Christian McCaffrey

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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.

Shaw confirms McCaffrey out with injury

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Stanford will be without Christian McCaffrey.

Head coach David Shaw broke the news to NBC Sports’ Kathryn Tappen, with Stanford’s star runner not available against the Irish after leaving last week’s game with an undisclosed injury. It’s a huge break for Notre Dame’s beleaguered defense, with Stanford now looking to replace the team’s leading rusher, receiver and return man.

Behind McCaffrey are sophomores Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett. Love has 21 carries on the year while Scarlett has just eight.

Pregame Six Pack: Looking for a win

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Perhaps the least controversial place for Brian Kelly to be this week is on the sidelines. Because after creating a stir in front of a post-game microphone, and with media speculation ramping up from all the predictable places, Kelly—Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach and the owner of a contract extension that is set to keep him in South Bend until 2021—is ready to get back to football.

And more importantly, he thinks his team is, too.

“They’re ready. They just have to break through,” Kelly said Thursday. “They’re doing all the things I’m asking. They’ve just got to go win. It’s going to happen. I would have liked it to happen a few weeks ago, and they would have as well.”

That it didn’t is why we’re in this 2-4 mess. And it’s why there are storm clouds amidst the pleasant weekend forecast, a slew of unhappy fans forcing a head coach’s approval rating to sink like a major party presidential candidate.

So let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. With a a big game under the lights and two football teams in desperate need of a win, it’s another big weekend for football in South Bend.

With or without Christian McCaffrey, the objective on defense will be the same. 

There’s still no word on if Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s heart and soul, will take the field this weekend. But even if he’s a scratch, Brian Kelly doesn’t believe the defensive objective changes for Notre Dame.

“It’s like anything else. It’s not that we had an hex on him and he fell down. We controlled the line of scrimmage,” Kelly explained Tuesday. “We will have to control the line of scrimmage again, and if you can control the line of scrimmage and win the match-ups up front you can definitely slow him down. Teams have shown that.”

There’s progress being made up front, with Jarron Jones playing better football, Jerry Tillery ascending and Daniel Cage finding his rhythm as the Irish play more of a three-man front.

And even if Stanford is 102nd in the country in yards per play, this will be a stern test.

Getting the offense back on track will be key as well. 

Nobody wants to forget NC State faster than Notre Dame’s offense. Because a group that was averaging 40 points and 500 yards a game looked terrible—maybe (gasp!) even worse than the game plan. (On second thought, maybe not that bad.)

But there’s plenty of confidence in this unit. It didn’t just disappear in a week. And assuming nobody’s aiming a firehose at DeShone Kizer, he should have time to pick apart a Stanford defense that’s really struggled the past few weeks.

Kizer talked about the challenge ahead and raising the bar for the offense.

“We need to be a team that goes out, starts strong, maintains that same strong start throughout the whole game, and then finish as strong as we started,” Kizer said. “We go out and we show great spurts. We have athletes all over the field. We have a great offensive line. We’re completely sound across the board and very skilled.

“But with that, we haven’t done a good job of going out and keeping our pedal to the floor the whole game. We hit lapses, and that’s the truth. That’s the reality of how this season has started and those lapses have come back and ended up with four losses.”

Those lapses have included uneven play from Notre Dame’s rising star at quarterback. While Kizer’s three-game stretch of passing against Michigan State, Syracuse and Duke was the second-highest total in school history, his consistency disappeared at times, plagued by accuracy issues and decision-making that feel spurred on by a quarterback pressing to do too much.

But Kizer sees improvement coming. And he thinks it’s just around the corner.

“The confidence I have is because we haven’t had a full game. We have so much more to move forward on,” Kizer said. “We have so much more out there, and as an offense we can still put so many more points and move them forward. That potential makes me excited for what this offense can do.”

Playing great offense means playing better on first down. 

The Irish haven’t just been plagued by defensive struggles. The offense has also had a hard time digging itself out of early holes. And while some have focused on the team’s third-down struggles, Kelly mentioned that the team’s self-scout has pegged the problems on first down production.

“Our self-scout shows that we need to be better on first down. There is a trickle down affect into our third-down manageability, if you will,” Kelly explained. “So what we have looked at since Monday is why we were in the numbers that we were in and our self-scout shows some negative plays that we’ve got to get out of our offense. It’s really the negative plays, and that has got to be cleaned up for us to have a better third down efficiency.”

Those negative plays have often been because of some inconsistency along the offensive line. And those struggles were on full display against NC State, an Irish front that struggled in the trenches against the Wolfpack defensive line.

Left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey talked about the line’s need to take a step forward. And he pegged it not to anything having to do with technique or scheme, but rather the groups attention to detail.

“I think it is a mindset, and it’s a mindset about execution. And that’s all really offense comes down to is executing your job,” McGlinchey said. “I think it just comes down to a mindset of, yes, I’m going to get my job done, and I’m going to execute to the best of my ability on each and every play. And as soon as we can do that as consistently as we want to do that, I think we’ll be a lot better off.”

With very little fanfare, Stanford has become a wonderful rivalry. 

Maybe it’s the fact that the two schools are institutional peers. Maybe it’s because the rivalry has featured some wonderfully exciting games these past few years.

But it’s worth taking a look at the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry through a different lens, because after some questioned the decision to keep Stanford among the yearly rivals when games with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue all went to part-time opponents, the decision to go all-in with Stanford has been paid in full by the Cardinal, who have played elite football since Jim Harbaugh revived the program, turning this battle into something players look forward to.

“As much as you don’t want to say it’s just another game, but it’s not. It’s Stanford. It’s our rival,” McGlinchey said. “They’re a traditional powerhouse. They’re a phenomenally coached football team just as we are. And it’s just one of those things that you get up for certain games and this is one of them.”

Nobody was calling Stanford a traditional powerhouse when Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris were running the program into the ground. But with David Shaw building a program that has some Irish fans wishing it was the one in South Bend, it’s worth tipping your cap to Jack Swarbrick for making sure the Irish and Cardinal battle each year.

No time like Saturday night to get the pass rush rolling. 

The Irish ended their sack drought. They ended their forced-fumble streak against NC State. But getting off the schneid is one thing. Now it’s time for the Irish defensive line to make some forward progress—especially getting after the passer.

Because Stanford’s offensive line looks fragile. A unit that was viewed as one of the best in the country is now looking at a two-week run where they’ve given up 15 TFLs, including 11 sacks.

PFF College’s grading system tells the story. Only one of Stanford’s five starters up front has a positive grade this season. Last year? Four of five, with Joshua Garnett playing at an All-American level and Johnny Caspers not far off.

The strength of Notre Dame’s defense has been the front seven. Very quietly, Jarron Jones has been thriving—the team’s highest-graded defender on PFF. Isaac Rochell is right behind him. Jon Bonner has been impressive in his limited snaps. Jerry Tillery followed  his worst performance of the season with his best. Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes are finally earning snaps along with Andrew Trumbetti.

The opportunities are there for the taking. And winning the line of scrimmage in the run game shouldn’t be the only goal.

Even at the bottom, Brian Kelly believes this team has the ingredients of something special. 

Notre Dame’s head coach wasn’t in the mood to go big-picture on Thursday. But prodded into thinking back to other struggles he’s had over his 27 years as a head coach, Kelly made an interesting comparison for this football team—looking back to when some of his players were in diapers.

“It reminds me of my Grand Valley State team in 1999. We went 5-5-1, and then we went 50-3 or 50-4,” Kelly said, before joking that even this quote will be taken out of context. “It reminds me of a team that once they gain their confidence and once they break through, they’re going to have some success for a while.”

That’s the goal from here on out. Find that confidence. Find that momentum. And realize that this roster, even if it feels frustrating and difficult now, will be the one that’s tasked with winning football games in the very near future.

“[We] played a lot of young players. Let them experience it. Held them to high standards,” Kelly said of that Grand Valley team. “We’ve heard that before and really didn’t make any excuses. They were young, but [we] pushed them pretty hard, knowing that they were going to be successful.”

Kelly might be selling hope, a valuable commodity for a head coach on the lookout for hard-to-find wins. But he’s likely to get the benefit of the doubt from his bosses, a season that looks like an outlier during a career that’s seen Kelly win clips at a rate among the best in the game.

