Opponent preview: Stanford Cardinal

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Round four of the opponent previews, leading us into Purdue week. Suggestions and comments welcome. Check out the previews for Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State.

The Overview:

No coach has seen his stock rise as quickly as Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh learned the college game moonlighting as an unpaid assistant under his father Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky University during his final eight seasons as an NFL quarterback.  After two seasons as an assistant coach in the NFL, Harbaugh took to the Pioneer Football League in 2004, running the I-AA University of San Diego Toreros for three seasons, his final two campaigns ending with 11-1 records. His three-year climb at Stanford has been more gradual, but he officially put the Cardinal back on the radar with an upset win over the 2007 USC Trojans, a 24-23 victory by the 41 point underdog, one of the greatest statistical upsets of all time. Harbaugh’s reputation is seemingly greater than his achievements, his high water 2009 season only resulted in an 8-5 season, even with impressive victories over then #8 Oregon and #9 USC, putting up 50-plus points on each. In 2010, the Cardinal return most of the high-powered offense, though the loss of Toby Gerhart could take the engine out of the machine. The defense, which will now employ a 3-4 philosophy, is likely what will determine whether or not Harbaugh’s squad is ready to take the leap to the next level.

Last time against the Irish:

While many suspected that Charlie Weis was a dead man walking, the Irish, led by a black-and-blue Jimmy Clausen and a one-man-army performance from Golden Tate, did their best to win in Palo Alto. Even though the Irish had an 11-point lead in the third quarter, the defense couldn’t get a stop when they needed it, and Toby Gerhart nearly turned another dominant late November performance against the Irish into a Heisman Trophy, coming up mere votes short. Without Armando Allen and Kyle Rudolph the Irish offense needed to be perfect, and between a first-possession fumble from then running back Theo Riddick and a stuffed 3rd and 2 in crunch time to Robert Hughes, 38 points wasn’t enough to protect a horrendous defense.

Said then head coach Charlie Weis after his final game:

“There’s a bunch of 22, 23-year-old men right there finishing out their career losing the last four games. They feel miserable and I feel miserable for them.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Stanford as the seventh most difficult game on the schedule. Here’s the rankings so far:

       4. Michigan Wolverines
       5. Michigan State Spartans
       7. Stanford Cardinal
       8. Purdue Boilermakers

You could make a valid argument that any of the four teams listed should be ranked from 4th to 8th, and I actually expect Stanford to be extremely tough on offense with Andrew Luck running the show after a strong debut.

The Match-up:

For all the credit Stanford got last season, they were an incredibly flawed football team. Protecting freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal were content to ride All-American Toby Gerhart, and work play-action passes off of a smash-mouth running game. In Luck, Stanford has a rising star quarterback, and even without Gerhart returning the Cardinal have plenty of offensive weapons returning. The strength of the team, the offensive line, is returning four starters, though All-American right tackle Chris Marinelli needs replacing.

On defense, wholesale changes are in store for Stanford, which replaced nearly their entire defensive staff. Enter Vic Fangio, who last coached in college back in 1983, and has spent the last 24 years in the NFL, including 11 years as a defensive coordinator. He’ll be implementing a 3-4 defensive system, and doing so with a new secondary coach and a new defensive line coach, former Notre Dame assistant Randy Hart. Hart will look to Sione Fua to anchor the defensive line, as well as leading sacker Thomas Keiser. The linebacking corps will employ ironman Owen Marecic, who is a three-time Pac-10 honorable mention fullback. Harbaugh called him “the perfectly engineered football player.” The secondary returns three of four starters, losing their best player in three-year starter Bo McNally. That said, the passing defense ranked 110th in the nation, so continuity might not be the best thing for the Cardinal.

How the Irish will win:

The key to winning is scoring the most points, and the Irish will happily oblige against a downtrodden defense. Even if Vic Fangio came from the Baltimore Ravens, it’ll be hard to turn any of Stanford’s defenders into Ray Lewis or Ed Reed. Without Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck won’t face eight-man fronts, and the mistake-free freshman All-American will be baited into some bad decisions by an opportunistic Notre Dame secondary, sitting back in a zone defense and bringing pressure from unexpected places. Kyle Rudolph gets his chance to shine against Stanford, missing his opportunity to dominate last season’s contest at The Farm.

How the Irish will lose:

The legs of Andrew Luck turn out to be a problem, as the Stanford quarterback consistently buys time inside and out of the pocket, finding favorite targets Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu to score some much needed early points. The depth chart at Stanford is finally maturing and its that depth that helps slow down the Irish offense, with special teams coach Brian Polian and Hart providing some advanced scouting on Notre Dame’s personnel. This could be the last time Harbaugh faces the Irish with Stanford, trading the red and white for the maize and blue of his alma mater after the season.

Gut Feeling:

The key to beating Stanford will be playing defense, and I’ve got a lot more confidence in Bob Diaco’s new unit than the team the Irish trotted out last season. While Andrew Luck could be ascending to the top echelon of quarterbacks in college football, I’ve got a feeling that the Irish are going to “out athlete” Stanford, and run the Cardinal defense ragged. 

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”