Conrad Ukropina

Five things we learned: Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36

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PALO ALTO, Calif. — Notre Dame’s magical season came to a heart-breaking conclusion on a chilly night in Northern California. Stanford kicker Conrad Ukropina kicked the Irish out of the College Football Playoff race with a game-winning 45-yarder as time ran out, propelling the Cardinal to an epic 38-36 win.

Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer very nearly was the hero. The sophomore marched the Irish on a clutch drive, converting an incredible 3rd-and-10 as he hit Corey Robinson as a Stanford blitzer arrived unblocked. Then Kizer calmly converted a fourth down before running for the game’s go-ahead score with 30 seconds left.

But Notre Dame’s balky defense couldn’t keep Stanford from scoring, committing a facemasking penalty before giving up a 27-yard completion to Devon Cajuste, enough to put a game-winning kick into range.

“There are no moral victories,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I’m disappointed in losing the football game, but I’m proud of our football team and the way they competed, the way they kept playing for four quarters and just came up a little bit short.”

With Oklahoma throttling in-state rivals Oklahoma State in the bedlam series, a win might not have been enough. But that’s no consolation for a Notre Dame team that shut down Christian McCaffrey, ran for 299 yards of its own and very nearly pulled off the victory short two more key starters.

With the Irish season hinging on two plays not made, Notre Dame takes the redeye back to South Bend wondered what could’ve been. Let’s find out what we learned during an unforgettable season finale.

 

Notre Dame’s achilles heel was exposed once more on Saturday night, done in by their secondary play. 

Christian McCaffrey wasn’t the problem. Devon Cajuste was.

The Irish defense kept Stanford’s Heisman Trophy candidate bottled up, holding him to just 3.5 yards per carry and neutralized in the return game as they kicked the football to the ever-dangerous all-purpose weapon and stopped him every time.

But Notre Dame’s secondary couldn’t contain Cajuste, the 6-foot-4 senior catching five passes for 125 yards. None more clutch than the 27-yarder that put Stanford in position to kick the game-winner.

Cajuste may have entered the game with just 20 catches, but he proved to be the difference against Notre Dame’s secondary. Early in the game, Cajuste boxed out Cole Luke on a fade route for a touchdown. He drew a (very questionable) pass interference call on Devin Butler. And he found his way into the soft middle of the Irish’s late-game zone defense on a seam-route not soon forgotten in this growing rivalry.

Without KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame called on the little-used Butler to step into the starting lineup. Butler held his own for the most part, the rest of the Irish secondary struggling as Kevin Hogan completed 17 of his 21 throws for 269 yards and four touchdown passes.

Elijah Shumate was caught with his eyes in the backfield, beaten early for a touchdown. A year after he made two interceptions against Stanford, Cole Luke struggled in one-on-one coverage. And while Max Redfield made 10 tackles, he tripped up Jaylon Smith as he ran with Stanford’s Austin Hooper, allowing the Cardinal tight end to convert another red zone score.

The secondary’s liabilities were on display especially on third down, the Cardinal converting their first five and finishing the day eight of 12. And even after tightening up and getting into the rhythm throughout the second half of the game, the regular season’s final series exposed what we had seen all year—struggles to play schematically sound football while trying to defend the pass.

 

Even in defeat, DeShone Kizer played the type of clutch football that should have Irish fans very excited about the future. 

A week after his worst game as a college football player, DeShone Kizer did everything needed to go home a hero. Kizer ran for 128 yards, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds to go. He threw for 234 yards, 73 of which came on the prettiest deep ball you’ll ever want to see when he hit Will Fuller in perfect stride.

With the game on the line, Kizer delivered a 15-play, 88-yard touchdown. It was the latest example of Kizer playing his best when the game demanded it. While he may have missed some opportunities near the goal line or in reading Stanford’s pre-snap defense, he looked like a fearless leader, not a kid who was a third-stringer in May.

“I think he handled himself like a fifth-year senior, and he’s just a freshman,” Kelly said after the game. “So if there’s a bright spot there, the way DeShone Kizer played was pretty bright.”

With the playoff conversation finished, it might be time to look past Notre Dame’s bowl game and toward the spring. That’s when Kizer will be rejoined by Malik Zaire, with that duo and Brandon Wimbush the best depth chart we’ve seen in a very long time.

“I’m sitting on a pretty good situation with the quarterbacks that we have coming back,” Kelly said postgame. “If I don’t screw them up we should be okay.”

Kelly spent last spring trying to find a way to keep his two frontrunners for the starting job happy, only to watch Everett Golson leave after playing better football than Zaire during spring’s 15 practices. He’ll take that knowledge—and a much more cohesive position group—into the spring, likely learning from that competition as he determines how to move the Irish offense forward in 2016.

 

Notre Dame’s inability to convert touchdowns in the red zone came back to bite the Irish. 

Notre Dame’s offense had no problem moving the football. But when it got into the scoring areas, things bogged down, costing the Irish dearly.

The Irish dominated the game on the ground, with Josh Adams setting a freshman record by rushing for 168 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown. But the Irish couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone, struggles on third down putting Justin Yoon on the field three times in the game’s first 35 minutes.

Missed opportunities were the name of the game. Kizer had running room on a 2nd-and-8 in the red zone that could’ve gone the distance. But Adams was stuffed on 3rd-and-3 and Nick Martin’s snap infraction on 4th-and-1 put Yoon onto the field to kick the chip shot. Likewise, Amir Carlisle couldn’t reel in a crossing pattern that would’ve likely put up seven points. Instead, Yoon kicked his third field goal of the evening.

“We had a number of opportunities in the red zone that we could have converted into touchdowns that we had to settle for field goals,” Kelly acknowledged after the game.

Those missed opportunities loomed large, especially in a game decided on the final play.

 

Notre Dame emptied the tank to try and pull out a victory, making the near-miss all the more painful. 

Jaylon Smith was covering kickoffs. Freshman C.J. Sanders took a kickoff to the house. The Irish got big plays from Greer Martini, Devin Butler, Jerry Tillery and Josh Adams as the Irish very nearly made things quite difficult on the College Football Playoff selection committee.

“It was all hands on deck,” Kelly acknowledged after the game.

The loss of KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise didn’t prove fatal, something that never should’ve seemed likely after seeing Notre Dame rebound from other mortal wounds. And while Kelly understood that his team’s hopes of playing for a title are done, he also sounded like a coach who still believes he had one of the finest teams in the country.

“It’s never about one series or one play. It’s a culmination of the game and the reality is, we’re two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country. One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford,” Kelly said.

“I love my team. I put this team up against anybody in the country. Fact of the matter is, we’re not going to get that chance. We get that. We understand it. So it’s disappointing, but I’m very proud of our football team.”

 

With their playoff hopes dashed, December’s bowl preparation takes on a decidedly different look. 

No, the Irish won’t be playing for a national championship. But there’s still so much on the line in 2015, especially when you consider the adversity this team faced. With his team heading back to South Bend, Brian Kelly will stay on the West Coast, he and his assistants making sure that some very talented recruits will understand what’s been built in South Bend and what’s likely to come in 2016 and beyond.

While he’ll never build his program on moral victories, Kelly acknowledged the adversity faced this season, sounding like a coach immensely proud of his players and a man ready to make sure he finds some talented reinforcements for the years to come.

“[We] overcame some catastrophic injuries to key players,” Kelly said. “Quarterbacks, running back, tight end, defensive linemen, cornerbacks. I mean, we’re talking across the board here, we’re not just talking about one position, we’re talking about impacting all positions, playing on the road against very good competition, getting home at five o’clock in the morning, bouncing back, playing two option teams, I mean, I could go on and on.”

Kelly doesn’t have to, as the media will likely pick up that storyline as the Irish head into 2016 with unfinished business and a roster built through the challenges of a 2015. But before we get there, there’s one game left before saying goodbye to this resilient group. And Notre Dame’s five captains understanding that winning 11 games is still very rarified air, accomplished just twice in South Bend since 1993.

“I think we’re going to take some time to deal with and mourn this loss,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said after the game. “We’re obviously disappointed. But I think we all know that it’s unfair to this football team and unfair to the relationships we’ve built and how hard we’ve worked to just throw the towel in. It’s not with this football team is about.”

There’ll be a tendency by some to call whatever bowl game the Irish play in as a meaningless exercise. But those people won’t have remembered the Music City Bowl’s importance, a supposedly meaningless eighth victory for the 2014 team that served as a jumpstart to this impressive season.

So before Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Matthias Farley, Nick Martin and the other veterans turn this team over to the returning players, they’ll have one more chance to play football.

“I know that there’s not one guy in this locker room that doesn’t want to go out and play their best football game in their last football game,” Schmidt said.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.