The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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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.

THE GOOD

* 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:

NIX/LYNCH/TUITT
18 Starts
97 Tackles
12 TFL
5.5 Sacks
4 PBUs
15 QB Hurries
1 Forced Fumble

ETHAN/KLM/CWYNAR
17 Starts
67 Tackles
5 TFL
1.5 Sacks
3 PBUs
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.

THE BAD

* 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.

THE UGLY

* 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.

 

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
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
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

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.