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.

 

 

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)