Breaking Bad. Mad Men. Game of Thrones. None of them had season finales with more on the line than Notre Dame on Saturday.
Walt White battled Gustavo Fring. Four houses met for a Red Wedding. And Don Draper survived Sterling Cooper (and himself) again and again.
But Brian Kelly’s team has a chance to finish a season for the ages. Because after a year of twists and turns, celebrations and disappointments, and key characters dropping like flies, Notre Dame has a chance to vanquish Stanford—one last noble foe—and wrap up a few lofty objectives in their final 60 minutes of football for the regular season.
Winning will be no easy task. And it’s the lone mission, one that’s largely been obscured by hours of debating playoff scenarios, none worthy of the oxygen consumed until the final cards are laid on the table.
Like any great theater, the hero is wounded. The Irish limp into Palo Alto, unimpressive winners the past two weeks. Missing KeiVarae Russell and most likely C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame will have to find a way to beat a Stanford team who once again is the class of the Pac-12, college football’s deepest conference.
So buckle up. Shake off the tryptophan. (It’s not a real excuse, anyway.)
It’s time for one final Pregame Six Pack, as we wait to find out the fate of the Irish after an incredible 2015 season.
Stopping Christian McCaffrey isn’t just another job. It might be stopping college football’s best player.
Brian Kelly coined a new phrase this season during his Tuesday press conferences, deeming top players “game-wreckers.” We heard it with USC’s Adoree Jackson. Again with Pitt’s Tyler Boyd. But none are as lethal as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
The Cardinals’ sophomore running back has been one of college football’s most impressive players. And he’s receiving the awards kudos to prove it—McCaffrey was a midseason All-American, and is in consideration for the Doak Walker, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Hornung Awards.
So while media types had the early focus on LSU’s Leonard Fournette, it’s McCaffrey who might be the best football player in the country. At least his head coach thinks so.
“Has anybody seen a running back, I’ll say this, a football player, better than Christian McCaffrey this year?” Shaw asked after last week’s effort against Cal. “Tell me. Show him to me. I haven’t seen anybody.
“We played a lot of night games, which we all talked about. So we had a lot of time to sit and watch football. I have not seen anybody in America like this kid. He’s truly, truly special. Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker, he got a couple nice blocks today. The kid’s just truly, truly special. And our guys know that and they take a lot of pride in blocking for him down the field because the guy makes special, special plays.”
McCaffrey enters the season finale with a ridiculous 2,807 all-purpose yards, capable of reaching 3,000 on the season, a number only eclipsed by Barry Sanders at the FBS level. He’s averaging 30 touches of the football a game, meaning Shaw has been feeding him the football at a level befitting his leading man status.
So for the Irish to win, Notre Dame’s defense needs to find a way to keep McCaffrey from making game-wreckin plays, something he’s done to teams just about every week.
Preventing big plays? That hinges on Notre Dame’s safety play.
Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference featured a wonderful moment, as Kelly unleashed a wry smile that said so much more than any of the words he uttered during his roughly 40 minutes of media availability this week.
Asked by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson about the evils of 20+ yard runs allowed, Kelly could only smile when asked a question that both sides of the query knew was pretty straight forward.
“I’d like to give you an easy answer,” Kelly said. “But when you give up big plays, you need second-level and third-level support. I think our first-level defense has been really, really good. Our second-level defense has been solid. And our third level has not been as good.”
The easy answer, of course, would’ve been driving a steamroller over safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. The duo has been a weak link from a consistency point of view, with Redfield’s woes particularly striking at key moments throughout the year, including last week on Boston College’s 80-yard touchdown score.
There’s precious little depth at the position, especially after injuries to Drue Tranquill, Avery Sebastian and Shaun Crawford. And with Matthias Farley needed as a cornerback this week after the loss of KeiVarae Russell, it’ll be up to Redfield and Shumate to be the type of third-level support that’ll contain the one-man wrecking crew that McCaffrey has been to opposing defenses.
His approval rating my not be the highest among Irish fans, but Brian VanGorder has a fan in Stanford’s David Shaw.
Notre Dame’s defensive struggles have been mostly pinned on the scheme of Brian VanGorder. The Irish’s second-year defensive coordinator has installed an NFL scheme in South Bend, but that’s come with some head-scratching lapses by the personnel asked to execute the game plans.
But for all the gripes about VanGorder, it’s worth remembering the battle between Notre Dame and Stanford from last season. Namely, VanGorder’s excellent game plan shutting down the Cardinal offense.
In the Irish’s thrilling 17-14 win, Stanford gained only 205 yards of total offense. They ran for just 47 net yards on 32 carries. The Irish forced eight punts with Stanford gaining only 14 first downs as the Irish sacked Kevin Hogan four times among seven TFLs that rainy October day.
“I think they’ve got an outstanding defensive coordinator,” Shaw said in his postgame comments last October. “He mixes it up, a lot of pressure. We picked up not as many as we’d like, our quarterback got hit a lot today. Give them a lot of credit for their scheme.
“We flat out missed some things and some things our guys just got beat. It was a great mix. There were a couple of plays that were there to make but we just didn’t make them. I think the counting for the guys they lost, they did an outstanding scheme on the defensive side, and their guys played hard. They played fast. And you can tell they’re very well coached because they’re running full speed where they’re supposed to be.”
