As the hours count down on 2012 and with the national championship game now one week away, let’s take one final look back at the regular season and the 10 best plays of the year for Notre Dame football. Some of these plays have been covered when we talked about some turning points, other were just great individual efforts, but all had some impact on the season. Here are the top 10 plays of the season.
#10 – Eifert makes history
The 10th best play of the season is the only one that had little to no impact on the game in which it occurred. Notre Dame was already handily beating Wake Forest when an otherwise unforgettable 15 yard completion to Tyler Eifert made him the all-time leading receiver for a tight end in Notre Dame history. It’s an amazing accomplishment for two reasons: 1) Eifert has caught more passes than anyone ever and considering the likes of Dave Casper, Ken McAfee, Mark Bavaro, Derek Brown, Jabari Holloway, Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph have come before, it’s even more amazing, and 2) Eifert accomplished this feat in basically two and a half seasons. He barely made a catch before Rudolph went down in 2010 with a season-ending injury, but since then he’s been unstoppable. It’s scary to think how much how much he could shatter the record if he were to come back for his final season of eligibility in 2013.
#9 – Wood’s touchdown against Oklahoma
Maybe no play had more of an impact on the complexion of a game than this one. There were bigger plays in the game, but Wood’s 62-yard touchdown run on Notre Dame’s second possession might have changed the way this game would be played. Most people thought the Irish would lose, maybe even handily, so when Wood burst through the line untouched to give ND the lead, it proved that the Irish weren’t just there to compete, but was there to win. They eventually did after a fourth quarter burst, but Wood’s run set the tone.
#8 – Tuitt’s fumble return
Like Eifert’s catch, this play didn’t directly effect whether Notre Dame would win or not, but this play may have set the tone for the season. With the Irish leading 20-0, Navy put together a great drive all the way to the ND 16. A touchdown here, and then another to begin the second half and the game could become very competitive. Instead, Ishaq Williams forced Trey Miller to lose the ball and Stephon Tuitt scooped it up and raced 77 yards for the touchdown giving ND a comfortable lead and maybe setting the tone for just what type of defense the Irish would play this season.
#7 – Rees-to-Goodman keeps the drive alive
Late in a tie game against Purdue, Irish head coach Brian Kelly turned to veteran signal caller Tommy Rees to help them try and win the game. Facing a 3rd-and-6 from their own 49 with less than two minutes to play, it looked as if the Boilermakers might get one more shot or it would be overtime. But with Purdue bringing the pressure, Rees threw the ball up for grabs right into the hands of fifth-year senior John Goodman who corralled it for a 10 yard gain. Rees would connect with Toma on another third down later in the drive all leading to Kyle Brindza’s game-winning field goal and a 2-0 record.
#6 – Golson-to-Goodman against MSU
John Goodman hasn’t made many catches this year, but every single one was huge. This catch against Michigan State not just proved to be a big touchdown basically giving the Irish all the points they’d need, but it turned out to be one of the better plays to see all season. With the game scoreless early on, Everett Golson proved why he was the starter with an amazing play that saw him scramble to his right, stop and launch a deep throw toward Goodman who snared it with one arm while having his other held by a Spartan defender. It was a tremendous play and one that will be on many lists of best college football plays of the year.
#5 – Golson-to-Brown swings the game
This play was a big turning point for the season because this play may have been responsible for Notre Dame’s win over Oklahoma that finally gave them respect nationwide. Oklahoma had just scored to tie the game in the fourth quarter when Golson executed the perfect play-action pass to freshman Chris Brown for a 50-yard gain that put the Irish deep into Sooner territory. A few plays later, Notre Dame would score and give them a lead they would not relinquish. That one play swung the entire momentum to the Irish side and ND dominated from there on out to win 30-13.
#4 – Irish defense stops USC
The play that ended all the drama and punched ND’s ticket to the title game. Notre Dame had already stopped USC on their earlier drive holding them to a field goal. Now, trailing by nine, the Trojans got a first and goal with five minutes left. A touchdown there and the game would be right down to the wire. Instead, USC had seven chances to score and were denied each time. The final play saw USC quarterback Max Wittek misfire to Soma Vainuku in the endzone that ended the threat and set off celebrations nationwide as the Irish had secured their spot in South Beach.
#3 – Rees-to-Riddick against Stanford
Of all the great plays in the Stanford game, this one may have been the most important. In overtime, the Irish started with the football, but Rees took a sack on 1st down. A nine yard gain on second down still left the Irish with a 3rd-and-8 from the 23. Settling for a field goal could have meant a loss or at least a second overtime. But Rees came through again as the Cardinal came with pressure. Rees tossed the ball toward Riddick who wheeled out of the backfield. As the pass came down, Riddick snagged it as he was falling down holding on for a huge 16-yard gain and a 1st-and-goal. The next play was a touchdown to TJ Jones that eventually led to the win. But none of it would have happened without the heroics of Rees and Riddick.
#2 – Golson dives for two
Almost the entire fourth quarter against Pittsburgh could be ranked in the top 10. For all the plays that happened, the biggest was Everett Golson’s two-point conversion run to tie the game. The Irish trailed 20-6 in the final quarter before finally rallying. First Golson hit Jones for a score. Then down, 20-12 late in the game, Golson found DaVaris Daniels for a long gain to set up a 1st-and-goal. The next play saw Golson scramble before connecting with Riddick for the touchdown to pull the Irish to within two. Now, needing a two-point conversion to tie the game, force overtime, and keep their championship hopes alive, Golson once again scrambled to his right, saw a seam and raced toward the end zone diving over the goal line to earn the tie. The Irish would need more magic in OT, but Golson’s enormous playmaking was the difference in this game.
#1 – “Taylor…HE’S STOPPED!”
No played summed up Notre Dame’s season and gave a trademark to this Irish team than the final stop on Stepfan Taylor in overtime to beat Stanford. Nearly the entire game was played in a downpour leaving the offenses to struggle. Notre Dame needed some big plays just to force overtime. Then in the extra session, more big plays were needed (see #3). But finally the Irish had the lead 20-13. But Stanford was not done. A 13-yard run by Taylor got the Cardinal a 1st-and-goal from the 4. Taylor would get three more carries to get it down inside the one. Now it was 4th down with one more play to go. Stanford lined up and gave it to their best player. Taylor plowed into the right side, but was met by a swarm of Irish defenders. He was stood up and pushed back. The officials called him down, and even though it looked like Taylor may have twisted over the goal line before he was down, replay upheld the call giving the Irish the win and one of the most memorable finishes in Notre Dame history.