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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Notre Dame (8-5, 0-0)

In chronological order, every Notre Dame turnover on the 2011 season:

South Florida (L, 23-30)
1. Fumble. Returned 96 yards for a touchdown.
2. Interception. In U.S.F. end zone.
3. Fumble. Bulls recover at Notre Dame 20-yard line.
4. Interception. Inside the red zone.
5. Interception. Bulls takes over at its 30.

Michigan (L, 35-31)
6. Interception. Wolverines takes over at near midfield.
7. Interception. Inside the red zone.
8. Fumble. Michigan takes over at its 29.
9. Fumble. Inside the red zone.
10. Fumble. Recovered at Notre Dame 14 as time expired.

Michigan State (W, 31-13)
11. Fumble. Recovered at Notre Dame 46.
12. Interception. Returned to Notre Dame 27.
13. Fumble. Recovered at Notre Dame 21.

Pittsburgh (W, 15-12)
14. Fumble. Recovered at Notre Dame 23.
15. Interception. On the goal line.

Purdue (W, 38-10)

Air Force (W, 59-33)

U.S.C. (L, 31-17)
16. Fumble. Returned 80 yards for a touchdown.
17. Fumble. Recovered at Notre Dame 18.
18. Interception. Returned to Notre Dame 49.

Navy (W, 56-14)
19. Fumble. Recovered at Navy 27.
20. Interception. Returned to Notre Dame 26.

Wake Forest (W, 24-17)
21. Interception. Returned to Wake Forest 21.
22. Interception. Returned to Notre Dame 24.

Maryland (W, 45-21)

Boston College (W, 16-14)
23. Interception. Returned to Notre Dame 48.

Stanford (L, 28-14)
24. Fumble. Recovered at Stanford 30.
25. Interception. Returned to Stanford 36.
26. Interception. Returned to Notre Dame 35.

Florida State (L, 18-14)
27. Interception. In the end zone.
28. Interception. Returned to Notre Dame 18.
29. Interception. In the end zone.

Season grade: C+ Turnovers. How many lost games? Giveaways led to South Florida’s upset — one that looked worse and worse as the year worse on — in the season opener. Giveaways allowed Michigan to hang around long enough to post its fourth quarter comeback. Giveaways broke Notre Dame’s heart in U.S.C.’s 14-point win. Giveaways blew any chance the Fighting Irish had of knocking off Stanford in Andrew Luck’s final game in Palo Alto. And giveaways allowed Florida State to take and hold the lead in the fourth quarter in the Champs Sports Bowl. So where would Notre Dame have been had it been to control its turnovers? It meant the difference in at least two defeats; with those wins — South Florida and Michigan, let’s say — Notre Dame is playing in a B.C.S. bowl. Instead, the Irish notched eight wins for the second consecutive season under Brian Kelly.

High point A 31-13 win over Michigan State on Sept. 17. At the time, it was a much-needed win after the disastrous 0-2 start. Two months later, it remained Notre Dame’s finest win on the season — by a wide margin.

Low point There were no moral victories; there haven’t been moral victories in South Bend in, well, a century. But the 31-17 home loss to U.S.C. stings more than most: as many have suggested, the Irish did not leave it all on the field in the fourth quarter.

Offensive M.V.P. I’m tempted to show some love to running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray; for the first time in many, many years, Notre Dame could balance out its passing attack with a healthy running game. That pair combined for 1,893 yards — led by Wood’s team-leading 1,102 — and 21 touchdowns. In comparison, the Irish rushed for 963 yards and 11 touchdowns as a team in 2007. The pick, however, is clearly wide receiver Michael Floyd, who capped his record-setting career with 100 receptions for 1,147 yards and 9 scores. All totals, as you’d imagine, led the team.

Defensive M.V.P. When given the option of running towards or away from linebacker Manti Te’o, offenses would clearly select the latter; away, away, away. There are two issues with that sort of game plan: Te’o plays inside, for starters, and his size belies the sideline-to-sideline ability that makes him such a perfect fit for Notre Dame’s 3-4 defense. Te’o was a menace in 2011, fulfilling the sort of promise that accompanied his arrival in 2009, and that he opted to return for his senior season should allow this defense to take another step forward in 2012.

Stock watch Two major issues: quarterback and turnovers. Both may be settled in one fell swoop, should incoming freshman Gunner Kiel show a Matt Barkley-like ability to step right and claim the starting role. But even then, even if Kiel is a better option than Tommy Rees or Andrew Hendrix, Notre Dame’s turnover issue won’t be settled overnight — starting a true freshman quarterback typically adds turnovers, actually. Are the Fighting Irish ready to break through in 2012? Yes, but with four fairly significant stipulations: one, the offense must throw the ball with more consistency, and do so without Floyd at receiver; two, the offense as a whole must be more productive in the red zone; three, the running game must continue to take pressure off the passing game; and four, the defense must do a better job against the run. In short, don’t start booking for a B.C.S. bowl just yet. But the Irish are closer to a double-digit win season than most believe.

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  1. BobJ says:

    Looking at the ND schedule for 2012, I see eight wins and two losses (Oklahoma and USC). The turning point will be what they do against the two Michigans back to back in September.

    Still, some of those eight wins need to be against problematic teams the Irish play at home (Miami (FL), Stanford, Pittsburgh). They’re games that a B.C.S. bowl-hopeful team wins. We’ll see.

    Paul: Topic of the next post. Stealing my thunder. Pretty much says the same thing.

  2. Bobak says:

    With the schedule ND takes on, even though they’ve supposedly lightened it a bit, it’s hard to have days off. As a USC fan I grudgingly acknowledge that the only three teams in FBS that have never played a lower division team since the 1-A/1-AA split are the Trojans and their main rivals Notre Dame and UCLA. U-Dub and Michigan State were in that club but they gave up the challenge for an easy “W” in the last several years.

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