Pregame Twelve Pack: Western Michigan edition


We’re back for another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Western Michigan game.

1. The Irish will be wearing new uniforms this Saturday.

Thanks to some new technology from Adidas, the Irish will be donning the new TECHFIT compression jersey this Saturday.

“They’re really excited about them,” Kelly said about his players, who practiced this week in the uniforms to get used to them. “They’re 30 percent lighter. It’s a compression fit and we put them on today because there are some fitting issues relative to the pads.

“But they look great, the kids love them, and we’ll put the defense in them so we can have everybody get a feel for them. It’s a terrific product by Adidas.”

If you’re looking to get a first look at the jerseys, check out some guy carrying Dayne Crist’s jersey while reciting the fight song.

2. Game four of the Brian Kelly vs. Bill Cubit era happens Saturday.

So it may not be Frazier/Ali, but there’s quite a bit of history between the Western Michigan head coach and Kelly, a duo that’ll be squaring off for the fourth time — with Kelly coaching his third different squad against Cubit’s Broncos.

Kelly’s got the upper-hand against Cubit, winning two of three against the Broncos, including the rare feat of beating Cubit’s squad with two different teams in the same season — Central Michigan in November of 2006, and Cincinnati during their International Bowl victory over WMU in January 2007.

“Bill Cubit is an outstanding football coach,” Kelly said this week. “I know Bill very well and I know
his teams will be prepared and this will be, for them, an opportunity
that they are not going to want to come in here and not play their very

3. Mike Ragone is ready for his shot to contribute.

It’s been a winding road for the tight end from New Jersey, who finds himself in position to really contribute with the injury to Kyle Rudolph. After a trying offseason, a major health scare during preseason camp, and injuries that hobbled him in previous years, Ragone seems confident he’s ready to contribute.

But instead of quoting him here, I’ll let him speak for himself — with an accent that Mike, Pauly, Vinnie, and Snooki would even be proud of.

4. While he’s not getting carries, Theo Riddick is still contributing to the run game.

We talked about the run/pass ratio in our previous post, but the short passing game also factors into what the coaching staff considers the run game.

Dayne Crist does a good job describing the “half pass” plays in the offense.

“In the spread and this is something that I learned since I just continue
to gain knowledge of spread philosophy, you really want to work with a
five to six man box in the run game. You can get away with running with a
six man box, but it’s a little more difficult, because I mean,
obviously you’ve got five guys blocking most of the time. So it really
depends on your box counts. We normally have a player that we are
throwing off of; so if he’s playing in run support, we are throwing to
where he can’t cover. So that’s just a lot of times that you see what we
are doing with swings and just things like that. So I mean, that’s part
of the spread philosophy and how we run things, and you can say, well,
man, they are really not running the ball that much, why aren’t they
running more. Well, then you see Theo catch the ball and has a seven
yard average on catching swings, that’s basically like a great run for
us. That’s just kind of how that will develop and continue to develop.
Teams will either play one way or another, but that’s just kind of why
that run stat is a little off.”

Charlie Weis always believed that his quick throws to Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Jeff Samardzija, or any of the other receivers catching hitches operated as defacto run plays as well.

At seven yards a play, a quick swing pass is a great weapon to keep defenses honest.

5. The Irish are in need of more explosive plays.

With playmakers like Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Mike Floyd, Armando Allen and Cierre Wood, there’s no reason why the Irish offense doesn’t make more big plays. Last week, Notre Dame won in spite of only having one explosive play, a diving 37-yard catch by TJ Jones.

Part of the problem was the Irish shooting themselves in the foot, losing two 40-plus yard plays by Floyd and some poor accuracy by Dayne Crist on seam throws have hurt the Irish as well.

Look for the Irish to force the issue this week with match-up problems and speed, trying their best to get their playmakers out in the open field as well as getting Cierre Wood some room to run the football.

If the Notre Dame offense is going to put the Irish on a roll, they’ll need to make a few big plays this Saturday.

6. The first points for Western Michigan will be their first against Notre Dame… literally.

While this is the third time the Broncos have played the Irish in football, their first points will be the first in school history against Notre Dame, one of only two opponents to never allow a point against WMU (Virginia Tech is the other).

The 1919 and 1920 Irish shut-out Western Michigan, the Irish blanking WMU 53-0 in 1919 and 41-0 in 1920. 

While I think there are plenty of reasons to be really excited about watching this game, the Broncos rate out as the Irish’s softest opponent on the season, with the Sagarin ratings putting them at No. 97 in FBS football, 11 slots ahead of Army.

There offense has been the strong point of the season, averaging 29 points a game and putting up 45 last week against Ball State, but the Irish defense should have a goal of keeping the shutout streak alive.

7. While it may not have seemed it, the Irish had their best running game against Pitt.

No one should be slapping high fives about a 2.8 yards a carry, but the Irish actually graded out as having their most efficient running game of the season.

I’ll let Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson explain:

But grading Notre Dame by land in a offense designed for the air
requires a curve. Not only do the Irish coaches go inside the numbers,
the reinvent them too.

“We were 72 or 73 percent efficient in our run game which was 20
percent higher than we’d been in any game this year in terms of what did
we need on this play,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “Are we
trying to get five yards? Are we trying to get a first down? We were
real pleased with the efficiency.”

Here’s where it takes some digging to understand Warinner’s point.

Notre Dame faced five second or third down plays against Pittsburgh
needing one yard to move the chains. The Irish picked those up on the
ground all five times, gains of one, two, three, four and five yards.
That’s five carries for 15 yards, a modest three-yard average nobody
inside the Guglielmino Center will complain about.

