Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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It seemed a little too easy going into halftime for the Irish. Maybe that explains why Notre Dame seemed to backpedal their way to the finish, holding on for a six-point victory over Pitt 23-17 on a beautiful afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium.

“As we’ve shown, we’re really good at stubbing our toes,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that’s us. I’m trying to get used to it or it’s going to make me look really old, really quick.”

Welcome to the life of those that care about Notre Dame football, Coach Kelly. The past dozen years have been an exercise in inconsistency, with the Irish looking like world beaters in some instances and a sinking ship in others, often on the same afternoon. That was the case Saturday for the Irish, who managed to win a football game they were outgained in by playing excellent special teams and winning the turnover battle.

In the end, only the “W” is important, as the Irish get back to .500 after losing three of their first four games. With games against Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming before a much needed week off, the Irish have a chance to put together a run before their November 13th date with Utah.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned:

1. Notre Dame won that football game thanks to excellent special teams.

If there was any question about Mike Elston’s troops, it was answered this afternoon with a resounding performance in special teams leading the Irish to victory.

“We flipped the field position today,” Kelly said. “Ben Turk was outstanding punting the football. They’re dangerous, one of the best S.T. teams we’ll see this year was Pittsburgh. Well coached.”

Punter Ben Turk rebounded from a terrible start to the season by launching punts all afternoon. He averaged over 46 yards per punt and pinned the Panthers inside their 20 three times in the fourth quarter as Pitt tried unsuccessfully to rally. That field position was critical as the Irish offense sputtered down the stretch, falling to turn drives into touchdowns.

The Irish also benefited from some unlikely miscues by Pitt. Once again, Brian Kelly benefited from the miscue of Pitt holder Andrew Janocko, as the backup quarterback muffed a hold on a short field goal attempt that took three points off the board for the Panthers. It was Janocko that couldn’t handle a snap late in last season’s Pitt-Cincinnati game that ended up creating the one point difference in the Bearcat’s 45-44 victory. Janocko’s struggles weren’t the only ones in the kicking game, as kicker Dan Hutchins missed his first field goal attempt shorter than 30 yards in his career, keeping Pitt off the scoreboard in the second quarter.

More importantly, fifth-year senior Barry Gallup came up with a great individual effort, thwarting Pitt’s fake punt attempt by making a shoe-string tackle when he was the last man to beat. After giving up the fake field goal to Michigan State in overtime, it’s great for morale to successfully stop a fake, especially one that was as well-designed as the play Pitt ran.

2. David Ruffer is the next walk-on Notre Dame hero.

In the line of Rudy Ruettiger, Reggie Ho, and Mike Anello, David Ruffer’s walk-on story shouldn’t take a backseat to anyone. A scatch high school golfer, Ruffer never played football until he joined the team at William & Mary during his freshman year, a school he attended after he failed to get into Notre Dame. Ruffer worked hard on his grades as a freshman, successfully transferred into Notre Dame, and was plucked off the interhall squad of Siegfried Hall during the bye week of the 2008 season. Ruffer made it into a game that year, missing his only kick of the year, an extra-point attempt against Washington.

Since then, Ruffer has been nearly perfect, connecting on every field goal he’s attempted since filling in for Nick Tausch when he went down with a leg injury last season. Winning the kicking job outright at the start of the year, Ruffer’s done nothing to let go of it, entering today’s game one field goal shy of tying Tausch’s all-time record for consecutive kicks made at 14. Ruffer knocked through his first attempt today — a 32-yard chip shot to tie Tausch, but stared down a 50-yard field goal attempt to grab Notre Dame history to himself. Even though the snap was low, Ruffer absolutely drilled the kick, splitting the uprights with almost 10 yards to spare, and putting his name into the record books with an exclamation point.

“He kicked that thing into the net. I had to look twice that it was 50 yards,” Kelly said. “Ruffer is doing things that obviously many people, including myself, thought he couldn’t do. Nobody would have thought 50 yards was like automatic.”

Ruffer has a year of eligibility remaining if Kelly and company want to bring him back (they should), it’ll have to be on scholarship, a worthy reward for a true student-athlete and a success story.

3. Kyle Rudolph is far from full strength and needs to sit a week out.

As much as Dayne Crist needs his safety valve, Kyle Rudolph is far from healthy. The tight end is battling a nagging hamstring injury, and it’s robbed one of Notre Dame’s best offensive weapons of his explosiveness.

“It’s probably at the point where you have to make a decision to shut him down for a week or keep playing through it,” Kelly said, without mentioning that the Irish play Western Michigan next week. “But you can’t tell Kyle Rudolph you’re shutting him down. He wants to play and he wants to compete. At the end of the day he played pretty good for us. He’s a pretty good tight end at 75 percent right now. So that’s one that we’ll have to continue to have a conversation about.”

