PASS OFFENSE: B.
It’s probably safe to say that most everyone was pleasantly surprised with Everett Golson’s debut year under center. He finished with a modest 58.8 percent accuracy (good for 62nd in the country) and 12 passing touchdowns to six interceptions. Golson wasn’t quite the dual-threat quarterback many believed he’d be (2,405 passing yards to 298 rushing yards), but the flashes of brilliance he’s shown on his feet give Notre Dame something to look forward to for the next three years.
After struggling to find his rhythm against Purdue and Michigan, Golson excelled against Oklahoma, Boston College and Wake Forest. By the time USC rolled around, Golson had proven to be what Notre Dame needed him to be: An efficient game manager who lets the scorers do the scoring.
Michael Floyd wasn’t missed too much this year with DaVaris Daniels, TJ Jones and Theo Riddick stepping up at receiver. Once Golson and Tyler Eifert developed a strong chemistry, it was hard to keep them apart. Eifert ended up breaking the record for most receiving yards by a Notre Dame tight end by the end of the year.
Highest grade: A (Boston College, Wake Forest)
Lowest grade: C- (BYU)
RUN OFFENSE: A-.
With Cierre Wood benched the first two games of the season, Riddick broke onto the scene against Navy, stumbled a bit against Purdue and Michigan State and rallied against Michigan.
Though Wood didn’t have another 1,000-yard season, he and Riddick split the ball-carrying duties almost equally (Riddick 880 yards, Wood 740 yards) and became crucial clock managers while Golson was still wearing water wings.
Sure, they faceplanted against Alabama and sputtered against Purdue and Michigan State, but it’s no coincidence that this is the only unit that received five A+ grades throughout the season. Because for a good chunk of the year, Wood, Riddick and George Atkison III were all that Notre Dame had on offense.
Highest grade: A+ (Navy, Miami, BYU, Oklahoma, Wake Forest) Lowest grade: D- (Alabama)
PASS DEFENSE: B.
If you would have asked me seven months ago if I thought I’d have given the Notre Dame secondary six As and six Bs this season, I would have called you crazy. As has been said a dozen times, this unit had everything going against it heading into this season — veteran injuries, graduation losses and newcomers (both to college football and to the secondary in general).
Although it looked shaky in Weeks 1 and 2, the Notre Dame secondary gelled by the Michigan State game and helped contribute to five interceptions against Michigan a week later.
Later in the season, this unit was susceptible to giving up a lot of passing yards but then locking down once opponents crossed into the red zone, as exemplified against USC.
Highest grade: A+ (Michigan)
Lowest grade: F (Alabama)
RUN DEFENSE: A.
Try to forget what happened against Alabama and remember the Notre Dame front seven for all it was before Jan. 7.
Prior to the Alabama meltdown, Notre Dame boasted the No. 1 scoring defense and the No. 4 rushing defense in the country. Though most people anticipated a strong season for a unit that returned most of its starters, Manti Te’o & Co. were thrust into the spotlight when it held Michigan State’s then-Heisman contender Le’Veon Bell with just 80 yards on 19 carries and zero scores.
It’s also worth mentioning the legendary goal-line stands against Stanford and USC, though it’s unlikely that any Notre Dame fan will be forgetting those moments any time soon.
Highest grade: A+ (Michigan State, Wake Forest, USC)
Lowest grade: F (Alabama)
SPECIAL TEAMS: C.
Another ho-hum year for the punt return team, even though — sadly enough — Davonte Neal’s 2.4 yard average punt return is still higher than John “Fair Catch” Goodman’s 0.6 yard average in 2011.
Kicker Kyle Brindza was the true star for the Irish special teams. When senior Nick Tausch went down for the year against Navy, the sophomore stepped up and hit crucial field goals against Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma, Pitt and USC. In other words, if the game was close, Brindza’s leg was likely sealing the deal for Notre Dame.
Brindza nailed 23 of his 31 field goal attempts — a school record — and led the entire team with 95 total points this season. Now if Notre Dame can just get him to return punts...
Highest grade: A (Michigan State, USC)
Lowest Grade: D- (Pitt)
Once again, look past the national championship game and any coaching drama that may have sprung up in the days following it.
Brian Kelly, Bob Diaco, Chuck Martin and a slew of talented position coaches led last year’s 8-5 team to a 12-0 regular season and the first national championship game in more than two decades.
Some of the fifth-year seniors were around when Notre Dame was 7-6 in 2008. Those guys were recruited when Notre Dame went 3-9.
Kelly and crew helped turn this program around in three years. And while he made some questionable calls in the heat of the game, Notre Dame was always prepared to weather the storm (again, until Alabama), whether it needed a last-second field goal or a goal-line stand.
Highest grade: A+ (Michigan State, Wake Forest)
Lowest Grade: D (Alabama)