Notre Dame Football: Magical 2012 Ends for Irish with Heisman Disappointment

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Notre Dame Football: Magical 2012 Ends for Irish with Heisman Disappointment
USA TODAY Sports

The football calender year of 2012 ended tonight on the stage of the Best Buy Theater in New York with the presentation of the Heisman Trophy.

Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M proved the winner of the Trophy, but the disappointment should not cut too deep.

Manti Te'o is the best player on the best team in the nation. He is the emotional core of a fantastic defense and is one of the best young men to ever strap on a football helmet. His impact cannot be measured, and he will be truly missed.

It is possible that the second-place finish at the Heisman Ceremony, along with the slightly sickening, condescending overconfidence pouring out of SEC country, will give the Irish the emotional edge necessary to slay the mighty beast.

But that is next year.

2013 will begin on the grandest of stages, the BCS Championship game against apparently unbeatable Alabama in Miami.

The year that just passed began in turmoil but has ended with the Irish atop the mountain, ranked No. 1 and holding an unblemished 12-0 mark.

It seems so long ago that the early news of 2012 was of recruiting defections. Deonte Greenberry, Ronald Darby, Taylor Decker and Tee Shepard all were at one point committed recruits expected to contribute immediately, and all ended up not enrolling at the University.

Shortly after the Blue and Gold game, stand-out sophomore defensive end Aaron Lynch stunned the program by electing to leave and return home to the Bulls of South Florida.

Before Irish faithful could catch a breath, a party was broken up by South Bend police, and 2011 starters QB Tommy Rees and LB Carlo Calabrese were arrested with suspensions and possible expulsion looming.

Just prior to the season opener, starting tailback Cierre Wood was also suspended for the first two games for unreleased reasons.

Unranked Notre Dame headed to Ireland to face Navy with new starters at quarterback, running back, receiver and an entirely new secondary, including a pair of freshmen.

Beyond the date with the Midshipmen in Dublin, the Irish's schedule seemed too daunting to navigate: No. 1 USC, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 8 Michigan, No. 13 Michigan State and No. 21 Stanford.

They augmented those heavyweights with the triple option of Navy, the strong defense of Purdue, the dynamic offense of Miami and the five wide looks and solid defense of BYU.

Most pundits predicted a four- or five-loss season and a continuation of the mediocrity that had become the norm at Notre Dame over the last dozen seasons.

The season started off predictably enough, with Notre Dame physically dominating Navy from start to finish, rolling to an easy win across the sea.

In game two against Purdue at home, the Irish seemed sluggish. Unable to gain traction running the ball, inconsistent passing and allowing the Boilers to tie the game late, it took a last second drive engineered by embattled junior Tommy Rees setting up the game winning field goal.

Looking unimpressive against a Purdue team that should have been more easily beaten did little to sway pollsters or odds-makers, and Notre Dame entered the season's third game heavy underdogs to Michigan State.

Sparty was thought to possess a superior defense and a punishing running game that would beat the Irish into submission and expose the shortcomings of Notre Dame's inexperienced offense.

Instead, Notre Dame made its first statement win of the year.

Notre Dame dominated the game and won rather easily.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Week 4 brought Michigan in prime time.

Behind an emotional lift for Manti Te'o from a laid-out Notre Dame student body after the death of his girlfriend and grandmother just hours apart and another relief appearance by Tommy Rees, the Irish finally got the Denard Robinson monkey off their collective back. They held the vaunted Michigan offense out of the end zone, winning 13-6.

For the first time in recent memory, the Irish ran the Big Ten portion of the schedule unscathed, and voters began to notice.

Notre Dame first defended its top 10 rank with a thrashing of Miami in Chicago. The Hurricane offense came in averaging 41 points per contest and scored three. Notre Dame rushed for 376 yards and surpassed 40 points for the second time in the blowout.

Next came Stanford.

On a rain-soaked field, the game looked like the stalemate that the scoreboard suggested it was. The Irish needed a comeback drive led by Everett Golson to tie the game late, then a go-ahead score in overtime by Tommy Rees.

On Stanford's overtime possession, the Cardinal rode Stephon Taylor to the Notre Dame goal line but could not cross. Four runs from inside the Irish five ended in a soggy goal-line stand, which announced that the Irish defense was not only great, but one for the ages.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The defense held opponents out of the end zone for 16 consecutive quarters and one overtime.

Notre Dame survived its first trap game in game six against a solid but not great BYU team, who proved a tough matchup for the Irish offense without starter Everett Golson due to lingering concussion symptoms.

The game was ugly, but in the end, the Tommy Rees-led Irish did enough to win.

Again, an underwhelming win against an opponent that the Irish should have (on paper) dispatched easily led to a week of chatter that a higher-ranked Notre Dame would be dominated and exposed by the firepower of Oklahoma.

As Lee Corso is fond of saying, "Not so fast my friend!"

Notre Dame held Oklahoma to 15 rushing yards and 13 offensive points while rushing for over 200 and rolling up 30 points on the heavily favored Sooners.

The Irish rose inside the top five for the first time since the second week of 2006.

Notre Dame escaped a true letdown against 4-4 Pittsburgh in game nine.

The Panthers were the first team in 2012 to run on Notre Dame. The Panthers ran for 144 yards and held a 20-6 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Everett Golson then sprang to life, leading a pair of late touchdown drives and tying the score with a touchdown pass to Theo Riddick and running in for the two-point conversion.

For several years, luck has been decidedly against the Irish, as every bounce of the ball seemed to end up in an opponent's hands, running 99 yards the other way for a touchdown.

But on this Saturday, luck was with Notre Dame.

In the second overtime, Cierre Wood fumbled crossing the goal line, setting up Pittsburgh for a winning field goal.

The perfect season seemed destined to end as the Panthers lined up for a 25-yard field goal. And then it faded wide right.

Notre Dame capitalized with the game-winning score in the third overtime, and the march to perfection continued.

Games eight and nine went as planned, as over-matched opponents were summarily dispatched by a combined total of 59-6.

As Wake Forest fell to the Irish, so fell No.1 Kansas State to Baylor and No. 2 Oregon to Stanford.

For the first time since November of 1993, Notre Dame rose to the top ranking, and the light atop Grace Hall was lit.

In 1993, after dispatching top ranked Florida State themselves, the Irish held the top spot for only seven days before falling to Boston College.

This year, the Irish would defend their No.1 ranking against arch-nemesis USC in Los Angeles.

The Trojans would not have have their leader, senior quarterback Matt Barkley, but would go instead with redshirt freshman Max Wittek at the helm of the high-powered Trojan attack.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame held the Trojans under 100 yards rushing and, in conjunction with some simply terrible game management by coach Lane Kiffin, held the Trojans to 13 points in a nine-point victory that secured the Irish's ticket to the BCS Championship game.

Still, somehow it seems as though 12-0 was not impressive enough.

The Irish dispatched bowl-eligible teams in Navy (8-4), Purdue (6-6), Michigan State (6-6), Michigan (8-4), Miami (7-5), Stanford (11-2), BYU (7-5), Oklahoma (10-2), Pittsburgh (6-6) and USC (7-5).

In fact, all of Notre Dame's first eight opponents will be playing in bowl games.

Crimson Tide fans have taken to wearing t-shirts proclaiming, "better good than lucky." And they expect to blow the Irish off the field come January.

This season—and history—is littered with teams who have underestimated Notre Dame.

2012 was a fantastic year for Notre Dame. The program not only turned a corner but also slammed the "Are they back?" pitch out of the park. Not only is the program back in the discussion, but with youth in key positions and yearly quality recruiting, it is poised to be in the discussion every year for the foreseeable future.

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