With the national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama now less than two weeks away, let’s take a look back on the 2012 season and see just how exactly the Fighting Irish got here. Each game had a moment, or series of moments that made the difference. Sometimes it happened early. Sometimes it happened on the final play. It could have been one play, a series of plays, or even an entire quarter, but each game contained a turning point. Let’s take a look at what helped Notre Dame win each week.
Navy – Tuitt’s run
Notre Dame was already leading 20-0 late in the first half, but Navy was on the move. If the Mids could score here and then start the second half with another score, this game could have been much different. With a 2nd-and-1 at the Irish 16, the Irish defense stepped up as Ishaq Williams rushed Navy QB Trey Miller. Miller fumbled and Stephon Tuitt scooped up the ball and raced 77 yards for the touchdown. Now instead of a possible 20-7 game, it was 27-0 and the rout was on. Now, even if Navy had scored there, Notre Dame probably still wins the game easily, but this play crushed the Midshipmen and, for the first time, showed what this Irish defense was capable of this season.
Purdue – Rees’ heroics
In Everett Golson’s second start, he played well going 21-for-31 for 289 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for another score. Yet, his fumble late in the fourth quarter allowed Purdue to score the game-tying touchdown with 2:12 remaining. With the game on the line, head coach Brian Kelly turned to the veteran whom he trusted, junior quarterback Tommy Rees. Rees entered the game amid a chorus of boos, but he would soon turn those into cheers as he engineered the game-winning drive. His 12-play, 55-yard drive included two huge third down conversions that took the Irish down to the Boilermaker 10 leading to Kyle Brindza’s 27-yard field goal with only seven seconds to go. It’s amazing how one series can totally change the fortunes of a team and a single player. Rees became a hero, and maybe earned some fan’s respect, while the team stayed undefeated and took a big step toward its goal.
Michigan State – Golson’s athleticism
The first big test for Notre Dame came here on the road against the 10th-ranked Spartans. The story of the game was Notre Dame’s suffocating defense that never allowed Michigan State to really threaten. But, the turning points in this game came because of the athleticism of Everett Golson. Both Fighting Irish touchdowns came as a result of Golson’s ability to throw and run. First came the touchdown pass to John Goodman. Golson rolled right, stopped and threw back to the left where Goodman made a tremendous one-handed catch to give Notre Dame the 7-0 lead. Then early in the second quarter, Golson scrambled around and raced to the corner of the endzone getting the ball over the pylon for a 14-0 lead. The game was effectively over and it was all because of Golson. He proved on those two plays why he won the starting quarterback job and why Tommy Rees never had a shot.
Michigan – Defensive dominance
This game was ugly for a number of reasons, but chief among them were the eight combined turnovers, six of them from Michigan including five straight passes that were intercepted. But the biggest play of the game came on Michigan’s final turnover. With Notre Dame hanging onto a 10-0 lead early in the third quarter, the Wolverines looked poised to get on the scoreboard and maybe swing the momentum their way. With a 3rd-and-3 from the Irish 16, Denard Robinson rushed for eight yards, but got hit by Irish linebacker Danny Spond causing him to fumble. Bennett Jackson scooped it up for Notre Dame and the threat was over. The Irish would go on to win 13-6, but what would have happened if the Wolverines had scored there and made it 10-7? Things may have played out very differently.
Miami – Dorsett’s drops
Sometimes a turning point comes not because of something you do, but what the other team doesn’t do. That was the case here against Miami (FL) at Soldier Field. The Hurricanes were clearly outclassed on this day, but what would have happened if Phillip Dorsett had been able to catch the ball? On Miami’s very first play of the game, Dorsett went deep and was wide open for an easy touchdown, but forget to catch the ball. Four plays later, Dorsett again found himself wide open for an easy touchdown, but dropped the ball again. Two plays, two drops, should have been a touchdown both times. From there Miami had to punt, Notre Dame drove down and scored and the rout was on. Now, even if Dorsett makes those catches, the Irish probably win 41-10 rather than 41-3, but who knows how different the complexion of that game would have been. It was yet another example of the good fortune the Irish received much of this year.
Stanford – An ending for the ages
Easily the best game of the 2012 season, Notre Dame proved they belonged this week when they outlasted a great Stanford team 20-13 in overtime. But this wouldn’t have happened without more Rees heroics and a goal line stand that will live on forever. The turning point here actually began late in the fourth quarter. Golson left the game with a concussion with the Irish down 13-10 and ND on the move. Rees had to come in and, aided by a crucial pass interference penalty, led Notre Dame to the game-tying field goal and overtime. Then in OT, Rees came away with two of the biggest plays of the season. First came on 3rd-and-8 from the 23 when Rees, feeling some pressure, lofted the ball toward Theo Riddick who somehow made the catch while falling to the ground. On the next play, Rees connected with TJ Jones for the touchdown and the ND lead. Enter Notre Dame’s defense. The Cardinal got it down to a 1st-and-goal from the 4. Three Stepfan Taylor runs got them inside the one. Then on fourth down and the game on the line, the defense made one final stop. Taylor took the handoff, plowed into the right side of the line, but was stood up by the Irish defense. The referees called him down, and even though it appeared as if he may have wiggled his way over the goal line late, replay upheld the call and the Irish held on to the 20-13 win. This win did more for the Irish than almost any other, and began their march toward respect and relevance.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the second half of the season and find the biggest turning points of the season.