When it Mattered Most

In a two-part column, IrishEyes reviews the incredible individual effort put forth by wide receiver Golden Tate last season, and offers a historical look at the greatest individual performances of the program's stars that preceded him.

The 2010 NFL Draft Combine begins next week and Golden Tate will be measured to ensure he approaches his generous 5'11" 195-pound listing. He'll be asked to jump vertically and touch a target (or maybe they should put a football about five feet above his head and see what happens?) and he'll be asked to jump horizontally (see photo below).

He'll run through cones (Washington Huskies not included); they'll test his strength (see: Mays, Taylor, for a testimonial); his body fat (no comment) and his ability to catch the football (none needed).

Ultimately, Tate's 40-yard dash time will help determine his future NFL home (fans in Pittsburgh can likely give the best estimate). But it's his unique playmaking ability when the pads are on and the bullets are live that separate Golden Tate from the workout warriors and more important, from defensive backs everywhere.

Statistics, especially passing stats in the modern era of college football, can be misleading. Yardage is routinely gained when a team is hopelessly behind; when it's constantly attempting to come back from a two-touchdown or greater deficit late; or when it simply can't find a meaningful contribution from its own running game.

Which is why Golden Tate's 2009 Notre Dame season is remarkable.

Half-Man, Half-Amazing

Tate finished with 1,496 receiving yards (a school-record). Just 15 of those 1,496 yards were earned with the outcome of the game already decided. Fifteen.

Notre Dame played 10 games "close-and-late" in 2009. In the team's two blowout wins over Nevada and Washington State, Tate totaled seven receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown, with 15 yards occurring on an early 4th Quarter catch in the season opener vs. the Wolf Pack. The rest of Tate's damage was done when the Irish needed it most.

The junior from Hendersonville, TN scored 18 touchdowns in '09: 15 receiving (tied a school record); two rushing, and one on a crucial 89-yard punt return to draw the Irish to within five points of Pittsburgh midway through the final period at Heinz Field. Those 18 scores rank as the highest total all-time for a non-running back at the school and tie him with former tailback Allen Pinkett (who scored 18 in both 1983-84) for the second-highest single-season total in team history behind Jerome Bettis' 20-TD performance in 1992.

Tate caught 97 passes, shattering the previous record of 78 set by Jeff Samardzija in 2006 and averaged a robust 16.1 yards per catch. His nine 100-yard receiving games broke a school record that had stood for nearly four decades.

Second-Fiddle?

In his Sunday press conference following the season-opener vs. Nevada, then-Irish head coach Charlie Weis was asked if sophomore receiver Michael Floyd (he of the 4-reception/189-yard/3 TD opening effort) had a chance to go down as the greatest wide receiver in program history.

"Golden would disagree with you," Weis immediately offered.

In the 5.5 games (11 halves) that Floyd missed due to a broken clavicle, Tate produced a staggering 42 receptions for 743 yards and seven touchdowns. The all-purpose star added 16 rushes for 148 yards and two touchdowns in those contests. The Irish won five games (including a 2nd half comeback win over Michigan State after Floyd went down) and lost just once in that span.

The high-point was a sublime 244-yard, 9-reception effort vs. Washington in Notre Dame's 37-30 overtime win over the Huskies. The 244 yards marked the second highest total (behind Jim Seymour's 276-yard effort vs. Purdue in 1966) in team history.

Tate, boisterous and confident on the field (and after plays) was his usual collected self in the post-game Q&A that afternoon.

"I think I had a decent day," Tate offered of his near-record effort. "I think some other guys came up big and opened it up for me but you know we had a great game plan going into the game so I think we executed it fairly well."

Tate's evolution as a leader began the moment Floyd was lost to injury vs. Michigan State in Week Three, offering these sage words of advice to his less-established position mates:

"Enjoy tonight with your family and friends," he explained after the victory over the Spartans. "But come tomorrow, come ready to play. I (told the players) ‘You're about to get a chance now, and we need you. I think we're capable…we need Michael, he's one of the best receivers in the nation, but I still think we can be special."

"Special" is one way opposing coaches described Tate after their teams matched up with the superstar between the lines.

"He's a true playmaker," noted USC head coach Pete Carroll of Tate in the days following the receiver's 8-catch/117-yard/2 TD performance vs. his club. He has extraordinary confidence in his own ability to make things happen.

"He was running full speed 40 yards down the field, and he hit it and got up off the ground and needed every bit of that elevation to make the play. That's big time stuff. That's reminiscent of Lynn Swann going over top guys in Super Bowls. Those are fantastic athletic demonstrations."

The Future

If doubt remains regarding Tate's ability to make the jump to the next level and thrive as an undersized target in a league in which the tall, 220-plus pound receiver is en vogue, consider Tate's own words:

"Every day I come out and try to play like it's my last play…"

Some lead through fire and brimstone speeches; others with a calming influence in the huddle. Golden Tate led by example; a player who followed the team's pre-season mantra of "proving it on the field." He'll continue to do so on Sunday afternoons in a city near you.

Note: Part II of this column reviews the top single-season efforts by Notre Dame ball carriers and receivers over the last 45 years


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