Notre Dame Football: 2011 Season Hinges on Bowl Win

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Notre Dame Football: 2011 Season Hinges on Bowl Win
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 2011 campaign for the Notre Dame football team came to an end Saturday night with a resounding splat into the lipid that was meant to pass for a football field at Stanford Stadium.

The Irish were beaten 28-14 by a really good Stanford team and their probable Heisman winning quarterback, but despite being physically handled it still felt like the same old song for Notre Dame.

Three more turnovers, inopportune penalties and more ineffective play from the special teams units did as much to prevent the Irish from having any chance to win as any member of the Cardinal.

Add into the equation another demonstration of how not to play quarterback, and a regular season loss was ensured.

The only positives were the play of Michael Floyd and sophomore replacement quarterback Andrew Hendrix, who despite existing only on the side of a milk carton since the USC game managed to breath life into the left-for-dead Irish offense.

Let's just call it a bad night.

Notre Dame's brief stay in the top 25 is over, as is any last prayer of fulfilling the preseason prediction of a BCS birth.

With that measuring stick gone, judging a progression in year two of the Brian Kelly era becomes a bit more difficult.

Notre Dame ended the 2010 regular season with a 7-5 record, so in that regard a one-game improvement is easy to see as a step in the right direction.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Better for Notre Dame is that in 2010, the "signature win" was a 28-3 win over a ranked Utah team that finished 10-3. This year it was the 31-13 win over Michigan State who is currently ranked No. 13 and a probable BCS team playing in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.

A closer look at the schedule also lends to the idea that Notre Dame is trending in the right direction.

A blow out loss to Navy was reversed, as was the Michigan State final. There was not a "Tulsa" loss, where the Irish fell to a far inferior team, and in most all games against inferior opponents the Irish delivered a blow-out victory.

The games that Notre Dame did lose were to teams that should not institute shame.

The only truly questionable loss was the opener to South Florida, and the rest were to No. 15 Michigan (10-2), USC (10-2 and only unranked because of sanctions), and No. 4 Stanford (11-1).

Still, what is most frustrating is that in the losses, as well as a couple of the Irish wins, there was the feeling that Notre Dame was the only team that was beating Notre Dame.

In the four losses Notre Dame turned the ball over 16 times. Two fumbles were directly returned 98 yards for touchdowns.

On the season Notre Dame returned punts for 3 yards. Not an average of 3 yards...but a total. All season.

The biggest culprit, or most philanthropic member of the Irish squad was quarterback Tommy Rees.

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Rees seemed to be the poster child for Notre Dame inconsistency, and in all reality was largely to blame.

Hardly dreadful, Rees had moments of down-right goodness.

He connected on 65.9 percent of his throws for 2708 yards with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Rees led a game winning scoring drive at Pittsburgh, and what should have been a game winner at Michigan were it not for a defensive meltdown.

Still, Rees was quickly solved by opposing defenses.

Pittsburgh began the blue print, by pressuring Rees and preventing the short outside routes they showed that he's not likely to break the pocket and hurt you on the edge, and seems uncomfortable in throwing the deep ball.

The saving grace was the sudden emergence of the rushing attack, with senior Jonas Gray coming to life and carrying the Irish at Heinz Field until Rees managed to solve the Pitt defense on the final possession.

USC employed the same strategy, holding Rees under 200 yards passing, without a touchdown, and with a QB rating under 100 for the first time in 2011.

Boston College altered the blue print again by essentially stacking the box, keeping eight defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and pressuring straight up the middle.

They forced Rees out of the pocket and made him uncomfortable all day.

Once Jonas Gray left the game with what turned out to be a soul-crushing season ending ACL tear, the Irish offense went into clock mode and narrowly held on to beat the Eagles.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Stanford perfected the Rees defense, and by halftime of the finale, Rees joined his predecessor Crist on the bench in favor of highly mobile Andrew Hendrix. 

In a way, although both the running game and the over all defense are clearly measurably better than a year ago (rushing plus-300 yards and plus-1 yard per carry with one game remaining, defense ranked 30th, up more than 30 places from 2010) the quarterback dilemma best defines the season.

The plan was to play Crist all year, then move to Hendrix or Golson a year from now.

Crist flamed out in the first half of the first game, and the plan—much like Notre Dame's BCS expectations—was shattered.

Rees came in and played well enough not to lose, but not necessarily good enough to win at a high level. Hendrix was being brought on slowly and given a taste, but in all reality Kelly was left with no option other than Rees, who was the only game-ready QB beyond Crist.

Thirty minutes into the season, and it was off the rails.

Credit the team for regrouping and pounding a good Michigan State team, as well as reeling off four straight wins over two stretches.

By most measures, the 2011 team was better than the 2010 team.

Still it feels hollow.

The team all year looked better. They played faster and stronger. They were competitive in every game and never looked as bad as a year ago against Navy, Stanford or Tulsa.

Still the record could be the same.

Standing 8-4, off of an 8-5 season heading into a probable meeting with Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, a win and the season will look like a success at 9-4. Lose and Notre Dame finds themselves exactly where they were a year ago.

Should 2012's spring practice sessions begin coming off of an 8-5 season, with a quarterback controversy brewing and questions regarding the stability, status and future of the program swirling around ESPN and the blogosphere, all momentum will feel lost.

The Brian Kelly regime would begin 2012 exactly where it began 2011.

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