Pregame Twelve Pack: Navy Edition


Bring on another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Navy game in the new Meadowlands.

1. Want a key to victory? Irish need to win the turnover battle.

Even though the Irish have won the yardage and first down battle in the last three games against Navy, they’ve been absolutely dominated in the turnover margin, losing 9-2 over the span.

In the 2007 triple-overtime Irish loss, the turnovers were tied 1-1, in the 27-21 escape victory in Baltimore in 2008, the Irish turned the ball over five times to Navy’s one, and in the 23-21 loss last season, the Midshipmen were flawless in the turnover department, while ND turned the ball over three times (twice in the red zone) and also missed two field goals.

Navy enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 7 in the country with a +1.2 margin on turnovers, while the Irish rank 57th in the country, so holding onto the football will be critical for the Irish.

2. Add to the critical column: Cut down the offensive three and outs.

The fine folks over at Her Loyal Sons crunched the numbers and found that on just under 22 percent of drives, the Irish go three-and-out. Obviously, that’s way too high of a number, and — well, I’ll let explain the rest:

We already knew that ND’s 82nd national ranking in 3rd down conversions, at just 37.89% was bad. It seems even worse if you consider that the 22 3-and-out drives by ND this season account for about 58% of the drives in which ND punted, meaning there’s quite-a-bit better than a coin-flip’s chance that if ND is punting, they’ve made absolutely no headway in one of the most important aspects of any football game: field possession. Further, at the going rate, almost 1/4th of all of ND’s 3rd down attempts will occur in the first attempt at gaining a new first down and will result in the team punting.

The number gets even uglier when you consider that only ND’s on about the same pace with 3-and-out drives as it is with TD scoring drives. Couple those 3-and-out drives with turnover drives, and the Irish offense’s TD scoring rate is overwhelmed by a “negative result” rate of about 37% over 23%. Even if you pair FGs with the TDs, the “positive result” rate only reaches 34%. More “objectively bad” drives have occurred with ND’s offense to this point in the season than have “objectively good” drives.

Just one more thing to think about: No Navy opponent this year has had more than 12 possessions in a game. Further, Navy’s opponents are only averaging about 10 possessions a game. Notre Dame’s offense averages 14 possessions per game thus far. When an opponent, like Navy, manages to eliminate 3-4 of your possessions simply by virtue of the style of football they play, you truly can’t afford to throw away 22% of the remaining possessions by going three-and-out. Some quick, cocktail napkin math extrapolates that, if all of these rates remain unchanged for the Navy/Notre Dame game this weekend, Notre Dame will only score about 17 points.

If Notre Dame is getting the ball only 10 times on Saturday, they’ll have to do better than punting after three plays on two of their possessions. The good news, as HLS points out, the Irish are trending positive, doing a better job of staying on the field.

3. Offensive efficiency is the key to Kelly’s game plan.

Navy limits teams possessions with their ball-control option attack. Head coach Brian Kelly has made it clear that the Irish are going to have to play a cleaner game of football than they’ve played in the past few weeks.

“We have to be efficient, we have to catch the ball,” Kelly said. “We have to throw it accurately, and we’ve got to run the ball.”

The key to that efficiency will be Dayne Crist, who has played good football in his first season starting at quarterback, but fallen into mini-slumps during each of his seven starts this year.

“The quarterback has to put the ball on guys. He’s got to be on his game,” Kelly said. “If he’s on his game, you know, we’ll be fine. But if he’s not efficient in throwing the football, obviously, we’ll have to struggle at times.

4. Ricky Dobbs will walk away from the Naval Academy as one of its best ever.

While his preseason Heisman campaign probably ended after a season opening loss, Ricky Dobbs is still one of the best players ever to wear the Navy uniform. Dobbs is just three rushing touchdowns shy of tying Chris McCoy‘s school record. (McCoy sits at 1oth in NCAA history for touchdowns by a quarterback.)

Dobbs’ incredible 2009 season included a NCAA single-season record for TD runs by a quarterback with 27, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that Dobbs played the final six games of the season with a broken kneecap.

Dobbs ran for 102 yards on 31 carries last year against the Irish, and also broke the Irish’s back with a 52-yard touchdown pass on play-action.

5. If Navy wins Saturday, the Midshipmen will make history.

Three wins in four years would help make Navy’s senior class one of the most successful against Notre Dame in school history. A win this weekend by Navy would join the 2010 class with the Class of 1937 and Class of 1964 as the only classes to beat Notre Dame three times.

That 1964 class was captained by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

6. A tip for the Irish defense — Tackle Vince Murray.

Only playing in two varsity games during his first two seasons at Navy, Vince Murray seemed to hit his stride last October. The 215-pound fullback from Union, Kentucky had consecutive games of over 100 yards against Southern Methodist, Wake Forest and Temple before walking into Notre Dame Stadium and setting the world on fire.

Murray absolutely killed the Irish running the ball straight up the gut, and he averaged 11.3 yards per carry against Notre Dame for 158, far and away the best game he’d ever had in a Navy uniform.

Nose tackle Ian Williams and middle linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o will be tasked with making sure Murray doesn’t run wild through the heart of the Irish defense again, though a knee injury may stop Williams Murray before he ever gets the chance to step on the field.

7. Stopping the Midshipmen on 4th down is critical for the Irish defense.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo is known for his aggressive style, and that’s personified in his penchant for going for it on 4th down. Last year, Navy went for it on 4th down the fifth most times in college football, finishing 4th in the country with 19 4th down conversions and a rate just shy of 68 percent. Navy is converting on two-thirds of their attempts this year, attempting nine 4th downs through six games.

Navy converted both their 4th down attempts last year against the Irish, both on their opening drive on short runs by Dobbs, the final attempt for a one-yard touchdown run. The Irish were 0 for 2, with an incomplete pass at the Navy three-yard line costing the Irish points, and a fourth-quarter attempt going for a safety. A net swing of about nine pretty important points.

8. Bob Diaco versus the Option: A quick look.

It’s hard to complain about the job Bob Diaco has done with the Irish defense, and there’ll be no coach more in the line of fire than Diaco this weekend, who is tasked with stopping an option attack that absolutely ate up the Irish for 404 total yards and 6.1 yards per carry last season.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly mentioned that Diaco had experience against the triple-option attack that Navy ran, so I went back and looked for the games. Here’s Diaco’s work against Navy’s triple-option attack:

  • 2003: Navy 39, Eastern Michigan 7. As an outside linebackers coach, Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston‘s over-matched Eagle defense held Paul Johnson‘s Navy attack to only 11 first-half points, before the floodgates opened up.
  • 2005: Central Michigan 14, Army 10. Though not running the same attack as Navy, a Diaco coordinated Chippewa defense held Army to 239 yards and only 66 through the air in a tight battle.
  • 2008: Virginia 24, No. 18 Georgia Tech 17. Coaching linebackers under 3-4 guru Al Groh, the Cavalier defense did such a good job against Paul Johnson’s spread option that when Groh was eventually fired as head coach, he was brought on to coordinate Johnson’s Georgia Tech defense.

Looking at the great work the Cavaliers did against a Georgia Tech team that had taken the ACC by storm, Diaco should have a pretty firm grasp on what Navy’s trying to do.

9. Beware of the Red Army.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Al Lesar did a nice job profiling three Notre Dame back-up quarterbacks, Matt Mulvey, Nate Montana, and Brian Castello, a trio of (mostly) benchwarmers that walk the sideline wearing red hats and have the incredibly important job of signaling in the plays.

Lesar recounts offensive coordinator Charley Molnar talking about their importance.

“Let’s just say this, when a mistake occurs, which it does very, very infrequently, from the signalers to the players out on the field, they’ll be the first to hear about it,” said Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. “There’s a lot of pressure on them.

“They have to be really perfect in their job because your offense has no chance if they’re not. If a signaler would make a mistake, nobody would have confidence in the signals. We can’t play football that way. (The players) have to have great confidence that the signal’s correct.”

“When they get the play call, they have to signal it almost simultaneously. Usually coach Kelly will communicate it. That’s pressure for anybody, believe me.”

