Pregame Twelve Pack: Stanford edition


Week four of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Purdue game.

1. Kelly and the Irish are going dark.

You can’t blame me as I’m never at practice, but somebody broke the practice policy for reporting, and as a result media will no longer be allowed inside LaBar Practice complex for the remainder of the season.

The entire system of what was reportable and what wasn’t was kind of vague to begin with, but beat-writers and media members won’t have access to Wednesday practices for the rest of the season. This ban is likely to stop reporting on things like injuries, which as Jim Harbaugh has proven this week, is something some team’s like to play close to the vest.

2. Is Stanford a Rose Bowl contender or paper lion?

We’ll most likely find out in the next three-game stretch, but the $64,000 question really seems to be, how legit is Stanford? While the early returns are certainly promising on the new 3-4 defense, I’m not sold on this group after three games against Sacramento State, UCLA and Wake Forest. From listening to Brian Kelly yesterday, you can tell that he and the staff aren’t quite sure of what to expect either.

“To be honest with you, it’s hard to evaluate them,” Kelly said. “Sacramento State,
the game was out of hand. It as 17-0 early. Got to 28-0 against UCLA. I
can tell you it’s a whole different scheme from last year. They’ve
employed a 3-4 defense and a lot of man to man coverage. They matched up
really well against an offense like Wake Forest, because they could put
nine, 10 guys on the line of scrimmage. They overwhelmed Sac State, and
quite frankly, UCLA, I don’t know what they were doing offensively.
They visited Nevada and put in the pistol offense and I don’t know what
was going on there.

“This will be totally different than what they have
seen, relative to our offense. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a different kind of scheme
for us. It’s going to be a great challenge on both ends.”

3. Looking for a scouting report on Chris Owusu? Try calling Jimmy Clausen.

Owusu will likely be at full-strength this weekend after being held our of the first two games of the season. His two two touchdowns against Wake Forest last week are a reminder that the preseason All-American is one of Stanford’s most explosive athletes. While Notre Dame has seen plenty of tape on Owusu, one person they could call is his high school quarterback, some kid named Jimmy Clausen, who connected for nine touchdowns and 750 yards during Jimmy’s senior season.

If Owusu runs wild against Notre Dame, they’ll only have themselves to blame. The Irish were one of his favorite schools during recruiting, but never came to the table with a scholarship offer.

4. There will be some familiar faces wearing Stanford uniforms this Saturday.

There will be some memories revived for a few Cardinal players, with former Irish football players Konrad Reuland and Nate Whitaker returning to South Bend after transferring from Notre Dame.

Reuland was a highly-touted recruit for Charlie Weis but never found his groove on the Irish roster, transferring out early in the 2007. He’s a big-bodied tight end that’ll be part of the depth chart for the Cardinal.

Whitaker was a walk-on kicker for the Irish, eventually becoming a kick-off specialist in 2007 before transferring to Stanford. He converted over 72-percent of his field goal attempts and was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 last season. Talking about his decision to transfer, Whitaker feels like he didn’t get a fair shake with the Irish.

“To be honest, I have tried to stay away from this but I don’t feel like I got a completely fair chance because of the fact that I was a walk-on,” Whitaker told the South Bend Tribune. “But other people have different opinions on that factor, and it’s up for discussion. But personally I don’t think that I had the fair chance that I deserved.”

Whitaker has certainly proved his worth, coming through with a great season as Stanford’s primary kicker, doing it under the same special teams coach he had at Notre Dame.

5. It’s not just players returning to South Bend…

The Stanford coaching staff also is ripe with connections to Notre Dame, with former special teams coordinator Brian Polian now holding the same position under Jim Harbaugh and defensive line coach Randy Hart back on the West Coast after spending the 2009 season at Notre Dame with Charlie Weis.

Polian spent five years at Notre Dame, recruiting the West Coast for the Irish, making him a pretty logical fit for Harbaugh.

6. How good is Andrew Luck? Well, Mel Kiper thinks he’s pretty good.

ESPN’s NFL Draft guru has just moved Luck to the top of his 2011 Big Board, his projections on the best player available in next year’s draft. Kiper has this to say about the Stanford quarterback: “Great arm, NFL smarts, solid footwork. Prototypical size and intangibles. Checks down with a veteran’s savvy.”

