NOTRE DAME — When you’re 12-0, you have a lot to be thankful for.
Some things are more obvious, like the impact of Manti Te’o. Some are more subtle, like nine more takeaways than turnovers. So in the spirit of the holidays, I blogged about a dozen “gifts” Notre Dame has enjoyed this year, in the style of the “12 Days of Christmas” song.
ONE BOB DIACO
Bob Diaco, Notre Dame’s award-winning defensive coordinator, has put together college football’s premiere defense in the course of three seasons.
While the front seven carried over from last year, injuries plagued a secondary that had already graduated three starters from 2011. Three of the veterans Diaco did have were hurt early in the season.
This is a defense that had every reason to fold early. Diaco took the excuses and turned his guys into the best defense in the country.
TWO DOUBTING PUNDITS
Early in the year, no one doubted Notre Dame more vocally than ESPN’s Mark May and Rick Reilly. So why should Notre Dame be thankful for these guys?
Because they beat them. Because May said he’d don a leprechaun suit and sing the “Victory March” if Notre Dame went to the national championship game. Because Reilly said he’d personally shine the golden helmets if the Irish beat USC.
They’ve both paid up, and Notre Dame is laughing all the way to the title game.
THREE RELIABLE RBs
Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick alleviated pressure on redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson early in the season. George Atkinson III didn’t get the touches Wood or Riddick did, but the speedy sophomore averaged 7.1 yards a carry this year.
The trio combined for 14 of Notre Dame’s 31 touchdowns, 202.5 yards per game, eight 100-plus yard games between them and a huge chunk of the possession battle.
FOUR (Uncomfortably) CLOSE WINS
Sure, some games weren’t pretty, but Notre Dame has proven four or five times that it can win in the crunch.
It can win when its back-up quarterback needs to lead a game-winning drive. It can win when the defense has its heels pushed back into its own end zone. It can win when it’s down two scores and need three overtimes to pull ahead.
THE GOLDEN No. 5s
There’s nothing to say about Manti Te’o that hasn’t already been said. He’s the most prolific Notre Dame football player in 20 years and has been the face of the 2012 season.
Once Everett Golson got used to the offense, he has been equally crucial. For all of Tommy Rees’s talents, Notre Dame wouldn’t be 12-0 with him under center.
SIX LESS DRAMATIC WINS
Heart-stoppers can make for excellent football and great television, but 12 in a row can physically and mentally wear a team down. Notre Dame spared itself and its fans by winning a few less dramatic games over Navy, Michigan State, Miami, Boston College, Wake Forest and — in a way — USC.
While the close games are important for building a team’s mental toughness, the comfortable wins are important to recover from those cliffhangers.
SEVEN (OPPONENT) PASSING TDs
Despite starting two former receivers and a former running back in the secondary alongside Zeke Motta, the Irish defensive backs have only allowed seven passing touchdowns this season.
That’s 16 less than last year’s squad gave up, and it was vastly more experienced.
(ONLY) EIGHT MISSED FGs
Kyle Brindza has delivered more often than not this season — missing only eight times for a 74.2 percent accuracy rating.
Brindza averages 1.92 field goals per game, good for fourth in the country, and accounts for 95 of Notre Dame’s points this season (almost triple what second-place scorer Theo Riddick has).
NINE MORE TAKEAWAYS THAN TURNOVERS
In short, the Irish have a plus-nine takeaway-to-turnover ratio this season. That same ratio was minus-15 last year. Want to draft a list of why Notre Dame is undefeated and title-bound? Put this near the top.
Notre Dame did two things this season that it didn’t do last year: It protected the ball on offense and took it away on defense.
10 (Opponent) POINTS PER GAME
The Irish gave up only 10.33 points per game — less than half what they’ve given up in five years — and held 10 opponents to less than half of what they usually score.
At a time when the Notre Dame offense struggled to put up 20 points a game, the defense kept each and every opponent at bay.
11 STEPHON TUITT STATS
Stephon Tuitt has made Aaron Lynch hard to miss. The sophomore defensive end appears in a team-high 11 defensive statistical categories this year, including 12 sacks, 13 tackles for a loss, a blocked kick and three forced fumbles.
12-AND-OH. WHAT ELSE?
Call it anti-climatic, but what else can it be? For the first time since 1993, the “#1” light above Grace Hall is lit for the football team.
The last time Notre Dame topped the polls, Peyton Manning was a senior in high school and O.J. Simpson was the Irish sideline reporter for NBC.
Onward to Miami.