Sunday, November 18, 2012

Irish One Win Away from National Championship Game

Beat SC. That refrain, which has been an annual tradition for the Fighting Irish for decades, now has a new meaning this year. After the crazy losses last night from Kansas State and Oregon, a win over USC is all that stands between presumptive #1 ND and an improbable berth in the national championship game. For a program that believed in itself from the start, this comes as no surprise and is merely the following through of a mantra that has been hammered home since Brian Kelly became coach. For the Irish faithful, one look at the toughest schedule in the country prior to the season had even the most ardent supporters wondering where the Irish would land. But you see, that's the best part of being a fan. We've endured two decades of Notre Dame futility, some of the worst years in the program's history. It's been a rough road, one that we all stuck to even as the clamoring of how Notre Dame will never succeed again, how they're irrelevant, and all other cries like that emerged. But that's what makes this so special. As a fan of the Fighting Irish, peering over the precipice to a potential national championship berth, realizing what we've been through as a program and a fanbase makes this all the more sweeter.

Just think about what this means for the senior class. United by their unquestioned leader, Manti Te'o, this program began their careers with some of Notre Dame's worst football. And yet their journey through adversity has brought them closer together and to this point right here, right now. Rising to become the #1 team in the country on senior day itself is just icing on the cake. For this class, yesterday was the culmination of 4 years of tough, arduous times. In 2009, their freshman seasons, the class went 6-6, showing how horribly a program had leveled off after a 3-9 campaign in 2007 and a 7-6 season in 2008. 

Te'o as he leaves the field at ND for the final time
After that 2009 season, the class endured a coaching change. In came Brian Kelly, a coach different in nearly every way from Charlie Weis, but perhaps most importantly in his experience and ability to develop a college football program. It was tough, with some mistakes along the way, but Kelly got this crucial senior class to buy into what he was selling. These players, recruited by the player-friendly Weis, eventually bought into Kelly, and the team went 8-5 in his first rebuilding season in 2010. Then last year, a crucial year for the program, showed how Notre Dame could win again in this modern era. The team was plagued by turnovers but clearly showed the promise that has been at the forefront this season. 

Flash forward again to this season. This class, and their influence on the younger guys, has been phenomenal. The Te'o effect trickles down to the furthest reaches of the program and has even started to extend into recruiting. Those guys stuck around, put their nose to the grindstone, and showed that a program like Notre Dame can be successful in the modern era. All of the haters - whether it be Mark May, Rick Reilly, Desmond Howard, or anyone else on the ESPN propaganda machine - now have to eat some major crow. Manti Te'o, Brian Kelly, and the rest of the leaders of this program showed that Notre Dame, an institution that cares about academics, tradition, excellence, and graduating its players, can compete in the national spotlight. All it took was a once in a generation leader, and like all other programs in college football, the right coach. 

It truly is amazing what Brian Kelly has done with this program. In only his third year, he's revitalized a program that was so bad, it was essentially written off by the college football universe. Think about the damage that was done to the program. When Kelly arrived, he had to institute basic major program things like a training table, strict practice regimens, strict weight training, and above all, attention to detail. His track record spoke for itself, but it took time to correct the bad habits of the previous regime. Finally, he has things moving in the direction he wants. He spoke before the season about how he felt he had a championship quality team. Yet, all of the "insiders" spoke about his preseason toughest schedule in the country and laughed at him. Now, Kelly stands tall, echoing the same sentiment that he has since he arrived: get better every day, and don't settle for anything besides championships. 

It's not going to be easy. USC, regardless if Matt Barkley is too injured to play, has all the talent in the world. There's a reason they were a preseason favorite to win the championship. They've been done in by a lack of depth, and most importantly, coaching and discipline. I would imagine that Lane Kiffin has taken a prime spot on the hot seat, as he has committed debacle after debacle in this long season. But really, none of that matters right now. USC is going to be fired up to try and end the championship aspirations of their hated rivals. It will be up to Kelly, Te'o and company to ensure that the team does what it has done all season - stay focused, concentrate, be disciplined, and play within the system. 

Speaking of that system, it was firing on all cylinders yesterday against Wake Forest. I understand that it was Wake Forest, and they looked supremely overmatched. But it was still a good game to get the offense in tune for the big push through the end of the season. And hey - at least it wasn't Alabama playing Western Carolina. Tough schedule there, good ole boys.

Golson has come along nicely this year
I thought the offense played closer to its potential yesterday. For various reasons, they have struggled to be consistent all year. I chalk most of it up to the inexperience and on-the-job training of Everett Golson, but really, it has been amazing to see him develop this season. I think the best throw he made yesterday wasn't the touchdowns, or the long strikes. It was a 10 yard throw to his 4th receiver for the first down. On that simple play, he showed how far he has come this season, as he looked left to his first two reads, then right to his third, and then final, read. I don't think he completes that throw even two weeks ago. His development is a testament to the hard work that he himself has put in, but also to the hands-on coaching done by Kelly.

The running game, a strength of the team all season long, shone once again. The trio of Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, and George Atkinson III have allowed the Irish to claim victory in the trenches for most of the season. Having such a solid running game has given Golson the opportunity to rely on it when he's struggling; in that way, it's almost like a crutch when he gets overwhelmed or is struggling to find a rhythm. Riddick and Wood are two more of that vaunted senior class. Both have had their ups and downs for their careers, but today showed the true characteristic of their fellow seniors - the ability to work through adversity.

Manti Te'o, Notre Dame Legend.
And then there is the Irish defense. Led by the captain cornerstones, Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore, the defense is the biggest reason the Irish are inching closer to a potential championship game berth. It was fitting that yesterday, the day they rose to number 1 in the rankings, and the last home game for this senior class, was the first shutout that the defense has had since their first game as freshmen. The defense, as the heart and soul of this team, stood as a microcosm of how these players have endured for four years and cemented the foundation of this program. After securing a shutout yesterday, the program had come full circle.

As Kelly would say, it is the players who make the program. Looking back through history, we all remember the great players and how they associate with great seasons and eras. With this season, we will forever identify it as the season Notre Dame returned to national prominence. We'll always remember that it was senior leaders like Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, and Kapron Lewis-Moore who got us there. It'll never be forgotten by this fanbase what Te'o did for this program, and how he united his team and drove them to achieve that one, solitary purpose: just win, every week, and the rest will take care of itself. That message, if carried out one more time this season, will lead the Irish to the National Championship game.