Three times the Irish picked up six yards or more on 1st-and-10 runs,
meaning the offense stayed ahead of schedule. That doesn’t include Dayne
Crist’s 10-yard touchdown run on 2nd-and-goal that doesn’t need next
level explanation.

I don’t feel like making excuses for a ground game that’s still rounding into form, but I think this is a very interesting way to look at how the coaching staff views the run attack. It’s a complementary piece of the offensive puzzle.

8. Commitment? Not a commitment? Recruiting doesn’t end until Signing Day for Kelly.

Earlier in the week, Irish fans received a bit of a jolt when they found out offensive tackle recruit Jordan Prestwood reopened his recruitment, bringing back into play home-state schools Florida and Florida State.

While Urban Meyer’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons this week, it seems proximity to home is an issue with Prestwood, who committed to the Irish way back in April.

Under Charlie Weis, the coaching staff adopted a firm stance on commitments and visits, taking a “if you’re looking, we’re looking” stance. Under Kelly, the Irish aren’t going to stop recruiting until Signing Day.

“”The reality of it today is, there is so much scrutiny
relative to the kids in the recruiting process. I’ve told our staff,
unless I see a letter of intent, you need to keep recruiting them,” Kelly said.

“Certainly we would all like to say the value of a person’s word is a
bond, but there are so many shifting and moving pieces out there that
I’m not tripping over that. Would I like somebody to be that guy that
says, that’s my word and it’s a bond and we’re not going to break it?
Certainly. Because we’re not going to do it on our end. So I’ve told our
staff, gotta keep recruiting. It’s the University of Notre Dame.
Nobody’s going to give it to you for free.”

From the sounds of it, Prestwood is still considering the Irish, with his high school coach, Wayne Ward telling the South Bend Tribune, “(Notre Dame) is a golden opportunity. But at the same time he is a
kid,” Ward said. “I don’t really think he thought things through before
he made that decision.”

Good news for Irish fans: Tony Alford is on the case.

9. Kyle Rudolph is set for surgery on Friday.

After discussing his options with his family, tight end Kyle Rudolph is staying local with his hamstring surgery, choosing Dr. Brian Ratigan of the sports medicine program to operate on his detached hamstring.

“Dr. Ratigan will be doing the surgery,” Kelly said. “So he’ll stay within the sports medicine program here at Notre Dame. We will get it done here.”

The decision for Rudolph to talk with the media was a good one and showed how good a kid the star tight end is. Even though he was surprised about the devestating prognosis, he’s kept a good attitude.

“We went in with a positive mindset with the MRI,” Rudolph said earlier this week when he met with the media. “We were expecting to get good results and go get an ultrasound and take a week off and go from there To come back and get that news was a little shocking.”

Rudolph is in the hands of someone that knows first hand what it’s like to play college football under the Golden Dome, with Ratigan playing linebacker for Lou Holtz from 1987-1990, before moving on to the NFL. 

Ratigan is truly an amazing story, one of the most impressive Notre Dame graduates you’ll ever read about and an alum that truly gives back to the school. No doubt, Kyle picked the right doctor for the job.

10. Dever sitting for second straight week, Romine and Nuss to fill his shoes.

Taylor Dever is going to spend another week getting healthy, one of the benefits of finally taking a step back from six consecutive BCS opponents. And thanks to the good play by Zack Martin at right tackle and senior Matt Romine filling in for him, there shouldn’t be much of a step back in play.

“Taylor, I would say right now will probably be a backup on Saturday,” Kelly said. “Matt and Andrew have handled that position well. We’re going to stick
with them and make sure Taylor is 100 percent. I think he would be
afforded to us if we needed him. But right now we’ll move with the plan
we had last week.”

One of the great benefits of playing Kelly’s offensive system is the fact that positions like offensive tackle are more interchangeable. Under Weis, there was so much stress on the left tackle position that great defensive ends could neutralize the offense, like Pitt did last year to tackles Paul Duncan (and to a lesser extent Sam Young). You could only imagine what would’ve happened if Duncan or Young went down.

Give credit to offensive line coach Ed Warinner for cross-training versatile players like Andrew Nuss, who should get significant snaps at tackle to help speed the development process.

11. Luke Schmidt and Dan Wenger see first hand the dangers of concussions.

Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune did a great job on his article about concussions, as he followed the decision process for center Dan Wenger, who has to decide if an application for a sixth year makes sense, in light of the lingering brain injuries he suffered this year with two concussions in the first month of practice.

Lesar caught up with Wenger’s classmate Luke Schmidt, the former Gatorade State Player of the Year in Indiana who was forced to walk away from football after three concussion by his junior year that ended his career involuntarily.

“It was very tough,” Wenger told the Tribune. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. There were no maybes for me. I knew it was over. At least Dan’s got a chance.”

After listening to Wenger, it’s clear that he’s not sure what choice he’s going to make, but he’s glad that he’s still got the chance to play the game.

“I’m not ready to be a coach yet,” Wenger said. “Do I wanna be a coach? Yeah, but not just yet. I’m 22, I still want to play. I love this game. Practice, lifting, games — it’s a different feeling.

“Be patient, get healthy, then make a decision. Think with a clear mind. You’re emotions run wild with this thing. It’s up and down. One day, you’re thinking about hanging in up. One day, you’re thinking about ‘Hey, I can do this. I can still play.’ It’s looking at the overall picture. But then again, you’ve worked so hard for what you love, what you love to do.”

