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.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL