One thing that has not been mentioned this year is the experience that this team had coming into the season. The first team offense consist of a senior wide receiver, a senior tight end, 5 senior offensive lineman, and a senior fullback. On the first team defense you have 3 senior lineman, a senior linebacker, and 3 senior defensive backs. That amounts to 15 seniors out of 22 starting players. You can also include the kickers Nick Setta and Joey Hilbold into that category along with junior Carlyle Holiday who is THE TEAM LEADER. All of this adds up a ton of leadership, which comes from years of experience.
This leadership has been on display all year, starting with 5 field goals by senior Nick Setta against Maryland and three interceptions by senior defensive back Shane Walton. When Purdue stormed back after being down 17 points to tie the game, the Irish not only maintained their composure, but turned the intensity up a notch. The result, an interception returned for a touchdown by Vontez Duff.
Against Michigan when Holiday threw a pick that went the other way, the team and Holiday did not flinch. They closed the half with a led. When Michigan came back to take a lead, Holiday lead the team right back down the field with two big passes to Omar Jenkins to regain the lead. Again, this team's leadership was tested after Michigan scored and was getting ready to attempt a two-point conversion. An alert senior cornerback, Shane Walton called a time out to make sure Notre Dame did not play one man short. Then Walton went out and made a play that prevented a tie game. He later came back and sealed the game with an interception.
How does a team recover from losing an 11 point lead in a fourth quarter on the road with the ultimate team leader sidelined with a shoulder injury? You do it with the leadership from the senior All-American Jeff Faine and from the team game breaker Senior Arnaz Battle. How fitting was it that Battle after all he has gone through was the one who was racing down field with the game in his hands. And then on the following Michigan State possession, it was senior defensive end Ryan Roberts getting his second sack of the game at a crucial moment. The sacked allowed the clock to continue to run and forced Michigan State to throw a Hail Mary that landed in the hands of senior safety Gerome Sapp.
Against Pittsburgh, it was a touchdown catch by Battle and a fumble caused by senior safety Glenn Earl that proved the difference. Against Air Force the difference makers were senior lineman Cedric Hillard and Sapp who both turned in huge games. And the Irish offensive line that consist of 5 seniors that opened up holes so big that sophomore running back Ryan Grant was not touched until he was already ten yards up field.
All of this was on display against Florida State from the very beginning. Battle scores on the first play from scrimmage and builds a 10-3 lead on kick, the first of two by senior Nick Setta, who had been in one of his worst slumps ever. When Florida State tied the game up after scoring a touchdown on a drive in which the referees blew a call by ruling a fumble as an incomplete pass, the Irish didn't walk into the locker room with there heads down. They kept their heads up and came out and made the definitive statement of this college football season. Senior linebacker Courtney Watson intercepts a Chris Rix pass and sets up a field goal by Setta. On the next two possessions FSU fumbles leading to a touchdown run by Grant and another on a Holiday pass to Jenkins, that happens to be the best play of the year in my eyes. After this, is when you see the striking difference between the Fighting Irish and the Seminoles. While the Notre Dame players were playing their hearts out and pulling for one another, the Florida State players were pointing fingers and thinking of excuses to use in the post game.
But the biggest difference between the two teams is at the quarterback position. Both teams are lead by redshirt sophomores. Rix might have the better numbers this year, but I take Holiday on my team any day. The records speak for themselves. Holiday never waivers or flinches in the face of pressure. He never gets down on himself or points fingers at his teammates. How many times have you seen a blitz bring Holiday down. Or after his two fumbles against Air Force put the team down 7-0 and he simply ties it up with a big time run. The team has developed along with Holiday. He has completed over 60% of his passes since he returned from his injury. He seems to be making quicker and better decisions. He is starting to trust his players and the play calling. This was evident in the touchdown pass to Jenkins. Holiday quickly checked off on the underneath patterns and trusted Jenkins would get open. Holiday threw the ball to a spot and allowed his receiver to make a play. He has come a long way as a quarterback, but he has been a leader from the beginning.
But even a senior laden team does not always translate into a leadership laden team. What this team needed was someone who could build confidence and give them purpose. Enter Tyrone Willingham. Last year Bob Davie constantly made excuses for a mediocre team. He said that there wasn't enough talent, that the schedule was too tough, that the academics were too stringent. Willingham came in and said that Notre Dame was going to win and win now. There was no 5-year plan. He said that the Irish would win with what they had. He refused to talk about who was not there, only about who was there. A team takes on the personality of its coach. Willingham gave this team purpose and that purpose was to win now and to RETURN TO GLORY. So thank you Tyrone Willingham for making this season so special. No matter what happens from here on out, it has been one hell of a ride.