It’s great to see Schmidt making the most of his Notre Dame degree, working as a credit analyst at a bank in Greensburg, Indiana, 50 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

12. Gary Gray just got reckless.

In one of my favorite stories of the week, Gary Gray has officially joined Team Reckless — an unofficial weightlifting/condition/bizarro group consisting of Mike and Jake Golic, Dayne Crist, Braxston Cave and Kyle Rudolph.

In one of the funnier things I’ve read in a while, the crew covering sports for the Observer got an absolutely priceless interview with Gray, detailing the process of joining such an illustrious team.

Observer: You are currently vying for a spot on Team Reckless. What made you decide to attempt to join?

Gary Gray: Dayne had said a long time ago that I should join, but we never got around to it. We’re trying to set that up.

Observer: Is it a very selective process?

Gray: I’m not ever sure what the process is. We’ll see in the next couple of days what I have to do.

Observer: How reckless do you think you’ll have to be?

Gray: I think I’m pretty reckless. So I don’t think I’ll have to be too much more reckless than I already am. I think I’ll fit right in.

Observer: Would it be an honor to be the first member of the Notre Dame defense on Team Reckless?

Gray: Yeah, it’d be a great honor, first defensive player. It’d be nice.

Consider this my standing ovation to the Observer staff for an absolutely terrific interview with Gary Gray. You can see the actual copy here.

Sanford tells recruits he’s not leaving Notre Dame

Mike Sanford

First-year Notre Dame offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford is a popular man. After coaching up Malik Zaire and redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer, Sanford’s imprint on the high-powered Irish offense has many believing that the young assistant will be on several shortlists for vacant head coaching jobs.

Jobs have opened up at a faster and faster pace, the silly season underway for more than a few weeks as athletic departments jockey for positions. Even Brian Kelly was asked about Sanford’s status in the marketplace, with Kelly saying Sanford wouldn’t be distracted by any of the rumors while the Irish continued their in-season preparation.

With the regular season finished, Sanford’s name is back in the conversation, with select openings connecting the young assistant to a potential new job. But Sanford doesn’t appear to be interested in leaving South Bend after just one season.

Irish Illustrated’s Anna Hickey got the scoop on Sanford as she caught up with Irish QB pledge Ian Book. Sanford and Brian Kelly, together on the West Coast recruiting, both visited Book, where Sanford told him he had no plans of leaving Notre Dame.

“He’s staying with Notre Dame,” Book told Hickey. “He said he’s definitely not going anywhere. He’s really happy at Notre Dame and said he doesn’t have any interest in leaving.”

Sanford remaining in town would be a great thing—for all parties involved. While Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco both left South Bend after four seasons for head coaching jobs, neither has had an easy road and both had much more experience. Sanford’s relative youth—not to mention his inexperience as an offensive coordinator, let alone a play-caller—makes sticking around in South Bend for year two (and beyond) a great option. After all, coming to Notre Dame was a big decision and Sanford was willing to leave a great job at Boise State (his alma mater) and uproot his family after turning down opportunities at places like Vanderbilt and Ohio State.

The flip side of that coin is that the perfect job might not always come around. Institutionally, a place like Virginia might be a good fit, and a job that’s in a Power Five conference and has a good recruiting base. But inheriting the mess left behind by Mike London and a program with multiple holes could force Sanford to sink or swim quickly—and take his head coaching shot earlier than maybe he even expected.

Notre Dame’s quarterback situation and offensive firepower also are a factor. The Irish will have a depth chart that’s among the best in college football with Kizer and Zaire at the top and Brandon Wimbush on his way up. So it’s hard to think this is a make-or-break decision for the young assistant, who’ll stay on the radar for as long as the Irish keep scoring points.



The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

Devon Cajuste, Elijah Shumate

There will be no playoff for Notre Dame. Brian Kelly’s football team may well be less than six combined points away from being ranked No. 1 in the country, but they’ll watch four other teams play for a national title.

That’s not to say all is lost. Eleven win seasons don’t grow on trees, and Notre Dame is now the belle of the ball as New Years Bowl games look to court a fanbase that has sold out every game it played in this season.

We’re a little late getting the good, bad and ugly up. So without further ado, let’s rip off this band-aid and get right to it.



Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman running back was dominant on Saturday night, out-performing Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey as he ran for 168 yards on just 18 carries, including a 62-yard touchdown.

He held up in pass protection, and also threw TWO great blocks on a long DeShone Kizer run. Adams did everything you could ask for from your running back—doing so as a true freshman who looked destined for a redshirt as the Irish left spring practice.

Adams has made him mark on the Irish program early. He broke Jerome Heavens rookie record for most yards in a game by a freshman. He notched his fourth 100-yard effort of the season. And his 757 rushing yards put him in position where he’d likely have been Notre Dame’s leading rusher in six of the last eight seasons.


DeShone Kizer. We’re running out of good things to say about Kizer (I said a whole bunch of them in the Five Things). But as a runner, passer and clutch performer, the young quarterback did everything you could ask for from a leader—especially when you remember he (like Adams) is a freshman.

Accuracy wise, Kizer’s numbers may have been a tick lower than usual. But you can credit that to coaching—understanding that a throw away is far better than a forced pass. And while some early struggles in the red zone and the fumble before halftime stick out as negatives, nothing was more impressive than Kizer’s final 15-play, 88-yard touchdown drive.

“The moment is never too big for him,” Kelly said postgame.


Will FullerAfter laying an egg against Boston College, Fuller turned on the jets and caught another home run deep ball, this time a beautiful 73-yarder that turned into Fuller’s ninth touchdown catch of 30 yards or more this season.

Fuller’s six catches for 136 yards led all receivers on Saturday, and essentially matched the rest of the Irish receiving corps. It was his sixth 100-yard game of the season and tenth of his career.


Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker played like one on Saturday, notching 15 total tackles and one TFL. He was especially stout against the run, playing exceptionally at the point of attack as the Irish shut down Christian McCaffrey.

After a season where we saw Smith flash plays of brilliance in 2014, Brian Kelly talked postgame about Smith’s consistency this season.

“Normal day. That’s Jaylon’s normal effort,” Kelly said. “He’s all over the field and he has been every single week that he’s played. I don’t think he’s had an off week. He may have had a play that he didn’t make once or twice, but each and every week he has had that kind of impact to our defense.”


Stopping Christian McCaffrey. The Irish defense—and Brian VanGorder—definitely deserves credit for designing a game plan that didn’t allow McCaffrey to beat them. Stanford’s Option A (and B and C) got his 30+ touches for the game, but only managed one 11 yard run and a 14 yard catch. Return-wise, he was held to a long of 26 yards.

After the game, I asked Joe Schmidt if there was a “risk-reward” type of scenario when it came to defending a player like McCaffrey, especially considering that McCaffrey’s struggles went hand-in-hand with the success of Devon Cajuste and the passing game.

“With every play call, there are pros and cons to every defense you call,” Schmidt said. “And it was a little different with some of the calls we made. We obviously mixed it up and there were some different calls all night. It wasn’t something that throughout the game we were going to do [solely man coverage]… but you’re right about the pros and cons of each defense.”



* How clutch was CJ Sanders kickoff return touchdown? The freshman notched Notre Dame’s first since George Atkinson in 2011, and now has both a punt and kickoff return for a touchdown this season, joining Vontez Duff (2002) and Allen Rossum (1996) in the club.

* It was a big day for the offensive line, dominating at the point of attack in the run game and also only giving up two TFLs to a Stanford scheme that may be down, but certainly still capable.

* In addition to Sanders’ return, Notre Dame’s special teams were excellent. Two long punts for Tyler Newsome. Justin Yoon cashing in on each of his chip shots. But most importantly, the kickoff coverage kept Christian McCaffrey in check, even as they kicked deep in the final minute.

* The running Game dominance was pretty insane. The Irish averaged a ridiculous 8.5 yards per carry with 299 yards on 35 attempts. They only had five yards lost in the ground game, a stat that usually is double-digits for ND.

* All those probability experts that were second-guessing Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two probably ignored that converting that play would’ve had Stanford kicking a game-tying field goal and not a winner. You still have to convert it, but credit Kelly for not coaching scared and understanding—before anybody else did—that those points could matter.



Stopping Kevin HoganA year after ruining his final appearance in Notre Dame Stadium, Kevin Hogan sliced and diced the Irish’s secondary. He completed 17 of 21 throws, none more critical than the 27-yarder up the seam to Devon Cajuste.

Without KeiVarae Russell, the Irish cornerbacks were limited. Devin Butler played 46 snaps with Matthias Farley playing 30 and Nick Watkins taking five. Looking for numbers to back up what we all saw? ProFootballFocus grading had Devin Butler, Cole Luke, Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley all with negative scores.


Red Zone Struggles. It’s hard to talk about Notre Dame’s incredible offensive output without digging into the inability to cash in touchdowns in their early red zone appearances. Justin Yoon kicked three field goals under 30 yards. Those aren’t victories.

On the other side of the ball, Stanford was the exact opposite. Five times inside Notre Dame’s 20-yard line? Five touchdowns. In a game this close, Notre Dame getting blown away in such a critical part of the football game explains just how well the Irish did other things (offensively) to even have had a chance to win this game with 30 seconds left.

Offensively, it was a mixed bag. Certainly play selection can be questioned, though a deeper dig into this part of the game usually makes those gripes sound more like fanboy complaints (hindsight always being 20-20) than viable question marks.

The run game got nine yards on three plays when it needed ten, and then came off the field after Nick Martin’s “snap infraction.” Stanford got away with what looked like an offsides on another, and Kizer missed his shot on second down to follow his blockers for what could’ve been a big gainer. Credit the Cardinal for a sellout blitz that forced a throwaway. And then there’s the missed opportunity—Amir Carlisle couldn’t hold on to a pass that looked like a sure first down and likely a touchdown.

Defensively, Stanford’s David Shaw didn’t choose to go with the battering ram attack. Four of the Cardinal’s five scores came via the pass. The first series, a playaction to McCaffrey allowed Remound Wright to slip out of the backfield for an easy score. Cajuste posted up Cole Luke for the second score. Devin Butler’s worst play of the game cost the Irish a score when Michael Rector slipped out of an easy tackle and waltzed into the end zone. And a nice design had Austin Hooper sliding out late, only to see Max Redfield trip up Jaylon Smith and the Cardinal get another easy score.


The wrong side of the stripes. Just about everybody in the press box expected offensive pass interference to be called when Cajuste stiff-armed Devin Butler as they chased down a long pass. Instead, Butler got called for 15 yards and there was a gigantic swing to the game.

Notre Dame got the tough end of the officiating on Saturday night, called for six penalties and 65 yards while Stanford was only flagged once for five yards. From way above the play I saw multiple times where a Cardinal offensive linemen kicked off the line a split-second early. The refs somehow didn’t. I also thought Sheldon Day drew his share of holds that stayed in the pocket.

It’s crying over spilt milk. And there certainly wasn’t any shadowy conspiracy theory. But that’s a tough break—especially if refs are flagging snap infractions early and missing basic procedural calls later.


Third Down defense. Stanford’s ability to convert its first five third downs and eight of 12 killed Notre Dame’s defense. It’s also the reason why the Cardinal were able to put together scoring drives of 75, 78, 75, 76 and 74 yards.

Big plays still happened to the defense, mostly in the passing game. But while Notre Dame minimized them, they just couldn’t do anything to get off the field on third down.



The Final 30 seconds. Where to begin? Perhaps with the replay officials decision to allow Kizer’s touchdown run to stand? What seemed like a break for the Irish actually turned out to give Stanford more time to come back and kick a field goal.

From there, it all happened rather quickly. First the bad luck—another incidental facemask by the Irish as Isaac Rochell chased after Kevin Hogan. That provided just enough room for the game’s clinching play—a seam route that looked way too open.

Here’s what Shaw said postgame when asked about the play.

“Well we always look at what they do in the two minute,” Shaw said. “They were a couple different options. We tried some shots early on, they did a really good job defending it. But we thought there were some lanes inside. So we weren’t trying to score a touchdown, we were just trying to get into field goal range…Kevin did a great job, looking off the safety coming back and then he through a bullet. Devon caught it, got positive yards after the catch.”

Kelly audibly groaned when asked to give his evaluation of what happened.

“We’ve got to close down inside out on that seam route,” Kelly said. “I thought we probably played it a little bit too much, too much outside in, worried about backing up. We’ve got to be more aggressive to the seam route.”

In reality, Notre Dame’s defensive personnel deficiencies couldn’t have been exposed more on that play. Devin Butler was out of the game with a concussion, bringing in Nick Watkins to play outside cornerback. Lined up three across underneath the four-deep shell were Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley.

Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame’s best pass rusher, was relegated to making sure Hogan didn’t scramble. That left Andrew Trumbetti to chase Hogan opposite Day, with Isaac Rochell on the nose. Trumbetti’s outside route to the quarterback was never a factor.

Hogan put a very good throw in a hole between Schmidt and Farley, with the linebacker drawn inside by a curl and Farley surrendering the middle of the field too easily.

But more frustrating? The depth safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate got. Neither had a clue that Stanford was just one big play from being in field goal range. There was more than 10 yards between the underneath coverage and the safeties over the top. Redfield was still in his backpedal at the 25, Shumate not much better as he finally broke on the ball at the 30. Bad Football IQ play by two guys who haven’t showed a ton of it.

There were so many great things that this football team did. But from day one, safety play has been a struggle. Game 12 that deficiency ended up breaking the team’s back.

Five things we learned: Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36

Conrad Ukropina

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Notre Dame’s magical season came to a heart-breaking conclusion on a chilly night in Northern California. Stanford kicker Conrad Ukropina kicked the Irish out of the College Football Playoff race with a game-winning 45-yarder as time ran out, propelling the Cardinal to an epic 38-36 win.

Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer very nearly was the hero. The sophomore marched the Irish on a clutch drive, converting an incredible 3rd-and-10 as he hit Corey Robinson as a Stanford blitzer arrived unblocked. Then Kizer calmly converted a fourth down before running for the game’s go-ahead score with 30 seconds left.

But Notre Dame’s balky defense couldn’t keep Stanford from scoring, committing a facemasking penalty before giving up a 27-yard completion to Devon Cajuste, enough to put a game-winning kick into range.

“There are no moral victories,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I’m disappointed in losing the football game, but I’m proud of our football team and the way they competed, the way they kept playing for four quarters and just came up a little bit short.”

With Oklahoma throttling in-state rivals Oklahoma State in the bedlam series, a win might not have been enough. But that’s no consolation for a Notre Dame team that shut down Christian McCaffrey, ran for 299 yards of its own and very nearly pulled off the victory short two more key starters.

With the Irish season hinging on two plays not made, Notre Dame takes the redeye back to South Bend wondered what could’ve been. Let’s find out what we learned during an unforgettable season finale.


Notre Dame’s achilles heel was exposed once more on Saturday night, done in by their secondary play. 

Christian McCaffrey wasn’t the problem. Devon Cajuste was.

The Irish defense kept Stanford’s Heisman Trophy candidate bottled up, holding him to just 3.5 yards per carry and neutralized in the return game as they kicked the football to the ever-dangerous all-purpose weapon and stopped him every time.

But Notre Dame’s secondary couldn’t contain Cajuste, the 6-foot-4 senior catching five passes for 125 yards. None more clutch than the 27-yarder that put Stanford in position to kick the game-winner.

Cajuste may have entered the game with just 20 catches, but he proved to be the difference against Notre Dame’s secondary. Early in the game, Cajuste boxed out Cole Luke on a fade route for a touchdown. He drew a (very questionable) pass interference call on Devin Butler. And he found his way into the soft middle of the Irish’s late-game zone defense on a seam-route not soon forgotten in this growing rivalry.

Without KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame called on the little-used Butler to step into the starting lineup. Butler held his own for the most part, the rest of the Irish secondary struggling as Kevin Hogan completed 17 of his 21 throws for 269 yards and four touchdown passes.

Elijah Shumate was caught with his eyes in the backfield, beaten early for a touchdown. A year after he made two interceptions against Stanford, Cole Luke struggled in one-on-one coverage. And while Max Redfield made 10 tackles, he tripped up Jaylon Smith as he ran with Stanford’s Austin Hooper, allowing the Cardinal tight end to convert another red zone score.

