Everett Golson, Amir Carlisle

Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with Stanford

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It wasn’t long ago that a game with Stanford was a Saturday you might skip. On a schedule loaded with rivals, it was hard to consider the Cardinal one of them. But in a matchup that’s only missed two seasons since 1988, the battle between the two programs has taken flight, mostly thanks to the advancement of the football program in Palo Alto.

From 2002 to 2008, the Irish won seven straight games against Stanford, a streak maintained by Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis over Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, until Jim Harbaugh started his restoration in 2007 . But since the Cardinal beat Notre Dame in 2009, they’ve hardly given back the momentum, with Notre Dame’s 2012 overtime victory the lone victory Brian Kelly has over a program that’s averaging 11.5 wins per season since 2010.

My how this rivalry has changed. On a big college football weekend, there’s likely no better indicator of interest in a game than the secondary ticket market. According to TicketCity.com, Saturday’s game in South Bend continues to be one of the most in-demand seats in college football, running just about even with Alabama-Ole Miss and ahead of the SEC showdown between LSU and Auburn. Quite a change from the Brain Bowl that sometimes took place to the appreciation of precious few.

With Everett Golson set to face off against college football’s best defense and David Shaw’s team looking to resume its climb into the Top 10, Saturday afternoon presents another chapter in a rivalry that’s only getting better with age.

Let’s take a look at the Pregame Six Pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame takes on Stanford at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC or online via Liva Extra.

 

When Notre Dame’s offense meets Stanford’s defense, something’s going to give. 

Everett Golson and the Notre Dame offense have opened the season scoring at least 30 points in four-straight games for the first time since 1943. Stanford’s defense hasn’t given up 30 points in their last 27 games. Something’s got to give.

Even after replacing a significant portion of their defense, the Cardinal are playing perhaps the best defense of the Harbaugh-Shaw era in 2014. And if Notre Dame is able to keep alive their 30-point streak or even break the 20 point threshold, they’ll be doing better than most. Stanford has held opponents to 20 points or fewer in 25 of their last 30 games.

The 2014 edition of Stanford’s defense has given up 26 points… this season. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that this team has allowed just four play of 20 yards or longer.

On Tuesday, Brian Kelly talked about the need to create big plays and how it’ll be a key on Saturday afternoon.

“We won’t win if we don’t get big chunk plays,” Kelly said. “We are not going to go five, seven, ten yards and score enough points to win. We’ll have to find our chances. We’ll have to create opportunities and we’ll have to make some plays down the field, there’s no question.”

 

Stanford’s going to need to be prepared for Brian VanGorder’s defense, too. 

Of course, both teams’ offenses are in for a challenge. That means Stanford’s offense is going to need to create some scoring opportunities against the Irish defense, no easy feat through four games this September.

While the Cardinal will present the biggest challenges for Brian VanGorder’s defense with their power running attack, VanGorder’s exotic schemes remind Shaw of his days coaching on Sundays.

“As soon as I put the film on it was like being back in the NFL,” Shaw said. “The variety of blitzes, the variety of fronts. They know how to attack your protections and get after your quarterback. They’ve got good personnel, they’ve got good pass rushers. They’re good against the run.

“You walk into the game and it’s just like playing against Vic Fangio or Rex Ryan or all those guys that everybody on the defense is a viable blitzer. So they need to be accounted for and they’re going to give you a bunch of different looks. Thankfully in our history we’ve played against guys like this, and it’s an impressive group to watch.”

Those blitzes will challenge Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan, an experienced veteran who maybe hasn’t seen his game progress as much as Stanford fans have hoped. But Shaw’s offense depends on success on first and second down, not allowing VanGorder’s third down packages to put pressure on Hogan and the game on his shoulders.

 

Another big game, another big recruiting weekend. 

Just like when Notre Dame hosted Michigan, the Irish expect a full house of recruits on hand when they battle Stanford. And with a handful of recruits considering both programs, walking away Saturday with a victory on the field could be important come Signing Day as well.

Notre Dame will host top West Coast prospects Equanimeous St. Brown and Frank Buncom this weekend, with the Irish long in the hunt for St. Brown, the lanky receiver from Orange County. An elite prospect, the Servite product is the type of athlete that could play right away, even with Notre Dame’s impressive depth chart.

The fact that Buncom has decided to visit means the San Diego native is taking his recent offer from Notre Dame seriously. An early target for the Irish at safety, Buncom seemed to be the odd man out when Nicco Fertitta and Prentice McKinney committed early. But whether it was the injury to Nicky Baratti or the need to fill out the depth chart at safety with some position switches, Buncom is a perfect profile prospect who also is well respected as a Top 100-type athlete.

The Irish coaching staff will also do their best to swing two prospects committed elsewhere. Safety Calvin Brewton is a Florida State commit who is giving Notre Dame a sincere look. Defensive end Mekhi Brown is an Alabama commitment who might see a wide open depth chart in South Bend if he chooses to walk away from Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.

A handful of current commitments will be on campus as well, with some taking official and unofficial visits. Notre Dame’s staff will also entertain a large group of 2016 prospects, hoping to find that first commitment of the next recruiting cycle.

There are precious few openings left in the 2015 recruiting class. But Notre Dame is still chasing after some difference-making talent, and a few of those players will be on campus this weekend.

 

If you’re looking for a true litmus test to measure Everett Golson’s progress, Stanford’s defense is it. 

We rewatched Golson’s last game against Stanford and gave some thoughts here. But against Derek Mason’s attacking, multiple defense in 2012, Golson struggled mightily, turning the ball over three times and giving Stanford their only touchdown before leaving the game late in the fourth quarter with a head injury.

But asked what he saw in Golson’s game this year as opposed to when he faced Stanford last, Shaw was candid.

“Watching him, it’s the difference of confidence. I think he was really good two years ago,” Shaw said of Golson. “He was very athletic, very accurate, hard to catch and pin down in the backfield. This year, it’s the same, but he almost just seems more composed, where as before it seemed a little frantic. Now he knows you can’t catch him.”

That composure needs to return a week after Golson was sloppy with the football. Kelly revealed that Golson almost didn’t want the FBS Independent Offensive Player of the Week award he earned for his performance against Stanford, feeling like his turnovers and mistakes almost disqualified his 25-consecutive completions. But a victory against the Cardinal will almost certainly earn Golson some well-deserved kudos.

 

In a game that will likely be a close one, converting red zone opportunities will be crucial. And right now, Notre Dame’s doing a much better job of that. 

Few statistics mean more to scoring output than red zone efficiency. And you’d be hard pressed to find a stat that separates Notre Dame and Stanford more than their red zone offense.

Right now, 108 teams sit between Notre Dame and Stanford in red zone efficiency. That’s because the Irish sit at 13th in the country after converting 17 of their 18 attempts for points while the Cardinal rank 121st, cashing in just 12 of 19.

Those struggles cost Stanford a victory against USC, with the Cardinal getting inside the Trojans 32-yard line on all nine of their drives, but only converting those opportunities into 10 points.

“The most frustrating part is that it’s just not one thing. It would be great if there was one thing that we had to change,” Shaw said. “What’s hurt us are turnovers and penalties and missed field goals have crushed us in the red zone. That’s why it’s frustrating. It’s not just one thing.”

According to Shaw, the elements of an efficient red zone offense is the ability to run the ball efficiently and having an athletic quarterback. Stanford has both of those things. But add kicker Jordan Williamson’s slow start to the mix — he’s missed as many kicks (four) through four games as he did all last season, and this could be a huge factor on Saturday afternoon.

 

NFL sons, book club founders, and Snapchat’s Picasso. Notre Dame and Stanford are all about what’s right in college football. 

There hasn’t been a week go by without some negative news taking over the football world. With Roger Goodell thanking Michigan’s Brady Hoke and Dave Brandon for the tag off, it’s been a rough month for the greatest team sport in the world.

But Saturday afternoon matches two great football programs, both representing elite academic institutions. And it’s worth taking note of the student-athletes that’ll be on the field Saturday afternoon.

While Saturday’s sidelines at Notre Dame have started to need velvet ropes for famous fathers, Stanford’s family section might give them a run for their money. The fathers of three Stanford running backs Barry Sanders Jr. (Barry Sr.), Christian McCaffery (Ed) and Ricky Seale (Sam) have nearly 25,000 yards of total offense and a dozen interceptions between them.

The fathers of Joshua Garnett, Andrus Peat, A.T. Hall, Kevin Reihner, Kodi Whitfield and Alex Carter all played in the NFL as well, with Carter’s father Tom picked in the first round out of Notre Dame.

Famous dads aren’t the only thing that separate the Cardinal student-athletes. Receivers Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector spent the summer doing stem cell research. Cornerback Wayne Lyons started a Virtual Book Club. Backup long snapper Austin Tubbs has built a reputation as Snapchat’s Picasso.

We do our best here to celebrate the achievements of Notre Dame’s student-athletes off the field, not just focusing on the wins and losses on it. Stanford has managed to go 49-10 since 2010, behind just Oregon and Alabama for wins in that time period. Notre Dame’s a not-too-shabby 41-15, making this the most competitive game of the weekend.

But putting the wins aside, consider this your reminder that these kids are doing impressive off the field as well.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”