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Five things we learned: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14

Nov 27, 2011, 1:54 AM EDT

Andrew Hendrix Stanford

When you laid out the checklist of things Notre Dame needed to do to beat No. 4 Stanford on Saturday night, the objectives were quite clear. Limit mistakes, win the battle at the line of scrimmage, and eliminate turnovers — bedrock principles for winning football games.

Yet from the opening minutes of the Irish’s 28-14 loss to Stanford, things went wrong. Two penalties on the first two offensive plays. Missed blocking assignments. A quarterback running for his life. Failed red zone opportunities. A defense that tried to keep their team in the game.

“We got off to a bad start,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “We battled our butts off. But against a good football team, that’s not good enough.”

That bad start spotting Stanford 21 points was just too much to overcome, as Andrew Luck‘s four touchdown passes gave the Irish their first November loss under Kelly. It ends a once-promising regular season at 8-4, finishing the year on a downbeat, as the Irish await their bowl assignment.

Let’s find out what else we learned during No. 4 Stanford’s 28-14 victory over the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish.

The Irish offensive line got manhandled by the Stanford front seven.

A week after Boston College gave defensive coordinators a blueprint for bogging down the Irish passing game, co-defensive coordinators Jason Tarver and Derek Mason created their own, continually blitzing linebackers and pressuring the quarterback, something the Notre Dame offensive line couldn’t handle.

If dropping eight and nine men into coverage worked for the Eagles, bringing eight men and pounding the interior of the offensive line worked even better for Stanford. The Cardinal got five sacks and stuffed the Irish running game, limiting Notre Dame to under two yards a carry, and flustering both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix throughout the game.

After a sterling month of October, the Irish offensive line is clearly missing center Braxston Cave, and after an admirable performance against Wake Forest, it’s clear that Mike Golic Jr. isn’t the same player as the man he replaced. It all starts in the middle and Golic struggled throughout the game and for the first time this season, the Irish offensive line seemed to get overwhelmed, with both the running and passing games stuck in neutral and struggling to match Stanford’s intensity early.

Whoever the Irish end up playing in a bowl game (and most of the college football world is anticipating a Florida State – Notre Dame date in the Champs Sports Bowl), defensive coordinators will likely challenge the Irish front with pressure. Regardless of injuries, Ed Warinner‘s group needs to refocus their efforts and protect the quarterback.

***

We’ve got ourselves another quarterback controversy.

For the second time this season, Kelly made a quarterback change at halftime. This time, he might have launched an even bigger quarterback debate.

There’s a little more than a month between tonight’s game and any bowl game the Irish end up in, giving us plenty of time to debate just who should start the season’s final game. But with Hendrix finally given a chance to run the Irish offense, supporters of the athletically gifted sophomore saw all they needed to proclaim him the right man for the job.

His numbers are far from impressive — 11 of 24 passing, one touchdown and one very poor interception, but Hendrix sparked the Irish offense with both his running and throwing, driving the Irish to two second-half touchdowns and showing off a skillset that many Irish fans have been clamoring for all season.

The decision to give Hendrix a shot could’ve been interpreted a number of different ways: A kickstart to a heated QB battle in 2012, the final bitter pill for Dayne Crist, or Kelly simply looking to give the Irish a spark. However you interpret it, the Irish offense opened up, all while Hendrix reminded fans and coaches of the growing pains that come with a young quarterback seeing things for the first time.

It’s clear that Hendrix allows the offense to incorporate the option and use the quarterback as another weapon in the running game. It’s also clear that even though Hendrix can make all the throws, he’s far from being able to execute them properly. Still, the sophomore showed a ton of poise, made some nice passes and showed himself to be a powerful runner that’ll likely make this offseason a very interesting one.

Kelly said that “anything’s possible” for the bowl game, and he likely has no interest in deciding his quarterback until he’s done recruiting on the West Coast this week. But with the 2011 season book-ending halftime quarterback changes, we’ve created the main storyline for the next few weeks, not to mention the long offseason months before the Irish kickoff next September.

***

All things considered, the Irish defense held up well against the mighty Stanford offense.

While you can’t say they shut down the Cardinal, the Irish did hold Stanford to 28 points, the first team to hold them to less than thirty points all season. While Luck threw for four touchdown passes, he was continually under duress, and the Irish defense forced two turnovers and came close to having three more as an undermanned defense played pretty admirable football against an offensive front that has been very good all season.

It wasn’t Robert Blanton‘s finest hour as the senior cornerback struggled in the first half, committing penalties and getting beat in man coverage multiple times as Stanford sprinted out to a 21-point halftime lead. But the secondary tightened considerably in the second half until Zeke Motta slipped in broken coverage as Luck iced the game with a 55-yard touchdown pass to tight end Coby Fleener.

Without senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and freshman Stephon Tuitt, the Irish relied on Aaron Lynch to anchor one defensive end position and while the freshman didn’t get a sack, he was in the backfield quite a bit and chipped in a team-high five solo tackles including one for a loss on the evening. The Irish defense provided the closest thing to offense in the first half, with Darius Fleming intercepting a luck screen pass and rumbling into the Cardinal red zone, only to have the Irish fail to get seven points when Rees missed Theo Riddick on a quick out pattern and David Ruffer inexplicably missed a chip-shot field goal.

They might not have won the game for the Irish, but Bob Diaco’s defense played well enough to win on Saturday.

***

Stanford’s playing surface is an embarrassment.

That a university with some of the world’s finest facilities can’t grow grass that withstands Northern California’s climate is beyond embarrassing. And that’s all you can call the natural surface inside Stanford Stadium, in horrific shape after some rain and three straight home football games turned the football field into a mud pit.

Both teams had to play on the same surface, but the grass clearly hurt Notre Dame more than Stanford. The Irish looked hesitant and a step slow, and a spread offense relies on the ability to make plays in space at full speed, something the Irish just couldn’t do when they slipped and slid all over the football field.

Notre Dame equipment manager Ryan Grooms knew full well that his players would need long cleats and excellent footwear to get through the football game. But there isn’t a cleat on the planet that could keep the Irish from sliding or falling, with a very unscientific hand count revealing a dozen plays affected by someone in an Irish jersey slipping and falling. That’s just too many players in a football game to be changed, and Stanford needs to take a bulldozer to their field and find a solution now, because it’s absolutely unacceptable.

***

Wins and losses are the ultimate barometer, but there’s been plenty of progress made this season.

Nobody is throwing a parade for an 8-4 regular season, clearly a disappointing end to a season that rightfully had BCS aspirations. The Irish played their four worst games on the days where the spotlight was the brightest: An opening loss in a made-for-ESPN storyline that had the Holtz family incredibly proud, a fourth-quarter implosion that catapulted Michigan’s season, the home dud against USC under the lights, and stubbing their toe in the first half against Stanford. Four opportunities to show this program is making progress, and four slip-ups that have some Irish fans asking those big-picture questions that get thrown around far too often amongst Domers.

Next season, the Irish will need to replace the engine of their offense and three-fourths of their secondary. They’ll say goodbye to two starting offensive linemen and two starting defensive ends. There are NFL question marks around players like Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o, two integral pieces to the Irish puzzle and two weapons that the Irish desperately need as they head into a meatgrinder of a schedule.

That said, it might be difficult to see it now, but the team is getting better. At one point in the second half — a half where the Irish held Stanford to seven points and 131 yards — the Irish lined up Lynch, Louis Nix, Troy Niklas and Ishaq Williams along the front four, with the four freshman all looking to be a huge part of a defensive renaissance that will help turn this program’s fortunes around. One of the biggest question marks surrounding Kelly and his staff was the ability to bring in top-flight recruits. The coach has proven skeptics wrong quickly, but more importantly, he’s also shown himself to be a very good talent evaluator, a far more important skill in recruiting.

For all the complaints about Crist and Rees — two quarterbacks Kelly inherited that didn’t fit his offensive system — the Irish took great steps forward this year on the offensive side of the ball, only to kill themselves with lapses in execution that doom a team when they play a quality opponent. While the sample size is incredibly limited, seeing Hendrix run the football and move the offense on the ground shows you that Kelly will eventually find the right quarterback for his offense, even if it takes him a few extra weeks to identify him.

As the Irish coaching staff take dead aim at skill position players that’ll infuse the depth chart with youthful talent the way last year’s recruiting haul helped the front seven of the defense, we’ll get a clearer look at what Brian Kelly wants his football team to be.

“I’m more interested in getting a football team that will compete for four quarters,” Kelly said after the game. “The rest of that stuff’s going to come. We’ll get the other things. I want guys who love to compete. Compete like they did tonight. I’m disappointed in the loss. We got off to a bad start. It came back to bite us in the end.”

Four losses are certainly disappointing, and incremental progress isn’t the kind of thing that wakes up the echoes. Yet there’s plenty of reasons to think things are getting better for the Irish, even if the ledger for wins and losses doesn’t quite show it yet.

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