By SAMANTHA DESMOND
It’s the same story, but a different season. Notre Dame football has, once again, broken the hearts of so many Irish faithful.
After a season that began with so much promise, and a 6-0 start to boot, the Irish hobbled (painfully) to a 7-5 finish, losing five of their last six – some by a blowout margin. Ravaged by injury, the defense is a hollow shell of its once-dominant former self, and the offense is reeling and surely entrenched in a new quarterback controversy heading into bowl season. All of this should matter more, but for many Irish fans, it’s simply the same old song and dance.
It’s not enough. The most storied program in all of college football must perform better than 7-5 and a mid-level (at best) bowl invite. Irish fans have only come so close as to taste glory in 2012, before having it violently ripped from their clutches by the prevailing Crimson Tide, leaving the Irish without a national championship since 1988. I wasn’t even born yet, so needless to say, this Irish fan is desperately craving a team that can deliver the grandeur that I have only read about and experienced through ESPN Classics.
Only one word comes to mind when thinking about the Irish over the course of the last four or five seasons – disappointment. And while Brian Kelly is arguably the best thing to happen to the program since Lou Holtz, the clock is ticking. Needless to say, Kelly has his hands full moving forward as he attempts to address some of the key problems that have plagued his squad this season. However, the marquee issue for Notre Dame in the recent weeks has become the focal position on the squad – the quarterback.
Prior to the start of the 2014 season, Kelly let his two best quarterbacks compete for the starting position. After careful consideration, Everett Golson, the same young man who quarterbacked Notre Dame’s 2012 championship contending squad, won out over left-handed Malik Zaire, who many believed showed tremendous promise in the spring game.
Since then, Irish fans have seen little of Zaire, and a bit too much of Golson and his 22 turnovers. Clearly, Kelly had finally seen enough as well, pulling Golson from the bloodbath at USC, but it was too little, too late. With most of December off before a potential bowl invite, Kelly should consider sticking with Zaire while preparing for the final matchup of the 2014 campaign, for one simple reason – he’s fresh. Golson, who has been plagued by costly mistakes for much of the season, has failed to string together strong performances during the second half of the season, making Notre Dame’s offense as threatening as a box of kittens.
Zaire, on the other hand, offers the burst of positive energy that the stagnant Irish offense desperately needs after being embarrassed at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. He has spent an entire season watching Golson walk the delicate line between success and failure, no doubt carefully practicing the areas where Golson has struggled. He demonstrated composure and precision at USC, although the impact was lost in the black hole that the Irish had dug themselves into early in the game.
The biggest selling point for Zaire at this point is that he is not Golson, and the Irish desperately need someone who is not haunted by a season riddled with costly errors and inefficiency. Since Notre Dame likely faces several mid to low-level bowl invites, all of which are viewed as disappointments given the expectations of the season, it serves as a prime opportunity to allow Zaire sink his teeth into competitive play. And with Golson’s job far from secure in the offseason, it could serve as a catalyst for the young Zaire moving forward into the offseason.
While there is no doubt that both young quarterbacks are talented and worthy of consideration, playing in the Notre Dame spotlight comes with elevated expectations of success, with little tolerance for failure. Unfortunately, Golson’s inability to right the ship and eliminate turnovers has cost the Irish down the stretch, essentially gifting teams with field position and free points.
It has been some dumb luck for the Irish in 2014. With one game yet to be played, there are too many questions to be answered and far too few expectations for a squad that many believed would be among the teams competing in the College Football Playoffs.