bridgewater and a Louisville team that -- for now, at least -- sports a worse league record than the 2-0 Bulls come to town this Saturday, a rare American Athletic Conference matchup that features two potential high first-round draft picks.

It is another contest that Lynch is just happy to be playing in after a frustrating year as a transfer. The sting of knowing he would not play in 2012 became too much to bear as the season approached, so he sat down with his fellow defensive linemen and then-coach Skip Holtz and asked if they would mind if he did not join them on the sideline for home games.

They granted his wish, with plenty of homework assignments accompanying his home viewings of the games.

"I was never like, 'Awww man, I can't believe this' -- I was more of a coach because that's what the D-line wanted," Lynch said of watching games from home. "They said if you're not going to be at the game, then we want to see how we're doing on TV so you can tell us what we need to do, or things that we don't see on the field that you do see that's off the field. You can pause and rewind and stuff like that.

"So that's what I did. That was really my job as a D-line brother and as a teammate. When I watched the game, I wasn't watching the game as if I was watching the Patriots and the Ravens go at it. I was watching it as if I was watching game film."

For a former freshman All-American who had 5.5 sacks in 2011 while causing as many headaches for his own team as he did his opponents, this was a different kind of challenge. Weight disappeared from what was a 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame at Notre Dame, with Lynch entering this season officially listed at 244 pounds. (He says he is currently around 250, with the hope of that number rising.) Adjusting socially, meanwhile, presented obstacles of its own on a campus with an undergraduate enrollment more than four times the size of Notre Dame's 8,000-plus student body.

That atmosphere, however, also allowed him to grow at his own leisure.

"I would say I matured more since I've left there, because when I got here I had to do a lot of things, I'd say, on my own in a way, because things were smaller there at Notre Dame; it was a smaller university, there wasn't a lot for me to get into," Lynch said. "When I got here, I feel like I matured more because there's so much more out there for me to get into and I kept myself from getting myself into those types of things.

"In other words, my freshman year I probably would've gotten into a lot more things than I do now."

Lynch cut his nearly out-of-control hair going into spring practice, a sign his new coach, Willie Taggart, has pointed to as a sign of his growth.

"To me when a guy does something like that, it's a sign of maturity, and a guy that's willing to change and make himself better," Taggart told ESPN.com this spring. "I know nowadays it's hard to do that when a lot of your peers are doing it and look at those guys. But for a guy like that to cut his hair off and get himself sharp and think about the way people look at him and want to represent himself the right way, it's really impressive."

A one-time aspiring poetry and literature major, Lynch has left those desires behind in South Bend. He still talks regularly with former Irish defensive line teammates Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III -- all three players could be first-round picks come May -- and he often utilizes the "Snapchat" application on his phone to exchange funny messages with running back Cierre Wood, who has since joined the Houston Texans.

Lynch now majors in interdisciplinary social science. As for social media, he has kept his distance from a world that ballooned his reputation as a can't-miss prospect before turning him into a virtual pinata once he decided Notre Dame was not for him.

He says he cannot even remember his Twitter password. His Facebook account received the ax after he left the Midwest.

"The way I blocked that out was really just being with my family, because that's what I was worried about most, because my mom had gotten threats from Notre Dame fans and things like that," Lynch said. "So having my family close to me, that's how I got through it. Just my mom -- she always had my back on everything, and if I knew I was with them and there was nothing wrong with them, then I never had nothing to worry about. The reason why I made the move from Notre Dame was, one, the environment, it wasn't me; and then two, I needed to be with my family, because my family is my everything."
We're two days removed from Friday the 13th, and no bad news has come for Notre Dame.

That wasn't the case three months ago, when a hastily called news conference was set up the morning of April 13 to announce the decision of Aaron Lynch to transfer. The move wasn't without its drama — Lynch had been sent home days earlier, his mother pleaded on Twitter with former Irish lineman Justin Tuck to convince her son to stay — but when the dust cleared, Lynch was heading closer to home.

The Cape Coral, Fla., native will play for Irish alum Skip Holtz at South Florida, where he will look to build on a freshman All-America season that saw him start six games and lead the Irish in sacks (5.5) and quarterback hurries (14). He also had 33 tackles, including seven for a loss, and forced one fumble.

The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Lynch has first-round NFL talent, getting to the quarterback with ease and capable of making a game-changing play at any given moment. He was expected to key an Irish pass rush that would ease the burden of breaking in two new starters in the secondary.