The secondary’s liabilities were on display especially on third down, the Cardinal converting their first five and finishing the day eight of 12. And even after tightening up and getting into the rhythm throughout the second half of the game, the regular season’s final series exposed what we had seen all year—struggles to play schematically sound football while trying to defend the pass.


Even in defeat, DeShone Kizer played the type of clutch football that should have Irish fans very excited about the future. 

A week after his worst game as a college football player, DeShone Kizer did everything needed to go home a hero. Kizer ran for 128 yards, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds to go. He threw for 234 yards, 73 of which came on the prettiest deep ball you’ll ever want to see when he hit Will Fuller in perfect stride.

With the game on the line, Kizer delivered a 15-play, 88-yard touchdown. It was the latest example of Kizer playing his best when the game demanded it. While he may have missed some opportunities near the goal line or in reading Stanford’s pre-snap defense, he looked like a fearless leader, not a kid who was a third-stringer in May.

“I think he handled himself like a fifth-year senior, and he’s just a freshman,” Kelly said after the game. “So if there’s a bright spot there, the way DeShone Kizer played was pretty bright.”

With the playoff conversation finished, it might be time to look past Notre Dame’s bowl game and toward the spring. That’s when Kizer will be rejoined by Malik Zaire, with that duo and Brandon Wimbush the best depth chart we’ve seen in a very long time.

“I’m sitting on a pretty good situation with the quarterbacks that we have coming back,” Kelly said postgame. “If I don’t screw them up we should be okay.”

Kelly spent last spring trying to find a way to keep his two frontrunners for the starting job happy, only to watch Everett Golson leave after playing better football than Zaire during spring’s 15 practices. He’ll take that knowledge—and a much more cohesive position group—into the spring, likely learning from that competition as he determines how to move the Irish offense forward in 2016.


Notre Dame’s inability to convert touchdowns in the red zone came back to bite the Irish. 

Notre Dame’s offense had no problem moving the football. But when it got into the scoring areas, things bogged down, costing the Irish dearly.

The Irish dominated the game on the ground, with Josh Adams setting a freshman record by rushing for 168 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown. But the Irish couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone, struggles on third down putting Justin Yoon on the field three times in the game’s first 35 minutes.

Missed opportunities were the name of the game. Kizer had running room on a 2nd-and-8 in the red zone that could’ve gone the distance. But Adams was stuffed on 3rd-and-3 and Nick Martin’s snap infraction on 4th-and-1 put Yoon onto the field to kick the chip shot. Likewise, Amir Carlisle couldn’t reel in a crossing pattern that would’ve likely put up seven points. Instead, Yoon kicked his third field goal of the evening.

“We had a number of opportunities in the red zone that we could have converted into touchdowns that we had to settle for field goals,” Kelly acknowledged after the game.

Those missed opportunities loomed large, especially in a game decided on the final play.


Notre Dame emptied the tank to try and pull out a victory, making the near-miss all the more painful. 

Jaylon Smith was covering kickoffs. Freshman C.J. Sanders took a kickoff to the house. The Irish got big plays from Greer Martini, Devin Butler, Jerry Tillery and Josh Adams as the Irish very nearly made things quite difficult on the College Football Playoff selection committee.

“It was all hands on deck,” Kelly acknowledged after the game.

The loss of KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise didn’t prove fatal, something that never should’ve seemed likely after seeing Notre Dame rebound from other mortal wounds. And while Kelly understood that his team’s hopes of playing for a title are done, he also sounded like a coach who still believes he had one of the finest teams in the country.

“It’s never about one series or one play. It’s a culmination of the game and the reality is, we’re two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country. One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford,” Kelly said.

“I love my team. I put this team up against anybody in the country. Fact of the matter is, we’re not going to get that chance. We get that. We understand it. So it’s disappointing, but I’m very proud of our football team.”


With their playoff hopes dashed, December’s bowl preparation takes on a decidedly different look. 

No, the Irish won’t be playing for a national championship. But there’s still so much on the line in 2015, especially when you consider the adversity this team faced. With his team heading back to South Bend, Brian Kelly will stay on the West Coast, he and his assistants making sure that some very talented recruits will understand what’s been built in South Bend and what’s likely to come in 2016 and beyond.

While he’ll never build his program on moral victories, Kelly acknowledged the adversity faced this season, sounding like a coach immensely proud of his players and a man ready to make sure he finds some talented reinforcements for the years to come.

“[We] overcame some catastrophic injuries to key players,” Kelly said. “Quarterbacks, running back, tight end, defensive linemen, cornerbacks. I mean, we’re talking across the board here, we’re not just talking about one position, we’re talking about impacting all positions, playing on the road against very good competition, getting home at five o’clock in the morning, bouncing back, playing two option teams, I mean, I could go on and on.”

Kelly doesn’t have to, as the media will likely pick up that storyline as the Irish head into 2016 with unfinished business and a roster built through the challenges of a 2015. But before we get there, there’s one game left before saying goodbye to this resilient group. And Notre Dame’s five captains understanding that winning 11 games is still very rarified air, accomplished just twice in South Bend since 1993.

“I think we’re going to take some time to deal with and mourn this loss,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said after the game. “We’re obviously disappointed. But I think we all know that it’s unfair to this football team and unfair to the relationships we’ve built and how hard we’ve worked to just throw the towel in. It’s not with this football team is about.”

There’ll be a tendency by some to call whatever bowl game the Irish play in as a meaningless exercise. But those people won’t have remembered the Music City Bowl’s importance, a supposedly meaningless eighth victory for the 2014 team that served as a jumpstart to this impressive season.

So before Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Matthias Farley, Nick Martin and the other veterans turn this team over to the returning players, they’ll have one more chance to play football.

“I know that there’s not one guy in this locker room that doesn’t want to go out and play their best football game in their last football game,” Schmidt said.

Pregame Six Pack: An epic season finale


Breaking Bad. Mad Men. Game of Thrones. None of them had season finales with more on the line than Notre Dame on Saturday.

Walt White battled Gustavo Fring. Four houses met for a Red Wedding. And Don Draper survived Sterling Cooper (and himself) again and again.

But Brian Kelly’s team has a chance to finish a season for the ages. Because after a year of twists and turns, celebrations and disappointments, and key characters dropping like flies, Notre Dame has a chance to vanquish Stanford—one last noble foe—and wrap up a few lofty objectives in their final 60 minutes of football for the regular season.

Winning will be no easy task. And it’s the lone mission, one that’s largely been obscured by hours of debating playoff scenarios, none worthy of the oxygen consumed until the final cards are laid on the table.

Like any great theater, the hero is wounded. The Irish limp into Palo Alto, unimpressive winners the past two weeks. Missing KeiVarae Russell and most likely C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame will have to find a way to beat a Stanford team who once again is the class of the Pac-12, college football’s deepest conference.

So buckle up. Shake off the tryptophan. (It’s not a real excuse, anyway.)

It’s time for one final Pregame Six Pack, as we wait to find out the fate of the Irish after an incredible 2015 season.


Stopping Christian McCaffrey isn’t just another job. It might be stopping college football’s best player. 

Brian Kelly coined a new phrase this season during his Tuesday press conferences, deeming top players “game-wreckers.” We heard it with USC’s Adoree Jackson. Again with Pitt’s Tyler Boyd. But none are as lethal as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.

The Cardinals’ sophomore running back has been one of college football’s most impressive players. And he’s receiving the awards kudos to prove it—McCaffrey was a midseason All-American, and is in consideration for the Doak Walker, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Hornung Awards.

So while media types had the early focus on LSU’s Leonard Fournette, it’s McCaffrey who might be the best football player in the country. At least his head coach thinks so.

“Has anybody seen a running back, I’ll say this, a football player, better than Christian McCaffrey this year?” Shaw asked after last week’s effort against Cal. “Tell me. Show him to me. I haven’t seen anybody.

“We played a lot of night games, which we all talked about. So we had a lot of time to sit and watch football. I have not seen anybody in America like this kid. He’s truly, truly special. Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker, he got a couple nice blocks today. The kid’s just truly, truly special. And our guys know that and they take a lot of pride in blocking for him down the field because the guy makes special, special plays.”

McCaffrey enters the season finale with a ridiculous 2,807 all-purpose yards, capable of reaching 3,000 on the season, a number only eclipsed by Barry Sanders at the FBS level. He’s averaging 30 touches of the football a game, meaning Shaw has been feeding him the football at a level befitting his leading man status.

So for the Irish to win, Notre Dame’s defense needs to find a way to keep McCaffrey from making game-wreckin plays, something he’s done to teams just about every week.


Preventing big plays? That hinges on Notre Dame’s safety play. 

Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference featured a wonderful moment, as Kelly unleashed a wry smile that said so much more than any of the words he uttered during his roughly 40 minutes of media availability this week.

Asked by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson about the evils of 20+ yard runs allowed, Kelly could only smile when asked a question that both sides of the query knew was pretty straight forward.

“I’d like to give you an easy answer,” Kelly said. “But when you give up big plays, you need second-level and third-level support. I think our first-level defense has been really, really good. Our second-level defense has been solid. And our third level has not been as good.”

The easy answer, of course, would’ve been driving a steamroller over safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. The duo has been a weak link from a consistency point of view, with Redfield’s woes particularly striking at key moments throughout the year, including last week on Boston College’s 80-yard touchdown score.

There’s precious little depth at the position, especially after injuries to Drue Tranquill, Avery Sebastian and Shaun Crawford. And with Matthias Farley needed as a cornerback this week after the loss of KeiVarae Russell, it’ll be up to Redfield and Shumate to be the type of third-level support that’ll contain the one-man wrecking crew that McCaffrey has been to opposing defenses.


His approval rating my not be the highest among Irish fans, but Brian VanGorder has a fan in Stanford’s David Shaw. 

Notre Dame’s defensive struggles have been mostly pinned on the scheme of Brian VanGorder. The Irish’s second-year defensive coordinator has installed an NFL scheme in South Bend, but that’s come with some head-scratching lapses by the personnel asked to execute the game plans.

But for all the gripes about VanGorder, it’s worth remembering the battle between Notre Dame and Stanford from last season. Namely, VanGorder’s excellent game plan shutting down the Cardinal offense.

In the Irish’s thrilling 17-14 win, Stanford gained only 205 yards of total offense. They ran for just 47 net yards on 32 carries. The Irish forced eight punts with Stanford gaining only 14 first downs as the Irish sacked Kevin Hogan four times among seven TFLs that rainy October day.

“I think they’ve got an outstanding defensive coordinator,” Shaw said in his postgame comments last October. “He mixes it up, a lot of pressure. We picked up not as many as we’d like, our quarterback got hit a lot today. Give them a lot of credit for their scheme.  

“We flat out missed some things and some things our guys just got beat.  It was a great mix.  There were a couple of plays that were there to make but we just didn’t make them.  I think the counting for the guys they lost, they did an outstanding scheme on the defensive side, and their guys played hard.  They played fast.  And you can tell they’re very well coached because they’re running full speed where they’re supposed to be.”

Notre Dame’s starting defense that day featured Shumate, Redfield and Cole Luke in the secondary. Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith at linebacker. Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara along the defensive line. That’s essentially the same personnel that’ll take the field on Saturday.

Can they do it again? VanGorder’s scheme isn’t as mysterious after 24 games of tape. But that game provided a really solid datapoint to believe this defense can carry the day, even if it’s struggled to do so this season.


Stanford’s defensive front has an unlikely anchor: Cal graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett. 

After what feels like a decade of having homegrown monsters wreaking havoc along the defensive line, Stanford had to go to college football’s waiver wire to find its standout for 2015.

Defensive end Brennan Scarlett is Stanford’s most consistent defensive lineman. It’s a string of good football for a player whose four-year career at Cal was ruined by injuries. Scarlett earned his degree at Stanford’s bitter rival, then made one of the more unlikely transfers, heading across the bay to play with his brother in Palo Alto.

Scarlett leads Stanford in snaps played along the defensive line and graded out as their best defensive lineman against Cal in their rivalry game victory. Shaw talked about how important the fifth-year transfer has been for the Cardinal this season.

“I’m really happy for Brennan Scarlett coming over from Cal, a lot of respect from those guys,” Shaw said after beating the Bears. “It was not a contentious thing. It was very understandable why he came across, no disrespect to Cal… The guys wanted to win this one for him, because we didn’t know where we would be right now on this football team without Brennan Scarlett.”

Scarlett’s upside was one of the reasons why Notre Dame was rumored to have been pursuing Scarlett as a potential graduate transfer. (They landed his Cal teammate Avery Sebastian.) But the Portland native joined his younger brother Cameron in Palo Alto, and now will be a key piece to Stanford’s front that’ll try to slow the Irish offense.


A Stanford team usually built around power now has its share of game-breaking speed. 

David Shaw built upon Jim Harbaugh’s blueprint to design an unlikely bully in the Pac-12. But after standing out as a power unit in a conference filled with team speed, Stanford has gotten in on the act as well, recruiting some players with home run potential.

McCaffrey stands out among great runners of Stanford past. While Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney were all incredibly prolific, none had 10.8 100-meter speed. But McCaffrey wouldn’t anchor the Cardinals’ 4×100 relay team.

Freshman Bryce Love provides game-breaking speed. He’s been a track star since he won USA Track and Field Athlete of the Year as a 12-year-old. Sophomore receiver Isaiah Brandt-Sims is the fastest man on the roster for the Cardinal. While it hasn’t translated to much playing time, Brandt-Sims has clocked a 10.5 100m—placing him among the best sprinters in the Pac-12.

Leading receiver Michael Rector has track speed as well. He couldn’t beat Brandt-Sims as a high schooler in Washington, but he’s run a 10.8—speed comparable to C.J. Prosise and Chris Brown in high school.

Stanford’s offensive attack may be carried on McCaffrey’s shoulders, but Shaw has deep threat options if the Irish commit too many resources to stopping the running back. And with cornerbacks Devin Butler, Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman seeing significant playing time for the first time this season, expect Shaw to take a couple of deep shots.


For the Irish to win, they’ll need DeShone Kizer to outplay Kevin Hogan. 

Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan will be playing his final game in Stanford Stadium. The fifth-year senior is a four-year starter, an improbable quarterback to be at the top of the record books in a program that features greats like Andrew Luck and John Elway.

It’s well-known that Hogan dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel wrote earlier this week about family road trips to South Bend, with a young Hogan wearing a Joe Montana or Brady Quinn jersey.

Hogan has played both good football and bad in his time on The Farm. Some of the bad came during last season, when the veteran quarterback was playing with a heavy heart as his father fought and eventually lost his battle with cancer. (Thamel’s story covers these heartbreaking events.)

It’ll be an emotional night in Stanford Stadium for Hogan, who’ll say goodbye to his home of the last five years. And if the Irish want to pull out a win, they’ll need to spoil the evening for the former Irish fan.

Doing so will require great play by not just the Notre Dame defense, but from young quarterback DeShone Kizer. coming off a game where he finally looked and played like a freshman, Kizer will need to show he’s rebuilt his confidence after stumbling badly against Boston College, his accuracy and decision making shot after early-game struggles.

Kizer will be asked to carry the game in ways Hogan has only had to do at times. Mainly as a runner. Kizer has already been Notre Dame’s short yardage weapon, but without Prosise, he’ll likely carry a larger load, taking the burden off freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Wiliams.

But Hogan’s feet will be a factor on Saturday as well. With the Irish defense susceptible to quarterback scrambles, Hogan can be a key weapon as a runner for the Cardinal. He had a combined 25 carries in Stanford’s two closest games, capable of moving the chains—and more—if teams key on McCaffrey.

Red Zone success will be critical. With Hogan at the helm, Stanford is No. 31 in the country converting touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. Notre Dame is 77th. Stanford has the better red zone defense as well, with the Cardinal at No. 19 at preventing touchdowns and the Irish 82nd. (Oddly, the Irish dominate this stat when you consider scoring percentage, though most view touchdown conversion as the better measurement of success.)

Hogan’s career is coming to an end. Kizer’s is just beginning. On Saturday, both quarterbacks will be key in determining victory.