Te'o Victory Stanford

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13

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Torrential rains. Phantom whistles. Heroic quarterbacking. And an epic (and disputed) goal line stand. Notre Dame’s 20-13 victory over Stanford played out like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, with 80,795 soaked fans waiting for what seemed like eternity while replay officials decided whether or not Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor was stopped short of the goal line on the game’s final play.

Notre Dame Stadium exploded when the ruling on the field stood, and the Irish players celebrated with a few thousand students on the field as the skies opened up and poured sheets of rain to the field. Hollywood stuff, indeed, even if the ruling was a bitter pill for Stanford to swallow.

“I didn’t get to view the last play,” Stanford coach David Shaw said after the game, disappointment dripping off his every word. “Stepfan swore to me that he got in and that he put the ball over the goal line on the second effort. Officials looked at it and they said he didn’t get in, so we didn’t get in.”

At 6-0, Notre Dame’s improbable run continues thanks to another monumental performance from the Irish defense and another improbable win in relief by junior quarterback Tommy Rees. A year after back-breaking losses and locker room dysfunction turned the season into a soap opera, the redemption story of this football team feels ripped right from a Hollywood screenplay, as the Irish defense conquered their nemesis, a Stanford team that beat the Irish by at least two touchdowns the last two years, as they kept the Cardinal out of the end zone from inside a yard on the game’s final two plays.

“When you’re talking to your team all week about a heavyweight match, and you can’t keep taking body blows, you have to stand in there,” Kelly said of the games final plays. “Sooner or later, you’ve got to be the one that delivers. It comes to fruition in the game ending and our team coming up with a great goal line stand. Classic.”

Let’s take a look at the things we learned during the Irish’s 20-13 triumph over Stanford.

Once a goal that seemed unreachable, B.I.A. — Best In America — isn’t too far fetched of a statement for Notre Dame’s defense.

When Brian Kelly came to South Bend, he wasn’t short on coachspeak or catchy maxims. Next Man In. Right Kinda Guys. Unconscious Competence. These were just a few of the building blocks he brought with him to Notre Dame, in hopes of rebuilding a program that lacked an identity that even resembled that of an elite national program.

Still, of all the catchy slogans and acronyms, one defensive goal stood out as probably the most far-fetched. B.I.A. Best In America. That was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s goal, one that drew more than a chuckle from Irish fans that had just watched Rick Minter, Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta turn the Irish defense into a roller derby team.

Now look at this group.

Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t allowed an offensive touchdown in sixteen quarters, its fourth straight game holding offenses out of the end zone. The 8.7 points allowed per game ranks second behind only Alabama, while the Irish still have yet to give up a rushing touchdown to an opponent, an impressive feat considering Stanford had four shots at it from inside the four yard line and spent all evening bringing in an extra offensive lineman to try and bulldoze the Irish defensive front with an off-balanced line that cleared the way for Stepfan Taylor. With a touchdown streak on the line, the Irish held the Cardinal out of the end zone, winning the game with its defense.

“We don’t talk about it but certainly it’s a source of pride,” Kelly said of the team’s touchdown streak. “They hear about it. They talk about it amongst themselves. It’s not something we stand up and talk about, other than when we go over our goals on Monday and we’ll go over them again and talk about what we are doing defensively. Again, the game ball went to our defense. How do you not give the defense the game ball after the way the game was played.”

Once again, Manti Te’o led the team in tackles and Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix were sometimes unblockable along the defensive line. The defense continued to force turnovers, with Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley snatching interceptions. And while there’s no complacency in this team’s defense, they also realize that they’ve taken their game to the level they’d long thought was merely a goal.

“If you’re not trying to be the best at what you’re doing, then why are you playing this game,” Te’o said. “If you’re just trying to be mediocre, then football’s not the game for you. We try to be the best at everything we do. That’s part of us now. That’s not just something we just preach anymore. That’s part of us now.”

Another game, another clutch save for Tommy Rees.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. With the game on the line and Everett Golson still dazed from a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit, Kelly once again called on Tommy Rees to come in and win the game for the Irish. With the Irish down three and a 15-yard penalty taking Notre Dame to the Stanford 34 in the game’s final minutes, Rees walked into the game and led the Irish to the game-tying field goal, then completed three clutch passes in overtime, including a game-winning seven-yard slant to TJ Jones.

Four throws, four completions, and another gutty win by the Irish’s deposed starter. As usual, Rees said everything right, rolling with the punches that come with being college football’s only quarterback closer.

“The best way I can describe it is really, you don’t have time to think,” Rees said after the game of getting called into action. “You have ten guys on offense and then a hundred guys on the team that are counting on you, let alone the University of Notre Dame and just playing for everyone here. You don’t have time to think about that kind of stuff. You just get out there and play.”

That it took as long as it did for Rees to come in the game says something about Kelly’s resolve in keeping Everett Golson as the team’s starting quarterback. Golson completed just 12 of 24 passes for 141 yards, took three sacks, was hit early and often and had three crucial turnovers.

Still, with Golson woozy from a hit and the game own to what looked like Notre Dame’s final possession, the team had nothing but confidence when they saw Rees go in.

“When Tommy goes in there, we don’t have any worries,” Te’o said. “It’s just, okay, Tommy’s in now. We have confidence in Tommy and he knows that. He’s just going to get better.”

Again, there’s no reason to believe that Golson won’t be the Irish’s starter when Notre Dame plays BYU next weekend. And as long as the Irish keep winning, maybe this formula can find a way to keep working.

It wasn’t all negative for Everett Golson out there.

In a game plan where Everett Golson needed only not to turn the ball over and manage the game, the sophomore quarterback had a hard time doing even. Golson fumbled the ball four times, losing three of them, and almost single-handedly kept Stanford in the football game through the game’s first three quarters. Throwing from his own end zone, Golson fed Stanford their only touchdown of the game, when he sacked from behind by defensive end Ben Gardner and the ball was scooped up by Chase Thomas for the score. (Though this touchdown is as much on the head coach as the quarterback, with a befuddling play call that Kelly admitted he wanted back.)

Golson lost a slippery center exchange in the first quarter. He lost another on a run in the second quarter that Theo Riddick recovered. The strip-sack and touchdown on the next series gave Stanford its lead.  In the third quarter, Golson killed a nice drive in the red zone, cutting up field instead of getting out of bounds and giving the ball to Stanford in a huge momentum shift.

While thousands of eyeballs fixated on the Irish sidelines looking to see if Tommy Rees would warm up, Kelly stuck with his young quarterback, and Golson rebounded down the stretch.

“I was really proud of Everett,” Kelly said. “His confidence was a bit shaken and he came back with a great drive and did some really good things. I was really proud of the way he overcame a little bit of adversity during the game, whereas when he had that situation against Michigan we really had to move in another direction. He fought through that and he made a big step today. He made some plays. He helped us win this football game.”

This performance wasn’t all on Golson. Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled to protect the young quarterback all evening, and Golson’s physical gifts helped him make some plays from outside the pocket and move the chains with a few athletic plays that certainly don’t happen with Tommy Rees on the field. At the same time, in film review tomorrow, it’ll be apparent that Golson left a ton of good looks on the field, missing a wide open Davaris Daniels who didn’t have anyone within 20 yards of him.

Still, that’s living and learning with a young quarterback. And credit to Kelly for growing with Golson, getting his confidence back before he was knocked from the game.

With a collection of great tight ends on the field, Tyler Eifert reminded people why he is still the class of college football.

So that’s the Tyler Eifert we all expected to see this year. Sharing a field with Stanford tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, it was Eifert that was the difference maker, as the All-American made the play of the night snatching a third-and-18 throw down between two defenders for a 24-yard touchdown that got the Irish back in the game.

Held to just three catches over his last three games, Eifert caught four balls for 57 yards, including the big touchdown. And while its definitely a step in the right direction, the Irish are still looking for ways to get the ball to their best playmaker.

“It was tough. He had double coverage on the weak side, and one-on-one on the front side. We just didn’t do a good enough job of taking advantage,” Kelly said of the use of Eifert. “We had to get the ball to him and maybe we forced it a couple times, but the kid came up with some great plays.”

Eifert’s statistics might be down, but his draft stock might be getting a bump up. With Ben Koyack disappointing in the blocking game, Eifert’s taken on the role of a more traditional tight end, showing really strong blocking skills at the point of attack. But when the chips were on the table, it was Eifert split wide this evening and making big plays.

If the Irish are going to keep winning, that’s where they’ll need him.

With David Shaw and Brian Kelly settling into their jobs, expect the Notre Dame – Stanford rivalry to pick up some intensity.

Don’t tell the guys on the football field that this was a battle of academic heavyweights. While both schools were touting a top 20 match-up between two schools ranked not just on the field but in the classroom, this looked to be the first of many epic clashes between Notre Dame and Stanford in the coming years.

With the ACC scheduling venture trying up five games a season, Notre Dame made sure to protect its rivalry with Stanford, an aspirational peer both on and off the field. While letting Michigan walk and likely making some other tough calls on more established rivalries, its telling that Notre Dame’s athletic director would immediately protect the annual series with the Cardinal, a program not necessarily entrenched as a football power, for reasons more nuanced than just another November destination on the West Coast.

Great games between Stanford and Notre Dame are good for college football. When quarterbacks at Ohio State are making waves for their dislike for class and SEC programs continue to push athletes onto the field that are student-athletes by name only, there’s something quite aspirational about a great battle between schools that do it right both on and off the field.

Add a little bad blood over botched calls, phantom whistles from the stands, and overtime games that come down to a matter of inches, and you get an annual match-up that can only get better with age.

 

 

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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