And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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There’s likely a new sense of urgency in The Gug this morning, with Notre Dame waking up on the outside looking in at the four teams currently slotted for the College Football Playoff. But with a short academic week and a very large game looming, it shouldn’t take the Irish long to focus their attention on the real problem at hand—a Stanford football team who’ll be playing for the Pac-12 championship.

Notre Dame has no argument for inclusion in the playoff if they don’t win on Saturday. And until they do that, it’s wise to leave the politicking to the talking heads and fans, with better play on the field after two slugging weeks saying more than any strength-of-schedule argument.

In a rivalry that’s ascended to national prominence (and now needs a clever nickname), Saturday evening’s game is one of a handful of key national showdowns that’ll likely impact the Playoff committee’s decision making. With a beat up Notre Dame team heading to Palo Alto on Thursday for what’s essentially a one-game playoff, I caught up with the Stanford Daily’s Do-Hyoung Park for an update on the Cardinal.

Do and I had a great Q&A this summer heading into preseason camp and he was kind enough to take some of his Thanksgiving break to bring his A-game here as well. Do is the Staff Development Editor for the Daily, their lead college football writer and has been a contributor at SI.com’s Campus Rush. He’s also a senior majoring in Chemical Engineering and studying computer science. (He also hails from St. Paul, so if you needed any more reason to like him, there you go.)

Hope you enjoy.

 

Stanford leads the Pac-12 North and will play for a conference championship, but their chances at the CFB Playoff seem very, very slim, even if they beat Notre Dame this weekend. What’s the mood surrounding the program and this game? Still important? Less so after the loss to Oregon?

These end-of-season games against Notre Dame are always weird; this is going to be the second time in three years that Stanford will already have the Pac-12 North locked away when it faces Notre Dame, and I remember the atmosphere of that game in 2013 being rather subdued because everybody knew that whatever happened in that game likely wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, with Stanford already effectively locked out of the BCS title game.

This year, though, I think things could be different. Yes, the Oregon loss took a lot of wind out of Stanford’s sails, but from a rankings standpoint, this is still the Cardinal’s biggest game of the season — and a rivalry game, no less — and given that Stanford should be borderline top-10 in this week’s CFP poll and we’ve seen a healthy amount of chaos over the last few weeks, Stanford fans aren’t saying die until those final rankings are released and the Cardinal aren’t in the final four.

I know lots of people on campus still believe that a two-loss Pac-12 champion has a healthy argument against a one-loss ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 champion, and a win over one of the strongest non-conference opponents in the nation would certainly help that case.

 

The Cardinal have done an amazing job rebounding from their season-opening loss to Northwestern, winning games at a rate similar to their great teams of recent years. But how they’re doing it is much different. The Cardinal aren’t playing great defense, outside of the Top 35 in scoring defense, total defense, and No. 74 in passing defense. Let’s keep the focus on this side of the ball: We knew there was major attrition. But where has Lance Anderson’s defense overachieved or under-delivered?

I’m not necessarily saying that Lance Anderson is a wizard, but all I’m saying is that we don’t have any conclusive proof that he’s not a wizard. Given the lack of depth and inexperience on this defense, there’s honestly no reason this defense shouldn’t be one of the worse defenses in the conference — but Anderson’s superb coaching makes up for that in spades.

The numbers might not necessarily be there, but the fact that Stanford didn’t slip into the bottom half of the conference in defense after losing so many starters is a testament to Anderson’s ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his players and adjust his scheme in that way. Shaw has said that he hates the term “bend but don’t break” to describe his defense, but that’s exactly what the Cardinal do — and they’re very, very good at it.

Anderson recognizes that his pass rush is a huge step down from those of years past and his corners might not necessarily be able to keep up with the top receivers of the Pac-12 every down, so he gives the receivers cushions and trusts his defensive backs to tackle in space — which is something they’re excellent at. That’s how you have games like Saturday’s against Cal, where Stanford lets Cal march down the field at will before buckling down in the red zone and holding the Bears to three field goals and a turnover on downs. That’s why the numbers get bloated, but make no mistake — this defense can get big stops when it matters most, which is impressive given the youth around the board.

 

Let’s talk about Christian McCaffrey. Outside of goal line carries, he is—quite literally—the engine of the Cardinal offense, averaging a ridiculous 30 combined touches a game. He’s the team’s leading rusher at 140 yards per game. He has 34 catches, seven more than the team’s leading receiver. And he returns punts and kicks. He’s rightfully a part of the Heisman conversation.

First, how have the teams that slowed McCaffrey down done it? And second, as I look for some type of negative on McCaffrey, is it maybe that his pitch count is too high because he’s that much more explosive than his teammates?

I’m not sure if I’m the right person to tell you how to slow down McCaffrey if some of the finest defensive coordinators in the nation haven’t been able to do that already. He isn’t an elite running back or an elite receiver, but it’s an unparalleled adaptability that really makes him dangerous — if you hold one element of his game in check, Stanford will burn you the other way.

