Five things we learned: Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20

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STANFORD, Calif. — Like many Notre Dame losses, you can look at the Irish’s 27-20 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Stanford in a variety of ways. The pragmatist sees a beaten Irish squad hang with one of college football’s most physical teams while ravaged by injuries. The optimist sees a young stable of talent that’ll be much better for the opportunity. But the realist can’t help but see a team defined by these 60 minutes — heart, effort and character usurped by back-breaking mistakes and missed opportunities.

As Notre Dame falls to 8-4, Brian Kelly made it clear that as important as it is to see the silver lining, the life of a football coach isn’t defined by anything but the bottom line.

“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said after the loss. “I’m very disappointed that we weren’t able to come up with a play and win the football game. We didn’t come down here to play a close game.”

That the Irish did play a close one says a bunch about this team. Unfortunately, that they still ended up losing says just as much.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during the Irish’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.

***

With a beat up defensive front, Tyler Gaffney and the Stanford ground game was just too much to handle. 

With Louis Nix watching from in front of his computer, Stanford decided to put the game in the hands of its power running game, challenging the Irish’s beat-up defensive front to hang with the Cardinal’s impressive offensive line. 

Ultimately, the Irish couldn’t do it. Stanford ran for 261 yards on the ground, powered by senior running back Tyler Gaffney, who carried the ball 33 times for 189 yards and a touchdown.

After the Irish held strong for most of the second half, Gaffney iced the victory was an impressive final carry, dragging along a handful of Irish defenders for a hard-earned first down.

“This one was pretty special,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of Gaffney’s performance. “When we get a lead, we get into the fourth quarter, they know what’s coming, we know what’s coming. That last run might have been his best run ever. There wasn’t a big hole. He squeaked through it. There was a guy after the hole. He took that guy for a ride.”

There were a lot of positives in the way the Irish defensive front battled for much of the second half, keeping the Irish in the game by keeping the Cardinal out of the end zone, but ultimately the Cardinal’s 51 carries at over five yards a crack was just too much.

***

With the game there to be tied, senior quarterback Tommy Rees just couldn’t get it done. 

With Notre Dame miraculously down just seven points in the fourth quarter, the Irish had two drives to try and tie the football game. Both ended in Tommy Rees interceptions.

The senior quarterback did a lot of good things against a Stanford defense that’s one of the toughest against passers in the country, but when it came down to crunch time, the Irish quarterback threw two critical interceptions that killed the Irish’s chances for winning a close game.

“Our offense kept us in it,” Kelly said. “We just needed to make another play. We had an opportunity. We just couldn’t get the ball to Will (Fuller) when we needed to.”

The interception that Rees threw to Fuller will likely go down as the quintessential Rees interception, a severely under-thrown deep ball that Rees just couldn’t physically get enough on.

The interceptions will keep Irish fans from seeing a solid football game Rees had played until then. In a game where the Irish offense put a ton on the quarterback’s shoulders, Rees played before the snap as well as he ever has.

“Tommy did a great job with double checking, checking,” Kelly said. “There were some things going on out there. I thought he was masterful in a lot of things that he did today. He had them on their heels at times and he got us in some really good looks.”

On a night where Rees passed Jimmy Clausen in the Notre Dame record books for career touchdown passes, the veteran showed that while he couldn’t necessarily do all that was asked of him, he certainly would go down trying.

“I just love the way the kid competes out there,” Kelly said. “As a coach, what you appreciate is when somebody gives you all he has. He threw that ball as far as he could throw it to Will Fuller. Can’t get it any further than that. That’s just Tommy. He gives you everything he has.”

***

On a big stage, DaVaris Daniels put together an impressive football game. But he also showed how much work he still has to do. 

The Irish will say goodbye to veteran wide receiver TJ Jones after the bowl game, with the senior catching six balls for 56 yards and a touchdown against a stingy Stanford secondary. But playing against an elite defense and an excellent secondary, DaVaris Daniels showed that he has the goods to be next year’s No. 1 wide receiver, and potentially give even more to the Irish offense than Jones.

Daniels caught five balls for 79 yards and a touchdown, getting behind the Cardinal secondary for an impressive touchdown that reminds you just how talented the Chicago native can be. But for as tantalizing as Daniels’ skills appear, it’s also clear that the veteran receiver needs to advance his football game in the offseason.

“He does some really, really good things,” Kelly said. “He’s coming. I mean there’s a lot of good things out there for him. He does a really nice job. He’s just got to continue running his routes, and every single play is where his focus needs to be. That’s the next level for him, it’s that consistency.”

That consistency was demonstrated by TJ Jones this season, with the senior elevating his game from complementary piece of the offense to leading man. As Daniels heads into bowl practice and the offseason, he’ll need to reacquaint himself with quarterback Everett Golson, and take his game from sometimes to always, especially if the Irish want to build around some very talented offensive playmakers.

***

With the loss of Chris Watt, the Notre Dame offensive line just keeps getting younger and younger. 

Listening to Brian Kelly after the game, you got the feeling that whatever fell senior left guard Chris Watt, it was something far more serious than aggravating a PCL tear that Watt was playing through.

Watt’s loss is a serious one, pushing both Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer into the starting lineup. After starting the season with four upperclassmen along the offensive line, the Irish will now start ironman Zack Martin next to four first-year contributors. Yet they weren’t overwhelmed by the moment, a stark difference from the last time Notre Dame visited Stanford.

“They gave us a chance to win,” Kelly said of his beat-up offensive line. “They battled and held their own. It could have been ugly.”

The Irish struggled to carve out a run game, gaining just 64 yards on 24 attempts. But Tarean Folston gave some life to the Irish run game, picking up momentum in the second half while running for 50 yards on 14 carries. Probably more important than that was the excellent protection they gave Rees, giving up just one sack and holding national sack leader Trent Murphy to just two tackles.

“I’m very proud of our young guys,” senior captain Zack Martin said after the game. “When you’re out there in the third and fourth quarter, we have four guys who never started this season, on the road against an opponent this this, it speaks volumes to the way we prepare.”

The experience Elmer, Hanratty, Ronnie Stanley and Matt Hegarty gained late this season will serve the Irish well next season.

***

Notre Dame may not have won on Saturday night. But they finish the season a better team than they began.

Brian Kelly and his players refuted the idea of moral victories so often Saturday night after the game that you would be wise to believe them. Yet it’s hard not to tip your cap at the effort the undermanned Irish played with against a Stanford team that just couldn’t shake Notre Dame.

Senior linebacker Dan Fox made 15 tackles, elevating his play to levels unseen these past two weeks. After being bounced from the starting lineup early this season, Fox has carried the Irish defense through November.

“I really can’t wait to watch him play one more game,” Kelly said of Fox’s efforts. “Because he’s playing good football.”

Fox wasn’t alone leaving it on the field. Austin Collinsworth had another interception, making 11 tackles while playing just about the entire game with a safety position short Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate. Collinsworth isn’t Zeke Motta or Harrison Smith, but he played as well as you could ask on Saturday night.

Kona Schwenke played with an ankle that was heavily wrapped. Ishaq Williams returned even with a knee injury that robbed him of a month. And even with Stanford keying on Stephon Tuitt, the junior was a bear for the Cardinal to handle.

“Stephon Tuitt is one of the three top defensive linemen in the nation. He’s phenomenal,” Shaw said, before paying Louis Nix the ultimate compliment. “The best defensive lineman in the nation didn’t play tonight.”

There’s a maxim about horseshoes and hand grenades here somewhere, but not all 8-4 regular seasons are created equal. And as you watched the wounded Irish team walk towards the team bus, you saw a lot of guys that have had injuries rob them of a full season.

“Obviously you’re never happy at 8-4,” Martin said after the game. “We’re disappointed with the season. But, you know, we got the right guys here and the right guys that bought into Coach Kelly’s system. As long as they do that, they’ll be fine.”

If you’re looking for a measure of this team, perhaps Kelly gave his most candid evaluation in some of his closing comments.

“We’re better in November than we are in September,” Kelly said. “I’d like to take this team and look at it where were you in September compared to where you were in November and we’re a better football team.”

When asked what that means, Kelly was perfectly diffusive.

“I guess I’ve got to find a way to get better in September.”  

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.