Brian Kelly strolled to his noon press conference six minutes late today. For a coach you can usually set your watch to, this was a bit out of character. But let’s cut the guy some slack, Stanford, a team that’s beaten this coaching staff twice and Notre Dame three seasons in a row, could have stolen his attention.
“A lot of things stand out about this football team,” Kelly said of Stanford. “They’re a well‑coached team in all phases, offense, defense, and special teams. They’re a physical football team. They play that way up front, in the back end, their running backs, tight ends. It’s apparent across the board the kind of team you’re going to play when you face Stanford.”
It’s also been apparent by watching the last two meetings between the Irish and Cardinal. Two season’s ago, Stanford handily defeated Notre Dame, 37-14. Kelly publicly praised the team Jim Harbaugh built, a physically dominant team at the point of attack that controlled the line of scrimmage with three down linemen and confused quarterback Dayne Crist with drop-eight coverage. (Sound familiar to what the Irish are now able to do?) Last year, the Irish’s performance in Palo Alto was a microcosm of the season. Two penalties on the first two offensive plays. Failed red zone opportunities. An inconsistent offense and a failure by the team to dig itself out of a hole it dug itself.
Both teams are light years away from where they were last season. But that doesn’t make the game any less important. While Kelly’s entire presser is available to view below, I’ve snipped a few parts that I found interesting.
Each week, the Irish have had to prepare for a slightly different offensive attack. From the option of Navy, rotating quarterbacks at Purdue, a power run-game at Michigan State, the one-man army of Michigan, and Miami’s high-powered vertical passing game, it’s been a test for Bob Diaco’s unit and one that Notre Dame’s defense has passed with flying colors.
But with multiple personnel groupings and a system David Shaw continued after Harbaugh, Kelly talked about the challenges Stanford brings.
“Stanford is unique itself. Not only do they run the ball out of multiple formations and jumbo packages, they create great one‑on‑one match‑ups,” Kelly said. “So you would think you play a lot of zone, but you have to drop extra players down to defend the run which gives them a one‑on‑one match‑up, so another unique offense and challenge for us.
Kelly talked about those one-on-one match-ups, namely 6-foot-6 tight end Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 moster Levine Toilolo. Toilolo was last seen by Irish fans posting up Gary Gray for a touchdown last season, and is averaging 21.4 yards a catch this season after absolutely killing Arizona for 141 yards on just five catches.
“It’s a nightmare,” Kelly said. “Tyler Eifert is the same problem if we split him out, if we put the ball in a good location he’s going to catch it every time, so we’ve got to have some answers there.
“You have to press ’em out. You can’t give them off coverage, because they’re going to throw it to him and he’ll run the corner over every time. You have to press him because you’re bringing somebody down in the run game and you’re getting virtually one‑on‑one press coverage. So you’re throwing the ball down the field every route.”
Notre Dame’s secondary isn’t necessarily built to play one-on-one with anybody, so containing the Stanford run game with a base defense, and getting good penetration by Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron-Lewis Moore will be key.
Kelly spoke about the difference between this year’s team and last year’s edition, and what Notre Dame has done to hopefully narrow the gap with Stanford after two ugly losses.
“I think we’re stronger physically across the board,” Kelly said. We’re a mature football team. We have veterans on defense. From an offensive line standpoint we feel like we can handle ourselves much better. We had a ton of negative plays last year. We had 50‑plus running plays and we had one negative play against Miami. Whereas last year we had 20 negative plays, we had penalties. We’re a more disciplined team.”
Looking back at last year’s game, you’re struck by just how big of a mess the Irish were. Breaking in Andrew Hendrix, Irish fans were clinging to a 11 of 24 performance with one touchdown and one interception as hope for the future. It clearly wasn’t.
With a hard reset on the offense and a new young quarterback getting his chance, it’s been a marked improvement watching the offense run a more conservative approach with Everett Golson and Tommy Rees filling in the gaps.
Kelly also answered a question on people’s champ running back Cam McDaniel. One of my favorite under-the-radar players on the roster, McDaniel sliced and diced Miami’s defense behind a reserve offensive line, gobbling up yards at a great clip and showing tremendous vision and instincts with the football.
“He is a very good running back,” Kelly said. “I know you have Cierre Wood, you have Theo Riddick, you have George Atkinson, and they’re good running backs. We have four. It’s hard to get ’em all touches. We’re struggling trying to get those three guys. Cam McDaniel is one heck of a good running back. He runs it as effectively as any of those three. He’s used to the zone, inside‑outside zone. He came from that offense. He came from the shotgun offense and he runs the ball exceedingly well. We have no hesitation of putting him in the game. We only have one football, that’s the problem.”
It’s probably unrealistic to think McDaniel will fight his way into the rotation this season, but there’s a chance both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood exit the depth chart after this season. That should open the door for McDaniel, who will likely get into the rotation sooner than later.
Any worry that the Irish wouldn’t be prepared for Stanford was eliminated quickly by Kelly, who reminded his team that they haven’t had the best of success against the Cardinal.
“If there is one team that has beaten us physically is Stanford, and they know that,” Kelly said. “They turned the film on and watched what they did to their opponents, they physically intimidated their opponents and that’s clear. They see when they turn on the film and watch the way they play the game, they don’t need much push from me to know what to expect this weekend.”