Rudolph caught five ball for 38 yards, but it was the ones that he didn’t catch that helped you recognize he was hobbled. On a wheel route in the second half, Crist laid a ball out that looked perfect for Kyle, but Rudolph was unable to catch up to the throw and it fell incomplete. Rudolph also dropped a first down throw late in the game, fighting a ball high above his head as he struggled to get liftoff.

The decision would be a lot easier if backup Mike Ragone would’ve held onto a pass that should have iced the football game late in the fourth quarter. But if the Irish are going to run the table, they’ll need a healthy Rudolph. And with Western Michigan coming to South Bend, expect to see No. 9 in street clothes.

4. The Irish beat the Pitt pass rush with a high-tempo offense.

With Taylor Dever unable to go, the Irish were forced to shift Zack Martin to right tackle and slide senior Matt Romine into the starting lineup at left tackle. Even without standout Greg Romeus, Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar recognized that the Pitt pass rush would be the Irish’s biggest obstacle offensively. So Kelly decided to use the Irish’s conditioning and pace of play to wear out the defensive front.

“We were a little concerned that the math-up could be an issue, so we definitely wanted to try and tire out that front four of Pittsburgh,” Kelly said. “So we decided to move Romine and flip Zack Martin over and I thought tempo would be the best way to slow down that pass rush.”

It seems like the strategy worked, with Pitt getting two sacks early and struggling to get much of a pass rush for most of the second half. In turning up the pressure, for the first time this season, we caught a glimpse of what Kelly’s hurry-up offense can do, breaking off large chunks of yardage quickly. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt admitted after the game that the speed and tempo took the Panthers by surprise.

“We changed a few things, but the biggest adjustment was getting used to the tempo and getting into their type of fast rhythm,” Wannstedt said after the game.

If you’re looking for a sign of what this offense can be, consider what it almost was today. Crist’s 24 of 39
passing for 242 yards looks
rather pedestrian, but consider that two gigantic plays worth over 100 yards of passing where taken off the board by penalties. (Not to mention two poor throws by Crist in the red zone.) And while the box score shows Jonathan Baldwin getting the better of the match-up between he and Michael Floyd, Floyd lost over a 100 yards and two touchdowns on self-inflicted errors, with an assist to an iffy call by a Big East officiating crew. And questions out there about Floyd’s willingness to play hard and play for Kelly should’ve been silenced today. 

Kelly admits that while they’re making progress, he’s still holding back the offense, unwilling to unleash the true fast-paced attack he’d like to run.

“It’s hold on and try to get it down the field,” Kelly said when describing the current offense. “We’re really micro-managing in a sense the offense until we can let it go. We can’t turn it over yet and just let it go because we’d make too many mistakes. We’re trying to manage it, until we get to the point where we can rip it and let it go.”

The next three games are critical for offensive development. Expect the Irish to push the tempo on the next three Saturdays and to overwhelm inferior opponents.

5. Losing in the box score but winning on the scoreboard a good thing for the Irish.

Looking for a reason to believe in the new direction of the Irish football program? Try this: Notre Dame won the football game while being outgained by over 50 yards. Pitt’s 382 yards versus Notre Dame’s 329 yards weren’t enough to swing the balance of the game, a credit to the coaching staff and the small battles won that often mean the difference between victory and defeat.

During the Charlie Weis era, the Irish only won three games where they were outgained by more than 50 yards, and two of those games came when the opposition absolutely imploded. In Notre Dame’s win over Michigan in 2008, the Wolverines turned the ball over six times. In Notre Dame’s victory over UCLA in 2007, the Bruins played even worse — coughing it up seven times to the Irish. If you’re looking for the last game that Notre Dame lost the yardage margin by over 50 yards, and played a team that turned the ball over two times or less, it was against Chad Henne’s 2005 Michigan squad, Charlie Weis’ second game at Notre Dame.

This isn’t a referendum against Weis, merely pointing out that while the Irish are a work in progress, they have the makings of a better overall team, doing things that help win games instead of making mistakes that make you lose them. The Irish made plenty of errors today — broken coverage on Jonathan Baldwin and Mike Ragone’s crucial drop come immediately to mind — but they’ve also started doing the things that let you steal a victory.

To Kelly’s credit, he understands this is all part of the development of a football team.

“They have a belief that they’re going to win football games,” Kelly said. “I just told them, ‘Enjoy the win.’ We’ll micro-manage this and talk about what we could have done and should have done on Monday. Enjoy the victory. It’s a good win.”

And while it wasn’t pretty, the Irish stop Pitt’s winning streak at Notre Dame Stadium and pull to 3-3 on the year. With the first lopsided match-up of the year coming with Western Michigan coming to town, the Irish are in a great position to start the run Kelly hinted at after losing to Stanford.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said then. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8 or 9-3.”

A Notre Dame fan’s thanks to give

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Brian Kelly is thankful for the opportunity to coach football at Notre Dame. Brandon Wimbush claims to be grateful for a room full of media. These typically-rote answers offered by the Irish coach and junior quarterback this week make surface-level sense, especially given the obligatory nature of dealing with that room full of cameras, reporters and recorders.

Senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill provided a more in-depth response Tuesday, thinking of his grandfather, or “Big Daddy.”

“He moved in with us probably about 12 years ago to help my parents taking all the kids to all their sporting events and stuff, and he was always the one taking me to my baseball tournaments, staying in hotels with me and taking me around everywhere,” Tranquill said. “So I’m really thankful for him and just the investment he gave to help me pursue my dream.”

What might Notre Dame fans specifically be appreciative of this holiday? With a likely — somewhat inevitable — personal skewing, let’s run through a few more than three dozen items worthy of giving thanks …

— Defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Last year the Irish defense created 14 turnovers and recorded 14 sacks. With a game to play before matching last season’s 12 games, Notre Dame has forced 18 turnovers and brought down the opposing quarterback 20 times. There is a reason Elko is a Broyles Award finalist, given to the country’s top assistant coach.

— Offensive coordinator Chip Long. His effect may not be as statistically-dramatic as Elko’s, but Long’s influence is rather noticeable, nonetheless. Long took over the play calling of an offense led by a first-year quarterback and — with two exceptions against two of the best defenses of 2017 — created a truly explosive attack.

— Strength and conditioning “coordinator” David Balis. Every indication, both on- and off-field, shows the Irish are in better shape this year, holding up better in fourth quarters and into the final month of the season.

“When you spend nearly 70 percent of your time with those [strength] coaches and with your physical and technical development, that’s key to having a sustainable model in terms of culture of a winning football team,” Tranquill said. “If you look at teams who have been successful, that’s where they’ve started. …

“That’s something we’ve been able to do here this year, and it’s helped us to be successful. I think it’ll continue to help us be successful.”

— Special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Notre Dame’s return units have not been explosive this year, but the coverage units have limited the opposition, something not inherently true the last few seasons. In many respects, with an offense producing as much as Long’s has, those return possibilities are not as vital to the team’s success as the coverage protections are, anyway. Breaking a return also relies on a singular talent more than team-wide coverages do.

“Sometimes to be great, you’ve got to have one great game-breaker,” Kelly said Tuesday. “You’ve got to have somebody that changes the game, and I don’t know that we have that guy right now.”

— White bread, toasted, dry, with nothing on it. And four whole fried chickens and a Coke.

— The emergence of the defensive line. During some back-and-forth banter in fielding this preseason’s ballots for the annual “Counting Down the Irish” series, jokes were cracked about how few defensive linemen warranted even consideration for the top-25 listing. In the end, three made the cut: sophomore end Daelin Hayes at No. 9, junior tackle Jerry Tillery at No. 11 and senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) at No. 20.

By this point, at least two more would land in the top 25, perhaps as many as four.

“Our defensive line has been a consistent group all year,” Kelly said. “… They’ve fought. They’ve been very consistent.”

— Specifically, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem has made himself a known commodity this season, making 5.5 tackles for loss including three sacks. His name will certainly land in next season’s “Counting Down the Irish.”

“This year has been a breakout year for him in [the weight room],” Kelly said. “He’s gained a lot of confidence, and he’s made so much progress in the weight room, so from a physical standpoint he can go in there and he can battle with anybody.”

— Freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish give even further reason for forward-looking optimism along the defensive front. Neither was expected to be a contributing presence this season. Both have been, and they thus ease concerns about the possible pending departures of both starting defensive tackles, Tillery and senior Jonathan Bonner.

— Senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti may not be the highlight-providing force Kareem or some of the other defensive ends are, but he has provided steady play on both ends of the defensive line. One could even consider his steady play exceptional, if that were not such an oxymoron.

Trumbetti very well may have saved the victory over Navy, diagnosing and pressuring the halfback pass before the play could fully develop. The subsequent incompletion allowed Notre Dame to kneel out the clock.

10 — 5-Hour Energy Extra Strength bottles of delight. They are the fuel behind this space multiple times a week, including each and every third quarter. Without them, the frame following halftime would hardly register in memory. Fortunately, they are smaller than 3.4 fluid ounces, meaning they can slip in with one’s toiletries when flying. Thanks, TSA.

Greer Martini. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

— The Irish have been remarkably healthy this season. Perhaps the closest thing to a severe injury timed itself for the bye week, so senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini (meniscus tear) missed only one game.

— In missing that one game, Martini created an opportunity for junior linebacker Te’von Coney to earn both more playing time and more notice. He now leads Notre Dame with 93 tackles through 11 games, even though he had all of 75 entering the season.