Castello joked that the red hats aren’t for quarterback Dayne Crist to easily see them, but for a larger meaning.

“The true meaning of the red hats, as quarterbacks, we call ourselves ‘The Red Army.’ It came about as we all wear red jerseys as we’re all very valuable and breakable; we don’t see a lot of contact during practice. It’s kinda like a fraternity started by Evan Sharpley.

“I think we’re the most feared group on the team; and also (most) respected.”

Between the Red Army and Team Reckless, there are quiet a few funny guys on this football team.

10. David Ruffer’s expertise can be attributed to another former Notre Dame special teamer.

There’s not much left to be written about David Ruffer, the walk-on kicker that’s turned himself into an Irish folk hero. The former walk-on that’d never played in a football game is now a record-setting field goal kicker and potential All-American candidate.

How about this factoid:

Ruffer’s career as a kicker started under the tutelage of another Notre Dame special teams ace, former Irish punter Joey Hildbold, one of the top punters in Irish history. Hildbold was the special teams coach at William & Mary when Ruffer decided that he’d attempt to play football for the first time.

11. Andrew Hendrix is drawing plenty of praise on the scout team.

While he’s playing a position that won’t let him fight his way onto the field, freshman quarterback Andrew Hendrix received quite a bit of praise this week, reminding Irish fans why they were so excited to bring in the rocket-armed quarterback in the first place.

“He’s impressive,” Kelly said of the quarterback that’s playing Ricky Dobbs this week. “The ball comes out of his hand like probably one other guy that I have coached. I mean it comes out that quick and that fast. He has escape-ability and maneuverability. He has all the pieces. It’s now just going to be about getting into the offense and seeing how he picks things up from a spread quarterback standpoint. The tools are pretty impressive. When the defensive coaches rave about somebody, and they don’t do that very often, you know you have somebody who has a chance to be really good.”

I’ve mentioned it a few times this season, but it’s doubtful that all three freshman quarterback remain on this roster until the end of their senior season. Here’s hoping Kelly does a better job convincing guys that they’ve got a chance at winning the quarterback job than Charlie Weis did, who ran both Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones out of town after it was clear that Jimmy Clausen was being given the starting quarterback job his freshman season.

12. A four game winning streak would be incredibly rare for this team.

If the Irish win Saturday against the Midshipmen, it’ll be a four-game winning streak for Brian Kelly’s bunch. How rare of an achievement is that for this team? Well, consider that not a single senior on this roster has won four straight games.

The only members of the roster that have a four-game winning streak under their belt are Barry Gallup, Chris Stewart, and Darrin Walls, all fifth-year players that were a part of the 2006 team.

It’s been a tough four-year stretch…

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.


Stanford’s personnel has forced defensive evolution

David Shaw

The past few years you knew what you were going to get with Stanford’s defense. Coordinated by Derek Mason and passed along to Lance Anderson, the Cardinal built one of the most rugged front sevens in the country, capable of dominating at the point of attack in a multiple, 3-4 system.

The Cardinal were one of the toughest statistical defenses in the country, dominant at the point of attack and constantly near the top of the statistical heap in tackles for loss nationally. Since 2011, Stanford hasn’t finished out of the Top 30 in TFLs. In 2012, they led the country. In 2013 they were No. 5. Last season—even during an off year where they finished 8-5—the Cardinal were No. 17.

That dominance was expected to change in 2015. Gone were pillars like Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Henry Anderson and Chase Thomas. Nine new starters were being asked to fill holes by Nelson and head coach David Shaw.

But the Cardinal are doing it. They’re allowing just 22 points a game. They’re playing excellent run defense, holding opponents to just over 130 yards per game and slightly more than 4.1 yards per carry. But Stanford has also morphed from the team that consistently terrorized opponents behind the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal are a very ordinary No. 76 in the country when it comes to TFLs, with personnel no longer capable of dominating both on the edge and in the trenches.