But that doesn’t buy him unlimited time. And after four losses by 21 points, Kelly knows that his team needs to break through.

“We’re going to be in close games. We’ve just got to finish them,” Kelly said. “That’s the will, the single-minded focus. I think they clearly understand that. They’re ready to win.”

Talking Irish: On to Stanford

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Another week, another conversation with JJ Stankevitz at CSN Chicago, as we try to make sense of what’s going on in South Bend. Here we tackle last week’s hurricane, “blaming” players, where to go next with a defensive coordinator hire, and if Brian Kelly’s job is really in trouble. 

Oh yeah. And Stanford. That, too. 

***

JJ: Well Keith, the good news is my clothes are finally dry from last weekend, and my rage from N.C. State towing my car has subsided. Before we dive into Stanford, what — if any — takeaways did you have from that miserable game of “football” last Saturday?

KA: Mostly that it should’ve at least been delayed.

JJ: **nods furiously**

KA: I know — I know — My initial answer should be, at least according to some, that the football program should be shut down and that BK should have been fired on the runway, but seriously. That wasn’t football.That wasn’t close to football.

And the fact that they jammed that game into that window — just so ABC could keep their broadcast window — is beyond lame. I checked around, and ND didn’t have a say. It was an ACC and NC State call.

JJ: Yep, exactly. It’s more on the ACC than anything else. It’s a miracle nobody got seriously injured, too, or no fans got their cars stuck in flooding (that I know of).

KA: I know, I should be in umbrage mode, but I have a hard time counting that as a football game — and that’s the one thing that doesn’t really get me all that worked up, though if ND ends with five wins or fails to get the bowl bid, you will wonder… (Though again, it’s NOT why they lost. It just shouldn’t have been played in the eye of a freaking hurricane.)

JJ: I guess if Notre Dame does go 5-7, you can point to playing the game in a hurricane as being a problem, but…losses to Duke, Michigan State and Texas are far worse, in my opinion. Especially since two of those three teams might not make a bowl either!

KA: Yes, that’s where I’m at, too. This first half of the season feels like a hurricane. And not in an impressive way, but rather like “oh my god, look what you’ve done” way.  To that point, let’s get right into it.

It’s been a weird week. And a toxic one. I haven’t seen it this bad since early 2010, and it actually feels a lot like the second half of 2008 — not quite the demise of 2009, but not that far away, either.

I’m not asking you to name third hand sources that may or may not be around the locker room. But do you think BK has lost his team? Or will we find that out against Stanford?

JJ:  So I’ll say this. This week, I’ve been reading up on Oregon a lot to see how other writers are covering an unexpected disaster of a season. And from the looks of it there, Mark Helfrich has lost the team.

Whether or not Brian Kelly has lost the Irish locker room, they’re not getting blown out or giving up 70 points a game. That would, to me, show a lack of effort that can’t be recovered. So I don’t know how much emphasis I put on the whole “lost the team” notion when they’re playing in close games.

Does that make sense?

KA: And my conversation with Do at the Stanford Daily, there are people at Stanford who want David Shaw fired, too.

JJ:  WHAT

KA: Some people just want to see the world burn. Two straight five-touchdown losses.

JJ: You have gotta be bleeping me.

KA: And look at Dantonio — same thing. Lotta Spartan fans thinking the guy lost it. Crazy pills are the universal drug of choice in college football.

JJ: Look, I get that Brian Kelly has soured himself to people because of the yelling and postgame criticisms of players.

JJ: But oh my gosh, wanting David Shaw fired. And Dantonio. What is happening?! That’s madness!

KA: Seriously. You hit on something interesting. I got hammered in some parts of the ND sphere (you can probably guess) for having the nerve to point to BK’s locker room talk after Kelly got killed for some comments from the postgame.
But I tend to think what BK says to the team is more important to them than what he says to the media right after.

JJ:  I thought DeShone Kizer had a really, really good answer to that whole debate.

“Blame is definitely not the word. In this game there are 11 guys who are required to do their job. And in order for us to go out there and to give a better result than we have in these last six games, you have to challenge guys. And when you guys sit up here and ask about specifics on guys, he’s going to let you know exactly what happened and in order for us to not up come out successful.

