Fall Back: 2010 between the lines

Notre Dame is 10 days from its first practice of the spring and its first on-field look at the 2011 roster. But first, we interrupt our Spring Forward series with a final look back at last fall, and the on-field highs and lows of 2010.

November's run of excellence defined head coach Brian Kelly's first year at the helm. But an 8-5 season yields its share of less-than-pleasant memories. Two kick-off my list of the 10 most memorable on-field story lines of 2010.

#10 – Superman's September Showcase

I'm too young to have witnessed Anthony Davis or Tony Dorsett's historic days in South Bend, but I saw Miami's Steve Walsh throw for 424 and 4 TD in 1988; I saw Michigan State's Percy Snow's personal assault on 21 Irish ball carriers one year later; and I saw Reggie Bush rack up 195 yards on 19 scrimmage touches with three scores in 2005.

None of those outstanding individual efforts compared to the solo act performed by Michigan QB Denard Robinson in Notre Dame Stadium on September 11, 2010.

28 carries for 258 yards including the game-winning two-yard plunge – one he set up with a clutch 15-yard completion on third down. Intermixed were runs of 19, 36, and 87 yards – the last of the trio a new record for an opponent in the House that Rockne Built. Robinson's unlikely 24 completions for 240 yards included a 31-yard touchdown and another 31-yard strike to set up another score.

Notre Dame concluded the season a better team than Michigan. But give credit where credit is due: Denard Robinson was better than Notre Dame when it mattered, and possibly the most impressive individual player vs. the program in the last 30 years.

#9 – Little Giants a Big Surprise

Our first daughter was born two nights prior, so I watched the 34-31 defeat to Michigan State as a fan in my wife's hospital room rather than writer in the press box. Thus, the impact of the fake-heard-round college football was personally minimal. That luxury afforded the first chance in two years to simply kick back and watch my alma mater without responsibility, or the need for critical commentary immediately thereafter.

But whether you're a fan, writer, alum, critic, or random observer, there's but one common and appropriate reaction to MSU head coach Mark Dantonio's gutsy, game-ending, game-stealing play call:

WOW…

Round 2 between the two former Cincinnati head men is September 17 in South Bend.

#8 – Seniors Rule

70 percent of Robert Hughes' 2010 rushing yardage occurred in three November games plus the Sun Bowl. So too did each of his three touchdowns. Both of Duval Kamara's scores occurred in the regular season's final month. That month was also the best of Brian Smith's four-year career at the school.

Kerry Neal started 13 games one season after starting just five, while Taylor Dever started the first 10 of his career. Throw in standout seasons by Harrison Smith and Gary Gray, and the class that lost the most games in program history somehow managed to go out on a high note, keying a four-game winning streak while putting forth their biggest collective and individual contributions over the past four seasons…they kept the program afloat following a dark, nearly defining 4-5 start.

#7 – Ruffer's streak in a season of streaks

23 straight including 18 consecutive this season…just one miss, his last, and of zero consequence. His 11 touchbacks on kickoffs accounted for eight more than the previous three seasons' aggregate total.

Perhaps most important: an entire generation of ND fans won't have to ask, "Why can't Notre Dame ever find a good kicker?"

The program unearthed its best of all-time in 2010.

Let's go streaking: Notre Dame's season was defined by streaks, with the season opening win vs. Purdue serving as the singular contest not involved in a pair, trio, or quartet of Ws and Ls.

The Irish followed the win over Purdue with three consecutive losses; rebounded with three straight wins; dropped back-to-back games thereafter, and, following an exceptionally late (Week 10) Bye, reeled off four consecutive victories to end the season, the most at the program since the 1992 squad won its last seven – then 10 straight to begin the '93 campaign.

#6 – Injuries ‘R Us

The starting quarterback, tailback, tight end, slot receiver, X receiver, and nose guard each missed between four and six games due to injury. The starting free safety missed or was hobbled in six, while the staring WILL linebacker and starting right tackle both missed, or were recovering during four more. The team MVP sat out one as well (the season's most humbling defeat) and the backup tight end missed two, limiting his development prior to mid-season.

If I told you last August that Dayne Crist, Armando Allen, Kyle Rudolph, Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, Ian Williams, Jamoris Slaughter, Carlo Calabrese, Taylor Dever, Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert would each miss games – in most cases, multiple – due to injury, how many wins would you have predicted for Brian Kelly's first season in South Bend?

#5 – The Navy Debacle

Navy's second consecutive mugging of the Irish ended mercifully at 35-17 and it could have been much worse. The stark difference between the Notre Dame team that took the field Saturday October 23 in the New Meadowlands, and the group that dominated November and its consolation Bowl Game cannot be overstated – or rationally explained.

Kelly called Navy an aberration, and after ample exculpatory evidence, I tend to agree. Navy was the much better team that day: better coached, better prepared, tougher on both lines, and simply played better football than did the bulk of Notre Dame's participants.

The 2011 graduating class of Midshipmen defeated Notre Dame in three out of four meetings – a great effort by an Academy program that carved a niche in modern college football over the last decade.

#4 – Rees Responds

His initial appearance redefined the phrase, "deer in headlights." Two passes, one interception. What followed was a quick trip to the sidelines to watch an equally unprepared quarterback flounder for the remainder of the first half as the first rivalry game of the Brian Kelly era slowly slipped away.

A late-game cameo – not to mention six completions in seven pass attempts – in a loss to Navy six weeks later likely helped Tommy Rees' confidence. So too did eight consecutive completions in relief of starter Dayne Crist to begin his first bout of extended action vs. Tulsa.

That game – a crippling loss to the Golden Hurricanes – was a microcosm of Rees' freshman season: a standard string of completions when in the groove, offset by maddening, inexcusable interceptions intermixed with plenty of moxie and the ability to bounce back from near fatal mistakes, his final ill-advised and stunning throw to the end zone notwithstanding.

Rees' final four games included four victories, 61 completions in 101 pass attempts, 8 touchdowns, 4 interceptions and, at least following the Sun Bowl – a heightened level of confidence. It also provided a compelling case for a starting role heading into his second spring session.

#3 "We're going to call that play again..."

I doubt it, and I hope not.

Brian Kelly is a top tier collegiate coach and an accepted, accomplished architect of college football programs. That doesn't change the fact that he made a terrible play-calling decision at the end of the Tulsa contest, then boldly proclaimed the fan base "better get used to it" (he was referring to his aggressiveness as a play-caller, not misguided hubris).

A bye week followed, and for a full 14 days, I admit I considered that Kelly's newly-minted spot among the coaching fraternity's elite could have been premature. The Irish reeled off four straight impressive victories thereafter, Kelly masterfully shifted gears with a dedication to the power game to compliment his spread attack, and Notre Dame played its best defense in eight seasons and its best late-season D in nearly two decades.

Instead of heading into a winter of discontent, the dramatic turnaround has most Irish fans and close followers of the program thinking BCS Bowl bid next fall.

#2 – Eight is Enough

At last.

After enduring a string of embarrassments – and furthering the Heisman and All America resumes of an entire generation of USC Trojans – the Notre Dame program finally struck back vs. its tormentors from Troy, ending their eight-year reign thanks to a heroic defense, a moment of good fortune, and some well-timed offense in a season-ending 20-16 victory in the Coliseum.

The win validated the team's strong November and, in my opinion, its 4-0 finish and likely pre-season Top 20 ranking next fall. USC 2010 was likely worse than the eight Irish conquerors that preceded them – then again, Notre Dame 2002-2009 wasn't exactly vintage, either.

The history of the Irish/USC series has been defined by one team's run of dominance: three games; eight games; 11…don't be surprised if another began on Thanskgiving weekend 2010.

#1 – Finishing with a Flourish

Had you asked me on November 1 – one day after the Irish dropped to 4-5, had lost their starting quarterback, and more important, suddenly seemed as if the administration had hired the second coming of Dan Hawkins rather than Ara Parseghian – I'd have likely predicted an 0-3 regular season finish rather than the thrilling 3-0 conclusion and subsequent bowl win Irish fans still relish.

The defense played at a top 10 level, Tommy Rees was a new man, the coaching staff – eviscerated by and after Navy – could do no wrong including on the recruiting trail, the team discovered and committed to a running game, and the 2011 season is the most anticipated since at least the disappointing 2006 campaign.

But first, Brian Kelly's second spring is on tap…we'll pick up there tomorrow with another edition of our Spring Forward, series and an overview of the glut of linebackers competing for two-deep roles in the coming weeks.


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