Last week, the regular season came to as disheartening a close as the opening performance from the 2011 edition of Notre Dame Football.
2011 Season Recap
In its entirey, the 2011 Fighting Irish season was a roller coaster ride with more lows than highs despite an 8-4 record. The tone was quickly set after back-to-back defeats against South Florida and Michigan. Turnovers were the undoing in both events as the Irish would have emerged victorious in both save for the 5 turnovers committed in each contest.
One week after the crippling meltdown against the Wolverines the Irish played inspired football and defeated Michigan State, serving as the most quality win of the year for the Irish. Three additional victories over Purdue, Pittsburgh and Air Force set the stage for a measuring stick matchup against Southern Cal.
Seemingly over its turnover troubles, Notre Dame returned to early-season form against the Trojans and giftwrapped what would go on to be a runaway win for Lane Kiffen's squad.
Recovery mode took over once again as the Irish rattled off another four-game winning streak before heading into the season's ultimate test in primetime at Stanford. There were slight concerns along the way, including a narrow escape at Wake Forest and an even closer call against Boston College. For the most part, though, the Irish seemed to take care of business and make progress along the way.
In fact, they even added to the growing strength in the offensive backfield with breakthrough performances from Jonas Gray. Sadly and tragically for the IRish, Gray's season came to an abrupt stop against Boston College thanks to a torn ACL. Before the injury, he was on pace to eclipse the 1,000 yard rushing mark alongside fellow backster Cierre Wood, who vastly improved his vision and blocking abilities from a year ago.
Enter the Stanford Cardinal and Heisman hopeful Andrew Luck, and it felt like deja vu as another team from California thumped the Irish in prime time. From the very first possession, it was clear the Irish would bein for a long night against a tough Stanford Cardinal team. For as much credit as Luck receives, he actually did not play all that well against the Irish. Sure, he threw for 4 touchdowns, but he failed to capitalize on several golden opportunities handed to him by the Irish secondary.
So as the dust settles on the year, Notre Dame earned eight wins and deserved four losses (if not more).
State of the Program
There are signs that head coach Brian Kelly has the Irish headed in a positive direction. For one thing, the defensive line is as strong as it has been since Lou Holtz's teams of the early 90s. More encouraging is that most of the strength was built from underclassmen such as Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch that Kelly managed to pluck away from elite competition.
Additionally, Notre Dame has a running game worth talking about again. Before Gray's season-ending injury the Irish were on pace to have two 1,000 running backs, a feat that will at most be accomplished by three other schools this year (Michigan, USC and Texas A&M). Credit a ferocious and veteran offensive line for the growth in running the football, too. Lou Holtz is smiling somewhere.
Linebacking play has been outstanding this year, led by all-world player Manti Te'o. If you are reading this, Manti, please take this as an open invitation to return for your final year of eligibility next season.
Quarterback, on the other hand, has been a position marred by controversy all season. Despite closing out 2010 with four consecutive victories for the Irish, Tommy Rees was not named the starter for the season opener against South Florida. Instead, senior Dayne Crist was given the reins back to an offense he was forced to watch from the sidelines during Rees' winning streak due to a torn ACL.
But after a miserable and ineffective first half against the Bulls, Crist was pulled in favor of Rees. Notre Dame was able to claw its way back from the huge first half deficit but could not fully overcome the five total turnovers from the game (some of which were attributed to Rees).
Throughout the year, Rees did not wow anyone with his stats, as his propensity to through interceptions clouded his inate ability to win football games. Winning seems to solve all problems, so despite his inability to run a true spread offense and avoid turnovers he remained in charge of the Irish offense.
Against Stanford, however, he took a shot to the ribs on his very first snap and played the remainder of the first half gunshy and out of sync with his receivers. That opened the door for Kelly to reinsert Dayne Crist. After all, he has one season of eligibility remaining.
But Kelly opted instead for seldom-used Andrew Hendrix, a mobile quarterback who more closely fits the mold of a typical spread signalcaller than Rees or Crist ever have or ever will.
Down 21-0 at the half, Hendrix helped guide the Irish to two touchdowns and ran what looked like the most complete version of Kelly's spread the Irish have seen in his short two year tenure thus far.
Despite the positive momentum Hendrix's presence created, the comeback fell short and deceptively made the 28-14 final score appear closer than the contest really was. Coming into the matchup, Notre Dame's offensive line had allowed only five sacks on the year, but quickly doubled that yearly total as they were overmatched and outschemed by a very disciplined Cardinal team.
So instead of closing out the season with a signature win like 2010, questions abound for the future of the program. Namely, who will be Notre Dame's quarterback in 2012? One might also add, can the Irish avoid turnovers and beat the opponents they are supposed to beat (like the South Florida's of the world)?
Quarterback of the Future
Kelly may tip his hand toward 2012 when he decides who will start in the upcoming to-be-announced bowl game. Options include Rees, Hendrix and even Crist.
All signs point to Crist's Irish career coming to a close with an ensuing transfer. The NCAA recently instituted a rule that allows players who have graduated to enroll at a different university's graduate program and avoid having to sit out a season to play. Crist will almost certainly dress as a member of the Fighting Irish in the bowl game.
That leaves Rees and Hendrix as the logical candidates vying for the starting nod. My guess is the opponent will dictate who the strating quarterback is in this contest. Reason being that he will want to give Notre Dame its best chance of winning the bowl game. Logical, right? Where it gets tricky is understanding why he could wind up choosing a quarterback who will NOT be the starter in 2012. That could be said of either option, Rees or Hendrix.
Starting with Rees, it is entirely possible that he will start given his record as a starter. Kelly even defended Rees during the press conference after beating Boston College. But Rees could just as easily as poorly as he did against Stanford and earn himself a seat on the bench in the second half (or sooner), paving the way for Hendrix to audition for the 2012 role early.
Likewise, Kelly could take a gamble on an unproven winner and start Hendrix. But if Hendrix falters he might seal his fate for the 2012 competition.
Then there is the wild card that has yet to take a game snap: Everett Golson. A freshman with a powerful arm and elusive speed, it is plausible Kelly wanted preserve an extra year of eligibility while Golson learned the offense and developed his conditioning in practices. To date he has only spent time on the 'show' team.
Bowl Game and Beyond
Regardless of who starts the bowl game, or who finishes it for that matter, Notre Dame must win to show that 2011 was not a total loss. Many pundits tabbed the Irish for at worst 9-3 and a BCS bid. Kelly even set his expectations to the BCS, but alas the Irish will be resignated to bowls just beneath that tier. Now, the Irish must rely on their bowl game to earn their ninth victory of the season and eclipse last year's mark.
A bowl loss would not be the end of the world, but it certainly would not help on the recruiting front, where the Irish have yet to sign an elite back in the class of 2012 despite several potential candidates.
Win, and the sour taste of the poor beginning, middle and end to the regular season will be quelled.