Luck still has another year of eligibility, but if he continues to play great football, it looks like Harbaugh will be replacing the best quarterback he’s coached.

7. Harbaugh playing coy with injury to one of his top receivers.

While Brian Kelly has shown in his first three weeks that he’s pretty candid about injuries, Jim Harbaugh has taken a page out of Bill Belichick’s book when dealing with injuries, specifically one to veteran wide receiver Ryan Whalen, who dislocated an elbow and his highly doubtful to play on Saturday.

When asked at his press conference if Whalen was going to play, Harbaugh went stealth.

“As soon as I tell you, you’re going to tell Notre Dame,” Harbaugh said. “I’d want to know about the status of every player on their team, what percent they are, how many plays they are going to play. That’s valuable information.”

Whalen was wearing a shoulder sling at practice this week, giving reporters an ability to read between the lines.

8. The Tunnel Workers’ Union is a blue-collar bunch.

As Stanford Daily sports editor Kabir Sawhney mentioned, the Stanford offensive line has established quite a reputation. Dubbed “the tunnel workers’ union,” by Stanford fans, Jonathan Martin, Andrew Phillips, Chase Beeler, David DeCastro, and Derek Hall combine to create a formidable running game.

Let’s take a quick look back at their recruiting pedigree — often times a hard evaluation when dealing with linemen.

Jonathan Martin — Three Stars. UCLA and Utah Offers. California native.
Andrew Phillips — Three Stars. Northwestern and North Carolina offers. Maryland native.
Chase Beeler — Three Stars. Oklahoma transfer. Oklahoma native.
David DeCastro — Three Stars. Oregon State and Washington offers. Washington native.
Derek Hall — Three Stars. BC and Michigan State offers. Defense end recruit.

While the group may not wow you with their star-power, it’s another good example that you find great football players in all shapes and sizes.

9. The Irish need to play some solid red zone defense.

That’s because Stanford looks like a juggernaut in the scoring zone, going 19-for-19 thus far on the season, with a staggering 16 touchdowns. What makes a team like Stanford so dangerous close to the goal line is a solid running game and a mobile quarterback that is also accurate, two traits that make Andrew Luck very valuable. For the Irish to win this football game, they’ll need to punch in their own opportunities, as well as hold the Cardinal to field goals instead of touchdowns.

10. Look for the Irish to make a big play on special teams.

Last week’s fake field goal is a gigantic stain on a special teams group that prides itself in being one of the best in the country. Kelly and special teams coordinator Mike Elston have put the troops on notice that things better turn around quickly.

“We’ve taken our lumps on some effort things, more so than we have
schematically. Obviously one of things I mentioned earlier in the week,
I didn’t like the effort of some of the veteran players on special
teams,” Kelly said. “This has been more of a, look, this is your last shot or you’re
not going to go to BC. I’m not putting you on the bus —
if you’re the third string whatever position and you’re not giving us
great effort on special teams, then I’m just going to leave you home.
This has been more challenging our players to play at a higher level.”

11. The defensive line will be front and center on Saturday.

It’ll be mass-on-mass up front, with the winning line likely dictating the game. Defensive linemen Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, and Kapron Lewis-Moore know they’re up for a challenge. When asked how Stanford compared against the Irish’s two previous opponents, Lewis-Moore saw some subtle differences.

“I feel like Stanford is a mix of Michigan State and Michigan, the way
the offensive line plays,” Lewis-Moore said. “The offensive line, they’re moving in space.
Michigan State is coming straight at you.
Stanford, they can do a combination of the both. They’re fast, quick,
have good pad level. They’re going to try to knock us off the ball. I
think it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

The front-three will need to stay on their feet, and take advantage of their opportunities to make big plays in the backfield.

12. Irish need to break a very ugly streak this Saturday.

Talk about a trend that needs to be reversed: The Irish have lost 10-straight games against top-20 opponents. Four of those games have come inside Notre Dame Stadium.

This is the highest-ranking the Cardinal have ever had when they played Notre Dame, and the Irish are a 4.5 point underdog according to Las Vegas, a number that might not make sense for people that look at the Irish record and Stanford’s three-game start. The good news for Irish fans? Brian Kelly is 8-2 against ranked opponents, so it looks like something has to give.


Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.