So the Cardinal have adapted. They’ve patched holes, utilizing graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett at defensive end while calling on a reserve outside linebacker like Mike Tyler for a pass rush. As we saw last weekend against Cal, Stanford has been willing to concede yardage to eliminate the big play— something Notre Dame fans wish Brian VanGorder and company would consider.

Shaw talked about the evolution of his unit, in light of their performance against Cal. The Bears gained 495 yards last weekend, converted 10 of 18 third downs, dominated the time of possession battle and didn’t turn the football over yet still lost by two touchdowns.

Why? Because Stanford got tough in the red zone. Cal scored just one touchdown in five red zone attempts, with Stanford’s defense stiffening when it needed to do so. And while it went against everything in the Cardinal’s defensive DNA, Shaw talked about the changes made and how they helped Stanford win their rivalry game.

“I hate the phrase ‘bend but don’t break’ because it sounds very passive. We’re not a passive football team,” Shaw said on Sunday. “But we want to keep the ball in front of us and not give up the touchdown passes. By trying to keep the ball in front of us and get them to 3rd-and-6 in the red zone, get them to 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. And not give up the touchdown to make them check the ball down and make them kick field goals.”

With Notre Dame’s red zone offense spurting the past two weeks as DeShone Kizer‘s decision-making has gone sideways, the Irish’s big play offense will be facing a defense that’s now set up to not allow touchdowns. Can the Irish find the solution like they did against Pitt? Or will they implode like this did last weekend against the Eagles? That answer will likely dictate who goes home a winner.

Saturday’s battle in the trenches won’t be the uphill fight that it was the past four years. But Stanford’s schematic change feels like a tweak almost made because of, well—logic.

“It’s math,” Shaw offered. “If we can go down and score touchdowns and make them kick field goals, eventually, we’re going to win.”


Kelly calls on his stars to carry the Irish against Stanford

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s recent slip in the playoff polls could be distracting Irish fans from understanding the magnitude of this weekend’s game against Stanford. With one final “data-point” to provide to the playoff committee, the Irish will be able to showcase their merits against a Top 10 opponent, a beneficial scheduling feature after two weeks of soft opponents—and mediocre play—moved Notre Dame from a solid No. 4 to No. 6, the bottom rung of what currently looks like a four-team horserace for the final two playoff spots.

Brian Kelly understands what’s in front of the Irish. Most importantly, one of the season’s most challenging opponents—and a game where his best players need to step to the forefront.

“In big games, the great players rise to the occasion,” Kelly said Tuesday. “And so Will Fuller has to play great. Jaylon Smith’s gotta play great. Sheldon Day has got to play great. Ronnie [Stanley] has got to play great. The great players have to step up. And for us to win they’ll have to play great. If they do, we will. If they don’t, we won’t. It’s that simple.”

Much of the focus on this 2015 team has been on the ability to overcome injuries. Rightfully so. It’s allowed this group to sit at 10-1, shaking off adversity and finding ways to win with players who weren’t necessarily expected to contribute this season.

So while we wonder how the Irish coaching staff will fill in for KeiVarae Russell or how Josh Adams will handle C.J. Prosise‘s workload, Kelly is right to heap the responsibility on his stars. Notre Dame has no shortage of elite talent. And it’s that group that will determine if the Irish can state their case to be a part of the playoff, or if they’ll come up short against Stanford, rending all playoff debate useless.

The play of Notre Dame’s top personnel hasn’t necessarily been consistent. While Sheldon Day has shown a week-to-week level of play that’s been unparalleled, the same can’t be said for Will Fuller or Ronnie Stanley—or even Jaylon Smith. With Christian McCaffrey and road-grading guard Joshua Garnett are performing at elite levels this season, Notre Dame’s four defensive captains—Day, Smith, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley—need to anchor a unit whose inconsistency has derailed any of its dominant moments.

Questions have emerged at the national level about Notre Dame’s ability to play through its latest bout of adversity. Those questions should serve as fuel this week. With all eyes on Stanford Stadium Saturday evening, Notre Dame’s stars could alleviate any concerns, playing a dominant game against a very good Stanford team.  They’ll need to if the Irish wants to leave a victor, never mind a playoff contender.