Seldom in college football history has one ever seen the incumbent quarterback and running back suspended for the opener, but this unique situation has hit Notre Dame.
Everett Golson won't have Cierre Wood (20) to throw to or hand off to in the first two games, but the Irish offense still should have plenty of options.
Junior quarterback Tommy Rees already was suspended for this Saturday’s Navy game for his May 3 run-in with the law. This weekend the University announced that senior running back Cierre Wood, whose 1,102 yards rushing last season marked the first time since 2006 an Irish back eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier in a season, is out the first two weeks for violating team rules.
Not since head coach Lou Holtz sent home leading rusher Tony Brooks and leading receiver Ricky Watters for repeated tardiness prior to the Nov. 26, 1988 No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown versus USC have two more prominent members of an Irish offense, or the team overall, been ruled out for a contest because of suspension.
This doesn’t register on the suspension Richter scale (or skill) like Brooks and Watters (although it could either hasten or inhibit Wood’s desire to return for a fifth season in 2013). That’s because it seems the majority of Notre Dame followers were eager to see a change at quarterback anyway.
And it’s not like the Irish have a shortage at running back like in 2004, when Ryan Grant’s hamstring injury devastated the Irish ground attack in the opening game 20-17 loss at BYU, where Notre Dame rushed for 11 yards. The tandem of Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III should be able to produce against a much smaller Navy defense that yielded 56 points to the Irish last year.
Navy’s defense does return eight starters, although it is from a unit that finished 86th in total defense (418.3 yards per game) and 78th in scoring (28.92). However, that can be mitigated by two factors.
First, opening games often can get sloppy while the offense tries to find its identity and rhythm, even more so with a new quarterback is at the helm. Over the past six years, from the 14-10 victory at Georgia Tech in 2006 with the “Brady (Quinn) Bunch” to the turnover infested 23-20 loss to USF last year, the Irish have averaged just under 20 points in an opener.
Second, in an average football game, an offense is expected to have 12 to 14 possessions per game, or about three per quarter.
Nevertheless, Notre Dame often has been limited to eight to 10 against Navy because of the Midshipmen tactic to keep the clock running with its methodical, run-oriented offense. The margin of error therefore is reduced.
In the 23-21 loss to Navy in 2009, the Irish amassed 512 yards total offense in eight series — but three turnovers and two missed field goals negated the fact that Notre Dame didn’t have to punt and scored touchdowns on their other three possessions.
Notre Dame opened last season with five turnovers apiece in losses to South Florida and at Michigan. A comedy of turnovers versus the Midshipmen could result in a similar outcome.
Jumping to an early lead against a triple-option team forces them to play left-handed and outside their element. In Notre Dame’s 2010 and 2009 losses to Navy, the Midshipmen scored touchdowns on their opening possessions, had 21-10 and 14-0 leads at halftime, and never trailed.
Conversely, last year Notre Dame scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions versus Navy to take a 35-7 halftime advantage. Against Air Force, the Irish were up 14-0 before the Falcons even ran their second play of the game.
Forcing option teams to throw when they have to rather when they want to works out quite favorably — no matter how many questions exist at cornerback.
Over the last 40 seasons, Golson will become the third Irish quarterback to take his first ever snap at Notre Dame as the starter in the opening game. The other two were on a comical level of disparity.
In 1994 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, red-shirt freshman Ron Powlus made his grand entry against Northwestern in a contest that ABC publicized as the most anticipated debut of a college athlete since UCLA center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in 1966. Powlus sat out his freshman year in 1993 (11-1 and No. 2 finish with unheralded senior quarterback Kevin McDougal) while recovering from a broken clavicle.
True to script, Powlus was virtually flawless in a 42-15 victory, completing 18 of 24 passes for 291 yards and a Notre Dame record tying four touchdowns. ESPN’s Pope of College Football, Beano Cook, declared that Powlus would join Ohio State’s Archie Griffin as the lone two-time Heisman winners in college football annals.
The other came five years to the day that Golson will make his debut. On Sept. 1, 2007, red-shirt freshman Demetrius Jones received the starting nod at home against Georgia Tech over junior Evan Sharpley and prized freshman Jimmy Clausen.
In an offense that went completely against the grain of head coach Charlie Weis, Jones carried 12 times for only 28 yards, fumbled twice, and completed one of his three passes for four yards. He was pulled halfway through the second quarter — still ahead of Dayne Crist in 2011 for opening-game starters — in the debacle that was Notre Dame’s 33-3 defeat.
It would probably be safe to say that reality will be somewhere in between for Golson this weekend. Two Heismans won’t be projected for him (maybe not even one), but he also should not have to be yanked early in defeat.