The Irish dominated USC without Martini, and he has looked little, if any, worse for wear since surgery to repair the torn meniscus. Thus, there was little-to-no short-term harm. Martini’s missing that game may have served Notre Dame a greater good in the long-term. Look at it this way: In the season’s first six games, Coney had a total of 42 tackles. In only five since, he has 51, including a team-high 11 against the Trojans.

— Bluetooth, one of the more-underrated technological advances that has become a commonplace luxury in the 21st century.

— USC’s gift of a fumbled punt. In retrospect, the Irish outplayed the Trojans in every facet of the game, but they relished the chance to go up 21-0 in the first half after USC muffed a punt inside its own 10-yard line. That moment may have sealed the outcome and will be one of the overlooked but consequential moments of Notre Dame’s 2017.

— Recovering that fumble may be the easiest turnover credit of Tranquill’s career. The most unexpected recurring quote of his collegiate time came following the 20-19 loss to Georgia. On-field, in-house interviews are only a symptom of the video board installed this year. If only for garnering this tidbit, the video board should be appreciated.

— Fettuccini alfredo. It is simple to cook, yet delectable either hot or cold. Even pizza cannot claim all those qualities.

Shaun Crawford’s forced fumble at Michigan State. The Spartans were literal inches from cutting the Irish lead to 21-7. The junior cornerback’s heady play to not only force the fumble at the goal line but then to also recover it opened the door for a 28-0 halftime lead. Much like Tranquill’s recovery against USC, this low-key highlight need not be forgotten as the season’s end nears.

— Pilot travel centers. Some things can be explained only after eight separate 1,000-mile roundtrip treks of I-94. The hot dogs are tolerable and cost-efficient, the bathrooms clean, the ease of access from the road quick. Not much else can be asked for in this life.

20 — Quenton Nelson, and not just for the above manhandling of Kelly after winning at Michigan State. The senior left guard and captain has been the best player for Notre Dame this season. It is unlikely he accepts Kelly’s offer of the coach’s parking spot to return next season, nor should Nelson do so.

— Mike McGlinchey. The fifth-year left tackle and captain’s on-field performance has been outdone by only Nelson, and McGlinchey’s off-field candor is unrivaled.

— The combination of Nelson and McGlinchey. The two have shifted the line of scrimmage all season. Their dominance allows the Irish to focus any blocking assistance on the right side entirely. It creates a litany of running design possibilities between combination blocks and/or pulling schemes. The two stand alone in many respects.

Such a hand-in-hand fit along an offensive line is rare in the NFL and nearly unheard of in college football. As great as the left guard/left tackle combination of Chris Watt and Zack Martin was just a few years ago — and it was superb — Nelson and McGlinchey have raised the bar even further, both in individual excellence and in the innate chemistry developed by starting alongside each other for multiple seasons.

— Asinine notes courtesy of a character named Edgar starting a thought process of actual, usable fixes.

— Robert Hainsey’s emergence this year. The freshman right tackle has complemented sophomore Tommy Kraemer wonderfully, making for a complete offensive line rather than only 80 percent of one.

“There’s been some learning curves,” Kelly said. “But standing here right now going into the last game, if you ask me about playing two first-time starters, I’m pleased with their performance.”

— The comfort that emergence provides when pondering the 2018 offensive line. Kelly and Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand could have reasonably hoped for one genuine starter to emerge at right tackle this season. To come up with two-fifths of next year’s line is a luxury unexpected but happily welcomed.

— There is an establishment directly across Angela Boulevard from Notre Dame’s campus. After every home game, “Things We Learned” relies on its wifi, its understanding and — especially after night games — its late hours. Even after day games, TWL needs midnight to fly by before conclusion, and that shelter provides a comfortable and nearby venue to function within.

— Offensive sets featuring two running backs, especially when both sophomore Tony Jones and junior Josh Adams are healthy. When afforded that availability, Long has made it a habit to put defenses in compromising positions by moving Jones out wide or using him as a lead blocker. Most every possible play design is feasible with both those ballcarriers in those alignments.

— The “33 Trucking” campaign to get Adams into Heisman contention was short-lived, but it did provide one excellent video.

30 — 70 miles per hour speed limits. Even this memory’s relatively short lifespan notices that uptick.

Kevin Stepherson’s perseverance to return. The sophomore receiver could have found many easier options than sitting out this year’s first four games, staying engaged the entire time and working his way back into the offensive scheme.

— Caffeinated gum. Before turning to those aforementioned bottles of 5-Hour Energy in the second half, coffee’s faster-acting cousin carries these fingers through the first quarter each week.

— The Irish do not have to return to Miami and Hard Rock Stadium until 2025, unless they end up in the Orange Bowl at some point, which would likely be considered a good problem to have, even if the last two trips to that venue have been complete and utter debacles. If anything, that description is being generous.

— ACC bowl tie-ins. A loss this weekend would send Notre Dame to Orlando for either the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28). Before the deal with the ACC, it would be much more difficult to provide such a prognostication, and the options posited would be nowhere near as alluring, even after a 9-3 season.

