January 04, 2013

WeIsND Roundtable: 2012 Season in Review

1. Three Biggest Storylines that Gripped You During 2012 Campaign 

Dan: (1) Development of Everett Golson: While I didn’t boo Tommy Rees when he came on during the Michigan game (I don’t think?), I was certainly very critical of Kelly’s handling of the situation. I continued that way probably up until about the Oklahoma game. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and Kelly played his cards masterfully. Everett is now a clear leader of this offense, he understands when to tuck it and run, and appears to be making much better decisions now than in September. Not to mention, he still has three years left – what an incredibly exciting thought.

(2)  Dominance on defense: This one is easy of course. I know our defense is well heralded - #1 scoring defense, incredible red zone efficiency, etc. I think the thing that stands out the most though are only giving up 2 rushing touchdowns all year and only 2 touchdown drives of over 60 yards. Additionally, no drives over 75 yards. No opponent starting inside their own 25 scored a touchdown. That's just an amazing statistic.  

(3) Development of offensive line: A lot of people were nervous when Warriner departed and Heistand took over. That faction appears a bit silly now. The offensive line has gelled to become an incredible unit and a real strength of this offense. The second half against Miami and the entire USC game (between the 20s at least) show just how great this unit is.

Jeremy: (1) The ND defense is legitimately elite.  Even with a secondary held together by bailing wire and first-time starters.  2009 seems like decades ago.  

(2) The QB carousel.  Not always gripping me in ways that I liked.  But an interesting story nonetheless.  Also - Everett Golson is going to be unbelievably good.  Perhaps as soon as next season.

(3) The Cult of Manti.  Deserves no explanation.

Jimmy: (1) Manti-Mania: Time is the ultimate arbiter of Manti’s lasting legacy, but the bar has already been raised to Legen…Barney Stinson “wait-for-it” moment of gravity…Dary status.  Quantifying the impact Te’o had on this 2012 team, the Notre Dame football program as a whole, the university endowment and general morale of everyone associated with ND Nation is next to impossible.  If Manti were an earthquake, Richter’s scale would need recalibration.  

In addition to the tenacious tackling, electrifying interceptions and unrivaled passion, Manti resonated with fans on a spiritual level this season.  He inspired us well beyond the gridiron, and in turn, the Notre Dame community helped lift Manti’s heavy heart.  Te’o converted the most cynical doubters into believers and added luster back to the golden helmets.  Over the last 20+ years, there may be only one other player across the college landscape who evoked such reverence -- yes, Tebow is his name-o.

Had Manti left school after his junior year, it would have been a success story.  A devout Mormon from Hawaii surprises everyone by choosing a Catholic school in snowy South Bend.  He lives up to the hype, becomes an All-American, gets drafted as a 1st (maybe 2nd ?) round pick and enjoys a fine pro career.  I’m sure ESPN Hallmark (if this channel doesn’t exist yet, it should) would green light production on this story.

But a script re-write was due when divine providence steered Manti’s decision to return to school.  His charisma and leadership sparked a legitimate Irish revival as opposed to the fool’s gold “returns to glory” in 2002, 2005 & 2006.  Factor in the off-the-field plot developments with the “HeIsManti” awards season lovefest, and his story transforms into a Hollywood blockbuster.

You probably have to go back to Rocket Ismail to find the last ND player who takes your breath away at least once a game.  A mainstream cult hero, acknowledged by all (well, maybe not the impenetrable bubble that envelopes SEC Territory) as a really, really, ridiculously good player and spectacle to behold.  

And the biggest stage still awaits Manti.  

(2) Team Unity: A huge reason for this season being such a delightful ride was the cast of characters suiting up each week.  Yes, the spotless record tints everything with rainbow sparkly magic glasses, but the unity of this squad grounded this team, serving as the foundation to build a champion.  You don't have to look hard to find likable guys -- BK's RKG's -- littered up and down the roster.  Start with the biggest teddy bear of them all, Big Lou Nix and his homemade Chocolate News program (highly recommend watching all 5 episodes).  There's the wacky weekly team bonding experience that is Trick Shot Monday.  There's the unspoken best beard competition on the team, pitting KLM (the safari hat-wearing, front-row cheering basketball super fan who blends into no crowd) vs. Matthias Farley (as close to a Matisyahu and Michael Franti mashup if I've ever seen one).  Not to be outdone, Zeke Motta entered the fray with what could be his leprechaun audition look.  

