Notre Dame v Michigan State

Game Day: No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 17 Stanford


You’ll have to forgive me if my crystal ball seems a little cloudy this morning. I could blame the cobwebs from a long night of travel. But it’s getting a handle on what kind of team No. 17 Stanford is that I’m struggling with.

While the Cardinal have one of the country’s most impressive victories on their resume, there are still plenty of variables I’m not sure about. How do you explain their pedestrian escape against San Jose State or their defensive implosion against Arizona last week? Their loss to Washington – the only road game the Cardinal have played thus far – made Stanford look pretty limited offensively, not all that different than the Michigan State team Notre Dame handled. But in their 21-14 victory over the Trojans, David Shaw’s squad showed they were still the physically dominant team that shutdown Notre Dame’s offense the past two seasons.

As we head towards kickoff, here are a few questions I haven’t quite answered yet.

Can Everett Golson beat this Stanford defense?

Most people accuse me of being too hard on Golson, but I’m a big believer in his future with the Irish. But young quarterbacks against Stanford’s defense don’t necessarily thrive.

Nobody has been able to line up and run the ball against Stanford, and the Irish certainly haven’t been able to the past two seasons. While Golson has the ability to make things happen with his feet, he’s going to have to beat the Cardinal with his arm… and his head.

If there’s a weakness in this Stanford defense, it’s in the secondary. But Golson, who is still learning how to be a student of the game and exploit favorable match-ups with Tyler Eifert, needs to take advantage of the opportunities he’s presented. If he can make some big plays down field when he gets the right pre-snap reads, the Irish should win this game.

Can the Irish get a big play or score from the defense or special teams?

It’s hard to say anything negative about Bob Diaco’s defense. It might be heresy, but the Irish are playing as good of defense as they’ve played in a very long time – and that includes under head coach Lou Holtz. But if the Irish are going to win this weekend, getting a big play out of the defense or special teams is imperative. The Irish didn’t force a turnover or get a sack against Miami. They’ll need to do some of both on Saturday afternoon.

Just as important, it’s time for the Irish special teams to make a leap forward. Nobody expects a trick play out of Scott Booker’s troops, but most would settle for Ben Turk launching a punt and flipping the field. George Atkinson is due to break a kick return and Davonte Neal still needs to get loose in the open field. Without Ty Montgomery returning kicks for Stanford, the Irish kick coverage team needs to get back to their dominant ways. Winning a game like today’s requires a complete performance from the team. And getting a few big plays from the defense and special teams will go a long way.

Can the Irish weather the storm? Literally.

This afternoon has the chance to become one of those instant classics. With rain predicted for much of the afternoon, and thunderstorms coming around game time, it’s looking like weather will certainly be a factor. Can the Irish hold onto the football and get accurate throws from Everett Golson? Can they move the chains if this turns into a slugfest? Will the surprisingly decent playing surface hold up this afternoon?

Stanford played the second-half of their season last year in a mud bowl at Stanford Stadium and they’re built to battle in the trenches. But if the Irish match that intensity, they’re built to do the same thing.

Most people are starting to believe the Irish have arrived. In the past, that usually ended badly. Will this year be any different?

A quick perusal across the internet has more pundits picking the Irish to win than lose, with ESPN’s arrival on campus almost validation that Notre Dame has once again come back into the land of relevancy when it comes to BCS appearances and – gasp! – national title aspirations. But can the Irish continue to win when it’s expected of them?

In years past, Notre Dame let defining moments define them. Whether it was Charlie Weis’ signature loss to USC, disappointments in back-to-back BCS bowls or the Irish stubbing their toe against USC and Florida State last season, Brian Kelly and his team believe this season is different.

Las Vegas believes in the Irish, tabbing them a touchdown favorite. With all eyes on Notre Dame, can the No. 7 Irish win a game that could vault into even loftier territory?

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”