STANFORD, Calif. — As the Notre Dame team limped into the dark California night, you saw firsthand the injuries that have accumulated. After the Irish's hard-fought 27-20 loss to No. 8 Stanford, you couldn't help but notice the crutches and casts or the hobbles and limps as Notre Dame's disappointing season physically showed itself as players slowly made their way up the Stanford Stadium steps to the waiting team bus.
That body count rose on Saturday night, when senior left guard Chris Watt was lost early in the contest.
It's an injury that looked serious to head coach Brian Kelly, who wasn't ready to speculate if the injury would end Watt's career in South Bend. But it left an offensive line that begun the season with four upperclassmen with four first-year starters playing along with senior Zack Martin, the Irish ironman partnered with four guys greener than shamrocks.
Yet that youth is a large reason why things aren't all that glum for the Irish as they had back to South Bend.
For as depressing as another late-game swoon by Tommy Rees is, or another eight-win season after that middling number looked in the rear-view mirror, that the Irish were able to hang tough with a Top 10 team in one of college football's toughest venues, says quite a bit—even if Brian Kelly doesn't want to believe it.
"There’s no moral victories," Kelly said after the loss. "I’m very disappointed that we weren’t able to come up with a play and win the football game. We didn’t come down here to play a close game."
There are other places to read about why the Irish lost. The Cliffs Notes would include Rees' two fourth-quarter interceptions, Tyler Gaffney's 189 rushing yards and an Irish red-zone offense that needed seven instead of three.
But as the Irish spend the next few weeks preparing for a final bowl game with this senior class, they'd be wise to get a jump-start on a promising 2014.
When the semester ends, quarterback Everett Golson will be back with the Irish. While Kelly talked about Golson competing with freshman Malik Zaire for the starting job, nobody should be foolish enough to believe that.
With Golson back at quarterback, the Irish skill positions all of a sudden look scary. Sure, they'll need to replace T.J. Jones. But DaVaris Daniels showed you Saturday evening that he has all the skills needed to do the job.
Head down the depth chart and every receiver in the rotation could be back except Jones, and they all will take a step forward with a quarterback like Golson running the show, a dual-threat who'll open up defenses with the threat of running.
Of course, the running backs will benefit from Golson's return as well. While freshman Tarean Folston stepped forward to lead the running backs, Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle all return, with freshman Greg Bryant taking his redshirt off as well.
Also returning is the tight end duo of Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack. Crazy as it might seem, Niklas and Koyack have done a wonderful job replacing Tyler Eifert. Take a look at the production breakdown:
- Tyler Eifert (2012): 44 catches for 624 yards, 4 TDs
- Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack (2013): 37 catches for 580 yards, 8 TDs
Of the skill players on the Irish roster, only Jones and seldom-used injured senior Daniel Smith will depart.
The Irish will need to find replacements for Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, both of whom played valiantly on Saturday night, with Jarrett Grace likely healthy for spring practice. And while the departure of Louis Nix is all but assumed, Stephon Tuitt seems a better bet to return, a player who could anchor a defensive front that doesn't look as destitute as it did just eight days ago, when Jarron Jones was a mystery.
Replacing Bennett Jackson will be important, but seeing Cole Luke and Devin Butler in the secondary for the past few months gives you an idea the staff is comfortable with the replacements. Add in Max Redfield, who will have an entire offseason to battle Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth for the safety job, and you get the feeling that Bob Diaco and Co. will cobble something together that's likely better than this season's underachieving group.
Perhaps one place where the Irish will grow more than anywhere is through experience.
Jaylon Smith will likely enter next season as a preseason All-American. If Tuitt returns, that's another. Sheldon Day has played like the standout Kelly expected since day one, though an ankle injury has robbed him of production. Yet Day has the makings of an explosive terror up front.
As the Irish look down the barrel of an 8-4 season, there's no reason to stare into the abyss wondering if the Irish will fall back into the pit of mediocrity that's consumed the program since Lou Holtz retired. The effort against Stanford, with a duct-taped team and a makeshift defense, lets you know the foundation is too strong to collapse.
And while it does nothing to take back the missed opportunities in 2013, the injury-plagued year could be the groundwork for an exciting 2014 run.
Irish fans will just have to wait nine months to see if it comes true.