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And In That Corner … The No. 14 North Carolina State Wolfpack and a vaunted run defense

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Due to some crossed signals, two sets of responses came in from North Carolina State beat reporters for this week’s rendition of a boxing analogy. They offered different styles in their answers, complementary in nature, so let’s present both. It is appropriate to have even further insights into the No. 14 Wolfpack than usual, as it may be — particularly in the eyes of this scribe — the toughest opponent remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule.

As an unnecessary reminder, the Irish host North Carolina State at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

For now, let’s turn to Matt Carter of The Wolfpacker and Joe Giglio of Raleigh’s The News & Observer.

DF: Hey guys. I hope you enjoyed North Carolina State’s bye week. For our purposes, it is always nice when those come right in the middle of the season. How many years have you been on the Wolfpack beat now?
MC: I started in the summer of 2004 just in time to see Mario Williams break out as an NC State defensive end and am in my 14th season.

JG: I’ve been at the paper for 20 years but only on the State beat since 2008 for basketball and 2011 for football.

Speaking of that bye week, how did NC State spend it? To my knowledge, the team isn’t too banged up at this point, so there was not an impetus on getting guys healthy, at least not more than there always is in the middle of a football season.
MC: Dave Doeren stated during his weekly Monday press conference that a lot of time was spent going back to the basics and working on fundamentals. The Wolfpack has been fortunate from an injury standpoint but it still was able to use the time to get some bumps and bruises taken care of.

JG: They got a few days off last week and spent some time on fundamentals. You’re right, for the most part they have been healthy, except in the secondary. A little extra rest doesn’t hurt, though.

Through seven games, including an active six-game winning streak, Wolfpack senior quarterback Ryan Finley has thrown for 1,968 yards and 11 touchdowns without completing a single pass to the opposition. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let’s continue with a micro view, specifically senior quarterback Ryan Finley. The current buzz du jour around him is his complete lack of interceptions thrown, but he is certainly more than a game manager protecting the ball. His 69.4 completion percentage jumps off the page and averaging more than 280 passing yards a game is something Notre Dame’s secondary may fear. What about his game makes Finley so effective while also keeping him off the national radar?
MC: It’s a combination of factors. He graduated from Boise State in three years and is close to finishing his masters at NC State. Thus, he has a very good head on his shoulders. Secondly, he’s a smart guy who has been in this system for four years now. Wolfpack offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz was Finley’s offensive coordinator at Boise State and the two made the move to Raleigh together. Combining his intelligence and familiarity with the offense with an accurate touch throwing the football and a very calm and cool demeanor on and off the field, and you have a quarterback that just has not been easy to rattle this season.

JG: Finley makes quick reads and gets the ball out of his hands. He also has gotten better about taking more shots down the field. What has really helped him is the receivers making more plays on 50-50 passes.

Sticking with the offense, Irish coach Brian Kelly described senior H-back Jaylen Samuels as a “match-up nightmare.” I usually see him described as a tight end/wide receiver, but from the North Carolina State games I have seen, that hybrid description does not accurately explain his role in the offense. He has 191 yards and seven touchdowns rushing to go along with 453 yards and three touchdowns receiving, after all. How does the offense showcase, if not even rely on, Samuels?

Senior Jaylen Samuels lines up just about everywhere for North Carolina State. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

MC: The goal is to put Samuels in advantageous matchups, and because he is so versatile it can really strain a defense. He has the ability to exploit matchups at multiple spots on the field. More times than not you will probably see Samuels in the slot, but he will also line up in the backfield, occasionally put his hand in the dirt as a traditional tight end and even take a few snaps out wide. This year it seems to me more than anything he has emerged as one of the offense’s go-to guys on third downs and in the red zone in particular.

JG: He’s basically a slot receiver they also use as a short-yardage running back. They’ve started using him more and more in the red zone at running back. He’s a little bigger than junior Nyheim Hines, which helps in short-yardage situations.

He leads the team targets (63) and catches (54). Those are mostly shorter, intermediate routes. There are some specific plays designed for him — on jet sweeps and shovel pass — but for the most part, he’s a glorified slot receiver.

In some respects, Finley and Samuels may have excelled without great notice because the Wolfpack defense gets the headlines, specifically its front seven. It hasn’t seen an offensive line like Notre Dame’s yet, though. Then again, the Irish struggled against Georgia’s defensive front, but the o-line has pretty clearly improved since the second week of the season. In something of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, how do you see the trenches being won?
MC: My suspicion is that you will see a middle ground met. I would not suspect Notre Dame is going to rush for 300 yards against NC State. Nor do I think it’s realistic for the Wolfpack to shut down the Irish like Georgia did, which as you pointed out was back in week two.

To me, the key is which team is winning in the fourth quarter when it’s quite possible the game is on the line. NC State’s defense, at times, has been far better in the second half of games this year than the first.

JG: I expect Notre Dame’s offense to do what a lot of teams have done against State: Get rid of the ball quickly and not give senior defensive end Bradley Chubb a chance to get after the quarterback. State’s run defense is pretty stout, with B.J. Hill and Justin Jones in the middle.

A few teams have found success through the air despite that pass rush. Specifically, Marshall threw for 350 yards, Syracuse 385 and Louisville 354. The Irish passing attack has been, shall we say, lacking this season, but could that be an opportunity to exploit a Wolfpack weakness?
MC: There have been teams that have literally abandoned the run to throw the ball against NC State. Those three games are very good examples of that. Marshall’s leading rusher carried eight times. Sixteen of Syracuse’s 30 rushes were by the quarterback. Louisville took a very similar approach. That is partly a tribute to the respect of the Wolfpack rush defense, but also the fact that teams know they can throw the football effectively against NC State if given time.

The Wolfpack has faced a lot of offenses using max protection to block the front to exploit matchups against the secondary. The question is will a fully healthy secondary make a difference in the second half of the year. By the end of the South Carolina game through week five against Syracuse, NC State was down two starters and a top reserve. The two starters have since returned and were rotating snaps the last three games while easing back in.

JG: The shots will be there. State’s a bend-don’t-break defense. Marshall receiver Tyre Brady had a big game by getting into man routes with corner Johnathan Alston, a converted receiver. I would expect Notre Dame to try to take some shots down the field with junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

Switching to a macro view, entering the season some considered North Carolina State an ACC dark horse, but with the defending national champion in the conference, not very many had that outlook. What were, and what are, the realistic expectations closer to the program? You certainly know more than those viewing from 35,000 feet.
MC: There was not much doubt that this was Dave Doeren’s best team at NC State, and it fit a lot of the criteria of a team that should have a really good season. It returned a ton of experience from a squad that went 2-4 in games decided by seven points or less (including a win against Notre Dame which had similar struggles in close games). If you ask those around the program, NC State felt, with justification, it should have won all four of those games it lost.

So it was a competitive team returning all the key players. But the expectations were also tampered for two reasons. One, the perception around NC State athletics, especially with its basketball team, is it historically underachieves when it should be good. Secondly, the schedule was going to be difficult, especially since the ACC’s Atlantic is considered far superior to the Coastal.

Perhaps fortunately for NC State, a couple of those Atlantic heavyweights — Clemson and Louisville — are struggling.

JG: The Wolfpack has won at least 10 games only once in school history. That’s it. Most people here thought this team could win 10 games. The playoff talk was always kind of looked at like a lark with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville being the main obstacles.

Those expectations may have changed after wins over Florida State and Louisville. The nature of college football now devalues those wins a bit, but whether or not that is valid — and it is likely somewhere in between — those wins gave the Wolfpack season quite a bit of momentum from afar. How has that been felt around the program?
MC: If anything, it got NC State over that hump. Last year, NC State dropped an interception that probably would have sealed a 20-17 win over Florida State at home and opened the door for the ‘Noles to win it on a late touchdown, 24-20. The team needed a success to point to as proof its direction and approach were the right way. It got those wins under challenging setups.

As you noted, both FSU and Louisville may not have been what they were expected to be, but Florida State essentially had three weeks to prepare for NC State due to Hurricane Irma altering its schedule, and Louisville had played a couple of cupcakes leading into NC State while the Wolfpack had to play Syracuse the previous Saturday before playing the Cards on a short week.

JG: Yeah, those three teams have dominated the Atlantic Division and Dave Doeren had been 0-11 against those three teams going into this season. Any win over the group would have been considered a bonus. To possibly sweep those three? I don’t think anyone reasonably predicted that would be possible.

What have I missed? I didn’t intentionally leave out junior running back Nyheim Hines. I suppose I just see Finley’s arm as a bigger threat to the Irish defense. Is that foolish of me?

North Carolina State junior running back Nyheim Hines has rushed for 648 yards and six touchdowns this season with an average of 5.6 yards per carry. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

MC: Hines is one of the country’s leaders in all-purpose yards and has gotten some midseason All-American mention. Entering the bye he led all ACC running backs in rushing yards and was on pace for more than 1,000 yards. He singlehandedly kept NC State in the game during the first half against Pittsburgh when the Wolfpack looked like it was sleepwalking a little following that win over Louisville. In the second half, NC State asserted itself and outscored the Panthers 21-3.

The most underrated aspect of NC State this season, to me, is the offensive line. In four ACC games, Finley has not been sacked yet. Pitt did not even register a quarterback hurry in the last game. Both senior right guard Tony Adams and junior right tackle Will Richardson could be All-ACC candidates.

On the flipside, NC State’s special teams was sure to be a focal point in the bye because both placekicking and kick coverage have been a sore spot.

JG: Hines is a home-run hitter. He can be quiet at times and then he’ll pop one. The difference in the Louisville game was the receivers and the plays they were able to make down field.

I was shocked to see Notre Dame favored by more than a touchdown. How do you see Saturday afternoon going?
MC: It’s hard to ignore how impressive Notre Dame looked against USC. Dominating any opponent from a Power Five conference in that fashion is the sign of a really, really good football team. I get the feeling this is a game of two teams headed for special seasons on a collision course with each other. Typically in those types of settings, I might prefer the home squad.

I do think it will be a close, competitive game that could be decided by a late touchdown.

JG: I’ve got N.C. State winning 20-18. A play on Notre Dame’s loss to Georgia and 18 being double its point total in the previous two games against N.C. State (six in 2002 and three last year).

A Notre Dame fan’s thanks to give

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Brian Kelly is thankful for the opportunity to coach football at Notre Dame. Brandon Wimbush claims to be grateful for a room full of media. These typically-rote answers offered by the Irish coach and junior quarterback this week make surface-level sense, especially given the obligatory nature of dealing with that room full of cameras, reporters and recorders.

Senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill provided a more in-depth response Tuesday, thinking of his grandfather, or “Big Daddy.”

“He moved in with us probably about 12 years ago to help my parents taking all the kids to all their sporting events and stuff, and he was always the one taking me to my baseball tournaments, staying in hotels with me and taking me around everywhere,” Tranquill said. “So I’m really thankful for him and just the investment he gave to help me pursue my dream.”

What might Notre Dame fans specifically be appreciative of this holiday? With a likely — somewhat inevitable — personal skewing, let’s run through a few more than three dozen items worthy of giving thanks …

— Defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Last year the Irish defense created 14 turnovers and recorded 14 sacks. With a game to play before matching last season’s 12 games, Notre Dame has forced 18 turnovers and brought down the opposing quarterback 20 times. There is a reason Elko is a Broyles Award finalist, given to the country’s top assistant coach.

— Offensive coordinator Chip Long. His effect may not be as statistically-dramatic as Elko’s, but Long’s influence is rather noticeable, nonetheless. Long took over the play calling of an offense led by a first-year quarterback and — with two exceptions against two of the best defenses of 2017 — created a truly explosive attack.

— Strength and conditioning “coordinator” David Balis. Every indication, both on- and off-field, shows the Irish are in better shape this year, holding up better in fourth quarters and into the final month of the season.

“When you spend nearly 70 percent of your time with those [strength] coaches and with your physical and technical development, that’s key to having a sustainable model in terms of culture of a winning football team,” Tranquill said. “If you look at teams who have been successful, that’s where they’ve started. …

“That’s something we’ve been able to do here this year, and it’s helped us to be successful. I think it’ll continue to help us be successful.”

— Special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Notre Dame’s return units have not been explosive this year, but the coverage units have limited the opposition, something not inherently true the last few seasons. In many respects, with an offense producing as much as Long’s has, those return possibilities are not as vital to the team’s success as the coverage protections are, anyway. Breaking a return also relies on a singular talent more than team-wide coverages do.

“Sometimes to be great, you’ve got to have one great game-breaker,” Kelly said Tuesday. “You’ve got to have somebody that changes the game, and I don’t know that we have that guy right now.”

— White bread, toasted, dry, with nothing on it. And four whole fried chickens and a Coke.

— The emergence of the defensive line. During some back-and-forth banter in fielding this preseason’s ballots for the annual “Counting Down the Irish” series, jokes were cracked about how few defensive linemen warranted even consideration for the top-25 listing. In the end, three made the cut: sophomore end Daelin Hayes at No. 9, junior tackle Jerry Tillery at No. 11 and senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) at No. 20.

By this point, at least two more would land in the top 25, perhaps as many as four.

“Our defensive line has been a consistent group all year,” Kelly said. “… They’ve fought. They’ve been very consistent.”

— Specifically, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem has made himself a known commodity this season, making 5.5 tackles for loss including three sacks. His name will certainly land in next season’s “Counting Down the Irish.”

“This year has been a breakout year for him in [the weight room],” Kelly said. “He’s gained a lot of confidence, and he’s made so much progress in the weight room, so from a physical standpoint he can go in there and he can battle with anybody.”

— Freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish give even further reason for forward-looking optimism along the defensive front. Neither was expected to be a contributing presence this season. Both have been, and they thus ease concerns about the possible pending departures of both starting defensive tackles, Tillery and senior Jonathan Bonner.

— Senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti may not be the highlight-providing force Kareem or some of the other defensive ends are, but he has provided steady play on both ends of the defensive line. One could even consider his steady play exceptional, if that were not such an oxymoron.

Trumbetti very well may have saved the victory over Navy, diagnosing and pressuring the halfback pass before the play could fully develop. The subsequent incompletion allowed Notre Dame to kneel out the clock.

10 — 5-Hour Energy Extra Strength bottles of delight. They are the fuel behind this space multiple times a week, including each and every third quarter. Without them, the frame following halftime would hardly register in memory. Fortunately, they are smaller than 3.4 fluid ounces, meaning they can slip in with one’s toiletries when flying. Thanks, TSA.

Greer Martini. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

— The Irish have been remarkably healthy this season. Perhaps the closest thing to a severe injury timed itself for the bye week, so senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini (meniscus tear) missed only one game.

— In missing that one game, Martini created an opportunity for junior linebacker Te’von Coney to earn both more playing time and more notice. He now leads Notre Dame with 93 tackles through 11 games, even though he had all of 75 entering the season.

The Irish dominated USC without Martini, and he has looked little, if any, worse for wear since surgery to repair the torn meniscus. Thus, there was little-to-no short-term harm. Martini’s missing that game may have served Notre Dame a greater good in the long-term. Look at it this way: In the season’s first six games, Coney had a total of 42 tackles. In only five since, he has 51, including a team-high 11 against the Trojans.

— Bluetooth, one of the more-underrated technological advances that has become a commonplace luxury in the 21st century.

— USC’s gift of a fumbled punt. In retrospect, the Irish outplayed the Trojans in every facet of the game, but they relished the chance to go up 21-0 in the first half after USC muffed a punt inside its own 10-yard line. That moment may have sealed the outcome and will be one of the overlooked but consequential moments of Notre Dame’s 2017.

— Recovering that fumble may be the easiest turnover credit of Tranquill’s career. The most unexpected recurring quote of his collegiate time came following the 20-19 loss to Georgia. On-field, in-house interviews are only a symptom of the video board installed this year. If only for garnering this tidbit, the video board should be appreciated.

— Fettuccini alfredo. It is simple to cook, yet delectable either hot or cold. Even pizza cannot claim all those qualities.

Shaun Crawford’s forced fumble at Michigan State. The Spartans were literal inches from cutting the Irish lead to 21-7. The junior cornerback’s heady play to not only force the fumble at the goal line but then to also recover it opened the door for a 28-0 halftime lead. Much like Tranquill’s recovery against USC, this low-key highlight need not be forgotten as the season’s end nears.

— Pilot travel centers. Some things can be explained only after eight separate 1,000-mile roundtrip treks of I-94. The hot dogs are tolerable and cost-efficient, the bathrooms clean, the ease of access from the road quick. Not much else can be asked for in this life.

20 — Quenton Nelson, and not just for the above manhandling of Kelly after winning at Michigan State. The senior left guard and captain has been the best player for Notre Dame this season. It is unlikely he accepts Kelly’s offer of the coach’s parking spot to return next season, nor should Nelson do so.

— Mike McGlinchey. The fifth-year left tackle and captain’s on-field performance has been outdone by only Nelson, and McGlinchey’s off-field candor is unrivaled.

— The combination of Nelson and McGlinchey. The two have shifted the line of scrimmage all season. Their dominance allows the Irish to focus any blocking assistance on the right side entirely. It creates a litany of running design possibilities between combination blocks and/or pulling schemes. The two stand alone in many respects.

Such a hand-in-hand fit along an offensive line is rare in the NFL and nearly unheard of in college football. As great as the left guard/left tackle combination of Chris Watt and Zack Martin was just a few years ago — and it was superb — Nelson and McGlinchey have raised the bar even further, both in individual excellence and in the innate chemistry developed by starting alongside each other for multiple seasons.

— Asinine notes courtesy of a character named Edgar starting a thought process of actual, usable fixes.

— Robert Hainsey’s emergence this year. The freshman right tackle has complemented sophomore Tommy Kraemer wonderfully, making for a complete offensive line rather than only 80 percent of one.

“There’s been some learning curves,” Kelly said. “But standing here right now going into the last game, if you ask me about playing two first-time starters, I’m pleased with their performance.”

— The comfort that emergence provides when pondering the 2018 offensive line. Kelly and Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand could have reasonably hoped for one genuine starter to emerge at right tackle this season. To come up with two-fifths of next year’s line is a luxury unexpected but happily welcomed.

— There is an establishment directly across Angela Boulevard from Notre Dame’s campus. After every home game, “Things We Learned” relies on its wifi, its understanding and — especially after night games — its late hours. Even after day games, TWL needs midnight to fly by before conclusion, and that shelter provides a comfortable and nearby venue to function within.

— Offensive sets featuring two running backs, especially when both sophomore Tony Jones and junior Josh Adams are healthy. When afforded that availability, Long has made it a habit to put defenses in compromising positions by moving Jones out wide or using him as a lead blocker. Most every possible play design is feasible with both those ballcarriers in those alignments.

— The “33 Trucking” campaign to get Adams into Heisman contention was short-lived, but it did provide one excellent video.

30 — 70 miles per hour speed limits. Even this memory’s relatively short lifespan notices that uptick.

Kevin Stepherson’s perseverance to return. The sophomore receiver could have found many easier options than sitting out this year’s first four games, staying engaged the entire time and working his way back into the offensive scheme.

— Caffeinated gum. Before turning to those aforementioned bottles of 5-Hour Energy in the second half, coffee’s faster-acting cousin carries these fingers through the first quarter each week.

— The Irish do not have to return to Miami and Hard Rock Stadium until 2025, unless they end up in the Orange Bowl at some point, which would likely be considered a good problem to have, even if the last two trips to that venue have been complete and utter debacles. If anything, that description is being generous.

— ACC bowl tie-ins. A loss this weekend would send Notre Dame to Orlando for either the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28). Before the deal with the ACC, it would be much more difficult to provide such a prognostication, and the options posited would be nowhere near as alluring, even after a 9-3 season.

— The College Football Playoff, a debate worth embracing. Arguing with computers in the days of the BCS never felt like the best use of time. At least now conversations can be based on logic, even if that logic is regarding whether a loss to Iowa State is a greater negative than a loss at Miami.

— Noon kickoffs. Oh, wait, well, never mind. 5 p.m. local time could be worse, though it may not be great for anyone hoping to view from London when that local time is on the Pacific coast.

— An unexpected Maui Invitational conversation at an airport bar. Take basketball chats wherever you can find them.

— Exit interviews. Kelly sat down with each and every player following last season to discuss what broader flaws led to the 4-8 disappointment. Suffice it to say, the resulting changes have been noticed. Kelly is yet undecided if he will hold the exit interviews again after this season.

“It was a valuable tool for me last year,” he said Sunday. “I’ll certainly give it some thought after we complete this game, but my focus really is on just trying to prepare our guys this week.”

— Keith Arnold’s poor judgement of capability, competence and character. Truly, thank you, Keith. I raise this glass of nine-year-old Foursquare Rum to you, good sir.

40 — Online commentators. Hopefully placing this acknowledgement here shows where it is amid priorities — last really is least — but still provides enough lip service to serve its purpose. If nothing else, some of those comments justify some other, shall we say, 40 thoughts.

And In That Corner … The No. 21 Stanford Cardinal and (maybe) Bryce Love

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Both Notre Dame and Stanford can still get to 10 wins before a bowl game, though the path for the Cardinal is a bit tougher. The Irish need to win one game, though it is at a place where they haven’t found a victory in a decade. Stanford needs to beat Notre Dame, have Washington top Washington State, and then the Cardinal could proceed to the Pac 12 title game for a rematch with USC.

The focus today is on this weekend, naturally. For some insight, let’s turn to Jacob Rayburn of the Cardinal Sports Report.

DF: Obviously the story this year has been Bryce Love. When he’s healthy, I’d argue he is the most explosive running back in college football. But, much like the Irish backfield, ankle issues have nagged at Love for most of the season. How is he this week?

JR: Bryce Love’s ankle and whether he will play is the mystery of the week. Love wasn’t able to finish the Big Game win over Cal and missed most of the fourth quarter of a three-point game. Love has a very high pain tolerance but it was too much Saturday after he was once again rolled on by a defender. He has done a fantastic job of playing the past couple weeks despite the fact that he has only one healthy ankle.

There are a number of Stanford fans on the forum arguing it’s not worth him playing this week. There is a chance the Cardinal will play USC in the conference championship game the following Friday, so a short week after a physical game would be troublesome.

Love’s scouting report is speed, speed, speed. He is more than that, though. What about his game sets him apart? Not that this is applicable this week, but curiosity forces me to ask, what kind of NFL future do you see for him?

His vision is excellent and he is much tougher to bring down than people think. The vision he has to spot not even a running lane but just a tiny gap between bodies is incredible. Love regularly slides through the smallest opening to break off a run that few other running backs would even try, let alone be able to do.

He’s had some bad luck with injuries the past two seasons that may raise questions about his durability. But when a 300-pound human falls on your ankle it doesn’t matter it if you’re a 220-pound running back or a 190-pound running back. It hurts.

Love’s speed alone makes him valuable for an NFL team, but his draft stock will also be determined by his ability to catch the ball — which he hasn’t been asked to do much this season, but he can — and if he can stop a blitzing defender. But even as a situational back and returner he would add great value to a team. He’s too talented a runner for a skilled offensive play caller not to find successful ways to use him.

Stanford sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello has completed 60.71 percent of his passes and averages 7.1 yards per attempt as he has thrown for 993 yards and five touchdowns, compared to only two interceptions, this season. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Love has been the engine to the Cardinal offense this year partly because of some uncertainty at quarterback. Head coach David Shaw has now settled on sophomore K.J. Costello, but only a month ago he was hardly playing. Senior Keller Chryst had the honors then. We should expect Costello this weekend, right? What does he bring to the table that Chryst lacks?

There really isn’t a major difference in the skillset of the two quarterbacks, although when healthy Chryst is the better runner. But Chryst’s inconsistency was his undoing. He was capable of delivering NFL caliber throws one week against Oregon and then in the next game against Oregon State nearly throw multiple interceptions.

It would be simplistic to describe Costello as a gunslinger, but there is some merit to describing him such. He can make more happen with his arm than Chryst and his personality seems to bring out more energy from the team. Chryst is a tough kid who worked very hard to return to the team from a knee injury in the Sun Bowl, but Costello better balances the offense.

Costello didn’t see the field when Stanford slipped past Oregon State on Oct. 26. Neither did Love. Yet, that was the one game most people actually might have seen, played on a Friday night with little competition for eyeballs. What in the world happened that night? The Cardinal had been rolling along, winning four straight with three of them by at least 10 points. Was the offensive ineptitude entirely because of those two absences?

Not having Love really hurt but generally there were some major steps backward that Friday. As you pointed out there were positive signs in the previous four games that the offense’s worst days were behind it. That clearly wasn’t the case and fits into the narrative of this season that this Stanford team has been very difficult to figure out.

The Oregon State defense played inspired and there is something about playing up in Corvallis that does funky things to visitors. It has been a major trip for Pac-12 teams. Stanford’s offensive line wasn’t able to dominate the line of scrimmage like people expected in that game. And without Love, none of the running backs had the ability to turn a small opening into a big run.

Stanford’s rush defense is decidedly average, allowing 171.7 yards per game, good for No. 70 in the country heading into this weekend. Notre Dame’s rush offense is much better than average. What chance does the Cardinal have of slowing down that ground attack? Will Shaw sell out on that effort, daring Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to produce through the air?

Every week has been a challenging experience for Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson to figure out a new way to keep opponents out of the end zone. Really there aren’t any statistics that show Stanford is a great defense and in some categories they aren’t even good. But the Cardinal are allowing only 21 points per game.

I expect Stanford to go all in to stop Notre Dame’s run game. This Cardinal defensive front is not a dominant group, even though they have one of the best interior players in the conference and even the country with senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. But the front seven has been inconsistent and was hurt significantly when inside linebacker Sean Barton suffered a season-ending injury at San Diego State in week three. Bobby Okereke is playing very well in the middle of the field and they would have been a formidable duo at this point in the season.

Entering the season, expectations were not as high for Stanford as they may have been in the recent past. That’s what happens when you lose two top-10 NFL Draft picks, one on each side of the ball. Yet, here the Cardinal are, with a chance to win the conference and head to a playoff-eligible bowl at 10-3. How much has this been seen as a “down” year in those parts? Has David Shaw’s performance this season earned the praise it likely deserves?

It has been a down year in the sense that Stanford’s inconsistency has left wins on the field. The loss to USC was completely understandable because the Trojans played like a playoff-caliber team that night. Sam Darnold and that offense looked better in that game than most of the rest of the regular season.

But losing to San Diego State and Washington State, and nearly suffering a stunning upset at Oregon State, were disconcerting for a variety of reasons. The loss to Washington State really hit the team hard because it was a painful missed opportunity to take control of the North Division. After that game Shaw went further to publicly criticize his own performance as a playcaller than he ever has before. There was a feeling that Stanford was at a tipping point where things could really go bad.

But the team has rallied since and they have a chance for another 10-win season. If Stanford can maintain that as the “down season” standard then that’s something fans can live with.

The Farm, as Stanford’s home field is known, is a unique place to play, offering great scenery though not often a rambunctious atmosphere. Notre Dame has lost on each of its last four trips to Palo Alto. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

With a 2.5-point spread in Notre Dame’s favor, bookmakers have this one pegged as closer than I expected. Perhaps that has to do with a decade’s worth of Irish struggles at The Farm. What do you expect to see unfold this weekend?

I think a lot has to go right for Stanford, especially on defense, to keep Notre Dame close. If Josh Adams and the Irish offensive line have their way it would be a very tough night for the Cardinal defense. I don’t expect Bryce Love to play in the game but anything could happen with someone as determined as him. Welcoming back tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receiver Connor Wedington — who missed the Cal game due to injuries — will help Costello keep the game close with the passing game.

I have Notre Dame by 10 points.

Notre Dame’s Opponents and Playoff Competition: Results and Upcoming

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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.

For Notre Dame to make the College Football Playoff, Heisman front-runner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma will likely need to lose at some point in the next two weeks. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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 running back A.J. Dillon is the Eagles offense sole reliable producer at this point. (Getty Images)

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?

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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.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson led all Irish receivers with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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.

Injuries have been about the only thing capable of consistently stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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.