Not appropriate to compare 2012, 2014 Notre Dame teams
By BRIAN HARTNETT
College Contributor Network
The comparisons started almost immediately after the final whistle blew Saturday evening.
Is this year's Notre Dame team as good as the one from two years ago? You know, the one that finished the regular season second nationally in scoring defense, pulled out a remarkable number of improbably close victories, had the Heisman runner-up at linebacker and made the national championship game -- where it met its ugly demise.
And there are some parallels between the two squads. They both earned close, physical victories against Stanford -- one coming on a goal-line stand, the other on a last-minute touchdown pass. They both rank toward the top nationally in scoring defense. And they both have Everett Golson, he of the 15-1 collegiate record, under center.
If I had to choose between the two, I'd still pick the 2012 team. Through five games, that team had allowed only three touchdowns and beaten five opponents that ended up bowl-eligible that season (Miami ended up not going because of sanctions).
This year's team, while seemingly in control for most of the season, has faced several opponents that probably won't crack the six-win mark, and even the Stanford team it beat might not be Rose Bowl material.
But making such a comparison really does a disservice to both the 2012 and 2014 squads because at the root of it, they are fundamentally different. And that's not a bad thing for Notre Dame -- a team can take many different routes to being great, or even elite.
In the case of the 2012 Notre Dame team, it was a conservative offensive approach that tried to minimize turnovers and give the defense enough to work with, which was usually sufficient. The Irish relied on two experienced senior running backs in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, and a seasoned offensive line with two graduate students and two seniors. Golson, then a first-year starter, largely threw to the outside, and Brian Kelly showed little hesitation to remove him for Tommy Rees when he felt it necessary.
The offense was far from dynamic, averaging around 26 points per game, but that was usually enough when paired with a defense that allowed under 13 points per game. That same defense found its success through experience and physicality up front. The unit had poised senior leaders in Heisman hopeful Manti Te'o, Zeke Motta and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Lewis-Moore commanded a defensive line that featured future NFL Draft picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.
Under defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the 2012 Irish defense employed a "bend, don't break" mentality that sought to limit big plays and force teams into mistakes, a strategy which proved fruitful in wins over Stanford, Oklahoma, USC and others. Such wins made for the program's best season since the Lou Holtz era, despite the ending in Miami.
This year, the Irish look like they may be on their way to another one of the best seasons in recent memory, and they're doing it with a blueprint that couldn't have been found two years ago. That blueprint places Golson as the focal point of the offense. Golson, who missed last season and trained with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. while he was gone, has come back strong -- completing 64 percent of his passes and throwing for 13 touchdowns thus far. He's distributed the ball to a number of young receivers, giving players like Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Chris Brown valuable experience.
On the other hand, he's had to go to the air so much because an inexperienced offensive line and underdeveloped running game haven't offered him too much support. While the recently revamped offensive line might gel with more starts together and the talented, but raw, sophomore duo of Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston might hit its stride, it seems as though Golson will have to carry the Irish offense for now.
Golson will have some help, however, in the form of a defense that currently ranks third nationally in scoring defense. Unlike the unit from two years ago, this year's Notre Dame defense is far from experienced -- it has seen eight freshmen get playing time and arguably its best player, linebacker Jaylon Smith, is only a sophomore. With KeiVarae Russell still withheld due to an investigation into suspected academic dishonesty, the unit's secondary is made up of four new starters, two of whom are sophomores.
Despite its youth, the Irish defense has created chaos for opponents, largely due to the schemes of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. During the offseason, VanGorder switched the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme that emphasizes pressure and it has seemingly worked so far, as the Irish have already forced nine interceptions.
Oh yeah, and this season's Notre Dame team has something the 2012 squad lacked -- a semblance of ability on special teams. The Irish had 46 total punt return yards in the 2012 season; this year's team has 127 yards through five games, not to mention improved punt and kickoff coverage.
Such differences between the two teams render any comparisons ineffective. Additionally, they fail to consider the different playoff landscapes -- the 2012 team had to fight for a spot in the top two, while this year's team only needs to find a place in the top four.
Being Notre Dame, a program built on tradition, the need for a comparison will only grow louder if the team keeps its winning streak alive and I welcome people to make their own comparisons. Yet, the only comparison that matters is the one between the two teams' records when the final whistle blows this season.
Brian Hartnett is a senior at the University of Notre Dame with a major in Marketing and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Originally from central New Jersey, he's also a fan of the Yankees, Nets and New York Giants. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianGHartnett