Pregame Six Pack: An epic season finale

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Breaking Bad. Mad Men. Game of Thrones. None of them had season finales with more on the line than Notre Dame on Saturday.

Walt White battled Gustavo Fring. Four houses met for a Red Wedding. And Don Draper survived Sterling Cooper (and himself) again and again.

But Brian Kelly’s team has a chance to finish a season for the ages. Because after a year of twists and turns, celebrations and disappointments, and key characters dropping like flies, Notre Dame has a chance to vanquish Stanford—one last noble foe—and wrap up a few lofty objectives in their final 60 minutes of football for the regular season.

Winning will be no easy task. And it’s the lone mission, one that’s largely been obscured by hours of debating playoff scenarios, none worthy of the oxygen consumed until the final cards are laid on the table.

Like any great theater, the hero is wounded. The Irish limp into Palo Alto, unimpressive winners the past two weeks. Missing KeiVarae Russell and most likely C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame will have to find a way to beat a Stanford team who once again is the class of the Pac-12, college football’s deepest conference.

So buckle up. Shake off the tryptophan. (It’s not a real excuse, anyway.)

It’s time for one final Pregame Six Pack, as we wait to find out the fate of the Irish after an incredible 2015 season.

 

Stopping Christian McCaffrey isn’t just another job. It might be stopping college football’s best player. 

Brian Kelly coined a new phrase this season during his Tuesday press conferences, deeming top players “game-wreckers.” We heard it with USC’s Adoree Jackson. Again with Pitt’s Tyler Boyd. But none are as lethal as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.

The Cardinals’ sophomore running back has been one of college football’s most impressive players. And he’s receiving the awards kudos to prove it—McCaffrey was a midseason All-American, and is in consideration for the Doak Walker, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Hornung Awards.

So while media types had the early focus on LSU’s Leonard Fournette, it’s McCaffrey who might be the best football player in the country. At least his head coach thinks so.

“Has anybody seen a running back, I’ll say this, a football player, better than Christian McCaffrey this year?” Shaw asked after last week’s effort against Cal. “Tell me. Show him to me. I haven’t seen anybody.

“We played a lot of night games, which we all talked about. So we had a lot of time to sit and watch football. I have not seen anybody in America like this kid. He’s truly, truly special. Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker, he got a couple nice blocks today. The kid’s just truly, truly special. And our guys know that and they take a lot of pride in blocking for him down the field because the guy makes special, special plays.”

McCaffrey enters the season finale with a ridiculous 2,807 all-purpose yards, capable of reaching 3,000 on the season, a number only eclipsed by Barry Sanders at the FBS level. He’s averaging 30 touches of the football a game, meaning Shaw has been feeding him the football at a level befitting his leading man status.

So for the Irish to win, Notre Dame’s defense needs to find a way to keep McCaffrey from making game-wreckin plays, something he’s done to teams just about every week.

 

Preventing big plays? That hinges on Notre Dame’s safety play. 

Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference featured a wonderful moment, as Kelly unleashed a wry smile that said so much more than any of the words he uttered during his roughly 40 minutes of media availability this week.

Asked by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson about the evils of 20+ yard runs allowed, Kelly could only smile when asked a question that both sides of the query knew was pretty straight forward.

“I’d like to give you an easy answer,” Kelly said. “But when you give up big plays, you need second-level and third-level support. I think our first-level defense has been really, really good. Our second-level defense has been solid. And our third level has not been as good.”

The easy answer, of course, would’ve been driving a steamroller over safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. The duo has been a weak link from a consistency point of view, with Redfield’s woes particularly striking at key moments throughout the year, including last week on Boston College’s 80-yard touchdown score.

There’s precious little depth at the position, especially after injuries to Drue Tranquill, Avery Sebastian and Shaun Crawford. And with Matthias Farley needed as a cornerback this week after the loss of KeiVarae Russell, it’ll be up to Redfield and Shumate to be the type of third-level support that’ll contain the one-man wrecking crew that McCaffrey has been to opposing defenses.

