We’ve got a month to spend talking about what comes next for the Irish, but let’s talk about what just happened first. With the Irish given one last chance to perform on a big stage, they turned into wallflowers, tripping over their feet when they finally got their chance to tango with a Stanford team likely going to their second BCS bowl in as many years.
Notre Dame’s 28-14 loss to the Cardinal could have been uglier. It also could’ve been a far more interesting game if the Irish just took advantage of some opportunities, which makes Saturday night’s loss a microcosm of one of the more bizarre Irish seasons in recent memory. But after twelve games, you are what you are. And this football team’s inconsistencies and inability to limit mistakes doomed this team from day one against USF and continued on to the season’s finale in Palo Alto.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the Cardinal’s 28-14 victory over the Irish.
* Michael Floyd. The senior wide receiver took down one last record for good measure, with eight catches on Saturday night, giving him 95 on the season, a single-season record snatched away from former teammate Golden Tate.
The past two seasons, Floyd has been saddled with severe instability at the quarterback position, and a rather large bulls-eye on him thanks to opposing defensive coordinators identifying the Irish’s one game-breaking threat. It hasn’t stopped Floyd, who has been robbed of some of his downfield big play opportunities, but instead become a super-charged possession receiver, complementing the Irish running game on quick throws that allow the 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior inflict pain on defensive backs.
Against Stanford, Floyd put together another terrific game, but also showed just how complete of a player he is by chasing down a Cardinal defender who made an interception and blasting him to the turf. Great effort and wonderfully physical football in what had to be another frustrating night. The Irish have one game left with the school’s best wide receiver ever. He will be severely missed.
* Tyler Eifert also moved his way into the Irish record books, with his 14-yard grab in the third quarter moving him ahead of Ken MacAfee for the school record for catches in one season by a tight end. Eifert’s 55 grabs turned him into Notre Dame’s second option in the passing game, and he also became only the fifth tight end at Notre Dame to eclipse 1,000 yards in a career.
Eifert looks to have the inside track for the Mackey Award, given to the top tight end in college football. Whether that means he’ll forgo his senior year and try the NFL hasn’t been decided, but unlike Kyle Rudolph last year, Eifert still could lift his stock by returning for another season and becoming a more complete player.
* Second half defense. It was a tale of two halves for the Irish defense, victimized by both air and ground in the game’s first 30 minutes, only to respond impressively in the second half. Sure it was too little, too late. But in a game that could’ve gotten ugly, Bob Diaco’s troops turned things around quickly.
Even with Coby Fleener’s 55-yard touchdown catch, the Irish held Luck and the Cardinal offense to just six first downs in the second half. After giving up 6.3 yards a carry in the first half, the Irish cut that in more than half, giving up just 3.1 yards a carry after the break. Take out Fleener’s 55-yard score, and the Irish gave up just 87 yards on 30 plays. That’s impressive work, even if you can’t just forget a long TD pass.
* The Youth Movement on Defense. It’s a shame the Irish lost Stephon Tuitt to a serious illness down the stretch because the group of freshmen – Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Louis Nix — have already shown themselves to be quite a trio. With Kapron Lewis-Moore set to return next year and Sean Cwynar all but certain to be there as well, the Irish should take a huge step forward along the defensive front, when in the past the loss of two veterans would have been crushing.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the statistical breakdown of the two groupings:
15 QB Hurries
1 Forced Fumble
6 QB Hurries
1 Forced Fumble
Add guys like Troy Niklas, Chase Hounshell and Ishaq Williams to the picture and there’s reason to believe that the Irish front seven will be even better next year, even having to replace standouts like Johnson and Darius Fleming.
(Credit Funk Doctor Spock for the breakdown.)
* Andrew Hendrix. Only the Notre Dame faithful would be ready to proclaim a quarterback that went 11 for 24 with an interception (and what could have been two more) as the answer to their prayers, but the sophomore quarterback certainly looked the part Saturday night after coming off the bench in relief of Tommy Rees.
