Notre Dame Football: Winners and Losers from the Season's First Month
Notre Dame's long bye week is now a thing of the past, as the focus turns to Miami (FL), whom the Irish will meet on Saturday night at Soldier Field in Chicago. However, as the calendar turns to October, let's take a final look back at an incredible September for Notre Dame, as the Irish swept the season's first month for the first time in a decade.
Not all was rosy in South Bend, but for the majority of those within the Fighting Irish program, it was a month to remember. Here are Notre Dame's September winners and losers.
Winner: Brian Kelly
No, the once-declared offensive guru hasn't turned Notre Dame into the Midwest version of Air Raid, but he has proven that he knows to build a major college program, just as he did in Division II, in the MAC and in the Big East. It starts with defense, and Kelly's Irish possess one of the best in the nation.
After a disappointing 8-5 2011 season, Notre Dame appears poised to become an annual BCS bowl (and whatever they're going to call the bowl structure in 2014) contender. The program is trending upward, both in the short and long term.
Loser: Tyler Eifert
Eifert had an up-and-down first month in what is expected to be his final season in South Bend, but September ended on a high note for the senior with a game-clinching catch against Michigan after not having caught a pass in almost two full games.
The shoddy play at quarterback has contributed to Eifert's relative invisibility in the passing game, and Kelly has admitted that the Irish must get No. 80 more involved as the season progresses. On a positive note, his blocking has improved significantly. We'll hear plenty from Eifert over the next two months.
Winner: Stephon Tuitt
Tuitt is perhaps the most physically dominant defender to come through South Bend since Chris Zorich. His combination of raw power and athleticism has done wonders to make Irish fans forget about that "other" top defensive line recruit in the 2011 class.
The Georgia native is in the top 10 in the nation in sacks per game and has gone from a promising freshman to a star sophomore. His primary strength is his ability to rush the passer from both the outside and through the "B" gap between the tackle and guard.
Loser: Everett Golson
The sophomore has shown why he was named the starting quarterback coming out of fall camp, but he has also been unable to finish Notre Dame's two most hotly contested games, missing the game-winning drive against Purdue and lasting only a quarter and a half against Michigan.
With Tommy Rees looking over his shoulder, Golson's confidence will be an issue to watch over the remainder of the season. He still lacks a full grasp of Kelly's offense, but is just too talented to keep off the field—unless, of course, he continues to turn the ball over like he did against the Wolverines.
Winner: Tommy Rees
Despite his offseason arrest, it's hard not to feel good for Rees, who handled the drama surrounding both his mistake and the quarterback derby with class. The much-maligned junior has played a key role in two of Notre Dame's victories and may see significant minutes in his "closer" role as the season progresses.
Notre Dame won't get to the level at which it wants to be with Rees, but he has the perfect combination of experience and demeanor for his current role. How much we see of Rees over the coming months remains to be seen, but for a player who was considered little more than an afterthought by most fans a month ago, it's been a remarkable start to the season.
Loser: Jamoris Slaughter
Slaughter was supposed to be the leader of a young secondary this season, but an Achilles' tendon injury against Michigan State ended his season and likely his Notre Dame career. He was expected to play a vital role in a hybrid strong safety/outside linebacker position, but it wasn't meant to be for the fifth-year senior.
Injuries are a part of football, but after going just 29-22 in his first four seasons, it's disappointing that Slaughter won't play a part (at least on the field) in what should be Notre Dame's best season during his time in South Bend.
Winner: Fighting Irish Fans
Everything that could have gone wrong for Notre Dame in 2011 did go wrong, leaving its worldwide legion of fans scratching its head as the national media deemed the program an antique. All has changed in the past month, as the Irish have climbed back to the top 10 of the polls for the first time in six years.
Notre Dame isn't in the same category as the Alabamas and LSUs of the world, but dreams of a potential BCS bowl that seemed impossible a month ago with a young team and a daunting schedule are becoming more realistic with each passing day.
Loser: Rick Reilly
The former Sports Illustrated backpage star penned a harsh critique of Notre Dame prior to the season, drawing a harsh reaction from Fighting Irish backers. The Irish have proven their relevance to be immortal, with a 4-0 start, massive television ratings and a new home in the ACC while remaining independent for football.
College football doesn't currently, and never will, have a level playing field. Notre Dame is who it is because of its history, tradition and uniqueness. While Reilly's argument was misguided regardless of Notre Dame's win-loss record, the 4-0 start has only added fuel to the fire for his critics.
Winner and Loser: Manti Te'o
Perhaps no player in college football has gone through more of an emotional rollercoaster this season than Te'o. On the field, he has been arguably the best defensive player in the country, even garnering early consideration for the Heisman Trophy, an award generally reserved for quarterbacks and running backs.
Off the field, however, it's a much more painful story. In the same week, Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend both passed away in his home of Hawaii. The senior played valiantly in wins against Michigan State and Michigan, and was able to spend part of the team's bye week back in Hawaii with his family.
The Notre Dame student section showed its support of Te'o by wearing leis to the game against the Wolverines. The linebacker has become the most popular player in recent Notre Dame history and has dealt with a personal tragedy in a relatively public forum. That's not easy for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old college student.