“That can be perceived as blame, but perception is part of what we do here working with the media. James walks in and he gives an answer, and it’s perceived as if he’s saying that it’s a horrible thing that coach puts blame on guys. But I’m sitting here having a conversation with him, and all he’s trying to say is, hey, yeah, it’s tough when the coach calls you out. But we take that as a challenge here.

“We accept everything as a team. But individually you’re going to have to get challenged to play your best. And when you’re 2-4 right now, everyone has to point their finger at themselves and look at themselves in the mirror and accept those challenges so that we can come out and be more successful and hopefully put together the wins that we need to put together in the second half of the season.”

That’s his full quote (he even went out of his way to help clarify a quote from James Onwualu that could’ve been mis-interpreted. This guy is a whiz with media.)

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything is okay inside the Gug, because Notre Dame is 2-4. But it’s worth noting this debate hasn’t affected recruiting, at least yet.

KA:  True. Somehow those 17 year-old kids aren’t reading message boards or my comments or the guys arguing under your articles. Weird.

***

KA: Let’s take this thing forward — because that’s the only way we can look at this. There’s a very real chance that McCaffrey isn’t playing this weekend.
Stanford’s got a few maulers on the defensive front, but they’ve had a tough two weeks.

Before I get your prediction, what are some battles you think that are mission critical to a win?

JJ: So Notre Dame’s defensive strategy is probably going to look a lot like it did last year in California — stop Christian McCaffrey (if he plays) and hope the quarterback doesn’t beat you.

The good news: Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst are nowhere close to being as good as Kevin Hogan was. The bad news: Well, so was Daniel Jones. And Tyler O’Connor, I guess.

KA:  Kevin Hogan: The future of the Cleveland Browns. They’re calling Tom Rees next.

JJ: Pull him out of coaching. Thought I’d love to see Rees and DeShone Kizer on the same sideline!

KA: This will be a huge progress report for the defense. It’s not like we saw anything last week. And it’s also not like Stanford is lighting it up right now.

JJ: Here’s a stat: Washington State entered last weekend with four sacks as a team. They left with seven. If Notre Dame can’t get sacks against Stanford, it never will. (Can’t believe I just typed that.)

KA:  I saw that tweet. That was very informative. (Follow JJ @JJStankevitz)

JJ: #BRANDS

KA:  #CONTENT #SYNERGY

JJ: But Keith, curious — what do you hope to see from this defense? Keep everything in front of them and not get beat, or try to take a few shots at making plays against a maybe-vulnerable offense?

KA: I’d just like some baseline logic. For instance: If you’re going to send the house — play off in coverage. If you’re going to go heavy to stop the run, play zone behind it.

JJ:  Smart, simple solutions. Low key, too: Mike Elston deserves a lot of credit for whatever defensive turnaround we’ve seen to date, too.

KA: I really think that Hudson coming in — and BK putting his hands all over this unit feels so logical now, but man — it sure makes you think that the BVG era was just one gigantic misstep. Can we peg that all to Nick Saban out-scheming Bobby D and the boys that fateful BCS title game?

JJ: I would certainly hope not. If that was the case, you throw all your money into ND1, drive it to Clemson, and back it up to Brent Venables’ house after the 2013 season.

KA: So maybe that’ll lead me to my final point before we get into the game (other than where we should have a beer on Friday night…) Do you dump a pile of cash on a national coordinator?

Do you take on Charlie Strong? Do you win the “Name” battle? Or do you think BK goes somewhere familiar?

JJ: It’d be a disservice to the program if Kelly didn’t reach out to Dave Aranda given the coaching turnover at LSU. Derek Mason, if Vanderbilt lets him go, would be a good call.

KA:  I think that’s the dream trio, right?

JJ: Aranda, Mason, Strong?

KA: Yes. Though Strong’s name is taking a beating. I’m sure there are some under-the-radar names that might come up, too.

JJ:  Or consider this, Tom Herman goes to LSU, keeps Dave Aranda, but makes Todd Orlando available in the process. I know Mike Elko has been brought up by few forward-thinking fans — he’s done a lot with absolutely no talent at Wake Forest.

KA: Like it. I just don’t know if ND is going to go multi-million dollar coordinator.

KA: I lied – one more doom and gloom question.

How ugly do you think this season needs to get before Swarbrick thinks about making a major change? And wouldn’t he need to make sure he had a guy in hand before he did it?

JJ:  I mean, if they go 3-9 and, I don’t think you can rule anything out. But that being said…I find it really, really hard to believe Kelly won’t be the coach here in 2017.

KA: That’s where I’m at, too.

JJ: And to answer your second question — you’re not getting Tom Herman, you’re not getting Urban Meyer, and there’s not that up-and-coming obvious candidate out there.

KA: Exactly. That’s been — and will continue to be — my point.

JJ: So if you fire Kelly, you might get stuck with Plan F, which could pull Notre Dame only further down into the depths of mediocrity.

KA: Not that we’re all happy and excited — let’s get to Saturday. Where you at?
W? L? A Greg Hudson renaissance?

JJ:  *peeks to make sure nobody’s looking*

31-27 Notre Dame.

KA: WOW.

JJ: I think this is sneakily a pretty good matchup for Notre Dame. And I know tying my cart to a 2-4 horse that lost to Duke is dangerous.

KA: I like your fire. But I am going hedge: ND loses a tight one if McCaffrey plays. ND wins by 10 points if he doesn’t. There’s just not enough info out there to make a calculation when college football’s most prolific weapon is a 50-50 proposition.

JJ: Fair, though college football’s most prolific weapon only has 84 yards on 20 carries in his last two games. And Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been terrible against the run this year.

KA: When 10 guys key on him, David Shaw still isn’t afraid to give it to him.
That’s a man with no pitch count.

JJ: True, and the whole tackling thing hasn’t been great for Notre Dame.

KA: You’re bringing us down, JJ!

JJ:  I just said they’d win! Positivity!

KA: I’ll let us leave it at that —
a battle for another rivalry trophy that nobody knew existed. #LEGENDS

JJ: #LEADERS Wait. Wrong thing.

KA: Haha. Alright — I’ll see you this weekend. I’ll be the guy wandering aimlessly as he finds his way into the new press box.

JJ: It’s pretty high up, but the hot dogs are present as ever. See you there!

And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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Notre Dame’s second primetime home affair has lost some of its luster. But every time the Irish play Stanford, a good game usually ensues, so even if the Cardinal are riding a two-game losing streak and Notre Dame comes in amidst a confidence-crushing swoon, there’s plenty at stake in the annual battle for the Legends Trophy.

To get us ready for Stanford is Do-Hyoung Park. A fellow Minnesotan from the great city of St. Paul, Do does everything for the Stanford Daily, all while on track for his masters in chemical engineering.

After spending the summer covering an epically bad Minnesota Twins season, Do is back in Palo Alto and went deep to get us ready for David Shaw and the tough gentlemen from the Pac-12.

Hope you enjoy.

* Let’s start with the obvious: What’s happened these last two weeks? After a strong start to the season, the bottom has fallen out against Washington and Washington State? What ails David Shaw’s team?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? No, really. If I knew the answer, I’d be making millions coaching the Cardinal right now, because, frankly, offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren doesn’t exactly know what’s wrong with his offense, either, and he actually gets paid to do this. From top to bottom, Stanford is still among the most talented teams in the conference and is arguably the best-coached team in the Pac-12. On paper, this team isn’t 38 points worse than Washington, and it’s definitely not 26 points worse than Washington State.

Heading into each of the last two matchups, Bloomgren thought his offense — and the line — was trending up, only to be utterly blindsided by how badly Stanford fell on its face in execution both times. Bloomgren is actually concerned at this point that he might be over-coaching the line and giving them too much to think about, which has made Stanford hesitant in the trenches and slow to react to opposing defenses. But even with the injuries, there’s really no reason that the team should be playing this badly, and nobody can really put a finger on why — not the players, not the coaches and certainly not the fans. We saw this sluggishness to start last season on offense as well — and all it took was one jolt (a flea flicker against UCF) to light the fire. Stanford is still searching for that jolt, but nobody seems to know when (or how) it’ll come.

This answer might feel like a cop-out, but it’s really the prevailing sentiment around the program right now.

 

* After getting robbed in last year’s Heisman voting, Christian McCaffrey is back and clearly one of the country’s best football players. That said, his production is down and he’s now dealing with an undisclosed injury that has his status for the weekend up in the air.

A few questions on McCaffrey:

1) Is his drop in production tied more to the change in personnel up front or defenses keying on him?

In terms of public perception, Christian McCaffrey’s biggest enemy is how good Christian McCaffrey was last season. It’s really not fair to point to a “drop in production” and to ask what’s wrong, because the standard that he set last year was quite literally unprecedented in the history of the sport. He did go well over 100 rushing yards in each of Stanford’s first three games of the season despite a lot of turnover on the offensive line, with double-digit receiving yards in each of those games, to boot. In terms of all-purpose yardage, his numbers are down because nobody is kicking to him anymore — and rightfully so. The rushing and receiving numbers were still otherworldly.

Of course, I say “were” because he was bottled up quite well against both Washington and Washington State, but those numbers should be taken with the caveat that against Washington, Stanford found itself in a big hole early and couldn’t keep the ball on the ground (McCaffrey only carried the ball 12 times), and against Washington State, the Cardinal decided to go with 4-WR or 5-WR shotgun for most of the night, even before McCaffrey left with his injury.

The offensive line breaking in three new starters certainly hasn’t helped his cause. Last season, he’d get three or four yards before getting hit on any carry, but this year, he’s getting hit near the line of scrimmage more often — and regardless of how shifty he is, McCaffrey can’t carry the load by himself. I wouldn’t necessarily say that defenses have been keying in on him, either — in the last two weeks especially, defenses haven’t really needed to do so because Stanford was just that outmatched at the line of scrimmage.

2) Is there a feeling that he’ll actually miss this game — and maybe more — especially with Stanford’s postseason goals likely already squashed?

It’s really too early to tell, but my best guess is that he won’t play on Saturday. Stanford has already tried to rush somebody’s recovery this season (CB1 Alijah Holder) and he re-injured himself and is set to miss his third straight game this weekend. I’d say that with a player as valuable as McCaffrey, Stanford is going to take every precaution possible to make sure that he’s only going to play when he’s absolutely, 100 percent healthy, which probably won’t be this weekend. It helps that sophomore running back Bryce Love is very much like McCaffrey in his own right and has been chomping at the bit for an extended look since last season. Shaw said after the Washington State game that he didn’t put McCaffrey back in because it wasn’t worth it in a blowout. Not to say that the Notre Dame game isn’t important, but this doesn’t seem like a particularly worthwhile game to mess with McCaffrey’s health, especially with the team sitting at 3-2 and third place in the Pac-12 North.

3) Is there any chance he comes back to the Farm for his senior season?

People seem to be treating it like a done deal that McCaffrey will declare for the draft at the end of this year, but I’m personally of the opinion that he’ll be back next year. I don’t know how to say this in a way that doesn’t come across as incredibly pompous, but quite frankly, there’s no real reason to leave Stanford’s campus and educational opportunities early — especially when you’re the second-most beloved student at the school (behind Katie Ledecky). Generally, players that have left Stanford after only three years, like Alex Carter, Austin Hooper and Andrus Peat, have either been unhappy with the football program or with the academics at the school. McCaffrey doesn’t seem to fit into that mold at all. Remember: Even Andrew Luck stayed for his senior season.

4) Do you think his career at the next level can be representative of his dominance in the Pac-12?

Not as an all-around threat. As good as McCaffrey has been at the collegiate level, I don’t think he’s sturdy enough to be an every-down, between-the-tackles running back in the NFL, where everyone is an athletic freak of nature, or fast enough to be a good returner. I believe McCaffrey’s future in the NFL will be something like a Wes Welker/Danny Woodhead hybrid, where I could see him being heavily involved in a team’s passing game out of the backfield while also lining up in the slot to match up against linebackers and safeties in coverage, where he can do plenty of damage thanks to his tremendous field vision and open-field maneuverability. His route-running and hands as a receiver are already among the best on the team (even among the actual wide receivers), which I expect to be his primary calling card at the next level.

 

* Notre Dame’s season went up in smoke. Stanford’s feels a bit in free fall. We’ve spent a lot of time here discussing the root cause of the problems facing the Irish. Are there big picture issues in Palo Alto, or are fans taking a more measured approach to the two-game swoon?

You would expect Stanford fans, of all people, to be reasonable, right? I was confounded to see people calling for David Shaw’s head and for the team to replace Burns at quarterback during the loss to Washington State, and even got blocked on Twitter by one of our fans for refusing to publicly denounce the coach that has taken the program to three Rose Bowls in the last four years. Really controversial stuff, right? The sad truth is that there’s a segment of fans that forget just how utterly abominable Stanford football was as recently as 2007 and fail to appreciate what Shaw has done for this program to make Stanford a perennial conference championship contender. That’s not to say it’s all bad — there are plenty of fans out there that remember the doldrums of the mid-2000s and are letting cooler heads prevail — and rightfully so.

The fact of the matter is that Stanford’s recruiting pipeline is only growing more formidable and the coaching staff is full of proven winners that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. This program is built to stay. I sure hope our fans are able to keep that in perspective.

 

* Defensively, Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips look like monsters up front and Stanford’s run defense seems to be back to what it was in previous seasons. But again — two straight weeks have you wondering what gives with the Cardinal defense, and the pass defense is 95th in the country. This is Lance Anderson’s third year coordinating the unit. How stiff of a challenge will he give the Irish offense?

Thomas and Phillips are absolutely monsters up front, but the execution bug has been plaguing them over the last two weeks, too. The Stanford pass rush just wasn’t able to get consistent pressure on either Jake Browning or Luke Falk, and especially with the Cardinal’s top two corners out, Stanford seemed unwilling to send too many blitzes and leave its less experienced defensive backs on islands against two of the best quarterbacks in the conference (if not the nation). The coverage actually hasn’t been all too bad, but given enough time, receivers will always get open. Browning and Falk had time, and they didn’t miss their receivers.

Stanford is also down another starter this week, with budding star safety Justin Reid (brother of Eric) lost for the first half after being ejected for a targeting penalty in the second half against the Cougars. Cornerback Quenton Meeks is expected to be back for the game and sophomore corner Frank Buncom IV has played really well in his first collegiate action, but the secondary’s depth is precariously thin at the moment. Lance Anderson is the king of in-game adjustments with his coverages and pressures, but if Notre Dame can take advantage of Stanford’s anemic pass rush to put up one or two scores early, the Cardinal might again be in trouble, since this team is clearly not built to play from behind.

 

* This game has routinely been one of the best on the calendar each year, a rivalry growing in importance at both the school and national level. What’s this game mean to the team? What’s it mean to the fans? And is it a game that means something to Stanford fans, too?

I guess this is technically a trophy game, right? To tell the truth, it honestly doesn’t feel like much of one on campus. Of course, people dislike Notre Dame, but only as much as the country in general seems to dislike Notre Dame, for, well, being Notre Dame. The fans out here certainly don’t see it as a rivalry or anything. Last year’s Senior Night spectacle at Stanford Stadium aside, matchups against Notre Dame just seem to lack any sort of clout because it’s either a) in South Bend, which is a world and a half away from the Bay Area or b) the last week of the season, when the Pac-12 race has already been decided and Stanford has already been eliminated from BCS/Playoff consideration.

The game might have meant something more to Kevin Hogan (whom I really hope isn’t broken in half behind the Browns’ offensive line) because his late father was a huge Notre Dame fan, but among the rest of the team, it really feels like just another game — especially with Stanford at 3-2 and Notre Dame at 2-4 this year.

 

* How do you see this football game playing out? And how much do your expectations change if the Cardinal are without McCaffrey?

Notre Dame’s defense has been a mess, but I’m not sure the Stanford offensive line will be able to figure things out before Saturday. They might, but given that they’ve been working without results for the last two-plus weeks, it seems hard to believe that after dropping a dud against Washington State, they’ll all of a sudden find their mid-season form against a Notre Dame team that has much more talent than the Cougars. I think Notre Dame’s offense takes advantage of Stanford’s anemic pass rush and missing defensive backs to take an early lead that it’ll hold against the McCaffrey-less Cardinal. I don’t think Stanford’s offense changes all too much without McCaffrey (Love is talented and versatile, too — we’re very excited about him) but the offensive line in its current form won’t win too many games. I’m taking the Irish, 27-14.