Nov 27, 2011, 1:54 AM EDT
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.
Aug 27, 2014, 8:10 PM EDT
Entering his fifth year in Notre Dame’s football program, grad student Justin Utupo is still looking to find a role in the Irish defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with the reserve defensive lineman.
Aug 27, 2014, 3:02 PM EDT
After being buried on the safety depth chart, junior John Turner became one of the talks of spring practice when he moved from forgotten man to a potential starter at outside linebacker. Irish A-to-Z looks at the unlikely outside linebacker.
Aug 27, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
The season is finally here. Got questions before the opener? Drop them in the comments or over on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Aug 27, 2014, 12:15 PM EDT
Notre Dame opens the 2014 season with a visit from Rice on Saturday afternoon. While on paper, a matchup with the Conference USA squad looks like it could be a good way to get the rust off, taking the Owls lightly would be a large mistake. The Houston Chronicle’s Joseph Duarte gets us ready for Rice.
Aug 26, 2014, 8:38 PM EDT
Brian Kelly announced his captains for the 2014 season, naming safety Austin Collinsworth, defensive lineman Sheldon Day, center Nick Martin and running back Cam McDaniel his four leaders for the upcoming season.
Aug 26, 2014, 5:32 PM EDT
After enrolling early this winter, Andrew Trumbetti has forced his way into the starting lineup. Irish A-to-Z looks at the freshman defensive end slated to start against Rice.
Aug 26, 2014, 1:50 PM EDT
When Brian Kelly leads Notre Dame out of the tunnel to open the 2014 season on Saturday afternoon, he’ll be leading his youngest and most inexperienced team into battle on the new artificial surface of Notre Dame Stadium. He’ll also be short three key starters, still left in limbo as an academic investigation and Honor Code ruling continues.
Aug 25, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
If there’s one coach counting on freshman Drue Tranquill to find the football field, it’s head coach Brian Kelly. Irish A-to-Z looks at the freshman safety who earned his scholarship thanks to Kelly’s evaluation of his high school film.
Aug 25, 2014, 10:46 AM EDT
After watching Zack Martin quietly spend four years dominating along the Irish offensive line, junior Ronnie Stanley steps in at left tackle. Irish A-to-Z looks at Notre Dame’s new starting left tackle.
Aug 24, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Don’t look now, but the Irish might have another elite tight end in the making. That’s the expectation for sophomore Durham Smythe, our next entry in the Irish A-to-Z series.
Aug 24, 2014, 9:34 AM EDT
We are about to get an idea of how good sophomore Jaylon Smith can truly be. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at Notre Dame’s star linebacker.
Aug 23, 2014, 5:13 PM EDT
Notre Dame awarded scholarships to veteran walk-ons Connor Cavalaris, Charlie Fiessinger and Tyler Plantz. The trio will get a free year of education during the 2014-15 school year, awarded for their hard work.
Aug 22, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
A blue-chip recruit who immediately contributed on the 2012 defense, junior Elijah Shumate is still looking to find his fit in the Irish defense. Irish A-to-Z takes a closer look at the New Jersey native.
Aug 21, 2014, 3:48 PM EDT
Senior linebacker Joe Schmidt might still carry with him the tag of walk-on. But he’s also one of the key leaders on an Irish defense that’s counting on the senior to play key minutes as the man in the middle of Notre Dame’s defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at Notre Dame’s starting middle linebacker.
Aug 21, 2014, 1:29 PM EDT
It’s been a hectic last week inside the Notre Dame football program. Between suspensions, media day and the home-stretch of our A-to-Z series, it’s time to get to some football.
Aug 21, 2014, 12:20 PM EDT
With training camp over and Notre Dame transitioning to game prep, football is almost here. But for one more look back at the Irish’s time at Culver Academy and another behind-the-scenes look at the program, our friends at Fighting Irish Digital Media present a new edition of the always excellent Strong & True series.
Aug 20, 2014, 8:26 PM EDT
Inked to help fill a running back depth chart in need of reinforcements, KeiVarae Russell became a cornerback by accident. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at an All-American candidate with his season up for grabs, an academic investigation determining Russell’s role on the 2014 team.
Aug 20, 2014, 1:03 PM EDT
Of the players made available to the media yesterday, grad student Cody Riggs wasn’t among them. But the cornerback stopped by UND.com’s Media Day coverage, and after watching his interview with Jack Nolan it’s hard not to be impressed.
Aug 19, 2014, 9:57 PM EDT
With access to Brian Kelly, his assistants and a handful of veteran players, today’s Media Day felt a little different than most. That’s understandable, with the aftermath of unexpected academic suspensions still lingering over the program. With the investigation still on media lockdown, speculation has varied widely, but it’s clear that Kelly is moving forward, the only thing a head coach can do.
Aug 18, 2014, 7:28 PM EDT
The Irish practiced today without four suspended veterans, as an academic investigation continues at Notre Dame about potential Honor Code violations committed by DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. And with rumors swirling and little actual info coming out of anyone inside the program, Phillip Daniels was a guest on NBC 5’s Sports Sunday, and spoke candidly about his son’s situation.
- And in that corner… The Rice Owls 6
- Kelly names Collinsworth, Day, Martin and McDaniel captains 38
- Setting the bar: Expectations for the 2014 Irish 90
- Irish A-to-Z: Jaylon Smith 15
- With all eyes watching, a dig for truth begins at Notre Dame 132
- Academic misconduct investigation underway at Notre Dame 58