After having to scrape and claw with everything they had to defeat 4-4 Pittsburgh in triple overtime at home on Nov. 3, No. 4 Notre Dame's national title hopes were beginning to fade. The Irish needed to not only beat what was at the time a still-competent USC team, but also have two of three teams ranked ahead of them lose.
The odds weren't in the Irish's favor, especially with Alabama and Oregon just having survived their seemingly biggest tests of the season at LSU and at USC respectively. However, as we are reminded each and every fall, college football doesn't always go by the book.
No. 15 Texas A&M, at 7-2, was having a nice season in its first year in the SEC, but they would be no match for Alabama when they rolled into Tuscaloosa a week after the Irish's great escape. 15 minutes into it, the Aggies had surged to a 20-0 lead behind redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The Aggies would go on to upset the Tide, 29-24, with Manziel having what would become his signature Heisman Trophy performance. "Johnny Football" completed more than 75 percent of his passes, a remarkable feat against a Nick Saban defense, throwing two touchdowns and zero interceptions, outplaying counterpart A.J. McCarron by a wide margin.
How exactly did Manziel pull it off? Furthermore, can Notre Dame's Everett Golson do something similar to the great Alabama defense?
There are more similarities than you might think between the Aggies and Fighting Irish.
Both teams have redshirt freshman quarterbacks who, while undersized, have great mobility and arm strength. They are both aided by tandem tailbacks—Ben Malena and Christine Michael for Manziel, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood for Golson. They're both well protected by future-NFL left tackles and centers.
Manziel also wasn't intimidated coming to Bryant-Denny Stadium, perhaps aided by the fact that LSU's oft-maligned Zach Mettenberger played extremely well a week earlier in a narrow loss to the Tide. Clearly the better player of the two, Manziel figured he could go above and beyond the 17 points Mettenberger put up against Alabama.
The 2011 Tide defense was legendary, but the 2012 unit has its cracks, albeit small. There's only one elite cornerback (Dee Milliner). The linebacking corps, despite having one of the best in the country in C.J. Mosley, isn't the monster it was a year ago without Donta Hightower in the middle and Courtney Upshaw coming off the edge.
Even the best defenses can't hold coverage forever.
Manziel used his feet to buy time, often enough for receivers to find open spots in the Alabama secondary, including on his most memorable play of the season (even drawing an "Oh My Gracious!" from the always entertaining Verne Lundquist).
Manziel also did not hesitate to run, something Golson has become much better at late in the season. He'd make his initial read, and if it wasn't available, he'd tuck it and go. They weren't quarterback draws by design, but they kept things simple for Manziel, something Kelly has done all season with Golson. That becomes even more imperative against a Nick Saban defense. The fewer decisions he has to make, the better for the Irish.
Will Golson have to make some tight throws into small windows? You bet. Manziel was extremely accurate in Tuscaloosa, and the same must be true of Golson in Miami. Those are throws that Tommy Rees can't make, one of the reasons he's now the backup.
The key difference between the two is that Golson is asked to do far less than Manziel, thanks to Notre Dame's defenses allowing the fewest points of any team in the country. Texas A&M's defense was solid, but could not win games on its own like the Irish unit has (Michigan, Stanford).
Even with a 20-0 lead, Texas A&M knew it needed more. For Notre Dame, a team that hasn't allowed more than 20 points in regulation all season, its offensive plan would shift dramatically if it jumped to an early lead.
Golson hasn't developed as rapidly as Manziel, but the two young signal-callers do have comparable skill sets. Is it enough to make Notre Dame challenging the Alabama defense much as Texas A&M did a plausible scenario? That's the Irish's blueprint to a national title.
The script has been written. Now it's just a matter of Golson emulating the player who became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and broke the SEC total offense record.
Possible? Of course.
After all, we're only having this discussion because Manziel did the impossible less than two months ago.
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