When Notre Dame is winning, all is forgiven


Notre Dame wide receiver TJ Jones (7) celebrates with teammates after catching a touchdown pass during overtime against Stanford on Saturday. Notre Dame won on a goal line stand on the ensuing possession. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)
John Feinstein
Columnist October 14, 2012

Notre Dame is back.

There’s simply no arguing with the fact that the Fighting Irish, who are 6-0, are in the national championship picture.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

For those who loved the movie “Rudy,” and get chills every time they hear the Notre Dame fight song, this is welcome news after 18 seasons of mostly mediocre football. In his third season as coach, Brian Kelly is rapidly becoming an icon at the school.

Long forgotten is his decision two autumns ago to practice outdoors in gale-force winds two days after an embarrassing loss to Navy, a decision that led to team manager Declan Sullivan being on a photo tower when a gust of wind blew the tower down and killed him. Also apparently forgotten is school President John Jenkins’s refusal to meet with the family of a young woman who committed suicide shortly after filing a sexual assault complaint against a Notre Dame football player.

Father Jenkins refused to meet with the family because his lawyer advised him not to do so. Apparently comforting the afflicted only applies at Notre Dame upon the advice of counsel.

Now, it is as if those awful moments never happened. It is all good at Notre Dame right now. The Irish, led by a superb defense that includes, arguably, the best player in the country — senior linebacker Manti Te’o — have beaten more “name,” teams than anyone ranked in the top 10. The fact that Michigan, Michigan State and Miami have turned out to be duds isn’t Notre Dame’s fault. When they were scheduled, they looked like tough outs. Notre Dame gave up a total of 12 points to the three of them.

The defense was just as good on Saturday in a thrilling, though controversial, 20-13 overtime win over Stanford. Once again, it didn’t surrender a touchdown in regulation. The Cardinal’s only touchdown came when quarterback Everett Golson fumbled in the end zone in the second quarter and Stanford recovered.

Whether Stanford scored a touchdown in overtime is, at the very least, open to debate. After the Irish scored to take a 20-13 lead, Stanford had first-and-goal at the Notre Dame 4-yard-line. Four times running back Stepfan Taylor tried to get into the end zone and four times — according to the officials — he came up short.

Exactly why Stanford didn’t change-up the play-calling against a defense that has given up three touchdowns in six games is a legitimate question to raise.

That said, it appeared to most people that Taylor scored on second effort on the fourth-down play. The officials on the field ruled that he didn’t score, and replay officials upheld the call even though it looked as if Taylor’s forward progress was never completely stopped before he spun and dove into the end zone.

And so everyone at Notre Dame is all smiles right now. The Irish have two tough games left on their schedule: at Oklahoma in two weeks and at Southern California to close out the season.

The other four games are virtual walkovers for a good team: Brigham Young, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. The latter three, who have combined to win three games this season against FBS opponents, will give the Irish a taste of what they can expect when they start playing five ACC opponents a couple of years from now. It will, no doubt, be a very sweet taste.

What’s more, the two more difficult games hardly look impossible: Oklahoma has lost to Kansas State and Southern California has lost to Stanford and has hardly looked overwhelming most weeks in spite of all its pre-season hype. Bet this: If Notre Dame wins out, it will play in the BCS title game even if Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State are also undefeated.

Less likely to happen but not out of the question is Te’o winning the Heisman Trophy. Pure defensive players don’t win the Heisman (remember Charles Woodson played on offense and special teams when he won in 1997) but Te’o has a shot, in part because the most likely candidates on offense keep tripping over themselves: USC’s Matt Barkley was practically handed the award in September, but didn’t play well against Stanford and hasn’t been brilliant since then. Into that void stepped West Virginia’s Geno Smith, until he and his team were embarrassed on Saturday at Texas Tech.

Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas is spectacular but teammate Kenjon Barner seems to get the ball a lot more often. Kansas State’s Collin Klein is extremely solid, but is he spectacular enough to win the Heisman?

Te’o is a wonderful player, a terrific kid and he plays for an undefeated Notre Dame team that is built around him and its defense. Miracles happen at Notre Dame, right? Just ask Saturday’s replay officials.

*****

In case you hadn’t noticed — and you probably haven’t — the Big East has three undefeated teams: Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers. Of course their wins on Saturday were over Pittsburgh, Fordham and Syracuse, respectively, so that might explain why no one has noticed. . . .

Savannah State update: The Tigers, who opened their season by being outscored 139-0 by Oklahoma State and Florida State because school administrators thought nothing of letting their players get beaten up in order to cash two guarantee checks, are now 0-6 and have been outscored 190-51 since the first two games…

Surprise team of the season to date: Oregon State is 5-0 after beating BYU, 42-24, on Saturday. The Beavers were 3-9 a year ago and weren’t expected to be too much better than that this season.

They play Utah next Saturday. After that they still have to play at Washington and at Stanford before closing the season at home against Oregon.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com. To read his previous columns for The Post, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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