SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame didn’t anticipate ending up in New York a season after going 12-0 and playing in the BCS national championship game.
But an offseason that was taken over by a strange storyline, questions about coach Brian Kelly’s future with the program and the loss of starting quarterback Everett Golson left the Irish reeling more than their 42-14 blowout loss to Alabama on Jan. 7.
And ultimately it led to an 8-4 season and No. 25 Notre Dame making the best of playing Rutgers (6-6) in the Pinstripe Bowl at noon today in Yankee Stadium.
“The way we looked at it, we lost four games and didn’t earn to go to that,” left tackle Zack Martin said. “We are very happy to go to New York, probably the best place to play if you’re not playing in warm weather.
“We can win nine games. We can finish the season with nine wins. Although that is not our goal coming into the season, a nine-win season with the guys we play isn’t half bad.”
Notre Dame’s wild offseason started with Kelly interviewing with the Philadelphia Eagles about their head coaching vacancy the day after the BCS title game. Kelly released a statement Jan. 12 saying he was staying with the Irish.
But then things got weird when a report surfaced Jan. 16 that revealed the inspirational story of linebacker Manti Te’o leading the team to a perfect regular season while dealing with the in-season death of his girlfriend was a hoax. It was later revealed that Te’o was the victim of a catfishing scheme, but that wasn’t the last news to taint the 2012 season.
The final shoe dropped May 25 when news broke that Golson was suspended for the fall semester for what he called “poor academic judgment,” and the Irish had to turn to Tommy Rees, who backed up Golson last season, to be their starter this season.
“We were put up against a lot of adversity,” defensive lineman Kona Schwenke said. “I feel like we did a good job of bouncing back with losing Everett and Tommy having to take on a big role. I feel like we bounced back from some of the bumps, but I feel like we still could have been better and come out with a 12-0 season.”
The 2013 season turned out to be just as bumpy as the offseason as Notre Dame suffered its first regular-season loss in more than a year when it fell 41-30 to Michigan on Sept. 7. The Irish then lost any chance of playing for a national title after a 35-21 home loss to Oklahoma left them 3-2 for the season and holding out hope for a BCS bowl bid.
But that went away when the Irish were upset 28-21 by Pittsburgh on Nov. 9, and a 27-20 loss to Stanford to end the regular season left Notre Dame as an eight-win team for the third time in Kelly’s four years.
“I think that what matters is that we have the capability to go 12-0, and I think we have set the bar for what we have to do to reach those expectations,” offensive lineman Matt Hegarty said. “For whatever the circumstances if we don’t get it, it is just that much more motivation in the offseason, knowing that you are going to have to push that much more to get back to where you want to be.”
There were plenty of circumstances, besides the loss of Golson before the season, that led to Notre Dame’s season turning out like it did.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was slow to play up to expectations after being limited in the offseason because of surgery to repair a sports hernia. The defensive line also dealt with nose guard Louis Nix III missing two games because of a knee injury before being shut down for the season because of surgery with two games to play.
Defensive end Sheldon Day was also in and out of the lineup after suffering an ankle sprain in the second game against Purdue, and backup Kona Schwenke was also held out or limited in games by injury thinning a line that started the season with backups Tony Springmann, a Bishop Dwenger graduate, and Chase Hounshell sidelined by injuries.
The linebacking corps also took a preseason hit when outside linebacker Danny Spond, who started in 2012, had to give up football because of reccurring migraine headaches.
That injury did open the door for freshman and former Bishop Luers star Jaylon Smith to start all 12 games and live up to the billing as one of the best defensive recruits in the nation as he finished with 61 tackles, 6 1/2 tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery.
On offense, after dealing with the loss of Golson, the Irish had to reconstruct its line late in the season as they lost right guard Christian Lombard after Week 7 because of back surgery; then center Nick Martin, who played with a broken hand for two games, was lost entering the final week of the season to a hyperextended left knee; then left guard Watt suffered an MCL injury in the season finale against Stanford.
Notre Dame goes into today’s game with backups at left guard (Conor Hanratty), center (Hegarty) and right guard (Steve Elmer), while dismissing the notion that the Irish can be overconfident about playing the Scarlet Knights, who didn’t qualify to play in a bowl until the final game of the season.
“We’re 8-4, so I don’t know how good we are,” Kelly said. “If we were 12-0, we could probably listen to that. We have to play well or we’re going to get beat. I told our guys, listen, they’re from New Jersey, this is a big game for them.
“We have to play well. If we go out there and don’t play well, we’re not good enough to beat Rutgers. I don’t listen to what other people say, and I know our players understand. They know who they are. Our players clearly know that they have to go play. They’ve gone through the season. They know the opponent. They’ve played Temple. They’ve played teams that have played Rutgers. They know what they have to do.”