Notre Dame Football: Top 10 "What Ifs" of the 2010 Season

Matt MooneyCorrespondent IDecember 6, 2010

Notre Dame Football: Top 10 "What Ifs" of the 2010 Season

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    During the course of a football season, there are moments that stand out as turning points or key events that seemingly alter a team's trajectory.

    The 2010 season for Notre Dame was a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs and correspondingly also has several of those same turning point moments.

    Ultimately, the Irish finished with a 7-5 record, winning their last three games behind a stonewalling defense and opportunistic offense. But what if one or any of those moments had turned out differently?

    While it is impossible to predict what the Irish season would have been, here are the top 10 "What Ifs" to Notre Dame's 2010 season.

What If David Ruffer Made the PAT Against Tulsa?

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    Ruffer was Notre Dame's most consistent player all season, but a blocked point-after-touchdown attempt on the first Irish touchdown was returned by Tulsa for a two-point defensive PAT.

    Fluky plays like this one give underdogs the feeling that they are destined to win a game, and Tulsa fed on such plays later in the game as well with both punt and interception returns for touchdowns.

    This play should have been a routine extra point, but instead it turned into a momentum builder that ultimately led Tulsa to a huge upset over the Irish.



    Would sustained momentum have allowed the Irish to crush upstart Tulsa?

    Would Tulsa have made other big plays without this one first?

What If Brian Kelly Kicked the Field Goal Against Michigan?

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    This is the first of two "what ifs" of Kelly's coaching decisions, both related to decisions on field goals.

    In this instance, Notre Dame was desperate to escape the first half against Michigan after Dayne Crist was injured. Both backup quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Nate Montana did not look effective.

    Kelly wasted a gift completion from Montana to Theo Riddick at the Michigan 3-yard line with three seconds left in the half by electing to try to pass for the touchdown. Montana's throw sailed high and uncatchable out of the end zone.



    Would the three points have given Notre Dame the momentum or difference needed to overcome the Wolverines?

    Would Notre Dame fans have gone easier on Kelly for a loss without controversial risk taking?

What If Dayne Crist Wasn't Injured Against Tulsa?

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    When Crist went down on Notre Dame's second offensive possession against Tulsa, Irish fans saw the rest of the 2010 season playing out like the second quarter against Michigan—a train wreck.

    Rees, however, fully embraced his opportunity, throwing four touchdown passes to give the Irish a 27-18 lead in the third quarter.

    His two interceptions did prove costly, especially his final one at the end of the game, but he showed the mental fortitude to overcome those setback and lead Notre Dame to three straight victories at the end of the regular season.



    Would Rees still be riding the bench as a virtual unknown?

    Would Notre Dame's offense finally have found a groove as it did under Rees?

What If Robert Blanton Doesn't Block Utah's Punt?

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    It would be difficult to say that Notre Dame's 3-0 finish to the 2010 season hinged on one play, but to make that case, this play is the best candidate.

    Following the Irish's crushing loss to Tulsa at home, Utah came to Notre Dame Stadium as the No. 15-ranked team in the country.

    Not much was expected of the Irish in this game, but Blanton's blocked punt was a defibrillator on the Irish season. It jolted them back to life and showed them that they could make the big plays needed to win games.



    Would Notre Dame have beaten Utah?

    Would another disappointing loss have sent the Irish into a tailspin?

What If Harrison Smith Hadn't Slipped on Michigan State's Fake Field Goal?

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    It was a call so gutsy it would have made Les Miles think twice about it.

    Yet even when the holder picked up the ball to throw, Notre Dame wasn't completely fooled. The coverage was there, and the other players were lining up the holder in their sights.

    It was not to be. Harrison Smith got tangled up at the line, leaving his man wide open; the rest is history.




    Would the win have given Notre Dame the positive momentum to beat Stanford?

    Would Michigan State have recovered to finish as a Top 10 team and co-Big Ten champions?

What If Dayne Crist Wasn't Injured on the First Drive Against Michigan?

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    In the opening series of the second game of the season, Notre Dame's offense looked like it was going to pick up right where it left off against Purdue and send the Michigan Wolverines out of South Bend with first-class beatdown.

    Ironically, Crist ran into the end zone four plays earlier, but a questionable illegal block penalty negated the touchdown. Fatefully, a head-on collision on the subsequent quarterback sneak provided a score but completely stalled Notre Dame's momentum in the game.

    Crist would eventually return in the second half, but the damage had been done.



    Would Notre Dame have blown out Michigan?

    Would Denard Robinson have been better contained by a Notre Dame team not shell-shocked from losing its starting quarterback?

What If the Scissor Lift Hadn't Toppled Over?

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    Aside from the obvious point that a Notre Dame student would still be alive, and both a family and a school would have been spared their grief, the season could have been very different for the Irish had Declan Sullivan not died in the scissor lift accident.

    His death during the week of the Tulsa game immediately preceded the low point of the Irish season. After that, the team seemed to rally together and around their embattled coaching staff.




    Would the Irish have lost to Tulsa?

    Would the team have found the strength forged by adversity to win their last three games?

What If Kyle Rudolph Had Been Healthy for More Than Two Games?

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    It's difficult to replace any starter, much less an All-American-caliber tight end. His impact in those first two games was unmistakable, leading the team in receptions and touchdowns.

    Tyler Eifert rose to the challenge as well as could be expected of a sophomore, but Rudolph's presence on the field forcing defenses to account for him was certainly missed.



    Would Rudolph have allowed Rees a better safety valve to limit his interceptions?

    Would Rudolph almost certainly be leaving for the NFL?

What If Brian Kelly Played It Safe Against Tulsa?

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The most glaring mistake Kelly made in his first season as head coach was calling for a pass play for his true freshman quarterback with less than one minute to go despite being well in range for star kicker David Ruffer.

    The Tulsa game was a classic case of Murphy's Law for Notre Dame.



    Would Kelly have saved some credibility with Irish fans without his infamous "get used to it" quote?

    Would Ruffer have made the field goal?

What If Ronald Johnson Hadn't Dropped the Ball?

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    There's no need to say which ball—it was The Ball.

    It was The Ball that would have given Southern Cal yet another heartbreaking victory over Notre Dame. It was The Ball that would have made yet another unheralded quarterback, Mitch Mustain, a SportsCenter darling.

    It was The Ball that would once again have crushed the spirits of an Irish team in desperate need of a rivalry win.




    Would Kelly be back on the hot seat?

    Would Notre Dame's recruiting have fallen off a cliff?