The past few years you knew what you were going to get with Stanford’s defense. Coordinated by Derek Mason and passed along to Lance Anderson, the Cardinal built one of the most rugged front sevens in the country, capable of dominating at the point of attack in a multiple, 3-4 system.
The Cardinal were one of the toughest statistical defenses in the country, dominant at the point of attack and constantly near the top of the statistical heap in tackles for loss nationally. Since 2011, Stanford hasn’t finished out of the Top 30 in TFLs. In 2012, they led the country. In 2013 they were No. 5. Last season—even during an off year where they finished 8-5—the Cardinal were No. 17.
That dominance was expected to change in 2015. Gone were pillars like Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Henry Anderson and Chase Thomas. Nine new starters were being asked to fill holes by Nelson and head coach David Shaw.
But the Cardinal are doing it. They’re allowing just 22 points a game. They’re playing excellent run defense, holding opponents to just over 130 yards per game and slightly more than 4.1 yards per carry. But Stanford has also morphed from the team that consistently terrorized opponents behind the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal are a very ordinary No. 76 in the country when it comes to TFLs, with personnel no longer capable of dominating both on the edge and in the trenches.
So the Cardinal have adapted. They’ve patched holes, utilizing graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett at defensive end while calling on a reserve outside linebacker like Mike Tyler for a pass rush. As we saw last weekend against Cal, Stanford has been willing to concede yardage to eliminate the big play— something Notre Dame fans wish Brian VanGorder and company would consider.
Shaw talked about the evolution of his unit, in light of their performance against Cal. The Bears gained 495 yards last weekend, converted 10 of 18 third downs, dominated the time of possession battle and didn’t turn the football over yet still lost by two touchdowns.
Why? Because Stanford got tough in the red zone. Cal scored just one touchdown in five red zone attempts, with Stanford’s defense stiffening when it needed to do so. And while it went against everything in the Cardinal’s defensive DNA, Shaw talked about the changes made and how they helped Stanford win their rivalry game.
“I hate the phrase ‘bend but don’t break’ because it sounds very passive. We’re not a passive football team,” Shaw said on Sunday. “But we want to keep the ball in front of us and not give up the touchdown passes. By trying to keep the ball in front of us and get them to 3rd-and-6 in the red zone, get them to 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. And not give up the touchdown to make them check the ball down and make them kick field goals.”
With Notre Dame’s red zone offense spurting the past two weeks as DeShone Kizer‘s decision-making has gone sideways, the Irish’s big play offense will be facing a defense that’s now set up to not allow touchdowns. Can the Irish find the solution like they did against Pitt? Or will they implode like this did last weekend against the Eagles? That answer will likely dictate who goes home a winner.
Saturday’s battle in the trenches won’t be the uphill fight that it was the past four years. But Stanford’s schematic change feels like a tweak almost made because of, well—logic.
“It’s math,” Shaw offered. “If we can go down and score touchdowns and make them kick field goals, eventually, we’re going to win.”
Notre Dame’s Opponents and Playoff Competition: Results and Upcoming
Winning at Stanford would give Notre Dame its third win over a team in this week’s College Football Playoff selection committee top 25, with the Cardinal moving up one spot to No. 21 on Tuesday.
In Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mind, that résumé might yet warrant Playoff consideration.
“Our mission is still to hold out hope for one of the Playoff spots,” Kelly said Tuesday. “… It’s trying to prepare [his team] for one more game and finishing off the season on a high note.”
Kelly’s mission may be far-fetched, though he is certainly aware of as much. However, it is not yet beyond fathoming.
“If you’re in the top eight, you’re strongly considered,” Kelly said. “… The teams that are up there have all had one bad day, and we had one bad day, too.”
Remaining at No. 8, Notre Dame will need a few teams to have another bad day in the next two weekends. This past bland weekend left the top 12 largely unchanged, only Miami moving up to No. 2, knocking Clemson down to No. 3. A conspiracy theorist might think that set the groundwork for a tight Clemson victory in the ACC title game next weekend leading to both ACC finalists making the Playoff. With that in mind, make the first Irish-preferred domino a Miami victory in that game.
Kelly should also hope No. 6 Auburn beats No. 1 Alabama this weekend before losing to No. 7 Georgia next weekend. No. 5 Wisconsin topping No. 9 Ohio State next weekend in the Big Ten championship would likely aid Notre Dame’s cause, as would No. 12 TCU upsetting No. 4 Oklahoma in the Big 12 final.
That scenario would leave Georgia, Miami and Wisconsin as likely locks for the Playoff. The conversation around the fourth Playoff spot would revolve around a one-loss Alabama, a two-loss Clemson, a two-loss Oklahoma, a two-loss TCU and a two-loss Notre Dame.
Of course, that all only comes into consideration if the Irish beat Stanford this weekend.
Arguments could be made for each of those five possibilities. Spending time on those could quickly be time spent on fantasy if all five of those dominos do not fall perfectly.
In that case, it remains simple for Notre Dame. Beat the Cardinal and make a Playoff-eligible bowl, which one likely depending on if Miami makes the Playoff or not. If the Hurricanes are in the Playoff, then the Irish may be heading back to Miami Gardens and the Orange Bowl. If Miami lands at its home venue, than a Notre Dame victory this weekend should send Kelly to the Cotton Bowl.
An Irish loss in Palo Alto still sends them to Orlando in one form or another, be it the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28, 5:15 p.m.).
As a refresher of the Playoff contenders and their remaining slates:
1) Alabama: at No. 6 Auburn; with a victory in the Iron Bowl, then head to face No. 7 Georgia in the SEC championship.
2) Miami: at Pittsburgh, vs. No. 3 Clemson.
3) Clemson: at No. 24 South Carolina, vs. No. 2 Miami.
4) Oklahoma: vs. West Virginia; most likely vs. No. 12 TCU in the Big 12 title game, though the Horned Frogs have not secured that finish just yet.
5) Wisconsin: at Minnesota; vs. No. 9 Ohio State.
6) Auburn: vs. No. 1 Alabama; with a victory in the Iron Bowl, then head to face No. 7 Georgia in the SEC championship.
7) Georgia: at Georgia Tech; vs. the Iron Bowl victor.
8) Notre Dame: at No. 21 Stanford.
9) Ohio State: at Michigan; vs. No. 5 Wisconsin.
Notre Dame’s Opponents Temple (5-6): The Owls lost 45-19 to undefeated Central Florida. Temple now needs to beat Tulsa (4 p.m. ET; ESPN News) to secure bowl eligibility. The Owls are favored by three with a combined point total over/under of 59, indicating a 31-28 conclusion.
Georgia (10-1): The Bulldogs trounced Kentucky 42-13, cashing in on another efficient performance from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who finished 9-of-14 passing for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Georgia is favored by 11 against Georgia Tech (12 p.m. ET; ABC), an over/under of 51.5 pointing to a 31-20 result.
Boston College (6-5): The Eagles secured a 13th game to the season by beating Connecticut 39-16 in Fenway Park, even though they were without starting quarterback junior Anthony Brown. Freshman running back A.J. Dillon picked up the slack, taking 24 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Boston College now travels to Syracuse (12:20 p.m. ET; ACC Network) as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 56.5, roughly equaling a 30-27 score.
Michigan State (8-3): The Spartans moved up one spot to No. 16 in the CFP poll after beating Maryland 17-7. They can’t win the Big Ten, but they can win at Rutgers (4 p.m. ET; FOX), favored by nearly two touchdowns with a 26-13 decision sounding reasonable only if Michigan State comes out flat.
Miami (OH) (5-7): The RedHawks season ended Tuesday night with a 28-7 win at Ball State. Entering the year with seemingly-realistic aspirations of winning the MAC, missing out on a bowl game entirely makes for quite the disappointing season for former Irish assistant Chuck Martin.
North Carolina (3-8): The Tar Heels won their second straight, beating FCS-level Western Carolina 65-10. That win streak is likely to come to an end at North Carolina State (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) this weekend. The Wolfpack is a 16-point favorite with an over/under of 56. Quick math makes for a 36-20 Tar Heels loss.
USC (10-2): After a 28-23 victory over UCLA, the No. 11 Trojans can finally enjoy a week off, their first of the season, before the Pac 12 title game next Friday. They will face either Washington State or Stanford then, depending if the Cougars beat Washington this weekend.
North Carolina State (7-4): A 30-24 loss to Wake Forest is the first real letdown of a loss for the Wolfpack since the season opener, only otherwise dropping games to Notre Dame and Clemson.
Wake Forest (7-4): Head coach Dave Clawson can put the final cherry on top of a resoundingly-successful 2017 with a victory against Duke (12:30 p.m. ET; ACC Network). Bookmakers certainly expect as much from the Deacons, making them 12-point favorites with an over/under of 58, leading to a 35-23 projected score.
Miami (11-0): The Hurricanes overcame a slow start to top Virginia 44-28. Just shy of two-touchdown favorites for its trip to Pittsburgh on Friday (12:00 p.m. ET; ABC), Miami will be fine with a 33-19 victory.
Navy (6-4): The Midshipmen will look to rebound from their 24-17 defeat at Notre Dame by traveling to Houston on Friday (12 p.m. ET; ESPN). While it would be an upset, Navy just might win, only a 4.5-point underdog with an over/under of 55. That’s a theoretical 30-25 nod toward the Cougars.
Stanford (8-3): The Cardinal put the pressure on Washington State to keep it out of the Pac 12 title game by beating Cal 17-14. After starting 1-2, this has been a strong turnaround for David Shaw’s charges. As of this early Wednesday a.m. typing, Stanford welcomes Notre Dame as 2.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 57. Hypothetically, that points to the Irish prevailing 30-27.
It should be noted, that over/under ticked upward by two points after Shaw said star junior running back Bryce Love is “day-to-day” Tuesday.
Questions for the week: If without St. Brown, who will Notre Dame turn to?
Equanimeous St. Brown may not have matched his breakout sophomore season of a year ago, but his junior year has been nothing to scoff at. Despite being held without a catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday, primarily due to injury, the junior receiver stands second in all Irish receiving categories.
If St. Brown is not cleared from the concussion protocol by the end of the week, he will be missed at Stanford (8 p.m. ET; ABC).
How will Notre Dame adjust without its most consistent receiver?
St. Brown has 26 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season. Sophomore Chase Claypool exceeds the first two figures and sophomore Kevin Stepherson caught his third and fourth touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Those two are the obvious candidates to replace St. Brown’s production.
That applies to Stepherson more than Claypool, despite the greater physical disparity from St. Brown. Simply enough, Stepherson’s continued increase in prevalence in the Irish passing game would likely surpass a healthy St. Brown this weekend.
The other possibility is junior Miles Boykin. In St. Brown’s absence this past weekend, Boykin caught two passes for 33 yards. His physicality and skillset most mirrors St. Brown’s, and plugging him into any three-receiver sets would allow Stepherson and Claypool to stick to the roles they regularly rehearse.
Will Notre Dame slow Stanford star running back Bryce Love? Rather, will the Irish need to?
Continued ankle and lower leg injuries have hampered Love for much of the season now. They kept him on the sidelines when the Cardinal barely slipped past Oregon State a few weeks ago, and they limited his fourth quarter this past weekend during Stanford’s 17-14 victory against Cal. The junior finished with 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Backup Cameron Scarlett added 61 yards on 14 carries.
In the fourth quarter, Love took four carries for 11 total yards. For a running threat rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, it was startling to see him take one of those carries to the line and no further while another gained just one yard.
Thus, there seems to be some logic to Stanford keeping Love sidelined once more. If Washington beats Washington State on Saturday — played concurrently on FOX with the game at hand — then the Cardinal heads to the Pac-12 title game. As much as Stanford undoubtedly wants to beat Notre Dame, there are many more rewards available for winning the conference, such as a nice New Year’s holiday spent in Phoenix, Ariz., instead of a Christmas week spent at home preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.
