Not all would rank among the season's best highlights -- there's no 77-yard scoop-sprint-and-score by Stephon Tuitt contained within -- but each was crucial in securing victory in a contest decided by plays made vs. plays missed.
(Note: While sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza's game-winning 27-yard field goal vs. Purdue was the definitive snap of the contest, it was also a kick that could not be excused if missed. Brindza calmly delivered the game-winner in his first start and is referenced often below).
#1 -- Rees to Toma: Chalkboard to FieldThere haven't been many precise passing plays for the Irish offense this fall, but no matter how much the unit progresses its unlikely fans will see a better timed -- and more timely -- pitch-and-catch between quarterback and receiver this season as this clutch third-down conversion courtesy Tommy Rees and Robby Toma.
WIth the game tied at 17 and his Irish facing 3rd and 6 from the Purdue 41-yard line, Rees rolled steps to his right and released the ball before Toma made his break; the thus perfectly timed turn by Toma and on-target delivery of Rees' pass allowed the senior slot target to speed down the right sidelines for a 21-yard gain down to the Boilers 20-yard line. The reception was the longest play of a 12-snap, 55-yard drive that set up the game winning field goal by sophomore kicker, Kyle Brindza.
#2 -- No Time, TommyNot much broke right for the Irish offense through four games last fall, but the football gods presented an apparent peace offering on Notre Dame's final drive of the 2012 home opener against Purdue. Facing a 3rd and 10 after consecutive incompletions, Rees tried to call time out with the play-clock nearing zero. The Irish had none, the play-clock expired, but the play continued with what would have been a five-yard delay of game penalty undetected by the officials. A hurried Rees instead fired the ball high toward the left sideline and into the leaping arms of John Goodman.
Goodman, who hesitated off the line likely expecting a timeout (or flag) won the battle for the ball in the air and Notre Dame's last-minute drive was given new life, rather than a forced punt from their own 49-yard line.
The march culminated in the aforementioned game-winning field goal nine snaps later by Brindza.
#3 -- Baratti Steps In, UpIn the first meaningful defensive series of his collegiate career, true freshman safety Nicky Baratti was targeted by a classic trick play: the half-back pass. Just one snap after Denard Robinson had gashed the Irish front seven for a 15-yard gain, and with the Wolverines set up 1st and Goal at the ND 10-yard line, Baratti the field safety and last line of defense, never broke too far toward scrimmage on a toss right from Robinson to halfback Vincent Smith. And when the latter pulled up short of scrimmage to loft a wounded duck toward the end zone to Drew Dileo, Baratti was there to step in front and secure the interception.
Credit Manti Te'o with a hit on Smith as he threw, and pressure that forced Smith's pass too far inside to the breaking Baratti.
It was a textbook defensive effort from a well-coached rookie defensive back, one that also had the presence of mind to curl his body into the end zone as he fell, giving the Irish offense a touchback rather than possession at their own 1-yard line, and most important, kept the score knotted at zero as the first quarter came to a close.
#4 -- Nix's NixNotre Dame's September defense had been especially stingy on 3rd Quarter third downs heading into Saturday's contest vs. the Wolverines, but that changed against Robinson and a determined rushing attack that enjoyed a trio of consecutive third-down conversions to open the second half.
On a drive that moved Michigan from its own 21 to the Irish 11-yard line, junior nose guard Louis Nix stepped up to stop the charge, swiping the pigskin from Robinson's right hand as the latter weaved through Irish tacklers for first down yardage and what would have been a 1st and Goal inside the Irish 10-yard line.
Instead, Nix forced a fumble, his classmate Bennett Jackson recovered, and Michigan's third red zone threat in as many quarters was extinguished by the Irish defense, keeping the score 10-0 ND as the Wolverines offense skulked back to the sidelines.
#5 -- Money ManLeading Michigan 13-6 with 2:35 remaining, and faced with a 3rd and 4 at his own 31-yard line, Rees diagnosed a Cover 0 (no safety) defense and immediately checked out of a designed quarterback draw (one that had worked for a score previously), instead signaling for the team's best offensive player, Tyler Eifert, to run a stutter-fade from the near sideline.
Eifert, isolated one-on-one vs. Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd, stepped hard inside at the first down marker, then broke down the vacated sideline, running under Rees' correctly cautious throw at the 49 before finally being brought down at the Wolverines 33-yard line.
The catch was Eifert's first since midway through the third quarter in Game Two vs. Purdue.
#6 -- The Forgotten ManLocked in a scoreless battle early in East Lansing, Irish quarterback Everett Golson took a snap from the left hash on the Spartans 36-yard line, sprinted right and pulled up near the right hash before firing back across the field to 5th-year senior target John Goodman for a 36-yard touchdown. Goodman secured the one-handed score despite pass interference on the play by cornerback Johnny Adams. It was the long-time contributor's first touchdown since his redshirt-freshman season under Charlie Weis in 2009.
The play was made possible by right tackle Christian Lombard, who did just enough on the outside to give Golson running room, and a perfect, albeit oh-so-close-to-dirty, Navy style cut block by Cierre Wood at scrimmage vs. All-America defensive end William Gholston. The play gave the Irish a 7-0 lead and showcased Golson's rocket arm and improvisational skill, if not field vision, as Robby Toma was open by several yards downfield on the same side of the field as Golson seconds earlier.
#7 -- Wood Cuts BackBacked up deep in their own territory on a drive that started with a Cierre Wood nine-yard gain from the Irish 4-yard line, Wood took a subsequent handoff from Golson and sprinted over left tackle. What followed was a jaw-dropping cutback against the grain and back to the right side through traffic for 26 yards and a major momentum switch.
Tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack won at the point on the left along with Braxston Cave, Chris Watt, and Zack Martin zone blocking to give Wood his initial lane. A key cut-block by Mike Golic in space took down the backside linebacker as Wood charged back to the right and finished his run with authority, a stiff-arm that jolted would-be-tackler Johnny Adams to the turf as Wood glided out of bounds, taking a chunk of valuable field position with him.
Notre Dame continued on a drive that ended in a field goal, extending their lead to 14 points with just 6:21 remaining.
#8 -- Te'o's Takeaway: Part IIFour defensive snaps after an unconscionable end zone interception thrown by Irish quarterback Everett Golson, senior Manti Te'o executed a learned skill practiced by linebackers from Pop Warner through the pros: the tip-drill.
With pressure from defensive end Stephon Tuitt, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson fired an ill-advised pass over the middle that was tipped by leaping safety Zeke Motta. Te'o was on the spot with a diving scoop of the fluttering pigskin and his second pick of the day set up the Irish at midfield for a drive that culminated in the only touchdown of the contest.
Entering the season without ever recording a turnover, Te'o has five takeaways through for game: three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
#9 -- Deep to DanielsFaced with 3rd and 3 at midfield in a scoreless contest midway through the second quarter against Purdue, head coach Brian Kelly dialed up his favored three tight end set, aligning running back Theo Riddick in the backfield and the formation's lone wide receiver, DaVaris Daniels, in the near (right) slot.
The personnel package was a constant in the team's prior goal line sets vs. Navy one week earlier, but Saturday in South Bend, Kelly flipped the script, calling for a play-action roll right by QB Everett Golson and a "Sluggo" route (slant-and-go) from Daniels for a 41-yard gain down the right side. Notre Dame scored four plays later on a touchdown dive by Golson to the right pylon for a 7-0 lead in a game that came down to the final gun.
The 41-yard "chunk" play was the game's longest for either team, and much like two weeks later vs. the Wolverines, served as a first-half touchdown that provided breathing room in a month that offered little or an Irish squad that nonetheless rolled to 4-0.
#10 -- Eifert on the DigWith the game tied at 7 early in the third quarter against the Boilers, and saddled with a 3rd and 16 at his own 41-yard line, Irish quarterback Everett Golson sprinted to his left to move Notre Dame's all-day-unreliable pass pocket. Golson then pivoted before throwing a strike down the middle to tight end Tyler Eifert, who received the ball after an expertly run "dig route" across the Purdue 40 and down to their 34-yard line. The 22-yard gain was the result of a great call to move the pocket from head coach Brian Kelly, timely execution by a maligned offensive line, and ideal footwork/delivery by Golson.
Eifert caught a 25-yard seam route two snaps later to set up a Golson-to-T.J. Jones short touchdown throw and a 14-7 lead. The Irish offense stalled thereafter, managing two field goals - including the game-winner -- over the remaining 25 game minutes.
Also considered...Sheldon Day's third-down sack of Denard Robinson to force a field goal late in the 4th Quarter vs. Michigan…Theo Riddick's 10-yard run to the Purdue 10-yard line, one that set up Kyle Brindza's game-winning kick from a manageable 27 rather than 37 yards…Riddick's 8-yard gain on 3rd and 8 from the Michigan 27-yard line -- a run that allowed his Irish offense to kneel thereafter...Cierre Wood's 8-yard gain over the right side on 4th and 1 to extend the late field goal drive at Michigan State…Day's sack of Spartans QB Andrew Miller on 2nd and 7 from the Irish 23-yard line -- the farthest advance of the day by Michigan State resulted in a field goal.
And the no-doubt #11 honorable mention selection: Manti Te'o's combined tackle in space with a pursuing Kapron Lewis-Moore vs. Denard Robinson at the Notre Dame 15-yard line, one that forced a field goal rather than allowing a 3rd and 6 conversion with 13 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter (10-3 Irish). Lewis-Moore harassed Robinson in the pocket while Te'o peeled off of his pass coverage for the clean-up hit.