But if one position group can handle a defection, it is the defensive line. Stephon Tuitt is more versatile and, possibly, more valuable than Lynch, able to play inside or out. Kapron Lewis-Moore is back for one more year and a proven starter, and Kona Schwenke emerged in the middle this spring, creating the potential for a very strong interior with him and Louis Nix splitting snaps. Lynch also picked up six penalties last season, mostly after the whistle, and he didn't exactly apologize for them when given the chance.

While the energy, athleticism and overall threat of Lynch on the field can't be replaced, the Irish do have plenty of talent that is capable of filling the void and still producing a strong pass rush this season.

Irish Lunch Links

May, 21, 2012
5/21/12
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"Mad Men" never fails.

Irish lunch links

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
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Gone fishing.

Best of Notre Dame's spring

May, 10, 2012
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Best spring game performance: Everett Golson, considered the biggest mystery in the four-man quarterback battle entering the spring, was 11 of 15 for 120 yards and two scores. He carried it six times for 25 yards. Most importantly, he was the only quarterback to not turn the ball over.

Best overall unit: The running back/slot receiver group coached by Tony Alford is loaded with talent. Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III made big play after big play in the spring game (though Atkinson will have to protect the ball better after fumbling twice). We all know what Cierre Wood is capable of after a 1,000-yard season while splitting carries with Jonas Gray in 2011. And we might even see a bit of Robby Toma in the backfield, though the senior remains an invaluable pass-catcher for the Irish.

Best position battle: Other than under center? Let's go with the right side of the offensive line, where Mike Golic Jr., Nick Martin and Christian Lombard look to have the inside track for the two open spots.

Biggest surprise (good): John Goodman raised some eyebrows with his play this spring, earning most improved player on the offensive side of the ball and getting to be a captain for the spring game. Coach Brian Kelly said he's been the go-to receiver this spring, and Goodman wants to reward the staff's faith in him after he was invited back for a fifth year.

Biggest surprise (bad): Aaron Lynch has transferred to South Florida, leaving the Irish down a man on the defensive line. Kapron Lewis-Moore, a previous starter, will slide back into Lynch's role, but the loss of an elite pass-rusher who had no trouble bursting onto the scene as a freshman is a blow to the team.
Following consecutive 8-5 campaigns, Notre Dame entered this spring with a re-shuffled staff, a wide-open quarterback competition and arguably one of the nation's best defensive lines.

So, uh, about those three new assistants ...

"I love the energy out there, I love what I'm hearing in terms of teaching," head coach Brian Kelly said April 4, roughly halfway through the spring. "Guys are teaching and I can hear it. So for me it's exactly what I need to hear from our coaches. There's a lot of teaching going on, there's a lot of energy. So for me I feel really good about going out to practice, and what I hear I really like."

Nine days after that comment, defensive end Aaron Lynch announced his decision to transfer, eventually ending up with Notre Dame alum Skip Holtz at South Florida. A series of cryptic Twitter posts by nose guard Louis Nix in the days after Lynch's departure unsettled an already-uneasy fan base, and Nix's admittedly honest public comments afterward about having missed his Florida home did little to quell Irish fans' worst fears.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondCoach Brian Kelly, left, still has issues with how QB Everett Golson (1) manages the game.
Then came the spring game, Everett Golson's coming-out party. The rising sophomore quarterback completed 11 of 15 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns, adding 25 yards on six rushes. Most importantly, he was the only of the four quarterbacks to not turn the ball over.

If that wasn't enough for Golson to improve his chances of starting in 2012 -- Kelly said afterward that he had trouble getting plays in on time -- the events of May 3 certainly did.

Tommy Rees, the only of the four signal-callers with starting experience, was charged with four misdemeanors as a result of his arrest at an off-campus house party. Police said that they had to use pepper spray to subdue Rees, who faces two counts of resisting law enforcement, in addition to minor consumption and battery.

So begins an offseason whose storyline, like last year's with Michael Floyd, will be dominated by an off-field run-in by a big-name player. Rees is due in court May 17, but his status with the Irish remains up in the air. Discipline of any kind -- even an offseason suspension -- would strongly diminish his hopes of taking the first snap Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland.

