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Notre Dame Football: A 2010 Retrospective

The first year of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame certainly didn’t lack for drama, that’s for sure.

There was a lot of drama surrounding the 2009 team and the future of Charlie Weis, but that team limped to the finish in depressing fashion and didn’t have to deal with the roller coaster ride of emotions throughout the season that this past year’s team did.

In a lot of ways, I think this past year mirrored Michael Floyd’s season.

In the preseason there were heightened expectations for Floyd as he had assaulted the record books during his first two seasons and dominated whenever he was healthy enough to stay in the lineup.

There was some concern about the change in offensive systems, but everyone knew the ball was going be thrown around a lot and Floyd would be target number one.

It was kind of the same feeling with the team as a whole with a coach like Brian Kelly taking over and a fair amount of high-level talent waiting to be developed.

That led me to write articles during the summer such as, "Why Can’t Notre Dame Win Ten Games?" and "Don’t Expect the Underachieving to Continue."

Heck, even noted Irish antagonist Mark May predicted a ten-win season.

Then the games got under way and things did not go as expected.

The Irish started out to with a 1-3 record and Michael Floyd got off to a slow start and didn’t seem to be targeted as much as in previous seasons.

Things improved slightly with a two game winning streak, but Floyd missed the entire Navy game and watched from the sidelines as the Irish were defeated by the Midshipmen. The next week he tried to break up an under-thrown ball but the interception sealed a loss against Tulsa.

But then the four-game winning streak to end the season turned the team’s fortunes around with Floyd playing his best football of the season during the stretch while asserting a key leadership role on the squad.

Even though Notre Dame didn’t win ten games and Floyd wasn’t an All-American, there were still a lot of positives to take away from the season.

Floyd didn’t blow anyone away with his numbers, but he still had one of the best seasons for a receiver in school history.

And while there were some soul-crushing losses on the season, the team’s eight wins were the most since 2006.

All in all not too shabby for the team and Michael Floyd, and the best part is that things should get better next season with Floyd returning for his senior year.

Retrospective Topic No. 1: These Schedules are Crazy

The 2010 schedule was not supposed to be that difficult (for Notre Dame's high standards), but it ended up being one of the hardest in the country.

Notre Dame’s opponents had a combined 106-61 record, good for a rather shocking .634 winning percentage, a tough slate indeed.

I know Brian Kelly mentioned before the season that he wants to play the best teams in the country, but I’m not sure he was fully prepared for the type of schedule that Notre Dame plays, nor do I think any coach really is until they’ve gone through it.

I’ve talked about it numerous times that the biggest challenges are the tough games every single September, and usually right off the bat in the first game, while there is also a lack of truly bad teams to pad the stats and gain confidence from.

This past season Notre Dame played one team (Purdue 4-8) that had a losing record, and played seven teams that won at least eight games. The Irish even played an absurd 11 teams that won at least seven games.

Coach Kelly better get used to it because the schedules appear to keep getting stronger in the coming years.

Retrospective Topic No. 2: Ranking the Losses

In order, starting with the most painful: Navy, Tulsa, Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford.

If you go back and watch the Stanford game, you might be surprised how well the defense played in that contest. The Cardinal eventually asserted their dominance and there wasn’t anything in that game that approached good for Notre Dame, but the Irish simply ran into a better team that day.

The fake field goal hurt tremendously against Michigan State, but Notre Dame played well on the road on both sides of the ball. Sure there were moments of inconsistency, but we saw glimpses of what was to come later in the season in this game against the Spartans.

The loss to Michigan will always hurt, but without Crist for nearly an entire half it’s not as bad as it could have been. Plus, Denard Robinson had to put together a performance for the ages to get the victory.

That is the same for the Tulsa loss as well, where we could grind our teeth over the interception at the end, but things would have been much different if Crist stayed healthy. Not to mention there were about five freak ocurrences in the game that went against the Irish.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the loss to Navy was the worst of the season. All of the other losses there were reasons and circumstances that came up where you could point to Notre Dame not picking up a victory that day.

With Navy, there was a complete and utter collapse on both sides of the ball that is really hard to explain, even today.

Retrospective Topic No. 3: Oh, But the Wins!

We can continue to fret over the losses from the 2010 season and claim that Notre Dame should have won at least two more games, and that’s fine to argue about that if you want.

But in my opinion the victories to end the season were much more important for the long-term health of the Fighting Irish program.

Before the season I asked if really bad losses are worse than lacking any big wins. Most people think the horrendous losses are, which makes plenty of sense.

Yet 2010 kind of validated my argument that the Irish desperately needed a big win or two, even at the expense of some terrible losses.

Of course that the wins came to finish the year and were strung together always helps, but Notre Dame truly needed to beat a ranked team (Utah), end the embarrassing losing streak (USC), and finish strong with another upset (Miami).

