The polls and rankings are out. For the first time in a long time, Notre Dame is in the country’s top five teams, checking in at No. 5 in the BCS rankings, the AP Poll, and the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.
With their third victory against a top 25 opponents, the Irish now shift their focus to one of the country’s top defensive units in BYU. But before we get there, let’s take a run through Saturday evening’s good, bad, and ugly.
The Secondary. Let’s start with the unsung heroes of the evening. Anchored by Zeke Motta’s nine tackles, and Matthias Farley’s eight, the back-end of the Irish defense played rock solid football again, taking the ball away twice thanks to Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley’s interceptions, and limiting Josh Nunes to just 12 of 25 passing for 125 yards.
It’s amazing to see the progress this group has made, and through half the season, the Irish rank an astonishing No. 5 in pass efficiency defense, a tremendous accomplishment for a group of players that are all learning on the fly.
The front seven. At this point, it’s starting to feel like a broken record. Manti Te’o had eleven tackles, playing at his usually elite level. Stephon Tuitt was a man possessed, racking up seven stops, and sharing a sack with Kapron Lewis-Moore. Louis Nix played up to the level that David Shaw praised. Prince Shembo was a load off the edge, getting consistent pressure, while just missing a few sacks. And the trio of Danny Spond, Dan Fox, and Carlo Calabrese all had productive nights on the stat sheet.
The Irish held Stanford to just 13 first downs, one courtesy of a penalty. They also held the Cardinal to just 272 total yards, another opponent staying below the 300 yard total. The goal line stand at the end of the game is stuff of legend, and while Stepfan Taylor ran for 102 yards, he needed 28 carries to get there, and most importantly for the Irish, they held him to zero yards on his final two touches.
Tommy Rees. Not much you can say about one of the most maligned players in recent memory. Rees might not embrace the role of a closer, but he certainly thrives in it. He was 4 of 4 passing, and his three overtime completions were incredibly clutch, especially after a sack on first down backed up the Irish to second and very long.
With Stanford bringing heat all afternoon on the quarterback, Rees and the Irish finally completed a slant patterned — a great tonic for a blitzing defense — and TJ Jones made a nice catch on a tough throw for the win.
TJ Jones. Clutch catch and nice afternoon for the junior, who has elevated his game this season and ascended into a pivotal role for the wideouts.
The running backs. The numbers won’t wow you, but it was a productive day for the Irish runners, playing against a defense that has all but shutdown the Irish ground game the past few years.
Cierre Wood did what Cierre Wood does. He ran for 66 yards on 12 carries, a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. Once again, Theo Riddick didn’t break four-yards a carry, but he made three catches in the pass game, the most crucial being in overtime. It was hard to get George Atkinson on track, and he had just four touches, but he still averaged seven yards a carry.
The offensive line didn’t play their best game, but the Irish netted 150 yards on the ground, a number just about everybody would’ve said was enough to win the game, and beat Stanford’s total of 147.
Kyle Brindza. Nice day for the kid. Four kickoffs, four touchbacks. Two for two on field goals.
Tyler Eifert. The four catches are a move in the right direction, and that touchdown catch should be on every highlight reel this season. He also had perhaps the best quote to encapsulate the victory.
“We went in and we took the game,” Eifert said. “We won the game for ourselves. We didn’t wait for them to make a mistake. I think that’s huge.”
Turnovers. It was a bad day at the office for Everett Golson on Saturday. Before he was knocked out of the game with what Brian Kelly diagnosed as a concussion, Golson had given the ball to Stanford three times on fumbles. In his sophomore season (although freshman eligibility wise), Golson has now accounted for all the Irish turnovers on the season, something Brian Kelly knows is problematic.
“It’s something that obviously we cannot continue to have. He’s got to take better care of the football, and he’s got to do it in practice, and he’s got to be smarter,” Kelly said. “I think if you look at the first turnover, we’re talking about mishandling a direct snap, something that we do every day, totally unacceptable. The other turnover was holding onto the ball. It was the sack fumble against the three‑man rush. Again, maybe we could have put him in better situation there. And then the third one, it’s easy for him to just step out of bounds and avoid contact. So all of them are coachable, all of them are correctable, and we’ll continue to work on it with him so we can eliminate these mistakes.”
In wet conditions against a team that makes a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage, Golson’s primary job was the hold onto the football. That didn’t happen. Against another stingy defense this weekend, Golson will likely face the same recipe of pressure and confusion.
Penalties and Mistakes: Not a great day at the office from an execution perspective. Notre Dame had nine penalties for 70 yards, and senior Mike Golic was hearing his name called for all the wrong reasons on Saturday. Stephon Tuitt’s roughing the passer call kept the Irish defense on the field, too.
When asked about Golic’s play, Kelly did a nice job putting things into perspective, and also hinting at some other issues along the line and in communication with Golson.
“I don’t know that Mike Golic had a lot to do with those false starts. You know, there’s a lot of other things going on out there that I’m not going to get into right now,” Kelly said. “Mike has made progress. Mike is‑‑ he played against a very, very good defense, and they won some, Mike won some. The thing with Mike, he’s such a dedicated player. I mean, he comes to practice every day; he’s purposeful. He’s not going to be First Team All‑American at that position, but here at Notre Dame, he doesn’t need to be; he needs to just be Mike Golic. And we’re proud of the steps that he’s made to help our offense.”
End zone play calling. After playing to the team’s strengths for much of the first six games, the Irish got burned playing aggressively out of their own end zone, with Golson stripped, sacked, and Stanford scoring its only touchdown. It was a rare blip in the radar for the Irish, and a head-scratching time to play aggressively, especially with Golson narrowly escaping harm the play before.
To his credit, Kelly addressed the situation in his post game comments and again yesterday, acknowledging that he’d maybe like those calls back. In a game like that one, giving away seven points nearly killed the Irish.
This section stays empty thanks to the Irish pulling out a victory on a day that had the makings of a very ugly one. Pounding rains. Difficult playing conditions. Far from alluring weather from a recruiting perspective. But a win cures all.