 

His approval rating my not be the highest among Irish fans, but Brian VanGorder has a fan in Stanford’s David Shaw. 

Notre Dame’s defensive struggles have been mostly pinned on the scheme of Brian VanGorder. The Irish’s second-year defensive coordinator has installed an NFL scheme in South Bend, but that’s come with some head-scratching lapses by the personnel asked to execute the game plans.

But for all the gripes about VanGorder, it’s worth remembering the battle between Notre Dame and Stanford from last season. Namely, VanGorder’s excellent game plan shutting down the Cardinal offense.

In the Irish’s thrilling 17-14 win, Stanford gained only 205 yards of total offense. They ran for just 47 net yards on 32 carries. The Irish forced eight punts with Stanford gaining only 14 first downs as the Irish sacked Kevin Hogan four times among seven TFLs that rainy October day.

“I think they’ve got an outstanding defensive coordinator,” Shaw said in his postgame comments last October. “He mixes it up, a lot of pressure. We picked up not as many as we’d like, our quarterback got hit a lot today. Give them a lot of credit for their scheme.  

“We flat out missed some things and some things our guys just got beat.  It was a great mix.  There were a couple of plays that were there to make but we just didn’t make them.  I think the counting for the guys they lost, they did an outstanding scheme on the defensive side, and their guys played hard.  They played fast.  And you can tell they’re very well coached because they’re running full speed where they’re supposed to be.”

Notre Dame’s starting defense that day featured Shumate, Redfield and Cole Luke in the secondary. Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith at linebacker. Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara along the defensive line. That’s essentially the same personnel that’ll take the field on Saturday.

Can they do it again? VanGorder’s scheme isn’t as mysterious after 24 games of tape. But that game provided a really solid datapoint to believe this defense can carry the day, even if it’s struggled to do so this season.

 

Stanford’s defensive front has an unlikely anchor: Cal graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett. 

After what feels like a decade of having homegrown monsters wreaking havoc along the defensive line, Stanford had to go to college football’s waiver wire to find its standout for 2015.

Defensive end Brennan Scarlett is Stanford’s most consistent defensive lineman. It’s a string of good football for a player whose four-year career at Cal was ruined by injuries. Scarlett earned his degree at Stanford’s bitter rival, then made one of the more unlikely transfers, heading across the bay to play with his brother in Palo Alto.

Scarlett leads Stanford in snaps played along the defensive line and graded out as their best defensive lineman against Cal in their rivalry game victory. Shaw talked about how important the fifth-year transfer has been for the Cardinal this season.

“I’m really happy for Brennan Scarlett coming over from Cal, a lot of respect from those guys,” Shaw said after beating the Bears. “It was not a contentious thing. It was very understandable why he came across, no disrespect to Cal… The guys wanted to win this one for him, because we didn’t know where we would be right now on this football team without Brennan Scarlett.”

Scarlett’s upside was one of the reasons why Notre Dame was rumored to have been pursuing Scarlett as a potential graduate transfer. (They landed his Cal teammate Avery Sebastian.) But the Portland native joined his younger brother Cameron in Palo Alto, and now will be a key piece to Stanford’s front that’ll try to slow the Irish offense.

 

A Stanford team usually built around power now has its share of game-breaking speed. 

David Shaw built upon Jim Harbaugh’s blueprint to design an unlikely bully in the Pac-12. But after standing out as a power unit in a conference filled with team speed, Stanford has gotten in on the act as well, recruiting some players with home run potential.

McCaffrey stands out among great runners of Stanford past. While Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney were all incredibly prolific, none had 10.8 100-meter speed. But McCaffrey wouldn’t anchor the Cardinals’ 4×100 relay team.

Freshman Bryce Love provides game-breaking speed. He’s been a track star since he won USA Track and Field Athlete of the Year as a 12-year-old. Sophomore receiver Isaiah Brandt-Sims is the fastest man on the roster for the Cardinal. While it hasn’t translated to much playing time, Brandt-Sims has clocked a 10.5 100m—placing him among the best sprinters in the Pac-12.

Leading receiver Michael Rector has track speed as well. He couldn’t beat Brandt-Sims as a high schooler in Washington, but he’s run a 10.8—speed comparable to C.J. Prosise and Chris Brown in high school.

Stanford’s offensive attack may be carried on McCaffrey’s shoulders, but Shaw has deep threat options if the Irish commit too many resources to stopping the running back. And with cornerbacks Devin Butler, Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman seeing significant playing time for the first time this season, expect Shaw to take a couple of deep shots.

 

For the Irish to win, they’ll need DeShone Kizer to outplay Kevin Hogan. 

Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan will be playing his final game in Stanford Stadium. The fifth-year senior is a four-year starter, an improbable quarterback to be at the top of the record books in a program that features greats like Andrew Luck and John Elway.

It’s well-known that Hogan dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel wrote earlier this week about family road trips to South Bend, with a young Hogan wearing a Joe Montana or Brady Quinn jersey.

Hogan has played both good football and bad in his time on The Farm. Some of the bad came during last season, when the veteran quarterback was playing with a heavy heart as his father fought and eventually lost his battle with cancer. (Thamel’s story covers these heartbreaking events.)

It’ll be an emotional night in Stanford Stadium for Hogan, who’ll say goodbye to his home of the last five years. And if the Irish want to pull out a win, they’ll need to spoil the evening for the former Irish fan.

Doing so will require great play by not just the Notre Dame defense, but from young quarterback DeShone Kizer. coming off a game where he finally looked and played like a freshman, Kizer will need to show he’s rebuilt his confidence after stumbling badly against Boston College, his accuracy and decision making shot after early-game struggles.

Kizer will be asked to carry the game in ways Hogan has only had to do at times. Mainly as a runner. Kizer has already been Notre Dame’s short yardage weapon, but without Prosise, he’ll likely carry a larger load, taking the burden off freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Wiliams.

But Hogan’s feet will be a factor on Saturday as well. With the Irish defense susceptible to quarterback scrambles, Hogan can be a key weapon as a runner for the Cardinal. He had a combined 25 carries in Stanford’s two closest games, capable of moving the chains—and more—if teams key on McCaffrey.

Red Zone success will be critical. With Hogan at the helm, Stanford is No. 31 in the country converting touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. Notre Dame is 77th. Stanford has the better red zone defense as well, with the Cardinal at No. 19 at preventing touchdowns and the Irish 82nd. (Oddly, the Irish dominate this stat when you consider scoring percentage, though most view touchdown conversion as the better measurement of success.)

Hogan’s career is coming to an end. Kizer’s is just beginning. On Saturday, both quarterbacks will be key in determining victory.

 

Irish land blue-chip OL Aaron Banks

aaron-banks
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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Notre Dame received the commitment of 4-star offensive tackle Aaron Banks on Friday afternoon. Picking the Irish over a national offer list that included Michigan, Tennessee, and local programs USC and UCLA, the 6-foot-7, 335-pound Banks reminded all that even if the Irish only won four games this season, Harry Hiestand is still one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country.

Banks made the commitment from a ceremony at his high school in El Cerrito, California. And when he picked the Irish, he added to Notre Dame’s impressive offensive line haul, joining Dillan Gibbons, Joshua Lugg and Robert Hainsey — a key piece of the puzzle moving forward.

Banks is a consensus 4-star recruit and a Top 200 prospect. He took an official visit to Michigan in November, but has been a long-time target of Hiestand’s, visiting South Bend in September and welcoming Brian Kelly and Hiestand into his home after the USC game.

As a big recruiting weekend gets started at Notre Dame, the annual Echoes Awards will serve as the beginning of an important home stretch for a program without a bowl game. As Kelly still looks to lock in a defensive coordinator, not to mention other staff changes still in the air, Banks takes back some of the lost momentum, a key commitment heading into a holiday dead period before a furious finish leading into the first Wednesday in February.

Banks is No. 18 in the Irish recruiting class. He’s an early-enrollee, ready to hit campus within weeks and compete on the interior of the offensive line during spring ball.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”