HAPPY BELATED NEW YEAR TO ALL!!! Here we go - Irish Shu is here with a look back at the now-completed Fighting Irish football season. In the last edition I recapped the first 6 games, so now I'll review the last 7 including their bowl game.
USC: This was a game that had me concerned. So-Cal had owned the Irish in recent years and was looking for a big win to continue the era of interim Coach Ed Orgeron who had replaced the fired Lane Kiffin. It did turn out to be an ugly game during which ND’s QB Tommy Rees and S.C’s stud receiver Marquise Lee both left the game with injuries (Lee has hurting to begin with) but the Irish D toughed it out and held on for a gutty 14-10 Irish win. It was the first home win over the Trojans since 2001 and only the third night game played in South Bend in the past 2 decades.
In addition to the relentless pressure from the Irish D, USC also killed themselves with nearly 100 yards in penalties. The win came in spite of a very poor effort from backup QB Andrew Hendrix in the wake of the injury to Rees. I was among the many who had been calling for Hendrix to have a chance to play and prove himself…well, he blew that chance. He looked very uncomfortable, failed to complete any passes and mustered only 27 yards of offense in the second half….that makes it all the more impressive that the Irish won this one.
AIR FORCE: This would turn out to be one of the best played games of the year for the Irish…but when it comes against a Falcon team that was on their 4th quarterback of the season and would finish 2-10, I would have been disappointed with anything less. Rees had a career day going 17-22 for 284 yards and touchdown throws to 5 different ND receivers in a 45-10 rout.
The feat of completing TD throws to 5 men was the first time that had ever happened in Irish football. The Air Force option attack did gash the Irish D for 290 yards, but the inability of the Falcons to finish drives and their turnovers proved costly to them, as well.
NAVY: The Midshipmen came to play and played one of their best offensive games of the year. They gutted the Irish D for 331 rushing yards, finished with a 15-minute advantage in time-of-possession, and committed NO penalties and NO turnovers to 2 for the Irish…but in spite of all that, the Irish still won 38-34. WHEW! Why did this happen? Because the Navy D was not able to stop the Irish O, which finished with over 500 yards and very impressive balance between the run and the pass. Freshman Irish running back Tarean Folston had his breakout game with a 140-yard rushing day and the game ended with a sensational play on D when safety Eliar Hardy and frosh linebacker Jaylon Smith snuffed-out a Navy end-around on 4th and 4 and stopped the receiver for no gain to preserve the win.
It would be the last loss Navy would suffer this season as they would go on to post a 9 and 4 record to match that of the Irish…however, this win and the prior win over Air Force would prove costly to the health of the Irish D-front. Having consecutive games with the 2 service academies which both employ the option and cut-blocking took out several players including lineman Kona Schwenke and Sheldon Day, and linebacker Ishaq Williams. The Irish D was already missing starters Louis Nix and Jarret Grace to leg injuries prior to this, and it made a bad situation worse. The Irish D would go forward dipping further into the reserves from here.
PITT: As well as the Irish had played in their 2 games prior to this one, that’s how poorly they played against the Panthers at Heinz Field. Pitt capitalized on 3 Irish turnovers to their none, including 2 very costly “Turnover Tommy” interceptions (one in the Pitt end zone to prevent a touchdown) and the Panthers avenged last year’s triple-OT loss with a 28-21 win that would knock the Irish out of BCS Bowl contention. In addition to the turnovers, including one Pitt fumble caused by a QB sack in the fourth quarter which the Irish did not pounce on, penalties also proved costly. They didn’t have many penalties, but the ones they committed were big. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was ejected in the first half for targeting the Pitt QB (and I’ll agree with my pal, the Beeze, when I say that was a BULLSHIT call – Tuitt was lowering his head to try to get UNDER the QB’s head and the QB lowered his head, as well),
and a pass interference penalty on a 4th down play would extend a drive that Pitt would score on. The overall-sloppy play in this game, in-particular, baffles me to this day…but shit does happen, and with all due respect to Pitt, that was shit.
BYU: The Irish had a bye week to shake-off the loss to Pitt and hopefully bounce back against a good BYU team with one of the country’s best running quarterbacks in Taysom Hill.
Despite cold and snowy conditions, the Irish D contained Hill well-enough and won their last home game on senior day 23-13. This time, it was running back Cam McDaniel who had a career day with 117 rushing yards. Folston added 78 yards and a score. Rees’ last home game was an adequate performance for him as he went 15-28 for 235 yards and a score. It was a good tune-up for what would be one of their toughest opponents of the year (of which they had several, as always) in…
STANFORD: The Irish were game in this one and made it close, but still lost to the eventual Pac-12 Champion 27-20. Stanford Senior RB Tyler Gaffney tore the Irish D for 189 yards and a score and the Cardinal D held the Irish O in-check by allowing them only 263 total yards…and yet the Irish STILL had their chances to pull-off the win. Rees threw for 2 touchdowns in the 3rd quarter to help bring the Irish back. Then they had 2 final drives in the fourth quarter to try to tie the game but, alas, both ended in Rees interceptions and the Cardinal held-on.