Kelly said after the spring game that the guy to emerge as the starter will be the one who commits to all the details in the summer. Golson and Andrew Hendrix — in addition to early enrollee Gunner Kiel — would be in much better positions to do that should Rees be dealt a ban. Regardless, leadership issue becomes an obvious question in light of the arrest.

Whoever does start should have plenty to work with in proven playmakers like Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert. He will also be protected by an experienced offensive line, which returns four players with starting experience.

Linebacker Manti Te'o, who passed up NFL millions this offseason, returns to lead a defense that should still be strong enough up front, though a depleted cornerback corp could have benefited from playing behind an elite pass-rusher like Lynch.

A season that begins overseas is still four months away, but the drama attached to the hip of the nation's most polarizing program has only increased with spring ball in the rearview mirror.

Notre Dame mailbag

April, 25, 2012
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We haven't done one of these in a bit. Let's see what's on everyone's mind.

David Hunter from Seattle writes: Well Matt, Like I said after bowl loss, This will be Coach Kelly's last year. If he Doesnt win a BCS Bowl or Title, He will not be coaching. Of all the players, who decomitted or left the Dame since the Bowl game, Aaron Lynch leaving will be missed the most. Not just his play on the field, but recruits like him watching the Dame and thinking about coming to South Bend. I was 17 and watched ND last Title, I don't think in my lifetime will i see them win another unless ND lower it admissions. College fans are going to see more teams like Boise St, Oregon, Baylor, Oklahoma St, Clemson, Houston, Ole Miss, Cincy and Rutgers be in a better positon to win titles than ND.

Matt Fortuna: David, it's not BCS or bust for Brian Kelly this year, barring any unforeseen off-field happenings. Yes, it's a big year with a challenging schedule and lots of question marks at several key positions, but he is not in danger of losing his job yet. I think another eight-win season, while disappointing to the perfectionists, is important in order to show that the program is on stable ground with Kelly leading it. Yes, the loss of Lynch is huge. He is the type of talent who helps you compete for BCS bowls on an annual basis, and yes, you can be sure he's being pointed to by other schools as an example of why a kid from a warm-weather state should stay closer to home and attend a nearby power program. But Kelly isn't losing his job over it.


Pat from Washington, D.C., writes: Hi Matt, in your live chat after Aaron Lynch left, it was mentioned, from a question I believe, that Lynch had more penalty yards than sack yards. Out of curiosity, do you have a list of his penalties? I went through the box scores and was only able to find that he was called for the following:-- offsides vs Pitt-- personal foul vs Purdue-- offsides versus Air Force-- offsides versus Stanford-- offsides versus FSU. There was another off-setting personal foul that was called in the Southern Cal game I believe (box does not list a player but I seem to recall it was him), but other than that, it's not really a remarkable string of penalty calls. Are there penalties that are missing from the box scores?

Matt Fortuna: Pat, I was interested myself and did a quick scan of box scores and the notes I took for each game. Here they are, by my unofficial count: Offside (minus-5) at Pitt, personal foul (minus-15) at Purdue, personal foul (minus-15) and offside (minus-5) vs. Air Force, offside (minus-5) at Stanford and offside (minus-5) vs. FSU. There was also an offsetting conduct penalty against Boston College, but since yards weren't gained or lost, we won't count that for the purposes of this discussion. Also, if you were wondering, his personal foul against Air Force was unattributed in the official stats package from that game, but I wrote down while taking notes during the game that it was him. So I have one more penalty than you. Now, let's add up those loss of yards (minus-50) and subtract them from the sack yards he was responsible for. Notre Dame's official stats from last season credit Lynch with 5.5 sacks for a total of 45 yards. So Lynch did, in fact, have more penalty yards (50) than sack yards (45) last season. However, he also had seven tackles for loss, accounting for 48 yards. That cannot be overlooked, either, so we'll add that to the sack yards, giving him 93 yards. Subtract 50 from that and you've got a net total of 43 yards for which Aaron Lynch was responsible in 2011. Thank you for the massive brain cramp. (Now I know why I wasn't a math major.)


Scott Gerdenich from Mason, Ohio, writes: Which quarterback on Notre Dame's roster right now gives them the best chance at getting back to a BCS bowl game and hopefully the national championship game? I have believed since he commited to Notre Dame Golson will be the man to lead ND back to the top. I was at the spring game and although he had his mistakes and was having trouble playing at a fast pace he was meant to play in Kellys offense he has all the tools for it. Thanks again and go Irish!