— The College Football Playoff, a debate worth embracing. Arguing with computers in the days of the BCS never felt like the best use of time. At least now conversations can be based on logic, even if that logic is regarding whether a loss to Iowa State is a greater negative than a loss at Miami.

— Noon kickoffs. Oh, wait, well, never mind. 5 p.m. local time could be worse, though it may not be great for anyone hoping to view from London when that local time is on the Pacific coast.

— An unexpected Maui Invitational conversation at an airport bar. Take basketball chats wherever you can find them.

— Exit interviews. Kelly sat down with each and every player following last season to discuss what broader flaws led to the 4-8 disappointment. Suffice it to say, the resulting changes have been noticed. Kelly is yet undecided if he will hold the exit interviews again after this season.

“It was a valuable tool for me last year,” he said Sunday. “I’ll certainly give it some thought after we complete this game, but my focus really is on just trying to prepare our guys this week.”

— Keith Arnold’s poor judgement of capability, competence and character. Truly, thank you, Keith. I raise this glass of nine-year-old Foursquare Rum to you, good sir.

40 — Online commentators. Hopefully placing this acknowledgement here shows where it is amid priorities — last really is least — but still provides enough lip service to serve its purpose. If nothing else, some of those comments justify some other, shall we say, 40 thoughts.

And In That Corner … The No. 21 Stanford Cardinal and (maybe) Bryce Love

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Both Notre Dame and Stanford can still get to 10 wins before a bowl game, though the path for the Cardinal is a bit tougher. The Irish need to win one game, though it is at a place where they haven’t found a victory in a decade. Stanford needs to beat Notre Dame, have Washington top Washington State, and then the Cardinal could proceed to the Pac 12 title game for a rematch with USC.

The focus today is on this weekend, naturally. For some insight, let’s turn to Jacob Rayburn of the Cardinal Sports Report.

DF: Obviously the story this year has been Bryce Love. When he’s healthy, I’d argue he is the most explosive running back in college football. But, much like the Irish backfield, ankle issues have nagged at Love for most of the season. How is he this week?

JR: Bryce Love’s ankle and whether he will play is the mystery of the week. Love wasn’t able to finish the Big Game win over Cal and missed most of the fourth quarter of a three-point game. Love has a very high pain tolerance but it was too much Saturday after he was once again rolled on by a defender. He has done a fantastic job of playing the past couple weeks despite the fact that he has only one healthy ankle.

There are a number of Stanford fans on the forum arguing it’s not worth him playing this week. There is a chance the Cardinal will play USC in the conference championship game the following Friday, so a short week after a physical game would be troublesome.

Love’s scouting report is speed, speed, speed. He is more than that, though. What about his game sets him apart? Not that this is applicable this week, but curiosity forces me to ask, what kind of NFL future do you see for him?

His vision is excellent and he is much tougher to bring down than people think. The vision he has to spot not even a running lane but just a tiny gap between bodies is incredible. Love regularly slides through the smallest opening to break off a run that few other running backs would even try, let alone be able to do.

He’s had some bad luck with injuries the past two seasons that may raise questions about his durability. But when a 300-pound human falls on your ankle it doesn’t matter it if you’re a 220-pound running back or a 190-pound running back. It hurts.

Love’s speed alone makes him valuable for an NFL team, but his draft stock will also be determined by his ability to catch the ball — which he hasn’t been asked to do much this season, but he can — and if he can stop a blitzing defender. But even as a situational back and returner he would add great value to a team. He’s too talented a runner for a skilled offensive play caller not to find successful ways to use him.

Stanford sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello has completed 60.71 percent of his passes and averages 7.1 yards per attempt as he has thrown for 993 yards and five touchdowns, compared to only two interceptions, this season. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Love has been the engine to the Cardinal offense this year partly because of some uncertainty at quarterback. Head coach David Shaw has now settled on sophomore K.J. Costello, but only a month ago he was hardly playing. Senior Keller Chryst had the honors then. We should expect Costello this weekend, right? What does he bring to the table that Chryst lacks?

There really isn’t a major difference in the skillset of the two quarterbacks, although when healthy Chryst is the better runner. But Chryst’s inconsistency was his undoing. He was capable of delivering NFL caliber throws one week against Oregon and then in the next game against Oregon State nearly throw multiple interceptions.

It would be simplistic to describe Costello as a gunslinger, but there is some merit to describing him such. He can make more happen with his arm than Chryst and his personality seems to bring out more energy from the team. Chryst is a tough kid who worked very hard to return to the team from a knee injury in the Sun Bowl, but Costello better balances the offense.

Costello didn’t see the field when Stanford slipped past Oregon State on Oct. 26. Neither did Love. Yet, that was the one game most people actually might have seen, played on a Friday night with little competition for eyeballs. What in the world happened that night? The Cardinal had been rolling along, winning four straight with three of them by at least 10 points. Was the offensive ineptitude entirely because of those two absences?

