Chase Claypool would not even grant the hypothetical’s premise. He knew how many yards he ended up with in Notre Dame’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest last weekend. He knew he caught nine passes and found the end zone once to gain 180 yards.
He would not speculate how much gaudier those numbers could have been if he had not dropped a likely 57-yard touchdown along the sideline early in the third quarter. Quick math would remove his 27-yard reception (as well as another drop, albeit a tougher ball to snag) later on the same drive and realize Claypool came oh-so-close to a nine-catch, 210-yard, two-touchdown afternoon.
“If I didn’t drop those passes, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten the other big gains,” Claypool countered. “I don’t think of it as a negative for dropping two passes. Obviously I need to work on that, but I don’t think of it as I could have had more yards. Maybe I would have had less yards.”
To be clear, Claypool was appropriately self-critical for the drops. That is part of why he would not acknowledge the possible statistical boosts. He just wasn’t so critical as to let the missed opportunities define his day. His fellow receivers made sure of that much.
“I was beating myself up on the sideline, and every single receiver said, you’re good, it’s going to come to you,” Claypool said. “… We’re kind of a family, so to have that security knowing that they have your back, it’s easy to come back from something like that.”
After the most-notable drop, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush kept the ball himself to gain 14 yards and a third-down conversion. Having reset the chains, he again looked for one of his receivers. This time junior Equanimeous St. Brown failed his quarterback. Wimbush then turned to sophomore running back Deon McIntosh to get back ahead of the chains before finally connecting with Claypool for the 27-yarder. Two more incompletions toward Claypool and the drive resulted in a 22-yard field goal.
“There were a lot of points that we left up on the board,” Wimbush said. “It’s scary and I say that every week, but one of these weeks we will connect and everything will be clicking.
“I’m not worried about those guys dropping balls. I’ve got to continue to give them opportunities to go make plays because those guys are playmakers.”
Claypool, specifically, has emerged as a playmaker. After last year’s breakout, St. Brown was widely-expected to be showcased this season. Sophomore Kevin Stepherson flashed enough speed in 2016, it was trusted he would quickly again once he got on the field. The physical Claypool, though, was only a tantalizing-but-unknown possibility.
“He’s a young guy that I wouldn’t say has got it all figured out yet,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “He’s learning every day, but he comes with a great attitude. He wants to get better.
“He’s definitely ascending. He’s not going to be a guy that plateaus out.”
At Boston College on Sept. 16, Claypool was Wimbush’s most-consistent option at receiver. That meant he caught two passes for eight yards. Such were the difficulties in the passing game, the struggles among the receivers and the impotent definition of success. The two catches did set up Claypool as someone Wimbush could trust, drops or not.
The results of that trust have progressively shown themselves. A week later Claypool pulled in four catches for 56 yards. After the dropped deep ball last Saturday, Wimbush still targeted Claypool five more times, completing three of them for 105 yards, most notably a 34-yard touchdown with Claypool using and needing every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame to cross the goal line.
“After I dropped that pass, there was no way I wasn’t scoring here, so I went for it,” Claypool said. “… I have to thank Brandon for trusting me after I dropped a couple passes and then going back to me on the next drives. Without [Wimbush and the Irish offensive line], I couldn’t have done it. It’s obviously big to have that big game moving forward, getting closer to the Playoffs.”
Indeed it is, and Notre Dame will likely need more of the same from Claypool going against Miami’s No. 3 passing efficiency defense tonight. The Hurricanes undoubtedly know the Irish will try to control the game with a running attack led by junior running back Josh Adams. Stopping that becomes much more difficult if also worried about Claypool and Stepherson.
Hence Wimbush’s continued promise of, “One of these weeks we will connect and everything will be clicking …”
As for Claypool’s dropped chance down the sideline a week ago, the cause behind it was rather natural. He was trying to get to that clicking stage a bit sooner than he should have.
“I knew if I caught it I would have a touchdown,” he said. “I was thinking, I catch this, I’m running right away to score. So I ran before I caught it, basically. It happens, I guess.”
It happened. If the difference in seven weeks is going from a two-catch, eight-yard day to a day when the postgame interview is spent denying charitable thought experiments to elevate yardage totals past 200 yards, then the trend indicates the tonight’s prime-time, top-10 contest will be another step forward in Notre Dame’s passing game.
Friday at 4: Some complaints, some predictions in the balance & one thought experiment
Finding 40 things, concepts and people somewhat tied to Notre Dame and deserving of appreciation was an appropriate gimmick for yesterday, but it runs contrary to this scribe’s reputation. In an attempt to protect that cynic’s stance and counterbalance that 40, here are a baker’s dozen items worthy of Irish fans’ criticism, regret and/or disappointment:
— The lack of Notre Dame composure from the start at Miami two weeks ago.
— The lack of Irish execution at the end against Georgia in the season’s second week.
— Twitter’s 280 characters. As of now, excluding links and mentions, @D_Farmer has yet to release a tweet longer than 140 characters, and that will continue as long as is feasible due to some misguided and unfounded principle.
— The possibility of losing senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner after this season even though he will have another year of eligibility remaining. Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he does not intend to pursue a fifth year with the team. If that proves true, it will cut into the both the depth and the rotation on the interior of next year’s defensive line.
— Injuries throughout the NBA, including to Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap and Patrick Beverley. Each one diminishes an outstanding product.
— Ankle injuries, as suffered this season by Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, Tony Jones and Bryce Love.
— Brandon Wimbush lucked out of a number of interceptions in September’s first few weeks. Perhaps a humbling moment then may have forced the issue of earlier growth.
— Kevin Stepherson missing the first four games. The suspension was presumably warranted — there has been no reason to think otherwise — but given the sophomore receiver’s progress the last few weeks, it is tantalizing to think what he could already be if he had played a full fall.
— Sometimes, the toughest of times, the bacon-wrapped shrimp dish has only three such delicacies. Has that ever been enough? No. It has never been a satisfactorily-filling serving.
— Football season is only three months long. File that under the disappointing category.
— Notre Dame’s safety play remains undeniably underwhelming. Fortunately, there is an entire offseason to learn the grammatical nuances of Aloha and workshop the appropriate Aloha Alohi headlines.
— Online commentators. As advertised, this segment is intended to counterbalance yesterday’s good will.
A total of 11 of those 40 stand very much in the balance, including three in direct conflict with two others.
19) If junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown plays (concussion protocol), he will need two catches and 34 yards more than sophomore receiver Chase Claypool records to take the lead in those categories and a touchdown more than sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson scores to lead the Irish in the third receiving category.
24) Notre Dame currently averages 36.7 points per game. To fall within the predicted range of 34.9 to 36.4 points per game, the Irish would need to score between 15 and 34 points at Stanford.
26) Statistically speaking, senior linebacker Drue Tranquill and junior linebacker Te’von Coney are tied for “big” plays this season. August’s prediction No. 26 implied Tranquill would lead Notre Dame in the category.
27) With 20 sacks to date, the Irish defense would need to record five more to reach the projected range of 25 to 29.
28) The exact same numbers apply to turnovers forced.
31) This space predicted Notre Dame would beat Stanford. It also predicted the Cardinal would fail to reach nine wins (No. 32) in the regular season and only four Irish opponents would finish the season ranked (No. 35). If Stanford wins Saturday, all three of those predictions will be foiled with one fell swoop.
32-33) The other season win total over/unders hanging in the balance are North Carolina State exceeding 7.5 wins (currently at seven), Georgia Tech failing to reach six wins (currently with five) and LSU falling short of nine wins (currently at eight). If all three of these and the Cardinal prediction were to come true, the over/under predictions would finish at 5-5 overall, a losing record when factoring in the discrepancies inherent to such wagers.
38) August predicted Notre Dame would finish ranked between Nos. 13 and 18. It will undoubtedly finish higher than that with a win this weekend.
39) Likewise, a win this weekend will send the Irish to a playoff-eligible bowl, not one of the two options in Orlando as predicted.
Finally, a thought experiment prompted by …
Simple exercise: If your team has never won a national title in football, it's probably not going to. If you team has not won a national title in the last 40 years, the chances are even worse. https://t.co/AgcIvlJ6zS
Russo’s point is valid. That is a pretty thorough list. Add in the likes of UCLA and Oregon, perhaps Texas A&M due to its recruiting base, and it may be comprehensive.
One exception needs to be added, though. In basketball, it is referred to as the “Larry Bird factor.” Bird led Indiana State through an undefeated season to the 1979 National Championship game, falling to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
One player changing every dynamic of a game happens more frequently in basketball than it does in football. In the former, one player is 10 percent of the participants, not less than five percent as he is in football. But every so often, once every five or seven years, a quarterback comes along with that exact effect.
Vince Young at Texas in 2005. Cam Newton at Auburn in 2010. Deshaun Watson at Clemson in 2017. Admittedly, Clemson also won the national title in 1981, but otherwise, none of those three schools make this listing without those quarterbacks.
The four-team Playoff format makes it even more difficult for an upstart program to reach the promised land, but Larry Bird had to navigate four rounds before even facing Magic Johnson. It is rare one player has such an effect, but it is neither unheard of nor impossible to fathom again.
Little good can ever be drawn from a 41-8 embarrassment on national television. If Notre Dame wants to have any reason to look back on what happened at Miami two weeks ago and not lament every second of the disappointment, it will need to use that experience to its advantage this weekend at another top-25 opponent.
By no means will Stanford’s “Farm” echo the Hurricanes’ Hard Rock Stadium. That atmosphere truly defined raucous. An impartial observer had no choice but to deem it outright impressive. Nonetheless, Cardinal fans will feed off the slightest early Irish mistake, just as Miami’s crowd did.
“It’s exactly what we did at Miami that you can’t do, turn the football over,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We fed that atmosphere at Miami. … You’ve got to take care of the football. You can’t give anybody on the road that energy that gives them that extra momentum at home.”
This may seem simple. In fact, it is simple. Yet, it remains critically important on the road. When dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds, momentum can shift to steamrolling shockingly quickly. (That is, in fact, part of the allure to college football.)
The issues in south Florida went beyond turnovers. More precisely, they went beyond south Florida. Afterward, Kelly looked back on the week’s practices with some skepticism. The Irish have acknowledged their readiness was not up to the necessary standard.
“I didn’t prepare to the best of my ability Miami week, and obviously it showed,” junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush said Tuesday. “Being militant in the way we go about this week and everything that we do, so having intention to the way we practice, to the way we watch film, to the way I eat, things like that, it’ll all go into the game.”
If Notre Dame learned from the mistakes of the past, that loss can at least serve a purpose, a greater future good. If not, it was simply the moment a promising season was lost.
How will the Irish defensive line handle itself against the best offensive line it has faced this season?
By every possible metric, Notre Dame’s defensive line has exceeded expectations this year. Admittedly, little was expected.
If it plays a part in limiting Stanford’s exceptional rushing attack — averaging 215.7 yards per game and 6.41 per carry, good for No. 26 and No. 4 in the country, respectively — then it will have proven itself to be a strength heading into 2018.
Using rushing stats as the barometer with an exception for Navy’s triple-option approach, the best offensive lines the Irish have faced this season were Georgia and Miami (FL).
The Bulldogs average 267.4 rushing yards per game (No. 10 in the country) and 5.80 yards per carry (No. 9). Against the Irish, they gained 185 yards on 43 carries, a 4.30 average.
The Hurricanes average 176.7 yards per game (No. 55) and 5.32 per rush (No. 19). Notre Dame gave up 237 rushing yards on 42 attempts, a 5.64 average. (As always when discussing national rankings, none of these rushing figures are sacks adjusted.)
The Irish defensive front does not need to stop the Cardinal backs outright, only slow them. Stanford’s passing attack is decently efficient but far from genuinely dangerous. Since slipping past Oregon State in late October, a game without both Love and sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello, the Cardinal have averaged 167 yards through the air per game, completing 57.53 percent of attempts with 6.86 yards gained per attempt. That efficiency stems from defenses fearing the run, not from an overwhelmingly consistent or threatening passing attack. Thus, Notre Dame will focus on keeping the ground game in check.
Stanford junior Bryce Love will, at best, be hobbled with a bum ankle. At worst, he will not even take the field, leaving Cameron Scarlett to carry the load.
“[Scarlett] seems to be a physical back, downhill runner, a good one-cut guy,” Irish senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said Tuesday. “Can make you miss, and physical. I think he embodies what Stanford tries to be about, and that’s tough, pro-style football, and that’s being efficient, keeping the ball away from their opponent, and playing tough.”
Scarlett has seen significant time this season with Love battling the ankle injury for much of the year. Scarlett has taken 73 carries for 362 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.96 yards per rush.
Nonetheless, Kelly will prepare anticipating Love’s speed.
“To me, it’s his ability to break that first tackle [that sets Love apart] and then ultimately he’s got incredible speed,” Kelly said. “… He’s got elite speed and he breaks tackles, and that is a lethal mix.”
In a perfect world, both Love and Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams would be 100 percent, with fully-supportive ankles free from all swelling. The two could try to one-up each other possession after possession without ever taking the field at the same time.
Alas, this is far from a perfect world. Speaking of which …
If not for the national holiday of gluttony Thursday, this may already be known. Instead, the junior receiver’s status in the concussion protocol may not be known until close to Saturday’s kickoff (8:14 p.m. ET; ABC).
If St. Brown is cleared to go, then the norm continues with an increasing emphasis on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. If St. Brown is not available, look for more of junior receiver Miles Boykin.
“Boykin will go in and do a great job,” Kelly said. “We’ll just plug-and-play him. What you’ll see is his ability — in the game against Navy, he filled in very nicely, caught a couple passes, did a nice job blocking on the perimeter.
“You just take [St. Brown] out and you put Miles Boykin in there, and we keep rolling.”
Kelly described Williams (ankle; quad contusion) as “about as 100 percent as we’ve had him.” If that is the case, the junior running back will have a featured role in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s game plan.
Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith (hamstring) might be not much of a concern most weeks, but St. Brown’s questionable status could create a chance for Smith to return to the offense as a contributing piece.
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.
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.
— 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
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.
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.
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.
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.