Matt Fortuna: A non-Aaron Lynch question! Scott, Everett Golson definitely has all the tools, and we got a glimpse of them Saturday. The key for him is being more consistent every day in practice and establishing command when he walks into the huddle. He has also had trouble handling snaps. Kelly said after the spring game that the numbers didn't mean anything to him because Golson had trouble getting the plays in on time, which would obviously present a bigger problem in a real game. I will say that I don't envy Kelly's position right now, as the fan favorite (the backup, as always) out-performed the incumbent in the only real chance everyone got to see the quarterbacks perform this spring. But there's a lot more to winning the job than one Saturday scrimmage. And the Irish need to be cautious with risk-taking given the turnover plague from a year ago. A repeat of that against this year's schedule would doom them.


DCW from Pittsburgh writes: Why does USF's relative youth matter in Aaron Lynch's departure? Lynch has a lot of ties to USF and people from Florida generally don't like Indiana weather. From a football standpoint, USF did just beat ND, and USF produced JPP [Jason Pierre-Paul]. JPP's college position coach, Kevin Patrick, is still the DE coach at USF. No one likes when a guy like Lynch transfers out- it he had redshirted or scuffled as a freshmen, people wouldn't be so upset. But that's no reason to trash his destination. But, I guess Notre Dame fans will always have that strange inferiority/superiority complex.

Matt Fortuna: Skip Holtz has really laid a couple of haymakers on his alma mater lately, no? Full credit to the Bulls for marching into Notre Dame Stadium last season and coming up with a win. The players on that roster and the students there now currently hold bragging rights over their peers at Notre Dame. But big-picture, Notre Dame is one of the most historic college football programs in the country, if not the most historic. It has the third-most wins all-time. South Florida has not even had a program for 16 years yet and didn't even jump to the FBS level until 2001. Credit USF for the strides it has made in such a short period, but when you take weather and personal situations out of the conversation, it is confusing for many to see an NFL talent who looked like he was on the fast track to success at Notre Dame leave for USF.

Irish lunch links

April, 24, 2012
4/24/12
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I just don't want to imagine a world without the Nets in New Jersey ...

Aaron Lynch saga comes to end

April, 23, 2012
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It began with a conspicuous absence before the ninth spring practice, was quelled by a return from an extended Easter break, and was made official with a hastily called news conference Friday the 13th.

Even then, after Notre Dame and Aaron Lynch announced their divorce, the drama didn't slow, the height of it coming Thursday night when Aaron's mother, Alice, asked former Irish standout Justin Tuck on Twitter to talk her son into staying at Notre Dame.

On Monday, the curtains were finally closed on the Lynch saga, ending with South Florida's announcement that the star defensive end will be added to the Bulls' 2012 roster. Lynch is expected to finish out the spring semester at Notre Dame before enrolling at his new school, and he will have to sit out the upcoming season because of transfer rules. The Cape Coral, Fla., native will play for Notre Dame graduate Skip Holtz, who, of course, is the son of former Irish coach Lou Holtz.

"With Aaron originally being from Florida, we're very familiar with the kind of player he is," Skip Holtz said in a release. "Aaron had a great freshman season at Notre Dame, and we're excited to welcome him into the Bulls family."

The official exit of Lynch comes two days after the Irish closed their spring season, one that was supposed to be dominated by quarterback talk while the defensive line -- powered by Lynch -- quietly took care of business and eased the transition for a pair of new cornerbacks.

Instead, Lynch added a new wrinkle to the spring storylines, one the Irish hoped to avoid. The 6-foot-6, 270-pounder is taking his team-leading 5.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hurries, his seven tackles for loss and his vast potential down to South Florida, which didn't even have a football team until 1997. He leaves the other two-thirds of the Irish's young, talented front -- Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix -- behind, allowing fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore to slide back into a starting role.

In the days after Lynch's departure, coach Brian Kelly called the line's transition seamless. Manti Te'o, whom Lynch called his big brother on the team, said then that he was surprised by Lynch's decision. It took 10 days for the talented defensive end to land at a new home -- albeit one that seemed likely from the start of this episode -- but Monday served as the final act of the Aaron Lynch narrative, the freshman All-American leaving the nation's third-winningest program for one getting ready to celebrate its Sweet 16.

