Five things we learned: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14

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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.

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”