When tasked with running a bigger chunk of the offense, Hendrix seemed to thrive, gaining a bit of rhythm in the passing game and playing the role of battering ram as a runner. His third quarter touchdown drive was a thing of beauty, and might be the closest thing the Irish have seen to vintage Brian Kelly offense since the coach has been here. Take away the sack yardage loss, and Hendrix basically averaged five yards a carry — and the option to keep the ball seemed to open up some things for Cierre Wood.
Throwing with touch will be an evolutionary process, but Hendrix doesn’t lack for arm strength, rifling just about every throw all around the yard, showing off another skill that has Irish fan’s salivating.
At the very least, Hendrix has given the Irish’s next opponent a huge headache — with a strong-armed running quarterback now captured on tape as opposed to merely being a change-up, wildcat threat. He’s also jump-started one of the most interesting quarterbacking battles we’ll see in quite some time, with Rees, Hendrix and Everett Golson all ready to take dead aim at the 2012 job.
* Nice job Dan Fox. On a muddy field, the junior linebacker looked rock solid in coverage.
* Louis Nix played a great ball game with a heavy heart after his father had a heart attack earlier in the week. He is going to be something next season.
* Quite an athletic pass breakup by Harrison Smith. That’s covering a lot of ground against one of the best college quarterbacks since Peyton Manning.
* Notre Dame’s opening drive. After getting a three and out from the Cardinal, the Irish offense absolutely crumbled, giving back any momentum they might have had even before they took a snap. Two false starts backing the Irish up to a 1st and 20 was only the beginning as Tommy Rees was drilled on his first throw and forced from the game, before Hendrix finished the drive and Ben Turk punted. Just a terrible start to the game for the offense.
* The offensive line play. Losing Braxston Cave has continued to haunt the Irish offensive line, and Stanford exposed the middle of the defense early and often. The five sacks against the Cardinal were more than the Irish gave up with Cave in the lineup all season. Cierre Wood was unable to get on track either, averaging only 3.4 yards a carry. It’s hard to pin all of this on Mike Golic’s insertion into the puzzle, but against good defensive fronts (USC and Stanford) the Irish couldn’t run the ball. It’s been a big step forward by Ed Warinner’s troops, but Saturday wasn’t their finest moment.
* The first half offense. Punt. Fumble. Punt. Missed field goal. Punt. Interception. Halftime. How’s that for the worst sequence of football the Irish had all season, when they absolutely needed it most. Tommy Rees deserved the quick hook after fumbling away the best drive the Irish had and then failing to capitalize on a 1st and 10 from just outside the Stanford ten yard-line. But the first half wasn’t all on Rees as the Irish offensive line struggled to match the intensity of the Cardinal front seven and Rees was still battling the ill effects of a crushing tackle.
* Performance Anxiety. With a chance to make a statement in a marquee game, the Irish flopped. That’s another football game where the Irish came out in the opening rounds of a heavyweight battle and got knocked to the canvas early. Against teams like Stanford and USC, you can’t spot opponents points and after sluggish starts by the offense, that’s exactly what the Irish did. Brian Kelly knows that can’t keep happening, and it’s likely why a quarterback like Hendrix — able to exploit the defense’s adrenaline by keeping the ball on a zone-read — might be a better answer once he gets bridled.
* You’ve gotta make that kick, David Ruffer.
* The punt return game. There’s no true explanation for it. I expect some of the bowl preparation, and a lot of time in spring practice being dedicated to fixing this unit. What a lost opportunity.
* Stanford’s Nike Pro Combat uniforms. Did the Cardinal really think Senior Day was the right time to breakout those terrible new uniforms? What an unfortunate keepsake for all those families having to explain what exactly their kids were wearing in that final home game. More importantly, when Stanford goes to frame Andrew Luck’s record-breaking touchdown pass, they’ll have to immortalize him looking like a Kool-Aid soaked storm trooper. Next year, break those out during the Big Game. Twenty-five Kodak moments with thank you.
* Stanford’s Turf. The only thing uglier than those uniforms was the grass. What a lousy playing surface and an embarrassing situation for the school.