And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

26 Comments

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.

 

 

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

UND.com -- Lighthouse Imaging
11 Comments

Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

Getty Images
15 Comments

Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

Getty Images
15 Comments

Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

Getty Images
33 Comments

It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?