I look at the Washington game as an example: The Huskies won the line of scrimmage and held McCaffrey to only 109 yards rushing, but Stanford accommodated that aggression up front by getting its stud sophomore involved in the passing game on screens and wheel routes out of the backfield — he finished that game as the team’s leading receiver with 112 yards. Or the Washington State game, where the Cougs overcommitted to McCaffrey and Hogan’s legs burned them on read-options. Or against Cal, where the Bears overcommitted and were burned on a reverse to Bryce Love (who is the most explosive player on this team — not McCaffrey).

As to his pitch count, Shaw and his teammates always rave about McCaffrey first and foremost as “a ball of energy” and a “kid that never gets tired” — among other things. I’m sure there’s fatigue that sets in, but if there is, he never shows it. In fact, he usually gets better after his first 20 or so touches. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

 

Kevin Hogan will be playing his final regular season game at a Stanford quarterback. He has played some good football and some not so good football. What do you expect from him this weekend, and how will his career be viewed when he’s gone?

There’s a strange dichotomy between Kevin Hogan’s career and his legacy that I’m not even sure Stanford fans really know how to balance. By the eye test and by all offensive metrics, it doesn’t look like he should have been a good quarterback. But when you look back at some of the things he’s accomplished, he might very well be the best quarterback in Stanford history — and that’s not an exaggeration.

You can call Hogan many things — a game manager, a mechanical mess — but the lone constant over his four years under center has been that he’s been a winner. No other quarterback in Stanford history has made it to two Rose Bowls, and none has ever had more wins wearing the cardinal and white than Kevin Hogan.

I think seeing those accolades and seeing Hogan’s career as a whole has really softened the hearts of Stanford fans that were calling for him to be benched a season ago and have made them a lot more appreciative of his talents: He’s deadly accurate, throws one of the best deep balls in the nation, has complete mastery of the most complex offense in the nation and was at the helm of this team’s rise to unprecedented heights. Stanford fans might not yet realize it, but his tenure has been one of the most special periods in Stanford history.

It’s strange to think that this Saturday will be the final time he takes the field at Stanford Stadium — he’s quite literally been the quarterback of my entire Stanford existence. He’s all I’ve ever known. But what I know is that whether he throws 10 times or 30, he’s going to be the accurate, clumsy-looking, poised, cool winner that he’s always been — and nobody in the stadium would have it any other way.

 

Game within the game: Stanford’s front seven vs. Notre Dame’s offensive line. The Cardinal are No. 28 as a rush defense, not quite as stout as they have been in the past, but still far from shabby. But they struggle to get after the passer, with most of the pass rush coming from linebackers Peter Kalambayi and Mike Tyler. Who do you think wins this matchup?

I hate to take the cop-out answer, but I’m going to call it a draw. Quite honestly, I’m not at all sold on Notre Dame’s running game — regardless of who’s carrying the ball out of the remnants of the Irish backfield. Stanford’s defensive line has been bad at getting pressure, but it’s been great at sliding off of blocks and meeting rushers at the line of scrimmage. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez is quite literally the best in the business at sniffing out run plays — he leads the conference in tackles despite not seeing the field much due to Stanford’s ball-control offense.

But in the passing game, the Irish offensive line will have a clear advantage. Those sack numbers are actually really misleading — Mike Tyler is a third-string outside linebacker and those sacks have mostly come in garbage time when Stanford is essentially running blitz drills while up three touchdowns. In meaningful passing downs, Stanford has had little to no success pressuring opposing quarterbacks with its linebackers, instead choosing to take its chances by dropping them into coverage a lot of the time. Unless Stanford’s defensive line manhandles Notre Dame’s big men, Kizer should have plenty of time in the pocket.

 

Last one from me: If Stanford wins, give me the two big keys to a Cardinal victory. Likewise, if Notre Dame wins, Stanford lost because it couldn’t do these two things.

If Stanford wins:

  • The Stanford offensive line controls the line of scrimmage, Christian McCaffrey runs for 140 yards, Kevin Hogan throws fewer than 15 times and Stanford holds the ball for over 35 minutes, keeping Notre Dame’s offense off the field for as long as possible.
  • Stanford is able to outmuscle Notre Dame on short-yardage downs. No team has been able to stop Stanford’s “ogre” package on third-and-short and goal-line situations this season, which has been a huge part of why short-yardage back Remound Wright has 23 goal-line touchdowns in the last two seasons and why Stanford is fifth in the nation in converting third downs (50 percent). If Notre Dame can’t stop Stanford in those situations, the Cardinal death machine will keep marching on.

If Notre Dame wins:

  • Stanford turns the ball over more than two times. I mentioned Stanford’s bend-but-don’t-break defense earlier, which puts an emphasis on limiting big plays over getting turnovers — Stanford is 10th in the Pac-12 with its -2 turnover margin. Stanford’s defense does a good job of holding opposing offenses to field goals instead of touchdowns, which is why Stanford can win games even when the defense has an off day. But if the opposing offense gets more opportunities, the bend-but-don’t-break gets closer to breaking. Two late turnovers made the difference against Oregon — Notre Dame is more than capable of taking advantage as well.
  • Kevin Hogan throws the ball more than 30 times. In Hogan’s 43 career starts, Stanford has only once won a game in which Hogan has thrown the ball more than 30 times. If Notre Dame can keep McCaffrey in check and force Stanford out of its comfort zone, Hogan working from the shotgun in clear passing situations is nothing special.

 

 

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees