Notre Dame football: Pondering plays and situations that shaped ND’s season

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

All told, Notre Dame football players have been involved in more than 1,300 snaps.

There have been ups and downs; twists and turns; upsets and narrow escapes.

Yet, through it all, there have been five decisions — some big picture, some game-specific — that have had a significant impact on the trajectory of the season.

Had one or two of those pivotal decisions been different, no telling how everything else might have changed.

lþQuarterback Everett Golson's bad academic judgment that caused him to be dismissed from the university for the semester.

What has never been brought up in the mainstream media is the fact that Golson's bad academic decision likely wasn't his first. Several educators at Notre Dame have said it is common for the university to turn the other cheek - — once.

In most cases, students are allowed one academic misgiving before being dealt such a harsh penalty. If that was the case, that makes the Golson situation that much more troubling. If Golson already knew he was treading on thin ice, and still didn't make a better decision, there is reason for concern.

What Golson's hiatus did was scrap the big-picture plan that coach Brian Kelly had for this team.

All indications from the start were that Kelly's blueprint targeted the 2013 season as the one in which the Irish would make their bid for a national title.

Golson would have gotten through his growing pains and the defense was supposed to have a few more playmakers who left the program for one reason or another. Last year's run was accelerated because of the amazing leadership that was already in place.

This year reminded Irish fans just how fragile success can be and how much last year should be appreciated.

Golson's presence probably would have made up for an inconsistent running game. Having the threat of running, along with a strong arm, gives a defense so much more to worry about in a quarterback. It would also make the Irish receivers that much more dangerous, since defenders would have to be concerned with the entire field.

Without Golson, the Irish have had to go the entire season with a backup under center. Tommy Rees did the best he could given his limitations.

The next question Golson will face is one of trust. He spent much of the semester off honing his skills with a quarterback guru, but how will he be perceived by his teammates? They may be happy to see him back, but there could be some who take Golson's bad decision personally and wonder when he might make his next one.

lþAllowing Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner to have an All-American performance in a 41-30 win over the Irish.

As the season wears on, Notre Dame's loss to Michigan looks worse and worse. The Wolverines, who appeared to be an offensive juggernaut in Week 2, have struggled to do anything of late.

Gardner ran wild against the Irish. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns. His only interception was caught in the end zone by Stephon Tuitt for a TD. Gardner ran 13 times for 82 yards and a score. That means he had a hand in all five of Michigan's touchdowns and one of Notre Dame's.

Notice what happened when a team targeted Gardner?

Check out Michigan's losses to Michigan State and Nebraska. Against the Spartans, Gardner completed 14 of 27 passes for 210 yards, but ran 18 times for minus-46 yards rushing. The Cornhuskers limited him to 18 of 27 passes for 196 yards, and shut him down for minus-32 yards rushing.

Mobile quarterbacks have plagued the Irish defense this season. Maybe it's an issue with team speed; or a strategy situation, which didn't put Gardner at the focus.

Only one time this season has Gardner had a more productive game than against Notre Dame. He amassed over 500 yards of total offense against Indiana, a team that all season has given up numbers fit for a video game.

Had the Irish contained Gardner and beaten Michigan, the attitude and approach for the rest of the season could have changed.

lþSaving a year of eligibility for freshman quarterback Malik Zaire by having him redshirt.

Two years ago, the last time Notre Dame played Stanford, Andrew Hendrix looked like a serious contender for the starting quarterback job. He played a strong second half — relieving Rees — rolling up 192 passing yards and a touchdown (11 of 24), along with 20 rushing yards and a TD.

Where'd that guy go?

Hendrix struggled in a bowl-game loss to Florida State, then was beaten out by Golson and Rees during the 2012 preseason camp.

Since then, Hendrix was in a football oblivion until the Southern Cal game this season. Rees went down with a neck strain and Hendrix was awful (0 of 4 passing, 5 yards on 6 carries).

That flop pretty much answered the question of why Kelly had been reluctant to use Hendrix as a complement to Rees. He was a guy who would at least give the impression of being mobile. Mobility doesn't mean much if the rest of the game isn't adequate.

But it opened discussion for another question: Why wasn't Zaire used at all?

Late in preseason camp and early in the season, Zaire — an early enrollee who had been working in the Irish program since January — missed a couple weeks of practice with mononucleosis.

Despite the illness, it's hard to imagine that Zaire was set back so far he wasn't in a situation to contribute.

Again, the Irish were going through the season with what amounted to a backup quarterback. Up until Week 10, they were in contention for a spot in a BCS bowl. Wouldn't that have been enough to send out an "all hands on deck" alarm to make Zaire available by, say, midseason?

Apparently, the goal was to try to slide by this season while putting two years of eligibility between Zaire (who will have four years left) and Golson (two).

There comes a time when looking to the future can cause a loss of sight in the present.

lþWallow through the entire season with a "running back by committee" philosophy.

There hasn't seemed to be any rhyme or reason with the Notre Dame run game this season.

Last year, if Theo Riddick wasn't running the ball, he was getting a rest and Cierre Wood was. George Atkinson was the "home run" guy, used sparingly. That's the way it should be: Commit to someone and let them play.

Only four times this season have Notre Dame running backs had double-digit carries in back-to-back games. Cam McDaniel is the only back to have double-digit carries in three consecutive games - — Arizona State (15 carries, 82 yards), Southern Cal (18, 97) and Air Force (10, 61).

The most perplexing aspect of this scenario was freshman Tarean Folston's situation. He had 11 carries for 47 yards against Air Force and 18 for 140 against Navy. Then, he carried just four times for 13 yards in the stunning loss to Pitt.

There's something to be said for identity and confidence. When a team can run the ball, no matter the circumstance, other areas — the passing game and the defense — will benefit. When there's a revolving door — a crapshoot on who might happen to get hot at a particular time — confidence is a victim.

A struggling running game, along with Rees' sedentary nature, makes for a predictable and sometimes stale attack.

Settling on Folston as the feature back would seem to have been the best approach the Irish could have taken. Use Atkinson sporadically, like last year, and save McDaniel for the third-and-one tough yardage plays.

Without defined roles, backs ended up looking over their shoulders more than looking for holes.

lþIrish safety Matthias Farley decided to zig when Pitt's Devin Street zagged.

Is it fair to harp on one play as being one of the critical crossroads of the season?

Well, when the loss to Pitt (which never should have happened) had such a profound impact on the final portion of the season, and that one play had such a major effect on that game, then, maybe it's fair.

Late in the third quarter, Notre Dame led by a touchdown that it had just scored. Pitt was hardly an offensive machine, but was effective against a banged-up Irish defense. Panther quarterback Tom Savage threw a pass to Street, who was open. It normally would have been a 20-yard pick-up near midfield. However, Farley whiffed on an open-field tackle and the play deteriorated into a 63-yard game-tying touchdown.

Three mistakes — real whoppers — muddled the fourth quarter. Two interceptions and a live ball that the Irish defense neglected to recover and return for a TD allowed the victory — and a last-gasp opportunity at a BCS invitation — to slip away.

l l l

Thousands of decisions — good and bad — have gone into making this season what it has been. As the curtain closes, there are enough "what ifs?" left on the table to allow for speculation between now and next September.

The results won't be any easier to take.

Or the reasons behind them any easier to understand.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6318

IRS: August 6, 2013: Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson speaks during a press conference inside the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, on Friday, December 4, 2013. Notre Dame will take on Alabama in the BCS National Championship game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami on Monday, January 7, 2013.