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

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There will be no playoff for Notre Dame. Brian Kelly’s football team may well be less than six combined points away from being ranked No. 1 in the country, but they’ll watch four other teams play for a national title.

That’s not to say all is lost. Eleven win seasons don’t grow on trees, and Notre Dame is now the belle of the ball as New Years Bowl games look to court a fanbase that has sold out every game it played in this season.

We’re a little late getting the good, bad and ugly up. So without further ado, let’s rip off this band-aid and get right to it.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman running back was dominant on Saturday night, out-performing Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey as he ran for 168 yards on just 18 carries, including a 62-yard touchdown.

He held up in pass protection, and also threw TWO great blocks on a long DeShone Kizer run. Adams did everything you could ask for from your running back—doing so as a true freshman who looked destined for a redshirt as the Irish left spring practice.

Adams has made him mark on the Irish program early. He broke Jerome Heavens rookie record for most yards in a game by a freshman. He notched his fourth 100-yard effort of the season. And his 757 rushing yards put him in position where he’d likely have been Notre Dame’s leading rusher in six of the last eight seasons.

 

DeShone Kizer. We’re running out of good things to say about Kizer (I said a whole bunch of them in the Five Things). But as a runner, passer and clutch performer, the young quarterback did everything you could ask for from a leader—especially when you remember he (like Adams) is a freshman.

Accuracy wise, Kizer’s numbers may have been a tick lower than usual. But you can credit that to coaching—understanding that a throw away is far better than a forced pass. And while some early struggles in the red zone and the fumble before halftime stick out as negatives, nothing was more impressive than Kizer’s final 15-play, 88-yard touchdown drive.

“The moment is never too big for him,” Kelly said postgame.

 

Will FullerAfter laying an egg against Boston College, Fuller turned on the jets and caught another home run deep ball, this time a beautiful 73-yarder that turned into Fuller’s ninth touchdown catch of 30 yards or more this season.

Fuller’s six catches for 136 yards led all receivers on Saturday, and essentially matched the rest of the Irish receiving corps. It was his sixth 100-yard game of the season and tenth of his career.

 

Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker played like one on Saturday, notching 15 total tackles and one TFL. He was especially stout against the run, playing exceptionally at the point of attack as the Irish shut down Christian McCaffrey.

After a season where we saw Smith flash plays of brilliance in 2014, Brian Kelly talked postgame about Smith’s consistency this season.

“Normal day. That’s Jaylon’s normal effort,” Kelly said. “He’s all over the field and he has been every single week that he’s played. I don’t think he’s had an off week. He may have had a play that he didn’t make once or twice, but each and every week he has had that kind of impact to our defense.”

 

Stopping Christian McCaffrey. The Irish defense—and Brian VanGorder—definitely deserves credit for designing a game plan that didn’t allow McCaffrey to beat them. Stanford’s Option A (and B and C) got his 30+ touches for the game, but only managed one 11 yard run and a 14 yard catch. Return-wise, he was held to a long of 26 yards.

After the game, I asked Joe Schmidt if there was a “risk-reward” type of scenario when it came to defending a player like McCaffrey, especially considering that McCaffrey’s struggles went hand-in-hand with the success of Devon Cajuste and the passing game.

“With every play call, there are pros and cons to every defense you call,” Schmidt said. “And it was a little different with some of the calls we made. We obviously mixed it up and there were some different calls all night. It wasn’t something that throughout the game we were going to do [solely man coverage]… but you’re right about the pros and cons of each defense.”

 

QUICK HITS: 

* How clutch was CJ Sanders kickoff return touchdown? The freshman notched Notre Dame’s first since George Atkinson in 2011, and now has both a punt and kickoff return for a touchdown this season, joining Vontez Duff (2002) and Allen Rossum (1996) in the club.

* It was a big day for the offensive line, dominating at the point of attack in the run game and also only giving up two TFLs to a Stanford scheme that may be down, but certainly still capable.

* In addition to Sanders’ return, Notre Dame’s special teams were excellent. Two long punts for Tyler Newsome. Justin Yoon cashing in on each of his chip shots. But most importantly, the kickoff coverage kept Christian McCaffrey in check, even as they kicked deep in the final minute.

* The running Game dominance was pretty insane. The Irish averaged a ridiculous 8.5 yards per carry with 299 yards on 35 attempts. They only had five yards lost in the ground game, a stat that usually is double-digits for ND.

* All those probability experts that were second-guessing Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two probably ignored that converting that play would’ve had Stanford kicking a game-tying field goal and not a winner. You still have to convert it, but credit Kelly for not coaching scared and understanding—before anybody else did—that those points could matter.

 

THE BAD

Stopping Kevin HoganA year after ruining his final appearance in Notre Dame Stadium, Kevin Hogan sliced and diced the Irish’s secondary. He completed 17 of 21 throws, none more critical than the 27-yarder up the seam to Devon Cajuste.

Without KeiVarae Russell, the Irish cornerbacks were limited. Devin Butler played 46 snaps with Matthias Farley playing 30 and Nick Watkins taking five. Looking for numbers to back up what we all saw? ProFootballFocus grading had Devin Butler, Cole Luke, Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley all with negative scores.