Notre Dame’s starting defense that day featured Shumate, Redfield and Cole Luke in the secondary. Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith at linebacker. Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara along the defensive line. That’s essentially the same personnel that’ll take the field on Saturday.
Can they do it again? VanGorder’s scheme isn’t as mysterious after 24 games of tape. But that game provided a really solid datapoint to believe this defense can carry the day, even if it’s struggled to do so this season.
Stanford’s defensive front has an unlikely anchor: Cal graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett.
After what feels like a decade of having homegrown monsters wreaking havoc along the defensive line, Stanford had to go to college football’s waiver wire to find its standout for 2015.
Defensive end Brennan Scarlett is Stanford’s most consistent defensive lineman. It’s a string of good football for a player whose four-year career at Cal was ruined by injuries. Scarlett earned his degree at Stanford’s bitter rival, then made one of the more unlikely transfers, heading across the bay to play with his brother in Palo Alto.
Scarlett leads Stanford in snaps played along the defensive line and graded out as their best defensive lineman against Cal in their rivalry game victory. Shaw talked about how important the fifth-year transfer has been for the Cardinal this season.
“I’m really happy for Brennan Scarlett coming over from Cal, a lot of respect from those guys,” Shaw said after beating the Bears. “It was not a contentious thing. It was very understandable why he came across, no disrespect to Cal… The guys wanted to win this one for him, because we didn’t know where we would be right now on this football team without Brennan Scarlett.”
Scarlett’s upside was one of the reasons why Notre Dame was rumored to have been pursuing Scarlett as a potential graduate transfer. (They landed his Cal teammate Avery Sebastian.) But the Portland native joined his younger brother Cameron in Palo Alto, and now will be a key piece to Stanford’s front that’ll try to slow the Irish offense.
A Stanford team usually built around power now has its share of game-breaking speed.
David Shaw built upon Jim Harbaugh’s blueprint to design an unlikely bully in the Pac-12. But after standing out as a power unit in a conference filled with team speed, Stanford has gotten in on the act as well, recruiting some players with home run potential.
McCaffrey stands out among great runners of Stanford past. While Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney were all incredibly prolific, none had 10.8 100-meter speed. But McCaffrey wouldn’t anchor the Cardinals’ 4×100 relay team.
Freshman Bryce Love provides game-breaking speed. He’s been a track star since he won USA Track and Field Athlete of the Year as a 12-year-old. Sophomore receiver Isaiah Brandt-Sims is the fastest man on the roster for the Cardinal. While it hasn’t translated to much playing time, Brandt-Sims has clocked a 10.5 100m—placing him among the best sprinters in the Pac-12.
Leading receiver Michael Rector has track speed as well. He couldn’t beat Brandt-Sims as a high schooler in Washington, but he’s run a 10.8—speed comparable to C.J. Prosise and Chris Brown in high school.
Stanford’s offensive attack may be carried on McCaffrey’s shoulders, but Shaw has deep threat options if the Irish commit too many resources to stopping the running back. And with cornerbacks Devin Butler, Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman seeing significant playing time for the first time this season, expect Shaw to take a couple of deep shots.
For the Irish to win, they’ll need DeShone Kizer to outplay Kevin Hogan.
Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan will be playing his final game in Stanford Stadium. The fifth-year senior is a four-year starter, an improbable quarterback to be at the top of the record books in a program that features greats like Andrew Luck and John Elway.
It’s well-known that Hogan dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel wrote earlier this week about family road trips to South Bend, with a young Hogan wearing a Joe Montana or Brady Quinn jersey.
Hogan has played both good football and bad in his time on The Farm. Some of the bad came during last season, when the veteran quarterback was playing with a heavy heart as his father fought and eventually lost his battle with cancer. (Thamel’s story covers these heartbreaking events.)
It’ll be an emotional night in Stanford Stadium for Hogan, who’ll say goodbye to his home of the last five years. And if the Irish want to pull out a win, they’ll need to spoil the evening for the former Irish fan.
Doing so will require great play by not just the Notre Dame defense, but from young quarterback DeShone Kizer. coming off a game where he finally looked and played like a freshman, Kizer will need to show he’s rebuilt his confidence after stumbling badly against Boston College, his accuracy and decision making shot after early-game struggles.
Kizer will be asked to carry the game in ways Hogan has only had to do at times. Mainly as a runner. Kizer has already been Notre Dame’s short yardage weapon, but without Prosise, he’ll likely carry a larger load, taking the burden off freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Wiliams.
But Hogan’s feet will be a factor on Saturday as well. With the Irish defense susceptible to quarterback scrambles, Hogan can be a key weapon as a runner for the Cardinal. He had a combined 25 carries in Stanford’s two closest games, capable of moving the chains—and more—if teams key on McCaffrey.
Red Zone success will be critical. With Hogan at the helm, Stanford is No. 31 in the country converting touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. Notre Dame is 77th. Stanford has the better red zone defense as well, with the Cardinal at No. 19 at preventing touchdowns and the Irish 82nd. (Oddly, the Irish dominate this stat when you consider scoring percentage, though most view touchdown conversion as the better measurement of success.)
Hogan’s career is coming to an end. Kizer’s is just beginning. On Saturday, both quarterbacks will be key in determining victory.