IBG: Bring on Stanford

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The Irish Blogger Gathering continues with some pertinent questions about the game against  Stanford. Running the show with a Q&A befitting the written exam on the GRE is the crew from One Foot Down, who have certainly put some time and effort into the questions at hand.

I’ll do my best to answer them. (Apologies for no Opponent Preview this morning, you’d be shocked at how hard it is to find someone that actually writes and follows Stanford.)

1. After suffering through back to back heart breaking losses
how have your expectations for this season changed?  Has the rough start
affected your expectations for the Brian Kelly era?

I’m rethinking my Rose Bowl prediction, but I don’t think I’ve changed my expectations. From an end-game perspective, I didn’t have a number of wins in mind that would make me think this season was a success or not, but it’d be great to see this team get better as the year went on, which would be a change from the past few seasons.

The last two coaching staffs did a great job of building early momentum, infusing excitement into the fanbase and recharging everyone. Obviously Kelly’s two last-second losses killed the momentum he was building and some fans understandably reacted. I’d like to think of myself as a level-headed, logical optimist when it comes to Notre Dame, and I’m not going to let two brutal breaks change that.

2. Our defense has given up 28 points in both of our last two
games. But our defense has also forced a few three and outs and has
looked fairly stout out times. So on D, are we Jekyll or Hyde?  Or are
we just a work in progress?

I think work-in-progress is a fair label. I also think that this defense is structurally flawed, thanks to some poor roster management. Kelly was left in a bad spot, particularly with depth at defensive end and in the secondary, and it’s hard to play winning defense without those two positions having good depth. That said, I’m more bullish on the Irish defense than others, probably because I’ve had the chance to sit with Bob Diaco and listen to the staff’s philosophies. Make no mistake: If the Irish don’t play great defense this year, it isn’t because of the coaches. Habits are hard to break, and while there have been improvements, last year’s Irish defense did a lot of things poorly, and we’re seeing some of those habits come out at the worst of times.

3. I’ve heard that Bill Walsh believed that if he saw a player
make one great play, he and his staff could coach that player to
consistently make great plays. The Irish offense clearly made some great
plays against State.  Our Offense also unfortunately disappeared at
critical times. Are we just witnessing the process of Kelly and his
staff teaching the lads to consistently make great plays?

Kelly hinted at the problems on the offense when he discussed ball-control throws yesterday. For the Irish offense to move the chains, Dayne Crist needs to do a better job making the short throws, making the proper two-man reads, and getting the Irish offense to operate at a higher efficiency level. I fully appreciate how difficult the transition must’ve been from a Charlie Weis pro-style, downfield offense to a Brian Kelly no-huddle, spread attack. Crist hasn’t played a lot of football, had to rehab a torn ACL this offseason, and still is playing at a pretty high level.

4. Where would you rank Stanford among the Irish opponents?
Would a defeat of the Cardinal be the biggest win of the last six years?

Before the season, I ranked the Stanford game as the 7th hardest on the schedule, and I absolutely take that back right now. Even if Stanford is a paper lion, I think they’re a more dangerous team than BC, Michigan, and Michigan State, so Notre Dame has to play a clean football game to win.

As for the biggest win of the last six years… Huh? This is still Stanford. Don’t get me wrong it’d be a big win, and looking back at the last six years and the quality wins is a depressing exercise, but I can’t call beating a Stanford team that beat up on Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest the best win of the last six years. 

5. While many outsiders and a contingent of fans have cited ND’s
academic standards as a hindrance to football success, many Irish
supporters consider Notre Dame’s unique combination of strong academics
and big-time football (and faith) as an advantageous niche in the
college football world.  With stricter admission standards and far-less
football notoriety, Harbaugh’s Cardinal have burst onto the national
recruiting scene to again prove that plenty of really good football
players welcome academic challenges as long as they come with a chance
to compete at the highest level.  Could you foresee sustained excellence
by Stanford Football and would you perceive a perennially strong
Cardinal program as any kind of a threat to Notre Dame’s niche?