Normal things that can, and often do, sabotage teams just didn't with this group, like the QB controversy that wasn't.  When Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter both were lost for the season by the 4th game, excuses were selling for pennies around the stadium.  Not a single excuse was made as everyone embraced the "next guy up" mantra BK preaches.  Win or lose, it will be bittersweet watching this assemblage of men play for the last time together.   

(3) The Saga of Mariano Rees: Imagine yourself a quarterback good enough to play at ND, who steps in as a true freshman and wins his first 4 starts, including the first win over a huge rival in a 8 years and a bowl game win over a traditional power. 

You start the next year backing up the same heralded recruit you replaced the year before, but Coach pulls the plug on him and rides your moxie to win 8 games as a sophomore. 

Entering your junior year, brimming with confidence, your college-ness gets you arrested in the summer and Coach suspends you for the opener, essentially ceding your starter job to a redshirt freshman, a new heralded recruit. 

You say all the right things to make amends.  You deflect (baseless?) rumors of your imminent transfer to another school. You embrace your role as backup and help the starter learn the ropes. 

Surprisingly, Coach calls your number when the freshman falters in the first home game.  Your own fans boo you as you take the field.  Talk about conflicting emotions.  Coach trusts you to run the 2 minute offense to secure a tight victory, which turns the boos into cheers, then declares the redshirt freshman the starter the next week.  Coach calls on you several times throughout the early going, nearly giving ND Nation a nervous tick at the prospect of QB roulette...again.  You deliver clutch throws coming in cold off the bench, earning the status as a "QB Closer."  It's an engrossing, yo-yo act that the selfless Tommy embraces and makes the most out of.  It's fair to say without his game-winning Purdue drive and overtime touchdown pass to TJ Jones vs. Stanford, 12-0 may not be possible without Mariano Rees. 

Matt: (1) Will the D allow a rushing touchdown: I'm used to defenses that give up at least a rushing TD per game. So as the weeks went by, the sheer dominance of the defense was wrapped up neatly into the stat that they had not allowed a rushing TD. 

I'll admit, when The Belldozer had his rushing TD called back, that was one of my most fired up moments of the season. Of course, it's ridiculous to expect a defense to make it through a season unscathed on the ground, but the fact that we even flirted with it is a testament to Nix, KLM, Tuitt and the rest of the big uglies

(2) Manti Teo: Many many words much more eloquent than mine have been written about the Teo experience, but the Heisman campaign after Klein lost, and the way Manti handled personal tragedy before Michigan week were compelling. The odds of my firstborn being named Manti have gone from 0% before the season to at least 5% now 

(3) Tommy Rees, the closer: 
I remember being so frustrated when BK first pulled this stunt early in the season. We were struggling against Purdue, Mike Mayock would have you believe Purdue's defense has 11 first rounders, and it looked like another typical season going nowhere.  At the time, it seemed like Golson needed to go through these growing pains, win or lose the game be damned. 

Of course, now sitting on the eve of the championship, it's blindingly apparent that early in the season, Rees saved our ass a few times. One of the weirder dynamics I've ever seen on a team. 

2. We're Goin to Miami...

Jeremy: It still hasn’t really set in yet.  Must be that 6 weeks or so between Thanksgiving and the title game.  As excited as I am for the Bama matchup, I just don’t want this season to end.  Its been an incredibly enjoyable run and I have a tough time believing that I’ll ever have so much fun following a sporting team for the rest of my life. 

Jimmy: Wow, wow, wow.  Will Smith's PG rap lyrics never sounded so good.  The biggest stage in college sports is rolling out the red (or is it orange?) carpet for Notre Dame.  It's a terrific accomplishment to get there, but the work isn't done.  One mission and one mission only - championship title #12.

Matt: Not much to say here. It's still hard to believe, and if you're injecting me with truth serum, there's a part of me that is petrified this will be an LSU or Ohio State BCS experience. Of course, this team is totally different than those, built on defense and strong line play. Having a mobile QB doesn't hurt either 

I'll be standing strong in Joe Robbie Stadium with the Irish faithful on Jan 7th, and given my expectations for the season back in August, that in itself is a miracle

3. Offensive and Defensive MVPs

Dan:    Offensive – Theo Riddick. Similar to my criticism of the Rees / Golson situation, I was also critical of Kelly early on for his use of Riddick and Wood. But the latter half of this season showed just how great Riddick was in this offense. Huge catches against Stanford and Pittsburgh, not to mention an absolutely dominant day on the ground against USC.

Defensive – Manti Te’o. This one is a bit tougher than it may initially seem. Some may point to the Pitt game and how well they ran on us when Nix was out of the game. And, don’t get me wrong, Nix is an incredibly important part of this defense and deserves more credit nationally than I think he’s getting. But Te’o is the captain of this defense, the heart and the soul. What a pleasure watching him this year has been.

Jeremy: Pretty easy choices here - Manti and Eifert.  

But let’s go off the beaten path a bit for purposes of discussion.  On offense, I’ll go with Theo Riddick.  I’m not surprised that he had a great season as a RB - anyone who watched some of his runs during the early part of his career (pre-switch to slot WR) could see that he had natural vision and talent running the ball.  But I doubt anyone could have predicted that he would have a better season than Cierre Wood, clinch the SC game by running right down the Trojans throat, or make a few of the largest catches of the season (see: Stanford and Pitt).  Not to mention his amazing leadership and his assistance in getting Golson and the offense aligned.  And his moment with his mom on senior day was awesome.  Love that kid.

On defense, how about Danny Spond?  While the secondary was probably everyone’s biggest defensive concern heading into the season, the Dog LB spot was incredibly unsettled.  Spond was the presumed starter, but after a preseason headache/migraine scare, we were all a bit unsure whether he’d ever play a down of football again.  Instead, he came back, set the edge, played in coverage and locked down the toughest position on the defense.  His contributions often go unnoticed on the stat sheet and on the highlight reels, but I guarantee you that Bob Diaco went into the LB meetings every week praising Spond’s effort and improvement.  

Jimmy: On offense, how bout Everett Golson.  Growing pains and a few unexpected Tommy Reed moments aside, when clutch was needed, Golson's cannon arm and sneaky legs delivered.  Beginning with the road trip to Norman, the game slowed down for Everett and the results began matching the potential.  The team suffers a catastrophic letdown loss to Pitt if not for Golson's late game heroics.  He toyed with Wake's hapless defense and kept the chains moving on time-killing possession after possession in the Coliseum, stamping the ticket to Miami.  A case can be made for Riddick, Eifert or Zack Martin.  

On defense, going unconventional with Louis Nix III.  He's the most important cog in the defensive unit, allowing everyone else to collect sacks, tackles and most of the acclaim.  Yet, as a nose guard deep in the trenches, Nix amassed 45 hard earned tackles, including 2 sacks.  His 5 batted passes ranks 3rd overall, another impressive feat for his position.  

Overall Team MVP -- Manti Te'o.  See above gushing sentiments.

Matt: Theo Riddick: Could have gone Golson or Eifert here, but Riddick turned into an invaluable part of the offense. He looks like a scatback, and true to that image he is a great receiver out of the backfield, but he was blowing people up as a running back. Theo Riddick turning into a physical runner was what took this offense to another level

Louis Nix: Look, the easy answer is Teo. He's the most decorated college player on terms of awards EVER. So he's probably the MVP of the team. But we have had some pretty good linebackers come through over the years (probably never at Teo's level). But what we haven't had to go with those Lb's is a dominant nose man. 

The return of Irish Chocolate next year is perhaps has me most excited, and most confident that the defense won't have a significant drop off with the departure of Manti

4. Favorite Moments of 2012 Season (In Person & On TV)

Dan:   I was lucky enough to see so many great moments in person this year – the goal line stand against Stanford, the 5 straight picks against Michigan, the entire OU game… I think my favorite moment though was Cierre Wood breaking away from the pack against Oklahoma for the first touchdown. We were sitting in that end zone, and he ran towards us and suddenly he was in the second layer and then he was gone. It was so clearly going to be a touchdown that the section was jumping and celebrating long before he got to the end zone.

My favorite moment on TV has to be the goal line stand against USC. At that point it was clear we were going to Miami and the celebration could begin.  

Jeremy: Two candidates for the in-person.  The first one is rather obvious - the postgame “Oh What a Night” sing along after the Michigan win.  Surreal and awesome moment.  The second one may have been the walk from Soldier Field back towards the Red Line, amidst a mass of ND fans chanting “We Want Bama!” (foreshadowing!!)

The first favorite TV moment had to be watching the Irish play a near-perfect game against Oklahoma in perhaps the most important and biggest matchup since the ’05 SC game.  Watching the Irish celebrate in the Coliseum comes in a close second.  The fact that I got to watch both of those games with my Dad, a long-suffering Irish die-hard, probably had something to do with it.

Jimmy: Man, there are so many good choices to pick from, this should merit its own post.  For TV moment, I'll pick the Stanford goal line stuff to end the game.  Just an exhilarating, rip-your-shirt-off-WWF-style, we're-streaking-through-the-quad finish.  

The Oklahoma and USC wins were triumphant in different respects, but the endings were wrapped up nicely by the time of the 2:00 minute warning.  Though I have to mention that my biggest superstition turned out to be sitting in the exact same chair at the same table at the same restaurant (Haymarket Brewery in Chicago) for both OK and USC games.  The first go round found me accompanying my wife for her Northwestern Reunion outing.  A sweet drink deal kept the deliciously potent beers coming all night.  On several occasions, me and my viewing partner Ryan (South Bend native who had more or less turned a blind eye to his reunion festivities) were caught screaming in joy, only to realize we were the only two people out of hundreds paying attention to the screen.  Good Times!  Well, when Ryno came back to Chicago for Thanksgiving and we worked out baby duties to free up our evening, we couldn't think of a more appropriate venue to watch the finishing touches on 12-0 than our good-luck charm Haymarket.  

Favorite in-person moment, hands down, goes to the goosebumpapolooza Senior Day introductions.  Can't remember the last time I got to my seat with more than 25 minutes before kickoff, and the place was packed and already rocking.  The rising volume by the time Manti was introduced reminded me of old Chicago Bulls starting lineups when you could barely hear Jordan's name by the end.  A lifetime moment to remember.  

Matt: Manti against Michigan

Again, many more eloquent words have been written by people who get paid to wax poetic, so I'll keep this brief. But seeing Manti and the students with the leis, against Michigan, at night, with Denard throwing the ball around like he was drunk, yeah...that's number one

5. Heisman Sound-Off

Dan: I can’t say I’m too fired up about the Heisman. Should Manziel have won? Probably not? Should Te’o have won? Maybe. Anyone who knows anything about college football knows what the award has become at this point. Generally it goes to the best offensive backfield player on the best team (or at least top 5 team). If there isn’t really a clear candidate that fits that profile, expect an offensive backfield player to have a couple good performances late in the year and catch all the media hype. If they want to fix the award, then change who votes. 

Manti Te’o won more awards than any player in the history of college football this year (understanding there are more and more awards to win every year). He did far better than any purely defensive (i.e., no return game) player has ever done before. He cares about the award on January 7th, and so do I. That said, I would support a change to the award – just make it an offense only award. They are kidding themselves at this point.

Jeremy: Can’t say that I expected Manti to win the Heisman, so while it was somewhat disappointing, it wasn’t surprising.  But this year simply reinforced the idea that a defensive player has an almost impossible hill to climb to win the award.  Its not the award for the best player in college football, it's an award for the best offensive stat-compiler, or the offensive player with the best “moment.”  Which is fine.  

It's just a shame that so many people in this country who so obviously don’t watch much college football vote for what everyone considers to be the most prestigious college football award.  

Jay Mariotti somehow has a vote.  All you need to know.  

Matt: Justice was served. Look, I'm a Manti guy. And it's impossible to quantify the impact a defensive player has on a game. Manti's effect when far beyond his tackle count or even his 7 picks. 

But his stats dropped noticeably in the second half of the season, at the sAme time Johnny Football was putting up Playstation numbers. I know ND fans and probably my fellow WeIs pals will bring up manziel's LSU and UF games, and that's fair game. I just can't get worked up over Manti losing the Heisman. Maybe I'm in the minority among ND fans.

6. Biggest Losses / Gains for 2013

Dan:  Biggest loss – Manti T’eo. Too easy and obvious, but still the right answer.

Biggest gain – Amir Carlisle. I think we’re going to see Carlisle play the role of Theo and succeed. I think Greg Bryant is going to play immediately and will have an important role to play (particularly since I think Cierre will go pro), but I expect Amir to be a pleasant surprise, particularly catching passes.

Jeremy: Losses - Staying away from an individual loss, I’ll focus on the outgoing seniors/5th years as a whole.  This group has been through so much and have done so much to drag this program from some of the lowest points in its history all the way up to the peak of the mountain.  The great behind-the-scenes stuff produced by UND.com this season really showed the great leadership provided by guys like Te’o, KLM, Motta and everyone else.  The hope is that the guys coming back will pick up on the example they provided and continue to move the program into the next “glory years” period.  I wouldn’t bet against them, but it's hard to believe that anyone else could be as inspiring and just downright awesome as those guys.

Gains - I suppose when we’re talking about “gains” here, the best place to look is probably the incoming recruiting class.  And while I think this is going to end up being a Top 5 type class, I’m having a tough time seeing a whole bunch of immediate contributors.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Because although the outgoing guys are leaving some big holes in some spots, I believe there are some good guys already in the program who can fill most of those positions.  Which means that the need for immediate contributors is not as extreme as in some prior seasons.  

As for guys to keep an eye on - look for Greg Bryant to be in the mix for carries right off the bat, Alex Anzalone to play on ST and perhaps in the ILB rotation by the end of the year, Isaac Rochell to work into the DL rotation (much like Sheldon Day this season) and Jaylon Smith to get on the field somewhere, somehow.  He’s just too damn athletic.  Also, if ND lands Max Redfield, he would almost certainly be able to help the team in some manner.

Matt: Loss - Teo. Enough said

Gain - Respect. I'll let Jeremy and others chime in on recruiting. But the biggest gain to me is the respect and credibility that has come with this season. 

Past BCS seasons had a bit of smoke 'n mirrors to them, built on prolific offenses but no commitment to defense, either in the coaching or recruiting. 

This time, it feels like the foundation has been laid to stay 'relevant' for a long time to come

7. State of the Program

Jeremy: If you listen to Brian Kelly’s press conferences, he loves talking about the “process.”  His opponent in the upcoming Title Game, Nick Saban, uses similar buzzwords.  If we’ve learned one thing about this magical season, its that this version of the Irish has bought in to what Kelly is selling.  It remains to be seen whether this will have a lasting impression, or whether it's the culmination of an amazing senior class, a few great recruiting efforts and some good bounces.  But I’m not going to be betting against Brian Kelly for a while.  

Jimmy: The players have bought into BK's plan.  The results caught up with expectations this year.  The recruiting machine is churning on overdrive.  Despite a gaping hole with Manti's departure to Sundays, his presence will still be felt, without a doubt.  His impact will reverberate for years to come, and incoming freshman like Jaylon Smith know they're carrying the Te'o Torch and building upon the work started by this team.  Without elaborating too much, I believe the program will establish a new consistency of 10+ win seasons for the foreseeable future.  Assistant coach defections are sure to happen in the next year or two and make for some hand-wringing and possibly brief hiccups, but I can confidently state: In BK I Trust.  

8. Recruiting Impact of 2012 Season

Jeremy: Can already be seen in the Greg Bryant commitment.  Simply put, a guy like Bryant doesn’t call up ND out of the blue without a season like this.  

The interesting question is whether Kelly and his staff can work the delicate balancing act between RKGs and five-star prima donnas.  To be sure, not every five-star will have the “make up” of an Aaron Lynch.  But ND’s success is going to open up the recruiting pool, and Kelly will have to work hard to separate the Lynches and Greenberrys from the Tuitts and Te’os.  It's a nice problem to have, but one that’s going to bear watching.