During the first two seasons of the Brian Kelly era there've been close-and-late situations vs. Michigan (three times), Michigan State, Purdue, Tulsa, USC, Wake Forest, Boston College, Pittsburgh (twice), Florida State, and most recently, Stanford, that brought fans to the edge of their seats -- some too nervous to watch, others shaking their heads at a contest that should have been sewn up long before.
Prior to Kelly, the last ride of Charlie Weis saw a remarkable 10 such contests in his final 12-game season -- an unofficial program record unlikely to be eclipsed.
But its been a shade under 10 years since a late-game situation mattered more in South Bend than did Saturday's vs. Stanford. Because unlike a similar goal line stand in the rain vs. Washington (2009), and unlike a satisfying fourth quarter comeback at Pittsburgh (2011), and unlike dozens of similar nail-biters along the way (four overtimes vs. Pittsburgh in 2008; overtime vs. Connecticut in 2009; a final gasp vs. Tulsa in 2010), the outcome of Saturday's see-saw affair vs. Stanford mattered to someone other than the diehard Irish fan.
Notre Dame Stadium was the center of the college football universe Saturday, at least from 6 p.m. ET until approximately 7:15 p.m. as the old-fashioned slugfest between the Irish and Cardinal came down to a fight for the final inch.
Throughout, Irish fans were graced with a crucial element missing from the bulk of their team's close games over the last decade-plus: nervous energy.
Not the nerves many feel because old Notre Dame must win overall (en route to a five or six loss season), but program-defining, season-changing, and yes, work-week altering nervous energy felt only by fans with the ultimate prize at stake:an undefeated season.
Notre Dame is halfway home to that unlikely end, its two most talented foes await, as do four games against lesser teams, one or two of which will likely rise up and play beyond its normal means for one Saturday with the Irish.
Notre Dame's staff and players can't afford to look past BYU, but Irish fans, and the occasional beat writer have no such limitations on their work week. With that, I present your first look at the second half of Notre Dame's 2012 slate:
Game #7 -- Brigham YoungThe Cougars boast the nation's No. 3 rush defense (one ranked higher than both Stanford and Notre Dame, as a point of comparison), and a head coach in Bronco Mendenhall that knows how to create confusion with his front seven.
Fortunate for the Irish, that front seven can't play both ways, and the Cougars offense stinks out loud, scoring 3, 6, 21, and 21 vs. the four teams its played with a beating pulse this fall. At 4-3, BYU's offense is far behind schedule, and its not one that can realistically challenge Notre Dame's top tier defense over 60 minutes.
First-half points and resulting breathing room will be at a premium for the heavily favored hosts.
Game #8 -- at OklahomaThe ninth-ranked Sooners beat rival (and former No. 15) Texas 63-21 Saturday. If the number "63" confuses you as an Irish fan, it could be because Notre Dame combined for 73 points in its four wins over rivals Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan, and Stanford.
Rather than overanalyzing the situation let's agree on the following -- Oklahoma's offense is light years ahead of anyone the Irish have faced through six weeks and Notre Dame's defense is superior to anything the Sooners have encountered over the last two football seasons.
Oh yeah, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops is about to improve his home record to 79-4 (SEVENTY-NINE and FOUR) when his team obliterates Charlie Weis and the Kansas Jayhawks in Norman. (Though one of the four losses occurred this season to Kansas State.)
I had this game slated as the toughest on the Irish schedule in August and it remains so today.
Game #9 -- PittsburghMy pre-season "trap game" for 2012 remains as such, though I no longer believe Notre Dame will lose to the up-and-(occasionally way)-down Panthers. But win or lose the previous week in Norman, head coach Brian Kelly will have a monumental mental task on his hands preparing his team for Pittsburgh: either keeping the crew focused despite its No. 2 or No. 3 national ranking, or getting his squad to respond with a strong week of practice after a disheartening defeat.
Often the latter is more difficult, despite fans' -- and bettors -- belief to the contrary.
Game #10 -- at Boston CollegeNotre Dame is going to annihilate Boston College. And to the two or three rational, existing diehard Eagles fans in the nation, I apologize for the blunt commentary regarding your failing program.
Game #11 -- Wake ForestThe greatest obstacle here is Senior Day and the resulting emotions that have felled many an Irish squad over the last 21 football seasons (14 wins, 7 losses, and in four of the 14 wins, narrow escapes vs. lesser foes).
The Demon Deacons have shown little ability to stop the run or move the football -- they're thus a tailor-made foe for the 2012 Irish and the game should in no way resemble last season's 24-17 nail-biter in Winston-Salem, though a quality head coach such as Jim Grobe will have his team prepared.
Game #12 -- at USCThe Trojans can get to the quarterback (fifth nationally in sacks), and can stop the run (ranked #23, or two spots ahead of Notre Dame) and allow just 18.5 points per game. None of the above bodes well for Notre Dame's sporadic offense.
Also in their favor is the toughest quartet of skill position talent on the Irish schedule: quarterback Matt Barkley, wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and Penn State transfer Silas Redd in the backfield.
USC will likely have a second loss on its ledger (Oregon) when the Irish come to town, allowing the Trojans to play spoiler vs. Notre Dame for the first time since 2000.
Anything other than a dogfight decided late in the fourth quarter would be a major surprise.
Six down, six to go. And plenty of nervous energy awaits.