Without getting too macro, Stanford is taking advantage of having a prestigious name brand, something Notre Dame knows plenty about. That said, there aren’t too many similarities that Notre Dame and Stanford share after crossing off good academics and private institutions. What’s getting good football players to Palo Alto is Jim Harbaugh. He’s an aggressive recruiter chasing top-talent, and doing it in one of the premiere states for football talent. Do I think Stanford threatens Notre Dame’s niche? No. But if last year was an indicator (Notre Dame and Stanford each poached players from each other), the Irish and Cardinal will see plenty of each other on the recruiting trail, just because they’re forced to look at the same profile of athlete.

6. Let’s talk statistics.  Will they matter this weekend?

a. Coming into the game, Stanford has the #3 ranked Scoring Offense
nationally (51.67 pts/gm) with the 14th ranked Rushing Offense (242.33
yds/gm).  Notre Dame’s Scoring Offense ranks 73rd (26.00 pts) with the
99th ranked Rushing Defense (197 yds/gm). 
Will the Irish be able to contain Stanford’s rushing attack?  

This is the match-up of the afternoon. Stanford’s offense and quarterback Andrew Luck both depend on a strong rushing attack. Stanford pounded the ball 49 times against UCLA and averaged 4.3 yards a carry — not all that spectacular when you consider that UCLA turned the ball over four times. Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been stout by any means against the run, but they should stack up physically, and need to eliminate the big play.

b. Notre Dame’s Passing Offense is 8th nationally (318
yds/gm) and Stanford’s Passing Efficiency Defense is 3rd nationally (74
yds/gm). Will Stanford be able to contain the Irish passing attack? 

The Irish need to be able to throw the ball against UCLA. I’m not buying the hype on the newly transformed Cardinal defense. I’m throwing out games against Sacramento State, a mediocre team in the Big Sky Conference, and UCLA has some of the most dreadful quarterback play in the country. That said, the 3-4 defense could be exactly what Stanford needs to play better on the defensive side of the ball, but the Irish should get a very good luck from their scout team and defensive coaches this week. As long as Dayne Crist and company can stop turning the ball over, Notre Dame will be able to score some points.

c. Stanford gave up 170 yds rushing to UCLA and 265 yds rushing to Wake Forest.  Notre Dame has averaged 133 yds/gm so far. Do you expect Kelly to utilize the Irish rushing attack more?

Kelly will go with what’s working, but I suspect we’ll see Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, and possibly Robert Hughes getting some carries Saturday. There hasn’t been great balance on offense for the Irish, but before we get worried, they’ve only played three games and Armando Allen has looked great this year. The Stanford run defense looks susceptible, and I’m sure Kelly will try and control the game on the ground.

d. Stanford is ranked 4th in Red Zone Defense (50%) while the
Irish have the 65th ranked Red Zone Offense (82%).   Stanford’s Red
Zone Offense is tied for 1st (100%) in conversions and the Irish
Defense’s Red Zone conversions allowed is 36th (75%).  Will the Irish be able to stop Stanford’s RZ conversions and improve theirs?  How would you do that? 

I don’t have any idea if the Irish will stop Stanford in the red zone. Ideally they’d do it before Stanford gets there, or win the field position battle and set up longer fields for the Cardinal. Andrew Luck is a really really good quarterback and his mobility makes Stanford dangerous in the red zone. The Irish need to hold on to the football and make their red zone possessions count. No team is going to keep a 50 percent red zone average like Stanford’s defense has, but the Irish need to hold on to the football down in Stanford’s end of the field and get touchdowns instead of field goals to win the game.

7. 1-2 is pretty tough to deal with for a football team still
trying to find its identity.  Meanwhile, Stanford is looking like a
well-oiled machine thus far.  Do you think this Irish squad can really
bounce back from another heart-breaking loss against the Cardinal?  What
if it’s not all that close?

Slow down, Mr. Negative. On paper, Notre Dame matches up fine with Stanford. It was only last year where Notre Dame moved the ball up and down the field with a team playing for nothing with a dead-man-walking coach, and a defense not much better.  Put frankly, the Irish have just been on the wrong-end of two very heart-breaking losses. But Brian Kelly isn’t going to lose his team after three games, and like it or not, transitions are tough. There are going to be bumps in the road. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Irish win, and for as lopsided as this may appear, Stanford is only a four-point favorite in Las Vegas. 

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.