Independent wrap: Disappointment reigns
This wasn’t a particularly strong year for any of the independents.
Notre Dame entered the season with legitimate BCS dreams. The Irish instead head into the Champs Sports Bowl with an 8-4 record and an uncertain quarterback situation.
Army and Navy reached bowl games in 2010. They won’t be back in the postseason this season, and each heads into the annual rivalry game Saturday with losing records. This season snapped a string of eight consecutive bowl appearances for Navy.
BYU came on strong down the stretch to go 9-3, but the Cougars benefited from a soft late-season schedule. BYU didn’t really have any signature wins and lost 54-10 at home to archrival Utah.
Although this wasn’t necessarily a great season for any of the independents, it did feature several quality individual performances. With only Saturday’s Army-Navy game remaining in the regular season, here’s a look at some of the notable performances from independents this season.
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Player of the year: Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd. The most prolific receiver in Notre Dame history showed what he could do if he finally stayed healthy for an entire season. Floyd heads into the Champs Sports Bowl with 95 catches for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns. He has caught at least eight passes in half of Notre Dame’s games, including four contests with double-digit receptions. Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o and Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert also were deserving candidates.
Freshman of the year: BYU WR Ross Apo. This redshirt freshman has caught 34 passes for 453 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns. He closed the regular season with consecutive two-touchdown performances against New Mexico State and Hawaii. He has caught six touchdown passes over his past five games. He also had a touchdown catch in each of BYU’s first three contests, against Ole Miss, Texas and Utah.
Coach of the year: BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall. BYU seemed headed for a disappointing season when it opened 1-2, including an embarrassing 54-10 home loss to Utah. But the Cougars regrouped and won eight of their final nine regular-season games. Mendenhall’s gutsy decision to replace highly touted QB Jake Heaps with Riley Nelson turned the Cougars’ season around. Nelson came off the bench and rallied BYU from a double-digit deficit in a victory over Utah State. He finished the regular season with 16 touchdown passes and only five interceptions.
Coordinator of the year: Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t produced many turnovers or big plays, but the Irish consistently have managed to hold opposing offenses in check. The Irish rank 28th nationally in scoring defense (20.92) and 34th in total defense (349.3). Notre Dame has continued playing solid defense even after injuries knocked out starting Es Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore for significant chunks of time.
Biggest surprise, team: None: Not one of the four major independents surpassed expectations this season. You could make a case that each had a disappointing season, though BYU’s 9-3 finish basically was in line with preseason expectations.
Biggest disappointment, team: Navy. You could argue this category’s still up for grabs, since Navy can salvage its season at least somewhat Saturday by beating Army and handing the Black Knights their ninth loss of the year. Army and Navy have disappointing records and will finish below .500, but more was expected of Navy because of its recent track record. Even though Navy had to replace starting QB Ricky Dobbs and rebuild its defense, the Midshipmen hoped to earn a ninth consecutive bowl bid. Navy instead heads into Saturday’s season finale with a 4-7 record.
Biggest surprise, player: Notre Dame RB Jonas Gray. This former highly touted recruit went from underachiever to overachiever in his senior season. The guy who previously hadn’t scored a touchdown in his career reached the end zone in eight consecutive games at one point in the season. Gray rushed for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 6.9 yards per carry before a torn ACL ended his season. Honorable mention goes to BYU’s Nelson, whose emergence helped turn around the Cougars’ season.
Biggest disappointment, players: Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist and BYU QB Jake Heaps. We present these two players as a package because they have so much in common. Each was a heralded recruit. Each struggled to live up to expectations. Each lost his starting job early in the season. Now both are transferring. The one difference is that Heaps got some quality playing time late in the season and performed well while filling in for an injured Nelson in victories over Idaho and New Mexico State.
Best game: Sept. 10: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31. This turned into one of the most memorable games of the season, no matter how much Irish fans would like to forget it. After playing poorly for three quarters, Denard Robinson carried Michigan on his back in a frantic final period as Michigan rallied from a 24-7 deficit. Michigan doesn’t earn a BCS bid without winning that game. If we’re choosing the most exciting game that an independent actually won, we’d go with BYU’s 27-24 victory over Utah State on Sept. 30. BYU trailed 24-13 in the fourth quarter and didn’t take the lead for good until Marcus Mathews caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Nelson with 11 seconds left.
Biggest upset: Sept. 3: USF 23, Notre Dame 20. A Notre Dame team with BCS aspirations opened the season by falling flat on its face. The Irish committed five turnovers to lose their season opener at home despite gaining twice as many yards as USF. The loss looked bad at the time and got even uglier when USF finished 5-7. If we’re picking the biggest upset that an independent won, we’d choose Army’s 21-14 victory over Northwestern on Sept. 17.
Underclassmen liable to turn pro: Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o.
Bowl outlook: Notre Dame and BYU have interesting bowls that seem evenly matched. BYU is favored by about a field goal over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl, while Notre Dame is a three-point underdog against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
|QB||Riley Nelson, BYU: 6-0/196, Jr.; Utah State transfer, preceded by Logan (Utah) High|
|RB||Jonas Gray, Notre Dame: 5-10/230, Sr.; Detroit Country Day|
|RB||Cierre Wood, Notre Dame: 6-0/215, Jr.; Oxnard (Calif.) Santa Clara|
|WR||Michael Floyd, Notre Dame: 6-3/224, Sr.; St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall|
|WR||Cody Hoffman, BYU: 6-4/208, Soph.; Crescent City (Calif.) Del Norte|
|TE||Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame: 6-6/249, Jr.; Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Dwenger|
|T||Zack Martin, Notre Dame: 6-4/303, Jr.; Indianapolis Bishop Chatard|
|T||Matt Reynolds, BYU: 6-6/305, Sr.; Provo (Utah) Timpview|
|G||John Dowd, Navy: 6-4/260, Sr.; Staten Island (N.Y.) St. Peter’s Boys|
|G||Braden Hansen, BYU: 6-6/313, Jr.; Sandy (Utah) Alta|
|C||Braxston Cave, Notre Dame: 6-3/303, Sr.; Mishawaka (Ind.) Penn|
|E||Aaron Lynch, Notre Dame: 6-6/265, Fr.; Cape Coral (Fla.) Island Coast|
|T||Louis Nix, Notre Dame: 6-3/326, Soph.; Jacksonville Raines|
|E||Jabaree Tuani, Navy: 6-1/265, Sr.; Brentwood (Tenn.) Brentwood Academy|
|LB||Steve Erzinger, Army: 6-1/222, Sr.; Houston Lamar|
|LB||Manti Te’o, Notre Dame: 6-2/255, Jr.; Honolulu Punahou|
|LB||Kyle Van Noy, BYU: 6-3/235, Soph.; Reno (Nev.) McQueen|
|LB||Matt Warrick, Navy: 6-2/223, Jr.; Chesterfield (Mo.) Marquette|
|CB||Robert Blanton, Notre Dame: 6-1/200, Sr.; Matthews (N.C.) Butler|
|CB||Preston Hadley, BYU: 6-0/200, Jr.; Snow College (Utah), preceded by Pleasant Grove (Utah) High|
|S||Jamoris Slaughter, Notre Dame: 6-0/198, Sr.; Tucker (Ga.) High|
|S||Harrison Smith, Notre Dame: 6-2/214, Sr.; Knoxville (Tenn.) Knoxville Catholic|
|ALL-INDEPENDENTS SPECIAL TEAMS|
|K||David Ruffer, Notre Dame: 6-1/193, Sr.; Washington (D.C.) Gonzaga|
|P||Riley Stephenson, BYU: 6-0/196, Jr.; St. George (Utah) Pine View|
|KR||George Atkinson, Notre Dame: 6-1/200, Fr.; Livermore (Calif.) Granada|
|PR||JD Falslev, BYU: 5-8/184, Soph.; Smithfield (Utah) Sky View|
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