 

Red Zone Struggles. It’s hard to talk about Notre Dame’s incredible offensive output without digging into the inability to cash in touchdowns in their early red zone appearances. Justin Yoon kicked three field goals under 30 yards. Those aren’t victories.

On the other side of the ball, Stanford was the exact opposite. Five times inside Notre Dame’s 20-yard line? Five touchdowns. In a game this close, Notre Dame getting blown away in such a critical part of the football game explains just how well the Irish did other things (offensively) to even have had a chance to win this game with 30 seconds left.

Offensively, it was a mixed bag. Certainly play selection can be questioned, though a deeper dig into this part of the game usually makes those gripes sound more like fanboy complaints (hindsight always being 20-20) than viable question marks.

The run game got nine yards on three plays when it needed ten, and then came off the field after Nick Martin’s “snap infraction.” Stanford got away with what looked like an offsides on another, and Kizer missed his shot on second down to follow his blockers for what could’ve been a big gainer. Credit the Cardinal for a sellout blitz that forced a throwaway. And then there’s the missed opportunity—Amir Carlisle couldn’t hold on to a pass that looked like a sure first down and likely a touchdown.

Defensively, Stanford’s David Shaw didn’t choose to go with the battering ram attack. Four of the Cardinal’s five scores came via the pass. The first series, a playaction to McCaffrey allowed Remound Wright to slip out of the backfield for an easy score. Cajuste posted up Cole Luke for the second score. Devin Butler’s worst play of the game cost the Irish a score when Michael Rector slipped out of an easy tackle and waltzed into the end zone. And a nice design had Austin Hooper sliding out late, only to see Max Redfield trip up Jaylon Smith and the Cardinal get another easy score.

 

The wrong side of the stripes. Just about everybody in the press box expected offensive pass interference to be called when Cajuste stiff-armed Devin Butler as they chased down a long pass. Instead, Butler got called for 15 yards and there was a gigantic swing to the game.

Notre Dame got the tough end of the officiating on Saturday night, called for six penalties and 65 yards while Stanford was only flagged once for five yards. From way above the play I saw multiple times where a Cardinal offensive linemen kicked off the line a split-second early. The refs somehow didn’t. I also thought Sheldon Day drew his share of holds that stayed in the pocket.

It’s crying over spilt milk. And there certainly wasn’t any shadowy conspiracy theory. But that’s a tough break—especially if refs are flagging snap infractions early and missing basic procedural calls later.

 

Third Down defense. Stanford’s ability to convert its first five third downs and eight of 12 killed Notre Dame’s defense. It’s also the reason why the Cardinal were able to put together scoring drives of 75, 78, 75, 76 and 74 yards.

Big plays still happened to the defense, mostly in the passing game. But while Notre Dame minimized them, they just couldn’t do anything to get off the field on third down.

 

THE UGLY

The Final 30 seconds. Where to begin? Perhaps with the replay officials decision to allow Kizer’s touchdown run to stand? What seemed like a break for the Irish actually turned out to give Stanford more time to come back and kick a field goal.

From there, it all happened rather quickly. First the bad luck—another incidental facemask by the Irish as Isaac Rochell chased after Kevin Hogan. That provided just enough room for the game’s clinching play—a seam route that looked way too open.

Here’s what Shaw said postgame when asked about the play.

“Well we always look at what they do in the two minute,” Shaw said. “They were a couple different options. We tried some shots early on, they did a really good job defending it. But we thought there were some lanes inside. So we weren’t trying to score a touchdown, we were just trying to get into field goal range…Kevin did a great job, looking off the safety coming back and then he through a bullet. Devon caught it, got positive yards after the catch.”

Kelly audibly groaned when asked to give his evaluation of what happened.

“We’ve got to close down inside out on that seam route,” Kelly said. “I thought we probably played it a little bit too much, too much outside in, worried about backing up. We’ve got to be more aggressive to the seam route.”

In reality, Notre Dame’s defensive personnel deficiencies couldn’t have been exposed more on that play. Devin Butler was out of the game with a concussion, bringing in Nick Watkins to play outside cornerback. Lined up three across underneath the four-deep shell were Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley.

Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame’s best pass rusher, was relegated to making sure Hogan didn’t scramble. That left Andrew Trumbetti to chase Hogan opposite Day, with Isaac Rochell on the nose. Trumbetti’s outside route to the quarterback was never a factor.

Hogan put a very good throw in a hole between Schmidt and Farley, with the linebacker drawn inside by a curl and Farley surrendering the middle of the field too easily.

But more frustrating? The depth safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate got. Neither had a clue that Stanford was just one big play from being in field goal range. There was more than 10 yards between the underneath coverage and the safeties over the top. Redfield was still in his backpedal at the 25, Shumate not much better as he finally broke on the ball at the 30. Bad Football IQ play by two guys who haven’t showed a ton of it.

There were so many great things that this football team did. But from day one, safety play has been a struggle. Game 12 that deficiency ended up breaking the team’s back.

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees