Cameron Scarlett

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Monday’s Leftover’s: Notre Dame was always going to play this out at least one more year

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Three out of the past four years, Notre Dame has reached November with genuine College Football Playoff aspirations.

In 2014, injuries removed any chances of finishing the season strongly.

In 2015, close losses belied the nature of college football.

Then defensive youth and overall indifference torpedoed the season in September a year ago.

None of those factors played a role in 2017, and that drives the doubt following the regular season’s 9-3 conclusion. Irish coach Brian Kelly cannot cite his team’s inexperience for falling 38-20 at Stanford on Saturday, and he cannot cite injury for the 41-8 debacle in Miami a few weeks ago.

Notre Dame simply was neither consistent nor ready when it most needed to be. It beat the teams it was supposed to beat, something it very much did not do in 2016. It lost to the teams it could have beaten, something true for a while now.

That former fact alone removes the biggest question from director of athletics Jack Swarbrick’s pondering this month. A year after betting long on Kelly, Swarbrick’s chips remain on the table.

Nothing happened in 2017 to alter Swarbrick’s strategy. In the closing minutes Saturday night, Swarbrick stood along the sideline watching intently, his hand moving from his chin to his hips as the final Irish drive puttered out in somewhat appropriate fashion, close enough to consider the end zone but not so near to ever have had made the possibility a tantalizing what-if.

Swarbrick and Kelly walked up the tunnel in Stanford Stadium together. Kelly remains Swarbrick’s long view, and there is no reason to expect that to change before Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium in September.

That has been clear for the better part of a year. The results of two Saturday nights are not impetus to change that, even if they sandwiched a frustrating three-week stretch. Once Swarbrick committed to the slow play, it became foolish to ever think of going all-in on a mediocre hand, a questionable hire of, well, who knows who given this weekend’s coaching carousel debacles.

Whether agreeing or disagreeing with Swarbrick’s approach, hoping to change tacts only halfway through the vowed premise is akin to hoping the river card will complete a full house. It’s possible, but it is not the smart play.

To both Kelly and Swarbrick, they aren’t pondering a call. They’re really thinking about 2018.

Notre Dame sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson knew he would score for much of his 83-yard touchdown against Stanford on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

A couple statistical notes
Lost in Saturday’s loss was an impressive surprise by the Irish offense. Never before had one game seen two touchdown passes of 75-yards or more. It’s an oddity, but one worth acknowledging, nonetheless. The 83-yard touchdown to sophomore Kevin Stepherson was the longest Notre Dame touchdown pass since Kyle Rudolph went 95 yards in the final minutes to seemingly-beat Michigan in 2010.

Stepherson finishes the season leading the Irish with five touchdowns, while junior Equanimeous St. Brown’s five catches for 111 yards and a 75-yard score boosted his totals to 31 catches for 468 yards and four touchdowns, the first two figures leading the team.

On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame’s defense actually played well against the Cardinal, aside from being forced into short fields twice too many times. That effort was led, once again, by the linebackers, specifically senior Nyles Morgan and junior Te’von Coney.

“The plan going in was to attack the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said. “Those ‘backers were free to do it.”

With six tackles Saturday, Coney finished the regular season with a team-high 99, followed by Morgan’s 83, seven of which came this weekend.

Stanford and running backs
Cardinal junior Bryce Love will almost assuredly head to the NFL this offseason. His speed alone should warrant a relatively-high draft slot.

That will hardly be a matter for Stanford head coach David Shaw in 2018. With the exception of 2014, the Cardinal have continued to reload in the backfield with future NFL players. That trend extends from Toby Gerhart (2006 to 2009, shining in ’08 and ’09) to Stepfan Taylor (’09-’12, the focus in the latter three seasons) to Tyler Gaffney (’09-’13, led in ’13) … and then from Christian McCaffrey to Love and next either current sophomore Trevor Speights or junior Cameron Scarlett.

Speights finished Saturday with five carries for 19 yards while Scarlett added six carries for 12 yards and a touchdown, both allowing Love enough rest to remain effective despite a bum ankle. One or both of Speights and Scarlett will cause headaches for opposing defenses next year.

Lastly, a basketball moment
Rarely does the pregame press box conversation turn to the hardwood. This isn’t due to a football obsession. Rather, focus is on the game to come. That is even more true when in an open air press box and the field feels figuratively that much closer.

But when a basketball game goes from a 3-on-5 laugher to a “Wait, could Alabama win with only three players?” all attention shifts to one computer screen showcasing Minnesota’s near-meltdown.

How did Alabama end up with only three players?

How close did the game come?

And, of course, a requisite “Hoosiers” reference:

Now that would have been one to remember.

Notre Dame’s turnovers lead to 38-20 loss and 9-3 finish

Associated Press
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STANFORD, Calif. — Notre Dame had a chance to seize every ounce of control at Stanford on Saturday, just like the Irish had an opportunity in November to force their way into the forefront of the national conversation. By failing to deliver a blow to the No. 21 Cardinal, No. 8 Notre Dame completed its fall to a disappointing 9-3 conclusion from a strong 8-1 beginning.

The final ledger will point toward three fourth-quarter Irish turnovers as the catalyst to the 38-20 loss. Head coach Brian Kelly cited them directly and frequently afterward.

“Each game that we’ve lost this year, we’ve turned the football over against quality opposition,” Kelly said. “… We turned a good game into a not-so-good game by turning the football over late.”

That is not an inaccurate telling of the game, but it is incomplete. Notre Dame outgained Stanford 415 yards to 328, but could never establish its running game, averaging only 4.58 yards on 38 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Cardinal sacked Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush six times, keeping him hemmed in for 81 yards on 11 rushes otherwise. Specifically, that was a piece of Stanford coach David Shaw’s game plan.

“I was not subtle this week about containing the quarterback,” Shaw said. “We had to keep him inside. … Get [Wimbush] to a sideline, he’s going to kill us either with his legs or his arm.”

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) and Notre Dame’s offense never found consistency during the 38-20 loss at Stanford on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Wimbush added 249 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-28 passing, though the scores and 158 of those yards came on two plays alone, an 83-yard touchdown to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and a 75-yarder to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.

Wimbush also threw two interceptions, two-thirds of the crippling dynamic Kelly focused on.

“I thought we were in a good rhythm,” Wimbush said. “I thought we had control of what was going on. I felt good about what we were doing.

“Can’t turn the ball over at that time.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The turnovers did in Notre Dame. That can hardly be denied. Yet, the Irish were not exactly humming before Wimbush’s first interception.

When junior Shaun Crawford downed a punt at Stanford’s one-yard line, he set up the Notre Dame defense to force the Cardinal’s hand. It quickly led to a three-and-out. Junior Chris Finke returned the ensuing punt all the way to the 19-yard line, breaking a tackle before finding a crease. Suddenly, the Irish were set to take a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter, having held Stanford largely in check all night.

“We’ve been really good all year about taking those possessions and turning them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

That is not what happened.

To be clear, the Cardinal did not stop Notre Dame; the Irish did themselves in. Two procedure penalties created a first-and-20 from the 29-yard line. Stepherson gained all 10 of those yards back on a jet sweep — one of the few designs offensive coordinator Chip Long could count on this last month — but the momentum was already gone. The following two plays lost another two yards and Notre Dame settled for a field goal and a 20-17 lead.

“I didn’t feel like it was slipping away in that sense, but I felt like we left some points out there,” Kelly said.

Per usual, fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey was even more blunt about the mishap.

“Just dumb penalties,” he said, himself guilty of the second penalty with a false start. “It can’t happen. That’s the only thing you can say about that.”

The Irish took an ideal situation, squandered it entirely on their own and by the time they had another chance to threaten, Stanford had scored three unanswered touchdowns to create the final 38-20 margin.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
The Cardinal took a 31-20 lead with most of the fourth quarter remaining. Notre Dame was very much still in the game, if not for possibly having already checked out mentally. Irish junior C.J. Sanders took the kickoff from the goal line and did not even get the ball to the 20-yard line. Instead, he deposited it on the grass to be recovered by Stanford.

The Cardinal did exactly what Notre Dame did not after Finke’s punt return. It took great field position and turned it into seven points.

Wimbush will get the headlines and the brunt of the criticism for his two turnovers, but he was not alone. The mistakes came in a number of varieties.

“We played really good football teams and turned it over,” Kelly said. “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to put yourself in a bad situation. There’s not that guys were tired, not mentally sharp, [or] they didn’t come ready to play. They came ready to play. They were ready to win today.

“Got to hold onto the football. Can’t turn it over.”

Stanford took two short fields and turned them into touchdowns. Notre Dame took a short field and turned it into a field goal. Remove the former scores and turn the latter into a touchdown, and this game would have been 24-24. Obviously, that isn’t how football works.

“It’s what we thought it would be,” Kelly said. “We thought the game would get into the fourth quarter and we’d have a chance to win it. We didn’t expect to turn the football over a couple of times.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Wimbush’s first interception created one of those short fields for the Cardinal. After the debacle of a possession off the Finke punt return, Stanford scored a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. On the very first snap afterward, Wimbush tried to force a pass to fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe for about a 10-yard gain.

He did not see Cardinal sophomore linebacker Curtis Robinson reading the passer’s eyes and jumping the route.

“I just didn’t see the Buck defender drop,” Wimbush said. “Then he got into my window. I thought I could squeeze it in there. He made a great play.”

Down only four points, the Irish were in good position to regain control. Three plays later, Stanford had all the control after sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello found senior tight end Dalton Schultz for a 12-yard touchdown pass.

“Brandon is a competitor,” Kelly said. “He’ll bounce back. He is who he is, he wants to win as bad as anybody.

“He’ll go back to work and work on his craft. He’s our starting quarterback. He’ll be starting in the bowl game.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
On the Notre Dame-specific side of things, the focus would go to either junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (six tackles, three for loss including one sack) or St. Brown (five catches, 111 yards, one touchdown).

Notre Dame limited Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love’s big plays, but he still found his way to 125 yards on 20 carries. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

For the game, the honor goes to Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love. Playing with a sprained ankle, as he has much of the season, Love took 20 carries for 125 yards. He broke only one run for more than 30 yards (31, to be exact), but he did enough to mandate the Irish defense’s attention all evening.

“It was tough,” Love said. “It’s just part of the Stanford brand of football, though. We enjoy those gritty games where you have to fight for yard after yard. That’s kind of what it was the first two quarters.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Things turned south for the Irish in a hurry, both in the game and in the season. Only 15 days ago, they were No. 3 in the College Football Playoff selection committee poll, 8-1 and looking to make a statement at Miami. Now, Notre Dame is 9-3 and likely headed to a bowl game in Orlando.

To start the fourth quarter Saturday, the Irish led 20-17 and looked to be in position to slug out a physical win at The Farm for the first time since 2007. In just three minutes and 36 seconds, the Cardinal turned that into a 38-20 margin.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
The outsider’s focus right now may be backward, a retrospective of the season. Inside the locker room, however, the bowl game looms.

“Like any other game, we got to learn from this one and move forward,” junior running back Josh Adams said. “Got to really get back to that grind, finish this [season] out strong. We want to do it the right way, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
3:40 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 83-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 0. (3 plays, 86 yards, 0:39)
0:43 — Stanford touchdown. Trent Irwin 29-yard reception from K.J. Costello. Jet Toner PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 7. (5 plays, 72 yards, 2:49)

Second Quarter
11:29 — Stanford touchdown. JJ Arcega-Whiteside four-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 7. (6 plays, 55 yards, 2:40)
2:36 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 38 yards. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 69 yards, 4:34)

Third Quarter
14:48 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 75-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Stanford 14. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:12)
10:23 — Stanford field goal. Toner 24 yards. Notre Dame 17, Stanford 17. (9 plays, 64 yards, 4:19)
1:23 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 38 yards. Notre Dame 20, Stanford 17. (4 plays, -2 yards, 2:43)

Fourth Quarter
13:46 — Stanford touchdown. Kaden Smith 19-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 24, Notre Dame 20. (7 plays, 70 yards, 2:31)
12:21 — Stanford touchdown. Dalton Schultz 12-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20. (3 plays, 29 yards, 1:22)
10:10 — Stanford touchdown. Cameron Scarlett three-yard rush. Toner PAT good. Stanford 38, Notre Dame 20. (4 plays, 18 yards, 2:06)

Things To Learn: What did Miami teach Notre Dame?

Associated Press
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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.

When healthy, Stanford junior Bryce Love may be the best running back in the country. If he puts an ankle injury far enough out of his mind to face Notre Dame, he will be the toughest challenge the Irish defensive line has faced this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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.

He’s not Bryce Love — hardly anyone is — but junior Cameron Scarlett has held his own when called upon this season. (Getty Images)

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 …

Is Equanimeous St. Brown healthy?

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.”

And what about Dexter Williams and Cam Smith?

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.