In a season that has exceeded all expectations trying to redact down the season to a defining moment seems like an exercise in futility. Notre Dame came into the season facing what most “experts” (that’s now their official title: “experts” as I refuse to acknowledge them as anything further given their reluctance to accept ND’s actual on-field performance compared to perceived value) perceived as an impossible task. Let’s be fair. As this season got underway, I proclaimed that I would have no expectations for the season. What body of evidence did I have to work with?? Ridiculous schedule, first year starter at quarterback, and far too many unknowns in the secondary to feel otherwise. Plus, our beast on the d-line, Aaron Lynch, had waffled yet again and left us after just one year.
As the season revealed itself, there are many, many moments that could be pointed to as the defining moment of a special season. Was it the Tommy Rees drive in the Purdue game? The four down, goal-to-go stand versus Stanford? The 50-yard bomb to Chris Brown at Oklahoma? What about the magic of a frantic comeback versus Pitt that included their kicker missing a 37-yard field goal? I’d entertain any of these on field moments as being the most important, and that’s just what I’m remembering off the top of my head. However, for me, there was one moment that occurred on the sidelines that told me something new was happening in South Bend.
The phrase “trap game” gets thrown around liberally in college football. In the one sport where the regular season is of paramount importance, every game is potentially a trap game. Every team is always looking to make a statement on any given week, and when it comes to teams coming to Notre Dame Stadium, it’s even more magnified. For visiting teams, a chance to beat Notre Dame in South Bend is always a circled game on the calendar. Sadly, in recent years, ND’s been far to accommodating a host for these desires.
Welcome to the BYU game, and my choice for defining moment of the season. What I’m about to describe is not related to an on-field moment but rather what happened following a mistake by Notre Dame. While I’m sure there’ll be criticism of my choice, what transpired is what let me know that the culture of Notre Dame football had changed, and for once, it was in a positive way.
Setting the Stage:
The Irish came into the October 20, 2012 contest against BYU having just survived a brutal, memorable encounter with Stanford. The Stanford game was defined by its physicality. An unfortunate (and really, the only unfortunate) side note to come out of the Stanford game was Everett Golson’s concussion sustained late in the fourth quarter. In a contest won in overtime after an epic goal line stand, it’s understandable why ND might not have been completely ready for another physical opponent like BYU. The team, despite CBK’s desire to focus on the current game, could not have possibly been completely forgetting that a win this week would set up a chance to go in undefeated to Norman, OK.
The result was a flat performance from the outset. In fairness, Rees at his essence is a game manager. BYU was ready to play, and their style was surely going to be a hurdle for a team that had just come off of facing one of the most physical teams in the nation. While Notre Dame managed to score a TD in the first quarter, the offense was more or less stuck in neutral. Poor execution and lacking the creativity that Golson brings all were keeping the game closer than need be.
As the game entered the second quarter, Notre Dame possessed a 7-0 lead, though it didn’t feel like a lead at all. On ND’s first possession of the second quarter, the team had a chance to perhaps extend the lead when they started a possession on their 19-yard line. Just after Theo Riddick converted a 3rd and 1 to extend the drive, the team had a first down on their own 29 when the following occurred…..
As the Riddick run ended, sophomore tight end Troy Niklas inexplicably slapped a BYU defender in the helmet prompting a personal foul penalty for a late hit. The team was now backed up to its own 15, and dumb penalties appeared to continue to be the ND calling card. Was this somehow a flashback to the 2011 season? What in the World was Niklas thinking??
Understandably, CBK removed Niklas from the game for the time being. As he ran off to the sideline, there was no blow up by Kelly, a sight which most of us had become accustomed to. No purple face. No loss of composure. Kelly seemed more in control than he had in season’s past and just wanted to remove a player from the game who’d lost grasp on what was going on.
Then, NBC (to their credit) panned to the sidelines to find the offender Niklas. Generally, this is a shot of the player sitting on a bench somewhere by himself as the team continues on, but something very different was displayed. Instead of sulking, NBC caught Niklas being talked to by Kapron Lewis-Moore (KLM or “Kappy”). KLM was not berating Niklas. Instead, you could see him talking to Niklas. This was a learning moment for the very talented sophomore. His senior captain teammate was not looking to embarrass him. As all of this was unfolding, the following text exchange happened between BH and I:
BH: Jesus f--- how many dumb f---ing penalties can we have this year?
Moons: I really like though that Kelly went and pulled him, and then you see KLM over there getting him straight. There’s an actual hierarchy and respect going on with these guys.
BH: Yes there really is
It’s understated. It’s subtle. Heck, less than ten plays later Mathias Farley would get pegged for a late hit out of bounds, but the import cannot be understated. Leadership was present on the sidelines. Just the previous season, one riddled with inexcusable mistakes and more than one Kelly blow up, the team had rotated captains all too frequently. This season, Kelly named four to represent his team and assume a leadership role.
The second-quarter didn’t get better, and in fact, BYU would lead 14-7 at half over the Irish. However, that single interaction between Kappy and Niklas underlined an important dynamic shift in this team. Everyone was buying in. Everyone understood their role on the team. It was a moment of leadership that transcended position (TE) and squad (Offense vs. Defense) affiliations. This was a team united to win and had the leadership in place to overcome fallacies. I don’t know what KLM said to Niklas on the sidelines, but what I do know was I didn’t see a team struggling with inner-turmoil. No, they were going to take this opportunity to learn and improve and do it without a sense of impending doom.
Understandably, Manti Te’o has garnered much of the praise for the increased leadership this year. Te’o is a unique individual whose maturity and passion surpasses his age by an exponential margin. The problem (being liberal with the use of the word problem) is that not many people have the ability to operate at that level. Te’o’s a guy who wears his emotion and passion openly. I’m nearly a decade his senior and don’t possess that type of commitment. While I’m sure he inspires, I somehow doubt he’s relatable on a day-to-day basis. His qualities are innate, unique, and, for lack of a better term, “special.” I’m sure he will succeed at whatever he decides to do.
Watching the NBC special on a Week in the Life of the ND Program, what I was most struck by was KLM’s leadership. He’s a beacon of positivity and is clearly someone that the entire team likes and respects. While others will pile on the praise of Te’o for good reason, it’s a guy like Kappy that more closely personifies the culture shift at Notre Dame. This group of seniors has implemented a serious culture shift. The seniors were not recruited by Kelly and his staff but instead by Weis. They dealt with Kelly’s ill-stated remarks about “his guys” versus the others, and yet somewhere along the way this team gelled into a cohesive unit.
It’s a tribute to the senior leadership for making that occur. For everything that might be said about the Charlie Weis tenure, we should give him credit for recruiting such high quality individuals. In many senses, it’s what Notre Dame is all about. Players who come to Notre Dame do so because of the entirety of the experience they can realize in South Bend. It’s not all about football. It’s about becoming a better person. It’s about achieving something collectively that cannot be accomplished on an individual basis. Selfish players will not thrive in the Notre Dame system, and the ND community wouldn’t have it any other way. The seniors on the team could have easily justified being somewhat apathetic to the overall team goals. After all, this wasn’t supposed to be a great year. They could have justified it because they weren’t Kelly’s guys. Instead, they embraced the role of team leaders, and the impact has been felt throughout the program.
If we look back two to three years from now and the Notre Dame program is thriving again, I hope we as a fan base are smart enough to appreciate what occurred this year. Yes, the ultimate goal is in sight, but it’s not determinative. Regardless of the outcome of the USC and BCS game (no matter which it is), this year has been a success. It’s a success because the culture has shifted at ND. No longer is the program about whom to blame. Instead, the program is about progressing. The seniors on this team have made that happen. Kappy in particular in my eyes is so important to this progression. The quality and style of team leadership displayed by KLM lets me know that the example has been set. Having individuals of his quality…and Te’o’s quality…and Zach Martin’s quality…and Tyler Eifert’s quality is part of the reason I am proud to call myself an Irish alumni.
I couldn’t be prouder of this group of men, and I recognize that they’re already better individuals than myself. For me, nothing demonstrated the culture shift in Notre Dame football better than this singular moment, and with that I leave you with one final thought……Beat USC! No group of men deserves it more than these guys.