Will there be any movement within the College Football Playoff poll?
When it comes to tonight’s poll, not much, if any, of note. Few games registered on the national radar last week, and none resulted in top-10 upsets.
One development affects it looking forward, though. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier underwent finger surgery Sunday and will not lead the Mountaineers against Oklahoma as a result (3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN). If West Virginia ever stood a chance at the upset — and greatly helping any Irish dreams of still reaching the Playoff — it was likely going to need an otherworldly performance from Grier.
With a win this weekend, the Sooners would all but assure themselves priority over Notre Dame, even if Oklahoma loses to TCU in the Big 12 championship.
Will Miami finish the regular season undefeated?
Similarly, a win this weekend should lock the Hurricanes ahead of the Irish no matter next week’s results. Miami heads to Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET on Friday; ABC), but that should not be seen as the sure thing instinct might imply it is. A mere 54 weeks ago, a middling Panthers team upset the No. 3 team in the country, stopping Clemson’s pursuit of a perfect slate.
Can Georgia survive Georgia Tech’s option?
Again, a Bulldogs win (12 p.m. ET, ABC) should secure them a nice spot in any chaos-filled future pecking order. However, that will not be an easy task. Paul Johnson will be sure of that.
Can North Carolina State hit the over?
This may not be as consequential, but before the season, this space predicted the Wolfpack would exceed 7.5 wins this regular season, and a win over North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) is needed for that cause.
Lastly, remember folks, you won’t nod off late Thursday afternoon because turkey has an excess of tryptophan. Chicken actually has more per ounce. Rather, you simply ate too much of the fowl.
Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame on the precipice of a rare three-year stretch
Thanks to its win Saturday over Navy, Notre Dame will have two chances to reach double digit victories this season. As Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed out after the 24-17 victory, reaching that mark for the second time in three years is not a common occurrence at Notre Dame. The last time the Irish achieved such success was at the peak of Lou Holtz’s career, never falling below 10 wins from 1988 to 1993.
“There’s a lot to play for, for these guys,” Kelly said. “[The seniors] have done an incredible job of leading us back to where we should be.”
If — and that two-letter word still looms large over this possibility — Notre Dame reaches 10 wins this season, it will actually be only the third time in program history to meet that mark twice in three seasons. Even though the Irish have played at least 11 games every season since 1969, only Holtz’s stretch and the 1973-74 seasons under Ara Parseghian qualify. (One exception: Notre Dame declined a bowl game in 1971 after finishing 8-2.)
While the 4-8 debacle in 2016 mitigates some of the luster of this distinction, realizing how infrequent such consistency is also underscores some of the outlier nature of last season.
Other coaches make inexplicable mistakes, too.
When the Midshipmen needed to gain five yards on their final drive, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo resorted to a halfback pass. To that point, his offense had converted four of five fourth-down attempts, falling barely a yard short on a fourth-and-five try on its first drive, stopped by Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini, naturally.
Since then, three consecutive conversions, including a 21-yard pass from quarterback Zach Abey. Yet, Niumatalolo opted for the trick play. It would have worked, too if Notre Dame senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti had not set the edge, recognized the play and quickly closed on running back Darryl Bonner, forcing the flutter of a pass attempt.
“If we would have gotten the ball off, he was open,” Niumatalolo said. “We didn’t block. We missed the block on the edge. If we get the block on the edge, we had a shot.”
Missed block or not, a triple-option team should not revert to a halfback pass when in a do-or-die situation. Ride with the horse that brought you. Win or lose with your fastball. Insert a third cliché here.
They are clichés for a reason.
Keven Stepherson points to the name on the back of the jersey.
Watching a replay of sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson’s first touchdown Saturday, a 30-yarder to tie the game at 17, one cannot help but notice he exuberantly points to the nameplate above his number.
In this instance, that was not a selfish or self-promotional gesture. The “Rockne Heritage” uniforms all had ROCKNE across the back.
“He’s had many chances to fold under the scrutiny that he’s been under,” Kelly said of Stepherson. “But he’s persevered and Notre Dame’s been great for him.”
Now, about traveling to Stanford …
The last time Notre Dame won at Palo Alto was a full decade ago, prevailing 21-14 in 2007.
With a loss to the Irish but perhaps a bowl win, the Cardinal should finish the season in the top 25. The last time Notre Dame went on the road and beat such a team was five full years ago, topping Oklahoma.
That can be a somewhat misleading fact, though. Those opportunities are not very common, partly because the Irish play only five true road games a season and partly because the opponent needs to be good enough to stay in the rankings despite a loss, an inherently detrimental result when it comes to rankings. Since Norman, Notre Dame has played only seven such games, including this year’s loss at Miami. (That does not include winning at Michigan State this year, as it is no sure thing the Spartans will finish the season ranked, whereas such can be readily presumed with the Hurricanes.)
Josh Adams now has more than 3,000 career rushing yards.
The numbers can speak for themselves. With 106 yards on 18 carries this weekend, the junior running back now has 3,105 career yards, good for No. 5 all-time at Notre Dame. Darius Walker (2004-06) sits 144 yards ahead of him.
Adams has 1,337 yards this season, exactly 100 fewer than the all-time Irish mark set by Vagas Ferguson in 1979.
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Defensive counter to Navy’s option helps Irish put Miami in past
Getting a team to heed the details necessary to counteract Navy’s triple-option attack is challenging enough. Getting Notre Dame to do it on the heels of its letdown at Miami a week ago made it even more difficult.
“The bigger shift this week was mentally get [the team] away from the Miami game to the Navy game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That was a bigger challenge this week [than preparing for the option], quite frankly.”
Finding that focus allowed Notre Dame to handle the Midshipmen 24-17 on Saturday, despite hardly possessing the ball, including only 6:24 of meaningful time in the second half. It may have been a victory by only seven points, but it was a return to the level of execution the Irish displayed all season long before heading to south Florida.
“If there’s one game we’d like to have back, and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team, for Miami,” Kelly said. “Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game and maybe lost a little bit of concentration.
“Other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I’m pretty pleased with our football team.”
To slow the triple-option, Kelly and defensive coordinator Mike Elko relied on a variety of looks from their defensive front, forcing Navy to make the adjustments the Midshipmen usually impose upon their opponents. In doing so, Notre Dame narrowed Navy’s offense from the triple-option to largely leaning on a quarterback sweep. Junior Zach Abey finished with 87 yards on 29 carries, not the efficiency the Midshipmen need for success.
“Our plan was really good about changing things up with our fronts and who had pitch, who had QB, and that made it difficult for them,” Kelly said. “… It really just became how the fullback was loading on our cornerback.”
That cornerback was often sophomore Troy Pride, usually a reserve. In order to better utilize sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s physicality, Kelly moved Love to safety and inserted Pride into the starting lineup. Along with a crucial fourth-quarter interception halting a Navy drive deep in Irish territory, Pride made six tackles.
“Troy Pride had to play physical for us,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy who was a wide cornerback [back-] pedaling most of his time here. Now he had to go mix it up. He played real well, real physical.”
Though he finished with 14 tackles, Love will remain at cornerback this season, but Kelly acknowledged he very well could be Notre Dame’s best safety.
“If we could clone him, I’d like to do that. … Could he be our best safety? Yes. He’s definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.”
On receiver injuries
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is in the concussion protocol after landing on his head/neck in the first quarter. Sophomore Chase Claypool could have returned to the game Saturday despite a banged up shoulder, but the Irish had found a rotation Kelly felt comfortable with at that point, leaning on sophomore Kevin Stepherson and junior Miles Boykin.
Claypool finished with two catches for 28 yards. Stepherson had five receptions for two scores and 103 yards. Boykin added 33 yards from two snags.