This is all the more true when you consider that the players and coaches actually learned from their defeats and were able to come through the fire a lot stronger than before. I don’t think we can ever overestimate how important it is for a team to learn how to win and to have that rush of winning a big game flowing through their veins.

Like the teams in years past, the 2010 squad loss a few games that they probably shouldn’t have, but unlike those previous teams they turned it around and won a couple games they weren’t supposed to.

This is huge for the programs psyche moving forward.

Retrospective Topic No. 4: More Stats on the Defense, Please!

The major aspect of learning from the losses was the complete turnaround the defense showed late in the season. Aside from the Navy game the defense was playing more fundamentally sound than in the past, but the late-season dominance really shocked some people.

If you want to know why some are extremely excited for the future of this defense just read some of these stats.

Notre Dame moved up 40 spots nationally in scoring defense (23rd overall) and 38 spots in rush defense (51st overall).

They improved 23 spots in pass defense (53rd overall) and 35 spots in total defense (51st overall).

The Irish moved up 40 spots on 3rd down defense (28th overall) and 29 spots in total sacks (55th nationally).

There’s still obviously a lot of work to be done, after all we can’t get too excited over some of those rankings in the 50’s, but what we wanted most out of this defense was improvement and they achieved that goal big time this past year.

Retrospective Topic No. 5: Not a Great Year for the Offense

I should probably hang my head in shame that I thought this could be one of the best offenses in school history, but I am telling you we will see crazy explosiveness sometime soon with Brian Kelly as coach and the weapons he has to work with.

This offense never had the opportunity to get off the ground with the eventual injuries to Crist, Allen and Rudolph, so it isn’t that astonishing that the numbers dropped significantly from the 2009 season.

Scoring offense dropped 34 spots nationally (66th overall) while rushing offense took a modest drop of 8 spots (92nd overall).

Passing offense fell 29 spots (still a respectable 34th overall) and the total offense took a huge plunge falling 53 spots to 61st nationally.

Third down conversions fell 18 spots (72nd overall), but a bright spot was that sacks given up improved 31 spots to finish the season 34th overall.

Like I said this drop off is to be expected with the injuries that occurred and with Brian Kelly's past there shouldn't be a whole lot of reasons to worry about the future of the offense. Once the quarterback situation settles down things should start to blossom.

But there needs to be a significant improvement in all aspects of the running game and better efficiency through the air as well. Both areas are a huge priority for 2011.

Retrospective Topic No. 6: Yankee Stadium & Neutral Sites

I was one of the fans who were excited right from the beginning with the announcement of a game at Yankee Stadium. I know there were a lot of fans who didn’t think it was a big deal and weren’t excited about playing Army, but the event came off very well and that was from just watching on television.

I think the best we can hope for is a great neutral venue or game every other year, and it is looking like this is how it is shaping up in the near future.

The game in San Antonio was pretty lackluster and next years game at Fed Ex Field could potentially be along those same lines unless Maryland is really good, or Notre Dame comes in undefeated or something like that.

But 2012 will feature two great neutral games with the rumble in Dublin against Navy and the meeting against Miami at Solider Field. Both of those contests should be high-level entertainment.

And don’t forget about the game against Arizona State at Cowboys Stadium in a few years either. That will be a great venue and if the Sun Devils are in the hunt for the Pac-12 title by then it could be a tremendous neutral site game.

2010 Opponent Awards Presented by One Foot Down

The Top Player Performance Award:

Gold Medal: Denard Robinson (QB, Michigan)

Robinson was the run-away winner for 2010 and might be the champion of this award for the entire decade.

We don’t have to re-live the agony again, but you don’t see 502 total yards and 200 rushing and passing yards from a quarterback all that often.

This one is well deserved.

Silver Medal: Alexander Teich (FB, Navy)

For the second straight season a Navy fullback embarrassed the Notre Dame defense. Teich rumbled for 210 yards on the ground and also added a 31-yard receiving touchdown on a screen pass.

Are there any questions on which position the Irish have to take out next year when they play Navy?

Bronze Medal: Damaris Johnson (WR, Tulsa)

Johnson is one of the best athletes in the country and he quietly terrorized the Irish in South Bend this year. He scored the game’s first touchdown on a nine-yard reception, made plays all day long on the ground, and scored a critical 59-yard punt return touchdown late in the third quarter.

His 208 all-purpose yards isn’t mind-blowing, but Johnson was super effective against Notre Dame in 2010.

The Top Venue Award:

Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan

The Coliseum and Yankee Stadium all deserve credit and could make a case for this award, but I don’t think any of those venues were rocking quite like Spartan Stadium this past year.

There’s always a quality amount of bad-blood between Michigan State and Notre Dame, it was a night game on primetime, and the way the game went back and forth and ended ultimately sealed this for East Lansing.

The Top of the Revenge List Award:

The United States Naval Academy

The matchup in 2011 is going to be a big "show me" game for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and the Irish defense. They made adjustments against Army and shut down that triple option attack, but the Navy offense is a different beast all together.

Notre Dame has lost three out of four to Navy, this game will be at home, Navy is losing some key players, so this is a must-win game for the Irish. The Middies are a good team, but if Notre Dame wants to get back to the top it has to start beating Navy and revenging last year’s debacle is a high priority in 2011.

Runner-up: Michigan Wolverines

The entire Notre Dame fan base is itching to play Michigan again after losing to the Wolverines for the second straight year, particularly after losing in the last seconds in both 2009 and 2010.

Notre Dame seems to be gaining an upper-hand in talent and coaching, but the time is coming where they will have to prove it on the field. The Irish will certainly be looking for revenge under the lights in the Big House this September.

The "Thank God He’s Leaving School" Award:

Ricky Dobbs (QB, Navy)

Dobbs didn’t see any action as a freshman in 2007, but he’s been part of a Navy program that has won three out of four against Notre Dame, with Dobbs himself under center for the last two victories.

Over those last two wins against Notre Dame, Dobbs has been masterful at running the triple option and making precise decisions with the ball. He combined for 192 yards rushing with four touchdowns to go along with 127 passing yards on four of five attempts and two touchdowns and no interceptions against Notre Dame in the last two meetings.

No Irish fans are sad to see him move on to his bright future as an American leader.

Runner-up: Greg Jones (LB, Michigan State)

Jones was an All-American for the Spartans and a huge reason why Notre Dame had so many problems running the ball consistently against Michigan State for the past three years. He is one of the best defenders in Michigan State history and will leave a huge hole in their defense.

Over the past three seasons Jones has totaled 27 tackles against Notre Dame and that is with the Irish trying to avoid his presence at all costs. His absence may make life a little easier for the Notre Dame offense in the future.

Very Important Honorable Mention: Jim Harbaugh (Coach, Stanford)

In terms of long-term impact Harbaugh’s departure from Stanford is number one on this list, but since he’s not a player he is given an honorable mention.

Stanford caught a break with the announcement that quarterback Andrew Luck is going to return for his senior season, and the current recruiting class has still held up well and looks very strong, but without Harbaugh the dream is over.

The Cardinal may very well be a great team for the next year or two, but without the presence of Harbaugh the program is going to suffer and fall back in the coming years.

The Coach of the Year Award:

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Jim Harbaugh would have won this award but I disqualified him because he is already mentioned above.

Dantonio did a wonderful job this year at Michigan State sharing the Big Ten title, and he has been doing very well in his short tenure in East Lansing. A beat down by Alabama in their bowl game put a damper on things, but an 11-2 record isn’t a joke.

Plus, Little Giants followed by a heart attack…come on, this coach deserved it!

Runner-up: Todd Graham, Tulsa

Graham had a very successful season leading Tulsa to a 10-3 record with a bowl win over Hawaii and of course the upset in Notre Dame Stadium against the Irish.

He has been awarded for his success and is now the head coach at Pittsburgh where he will be seeing a lot more of Notre Dame in the future.

Most Overrated Team Award:

Miami Hurricanes

Miami had some competition for this award, but their performance to end the season and in the Sun Bowl against the Irish sealed the deal.

There’s no doubting that the Hurricanes have talent but they did not prove it on the field in 2010 except for a couple of games in which they looked very strong. Miami lost to Ohio State and Notre Dame and ended the year a very disappointing 7-6 after being ranked in the preseason.

Runner-up: Utah Utes

A 10-3 record isn’t bad at all, but Utah is the runner-up in this category because they were viewed as possibly the most dangerous and talented team on the Notre Dame schedule and didn’t deliver.

Utah beat Pittsburgh and ended the regular season with quality wins against San Diego State and BYU, but the Utes were embarrassed and looked awful in losses to TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State. Since their ceiling was so high they end up being overrated.

Most Underrated Team:

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Notre Dame had the unfortunate pleasure of giving Tulsa their first victory over a BCS caliber team in ages, but that shouldn’t hide the fact that the Hurricane were a really solid team this year and underrated in many ways.

It will take the fan base a while to really get over this loss, but I don’t think it should be considered the worst loss in school history as some have suggested, specifically because Tulsa was an underrated and talented team this year…offensively at least.

Top Uniform Award:

USC Trojans

I’m not a big fan of USC’s uniforms and I think they are among the most overrated in college football, but I can respect that they bring a nice traditional look. Michigan would have won this but their away uniforms have ruined their traditional look.

Worst Uniform Award:

Michigan State Spartans

This was mentioned in the preseason when these uniforms were unveiled, but Nike completely failed in this makeover attempt.

At first glance they don’t seem that bad, but once you realize all of the changes that were made to liven up what was a great uniform beforehand, you’ll see a ton of mistakes.

Six more days until National Signing Day...the 2011 season awaits!