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.

How do you expect your coach to act?

January, 18, 2012
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Colleague Adam Rittenberg had a post Tuesday in the Big Ten blog that might have struck a chord with Notre Dame fans.

As many of you know by now, Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery drew some negative attention last week for his slamming of a chair during a timeout at Michigan State.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told USA Today that the conference doesn't expect such conduct moving forward. Rittenberg wonders if those on the sidelines of the gridiron have gotten the message.
Football coaches had better take notice, because we're in an age when every gesture is caught on camera and will make its way to the Big Ten office. One too many blowups could lead to repercussions from a league that wants its coaches to be good public representatives.

The Big Ten has some coaches known to get a bit riled up on the sideline. Nebraska's Bo Pelini had some well-documented issues in a 2010 game at Texas A&M. Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is very animated during games. Although a gum-throwing Bill Lynch isn't around any more at Indiana, there aren't too many Tom Landrys in this league.

Will the McCaffery incident change how football coaches conduct themselves during games? Probably not. Should they pay attention to what happened? Absolutely.

Fans seem to be split on this issue. Most want their coach to be passionate and energetic. As a Chicago Bears fan, I struggle with Lovie Smith's perpetually stoic sideline demeanor.

But I've also heard from some Nebraska fans irked by Pelini's blowups (imagine if Mike Stoops had ended up in Lincoln, too?).

How do you want your coach to behave on the sideline during games?

Not mentioned because he is not in the Big Ten is Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who caught plenty of heat for his sideline tantrums during the Irish's season-opening loss to South Florida. But he certainly fits the bill here.

I said at the time that Kelly likely would have been lauded for his passion had Notre Dame gotten off to a better start this season. And it's hard to believe Irish fans weren't just as angry while watching a five-turnover loss to an overmatched Big East opponent.

That being said, perception means a lot in the coaching business, particularly at the college level. And, to steal a line of thinking from Adam, as a New York Giants fan, I saw Tom Coughlin undergo a late-career makeover and become a much more likable figure with his players, something that proved crucial in a Super Bowl season four years ago.

It's been a topic brought up by you here and there during the season, but I'm anxious to hear more of your reaction to what you expect from your coaches on the sideline.

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.
Thursday's Champs Sports Bowl between Notre Dame and Florida State involved the largest attendance increase of any bowl from last season to this season, Notre Dame announced Wednesday.

The capacity crowd of 68,305 was 19,343 more than last year's attendance for West Virginia's matchup with North Carolina State, which was 48,962.

The second-largest increase came for the the Belk Bowl, which had 58,427 fans this year watch Louisville take on North Carolina State. That's a 17,305 increase over last year's contest, which featured Clemson and South Florida.

The 68,305 people at this year's Champs Sports Bowl marked the bowl's highest attendance figure since the game moved to Orlando, Fla.
The regular season is over and the end of the semester has arrived. Here, we grade Notre Dame's 2011 campaign by position, beginning with the quarterbacks.

QUARTERBACKS

Grade: B

Summary: Tommy Rees replaced Dayne Crist in the season opener, Andrew Hendrix replaced Rees in the regular-season finale, and the latter two will likely see plenty of time in the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl, which Rees will start.

Coach Brian Kelly likes to remind everyone of Rees' record as a starter, which, at 12-3, cannot be overlooked. The sophomore has had good games and not-so-good ones this season, but the overall body of work for the 19-year-old has been impressive. Much of the criticism directed his way has to do with the fact he has, for one reason or another, been given a much longer leash than Crist, who lasted one half as a starter after a 7-for-15, 95-yard, one-interception performance against South Florida.

Rees' numbers have been strong, as he has completed almost 66 percent of his passes for 2,708 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. The problems? Twelve interceptions and an inability to run, which makes the dual-threat Hendrix such a popular pick after his relief performance at Stanford.

Backups: The cliche says there is no more popular guy on a major college football team than the backup quarterback, and right now Hendrix is reaping the benefit as he bides his time behind Rees. The Cincinnati native played the entire second half Nov. 26 at Stanford, completing 11 of 24 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 20 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. He should see plenty of action against Florida State and, coupled with freshman Everett Golson — who is currently redshirting — should create quite a decision for Kelly and the rest of the staff heading into 2012. Crist, meanwhile, has been released from his scholarship and will play out his final year of eligibility at another school.

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