Not having Love really hurt but generally there were some major steps backward that Friday. As you pointed out there were positive signs in the previous four games that the offense’s worst days were behind it. That clearly wasn’t the case and fits into the narrative of this season that this Stanford team has been very difficult to figure out.

The Oregon State defense played inspired and there is something about playing up in Corvallis that does funky things to visitors. It has been a major trip for Pac-12 teams. Stanford’s offensive line wasn’t able to dominate the line of scrimmage like people expected in that game. And without Love, none of the running backs had the ability to turn a small opening into a big run.

Stanford’s rush defense is decidedly average, allowing 171.7 yards per game, good for No. 70 in the country heading into this weekend. Notre Dame’s rush offense is much better than average. What chance does the Cardinal have of slowing down that ground attack? Will Shaw sell out on that effort, daring Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to produce through the air?

Every week has been a challenging experience for Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson to figure out a new way to keep opponents out of the end zone. Really there aren’t any statistics that show Stanford is a great defense and in some categories they aren’t even good. But the Cardinal are allowing only 21 points per game.

I expect Stanford to go all in to stop Notre Dame’s run game. This Cardinal defensive front is not a dominant group, even though they have one of the best interior players in the conference and even the country with senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. But the front seven has been inconsistent and was hurt significantly when inside linebacker Sean Barton suffered a season-ending injury at San Diego State in week three. Bobby Okereke is playing very well in the middle of the field and they would have been a formidable duo at this point in the season.

Entering the season, expectations were not as high for Stanford as they may have been in the recent past. That’s what happens when you lose two top-10 NFL Draft picks, one on each side of the ball. Yet, here the Cardinal are, with a chance to win the conference and head to a playoff-eligible bowl at 10-3. How much has this been seen as a “down” year in those parts? Has David Shaw’s performance this season earned the praise it likely deserves?

It has been a down year in the sense that Stanford’s inconsistency has left wins on the field. The loss to USC was completely understandable because the Trojans played like a playoff-caliber team that night. Sam Darnold and that offense looked better in that game than most of the rest of the regular season.

But losing to San Diego State and Washington State, and nearly suffering a stunning upset at Oregon State, were disconcerting for a variety of reasons. The loss to Washington State really hit the team hard because it was a painful missed opportunity to take control of the North Division. After that game Shaw went further to publicly criticize his own performance as a playcaller than he ever has before. There was a feeling that Stanford was at a tipping point where things could really go bad.

But the team has rallied since and they have a chance for another 10-win season. If Stanford can maintain that as the “down season” standard then that’s something fans can live with.

The Farm, as Stanford’s home field is known, is a unique place to play, offering great scenery though not often a rambunctious atmosphere. Notre Dame has lost on each of its last four trips to Palo Alto. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

With a 2.5-point spread in Notre Dame’s favor, bookmakers have this one pegged as closer than I expected. Perhaps that has to do with a decade’s worth of Irish struggles at The Farm. What do you expect to see unfold this weekend?

I think a lot has to go right for Stanford, especially on defense, to keep Notre Dame close. If Josh Adams and the Irish offensive line have their way it would be a very tough night for the Cardinal defense. I don’t expect Bryce Love to play in the game but anything could happen with someone as determined as him. Welcoming back tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receiver Connor Wedington — who missed the Cal game due to injuries — will help Costello keep the game close with the passing game.

I have Notre Dame by 10 points.

Notre Dame’s Opponents and Playoff Competition: Results and Upcoming

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Winning at Stanford would give Notre Dame its third win over a team in this week’s College Football Playoff selection committee top 25, with the Cardinal moving up one spot to No. 21 on Tuesday.

In Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mind, that résumé might yet warrant Playoff consideration.

“Our mission is still to hold out hope for one of the Playoff spots,” Kelly said Tuesday. “… It’s trying to prepare [his team] for one more game and finishing off the season on a high note.”

Kelly’s mission may be far-fetched, though he is certainly aware of as much. However, it is not yet beyond fathoming.

“If you’re in the top eight, you’re strongly considered,” Kelly said. “… The teams that are up there have all had one bad day, and we had one bad day, too.”

Remaining at No. 8, Notre Dame will need a few teams to have another bad day in the next two weekends. This past bland weekend left the top 12 largely unchanged, only Miami moving up to No. 2, knocking Clemson down to No. 3. A conspiracy theorist might think that set the groundwork for a tight Clemson victory in the ACC title game next weekend leading to both ACC finalists making the Playoff. With that in mind, make the first Irish-preferred domino a Miami victory in that game.

Kelly should also hope No. 6 Auburn beats No. 1 Alabama this weekend before losing to No. 7 Georgia next weekend. No. 5 Wisconsin topping No. 9 Ohio State next weekend in the Big Ten championship would likely aid Notre Dame’s cause, as would No. 12 TCU upsetting No. 4 Oklahoma in the Big 12 final.

For Notre Dame to make the College Football Playoff, Heisman front-runner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma will likely need to lose at some point in the next two weeks. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

That scenario would leave Georgia, Miami and Wisconsin as likely locks for the Playoff. The conversation around the fourth Playoff spot would revolve around a one-loss Alabama, a two-loss Clemson, a two-loss Oklahoma, a two-loss TCU and a two-loss Notre Dame.

Of course, that all only comes into consideration if the Irish beat Stanford this weekend.

Arguments could be made for each of those five possibilities. Spending time on those could quickly be time spent on fantasy if all five of those dominos do not fall perfectly.

In that case, it remains simple for Notre Dame. Beat the Cardinal and make a Playoff-eligible bowl, which one likely depending on if Miami makes the Playoff or not. If the Hurricanes are in the Playoff, then the Irish may be heading back to Miami Gardens and the Orange Bowl. If Miami lands at its home venue, than a Notre Dame victory this weekend should send Kelly to the Cotton Bowl.

An Irish loss in Palo Alto still sends them to Orlando in one form or another, be it the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28, 5:15 p.m.).

As a refresher of the Playoff contenders and their remaining slates:
1) Alabama: at No. 6 Auburn; with a victory in the Iron Bowl, then head to face No. 7 Georgia in the SEC championship.
2) Miami: at Pittsburgh, vs. No. 3 Clemson.
3) Clemson: at No. 24 South Carolina, vs. No. 2 Miami.
4) Oklahoma: vs. West Virginia; most likely vs. No. 12 TCU in the Big 12 title game, though the Horned Frogs have not secured that finish just yet.
5) Wisconsin: at Minnesota; vs. No. 9 Ohio State.
6) Auburn: vs. No. 1 Alabama; with a victory in the Iron Bowl, then head to face No. 7 Georgia in the SEC championship.
7) Georgia: at Georgia Tech; vs. the Iron Bowl victor.
8) Notre Dame: at No. 21 Stanford.
9) Ohio State: at Michigan; vs. No. 5 Wisconsin.

Notre Dame’s Opponents
Temple (5-6): The Owls lost 45-19 to undefeated Central Florida. Temple now needs to beat Tulsa (4 p.m. ET; ESPN News) to secure bowl eligibility. The Owls are favored by three with a combined point total over/under of 59, indicating a 31-28 conclusion.

Georgia (10-1): The Bulldogs trounced Kentucky 42-13, cashing in on another efficient performance from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who finished 9-of-14 passing for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Georgia is favored by 11 against Georgia Tech (12 p.m. ET; ABC), an over/under of 51.5 pointing to a 31-20 result.

Boston College running back A.J. Dillon is the Eagles offense sole reliable producer at this point. (Getty Images)

Boston College (6-5): The Eagles secured a 13th game to the season by beating Connecticut 39-16 in Fenway Park, even though they were without starting quarterback junior Anthony Brown. Freshman running back A.J. Dillon picked up the slack, taking 24 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Boston College now travels to Syracuse (12:20 p.m. ET; ACC Network) as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 56.5, roughly equaling a 30-27 score.

Michigan State (8-3): The Spartans moved up one spot to No. 16 in the CFP poll after beating Maryland 17-7. They can’t win the Big Ten, but they can win at Rutgers (4 p.m. ET; FOX), favored by nearly two touchdowns with a 26-13 decision sounding reasonable only if Michigan State comes out flat.

Miami (OH) (5-7): The RedHawks season ended Tuesday night with a 28-7 win at Ball State. Entering the year with seemingly-realistic aspirations of winning the MAC, missing out on a bowl game entirely makes for quite the disappointing season for former Irish assistant Chuck Martin.

North Carolina (3-8): The Tar Heels won their second straight, beating FCS-level Western Carolina 65-10. That win streak is likely to come to an end at North Carolina State (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) this weekend. The Wolfpack is a 16-point favorite with an over/under of 56. Quick math makes for a 36-20 Tar Heels loss.

USC (10-2): After a 28-23 victory over UCLA, the No. 11 Trojans can finally enjoy a week off, their first of the season, before the Pac 12 title game next Friday. They will face either Washington State or Stanford then, depending if the Cougars beat Washington this weekend.

North Carolina State (7-4): A 30-24 loss to Wake Forest is the first real letdown of a loss for the Wolfpack since the season opener, only otherwise dropping games to Notre Dame and Clemson.

Wake Forest (7-4): Head coach Dave Clawson can put the final cherry on top of a resoundingly-successful 2017 with a victory against Duke (12:30 p.m. ET; ACC Network). Bookmakers certainly expect as much from the Deacons, making them 12-point favorites with an over/under of 58, leading to a 35-23 projected score.