Incidentally, Gaffney getting close to 200 yards against ND isn’t really a shame when you consider the year he had – he finished his season with over 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns, so he was tough for most teams to handle. Stanford would go on to win their second consecutive Pac-12 title and go on to the Rose Bowl to lose a close one to Michigan State – a team whose only loss this year was to – guess who? NOTRE DAME!
Pinstripe Bowl vs. RUTGERS: The season ended with a bowl win over a .500 Rutgers team that was a sloppy game for both teams. Sloppy because the Irish were missing about a dozen players with the flu. Sloppy because the field at Yankee Stadium was in poor shape with a lot of torn turf and divots that skill players on BOTH sides slipped and tripped on. Sloppy because both teams had to settle for more field goals than they would have liked in-part due to said field conditions. When all was said and done, though, Tommy Rees ended his career with a 319-yard effort against one of the poorest pass defenses in the country and the Irish did win 29-16 in a game that, with all due respect to the Scarlet Knights, was closer than it should have been. The REALLY cool thing about this game? The MVP award. It went to outgoing senior tackle Zack Martin – the first time an O-lineman received a Bowl MVP trophy in 54 years, and it was very well deserved.
The Irish running game really took over in the second half by repeatedly running to Zack’s side and they had success doing so. Martin will head into the NFL as one of the best Irish linemen to ever play, having never missed a game in his Irish career with a school record 52 career starts…and his leadership will be missed, for sure.
So to wrap it up the Irish football season was overall-disappointing, but not bad when one considers that, of the 12 regular season opponents the Irish faced, 9 went to bowl games, 3 played in BCS bowls and the Irish beat one of those 3 (Michigan State)…still, if the Irish can beat Michigan State and the Pac-12 runner-up in Arizona State, and play Stanford as close as they did, then why, WHY did they choke against Michigan and Pitt???...yeah, I know the answer. Turnover Tommy.
Speaking of Tommy Rees, in spite of his several costly mistakes and lack of natural athleticism and the ability to run, I will give him this pat-on-the-back; statistically he actually did very well in spite of all that. True, throwing 37 interceptions in a 4-year career is not good, but he did finish with 7,670 yards and 61 touchdowns. The yardage put him in 3rd place in ND school history in that category behind only Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen. With the Pinstripe Bowl victory, Rees joined Tom Clements, Joe Montana, Tony Rice and Rick Mirer as the only Notre Dame quarterbacks with two bowl game victories as a starter…it does make me wonder how much more impressive his career would have been if only he could RUN.
So, farewell to Tommy, thank you, and I’m REALLY looking forward to next year’s quarterback battle between Malik Zaire and the now-reinstated and supposedly-improved Everett Golson…assuming Golson doesn’t f-up and get himself kicked out of school again.
Other concerns as we head to next year: replacing lost starters.
Thankfully the Offense returns largely-intact; Rees will be replaced by a better running QB and while the O-line loses the awesome Zack Martin and Chris Watt, they get just about everyone else back. TJ Jones and his over-1,100 receiving yards will be missed, but a whole ton of very good receivers come back, including DaVaris Daniels. There is talk that their best tight end in Troy Niklas might declare for the draft, but hopefully he’ll stay. ALL the best Irish running backs will be back next year. The offensive coordinator in Chuck Martin did leave for the head coaching job at Miami of Ohio, so whoever replaces him will have some great athletes to work with.
On defense, though, the losses are more notable. Along the front the Irish lose Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt to the NFL – OUCH! - and a couple linebackers, too, including Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox who was very good. The secondary also loses a couple. Another big loss is that of the D-coordinator in Bob Diaco who left for the head coaching gig at U-Conn. Hopefully his replacement can get the D to reload rather than rebuild…the losses of Nix and Tuitt, in-particular, will make that challenging. I do look forward to the continued rise of sensational frosh LB Jaylon Smith. That guy made some impressive stops and should only get better.
As for how my other teams fared:
MONTANA GRIZZLIES: Had a good bounce-back year as they went 10-3 and made it back to the FCS playoffs which they do regularly. They did lose in the first round to Coastal Carolina, which became cannon fodder for eventual FCS champion North Dakota State (their third in a row). Oh well, a good year nonetheless.
NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS: Had a pretty good year as they finished 9-4 and beat Georgia in the Gator Bowl, but they are far-removed from the clock-controlling ground game and Blackshirt D that made them champions. Coach Bo Pelini and his sideline tirades didn’t help the program’s image, either…nor did a lot of the buzz that he should be canned. Next year for the Huskers should be interesting given all of that.
COLORADO STATE RAMS: Definitely improved this year! The Rams finished an 8-6 season with a thrilling come-from-behind New Mexico Bowl win over Wazzu 48-45. This is the best they’ve done in some time, so we’ll see if they can build on it.
CUSTER COUNTY COWBOYS: My hometown high school team is a regular participant in the playoffs and has won a few state championships. They did not make the playoffs last year, but did make it this year in spite of having a predominately young team again…however; they lost a heartbreaker in the first round by one point. Next year should be even better, I hope.
Fellow You Gabbers: It is always a pleasure!!! Have an awesome 2014! Take care, Irish Shu