Miami (11-0): The Hurricanes overcame a slow start to top Virginia 44-28. Just shy of two-touchdown favorites for its trip to Pittsburgh on Friday (12:00 p.m. ET; ABC), Miami will be fine with a 33-19 victory.

Navy (6-4): The Midshipmen will look to rebound from their 24-17 defeat at Notre Dame by traveling to Houston on Friday (12 p.m. ET; ESPN). While it would be an upset, Navy just might win, only a 4.5-point underdog with an over/under of 55. That’s a theoretical 30-25 nod toward the Cougars.

Stanford (8-3): The Cardinal put the pressure on Washington State to keep it out of the Pac 12 title game by beating Cal 17-14. After starting 1-2, this has been a strong turnaround for David Shaw’s charges. As of this early Wednesday a.m. typing, Stanford welcomes Notre Dame as 2.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 57. Hypothetically, that points to the Irish prevailing 30-27.

It should be noted, that over/under ticked upward by two points after Shaw said star junior running back Bryce Love is “day-to-day” Tuesday.

Questions for the week: If without St. Brown, who will Notre Dame turn to?

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Equanimeous St. Brown may not have matched his breakout sophomore season of a year ago, but his junior year has been nothing to scoff at. Despite being held without a catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday, primarily due to injury, the junior receiver stands second in all Irish receiving categories.

If St. Brown is not cleared from the concussion protocol by the end of the week, he will be missed at Stanford (8 p.m. ET; ABC).

How will Notre Dame adjust without its most consistent receiver?

St. Brown has 26 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season. Sophomore Chase Claypool exceeds the first two figures and sophomore Kevin Stepherson caught his third and fourth touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Those two are the obvious candidates to replace St. Brown’s production.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson led all Irish receivers with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

That applies to Stepherson more than Claypool, despite the greater physical disparity from St. Brown. Simply enough, Stepherson’s continued increase in prevalence in the Irish passing game would likely surpass a healthy St. Brown this weekend.

The other possibility is junior Miles Boykin. In St. Brown’s absence this past weekend, Boykin caught two passes for 33 yards. His physicality and skillset most mirrors St. Brown’s, and plugging him into any three-receiver sets would allow Stepherson and Claypool to stick to the roles they regularly rehearse.

Will Notre Dame slow Stanford star running back Bryce Love? Rather, will the Irish need to?

Continued ankle and lower leg injuries have hampered Love for much of the season now. They kept him on the sidelines when the Cardinal barely slipped past Oregon State a few weeks ago, and they limited his fourth quarter this past weekend during Stanford’s 17-14 victory against Cal. The junior finished with 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Backup Cameron Scarlett added 61 yards on 14 carries.

Injuries have been about the only thing capable of consistently stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In the fourth quarter, Love took four carries for 11 total yards. For a running threat rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, it was startling to see him take one of those carries to the line and no further while another gained just one yard.

Thus, there seems to be some logic to Stanford keeping Love sidelined once more. If Washington beats Washington State on Saturday — played concurrently on FOX with the game at hand — then the Cardinal heads to the Pac-12 title game. As much as Stanford undoubtedly wants to beat Notre Dame, there are many more rewards available for winning the conference, such as a nice New Year’s holiday spent in Phoenix, Ariz., instead of a Christmas week spent at home preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.

Will there be any movement within the College Football Playoff poll?

When it comes to tonight’s poll, not much, if any, of note. Few games registered on the national radar last week, and none resulted in top-10 upsets.

One development affects it looking forward, though. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier underwent finger surgery Sunday and will not lead the Mountaineers against Oklahoma as a result (3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN). If West Virginia ever stood a chance at the upset — and greatly helping any Irish dreams of still reaching the Playoff — it was likely going to need an otherworldly performance from Grier.

With a win this weekend, the Sooners would all but assure themselves priority over Notre Dame, even if Oklahoma loses to TCU in the Big 12 championship.

Will Miami finish the regular season undefeated?
Similarly, a win this weekend should lock the Hurricanes ahead of the Irish no matter next week’s results. Miami heads to Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET on Friday; ABC), but that should not be seen as the sure thing instinct might imply it is. A mere 54 weeks ago, a middling Panthers team upset the No. 3 team in the country, stopping Clemson’s pursuit of a perfect slate.

Can Georgia survive Georgia Tech’s option?
Again, a Bulldogs win (12 p.m. ET, ABC) should secure them a nice spot in any chaos-filled future pecking order. However, that will not be an easy task. Paul Johnson will be sure of that.

Can North Carolina State hit the over?
This may not be as consequential, but before the season, this space predicted the Wolfpack would exceed 7.5 wins this regular season, and a win over North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) is needed for that cause.

Lastly, remember folks, you won’t nod off late Thursday afternoon because turkey has an excess of tryptophan. Chicken actually has more per ounce. Rather, you simply ate too much of the fowl.