Keith Arnold

Conrad Ukropina
AP

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.

McCaffrey questionable for Saturday

PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Christian McCaffrey #5 of the Stanford Cardinal carries the ball against the USC Trojans during the first half of their NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Stanford may be without Christian McCaffrey.

The Cardinals’ Heisman runner-up, a consensus All-American and the AP College Football Player of the Year in 2015, left last weekend’s lost to Washington State and didn’t return to the field in the lopsided loss. And now his status for Saturday night’s game against Notre Dame is up in the air.

“He’s pretty beaten up,” Shaw said on Tuesday. “But we’ll see where he is.”

Without McCaffrey the Stanford offense is without an identity. Carrying a heavy load for the Cardinal throughout September, McCaffery’s numbers haven’t been as dynamic as they were last season, though he’s still been the engine of the offensive attack.

McCaffrey leads Stanford will 520 rushing yards through five games, down significantly from last season, but still posting a 5.3 yards per carry average. He leads the Cardinal in catches with 18, as well as punt and kick returns.

Last year, Notre Dame held McCaffrey to 94 rushing yards and just 3.5 yards per carry in their last-second 38-36 loss. It was the first game McCaffrey was held under 100 yards since early September, in a season where he broke the 2,000 yard barrier.

Kelly playing for both present and future

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Donte Vaughn #35 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts a pass intended for T.J. Rahming #3 of the Duke Blue Devils during the second half of a game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Duke defeated Notre Dame 38-35. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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As Notre Dame’s season takes on water, Brian Kelly looks for solutions. And balancing the challenges of winning now and developing for the future is a precarious scenario, and one nobody saw coming this season.

Yet that’s where the Irish find themselves. Because a young roster really only features a handful of veteran contributors—with Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, Jarron Jones and Cole Luke the only mainstays who’ll run out of eligibility after the season. So that leaves Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach in an interesting conundrum.

Can you really build for the future when you’re coaching your way onto the hot seat?

Kelly was asked about that proposition as the Irish prepare to face Stanford on Saturday, another game that looks like a coin flip, even with Christian McCaffery questionable. And Kelly brought us back to a familiar refrain from his early days in South Bend,

“I’m doing everything to build the winning identity for this football team for right now, and for ’17, ’18 and ’19,” Kelly said. “Because when I talk to the group there is a row of upperclassmen—not many—and then there is a bunch of young guys. So everything that I direct at them is being absorbed for right now and in the future.”

We’ve seen the lessons as they’ve been learned on the fly. They’ve certainly come with their fair share of lumps as well. So as freshmen like Devin Studstill and Donte Vaughn step into the starting lineup, as Julian Love and Daelin Hayes become more and more a part of the defensive look, Kelly is doing all he can to turn the tide while also building for a rebound season.

“So I’m in the present and we’re coaching the win right now, but everything we do is to return us back to the top,” Kelly explained. “And we want to stop the slide.

“That means start winning again. So everything we are doing right now is to stop right now losing games, and winning games and keep building on that for the future.”

BK postgame: ‘I couldn’t find a way to win that game for you.’

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As they shovels come out to bury Brian Kelly, the stories keep writing themselves. A coach—often times too headstrong for his own good—struggles to look in the mirror.

These aren’t new headlines. Nor are they unfair.

They’ve existed as long as Kelly came to South Bend promising change, often times force-feeding it when the status quo could’ve probably done well enough (and maybe even clawed back a few victories in the meantime).

But Kelly has done things his way since showing up seven seasons ago. And in doing so, he’s won a lot of football games and completely changed the culture of the football program.

No, he hasn’t won as many as the guys with statues outside Notre Dame Stadium. But he’s had the Irish playing for a national title, and last year had the Irish a handful of plays—and maybe one or two less season-ending injuries—away from an invitation to play for another.

But Kelly is in hot water for committing a cardinal sin of coaching—losing games.

(Wait, you thought I was going to say, criticizing his players, right? Get serious.)

Kelly’s willingness to shoot straight may ruffle more than a few feathers. His postgame stubbornness has gotten him into trouble perhaps just as often as some of his ill-conceived strategic blunders.

His latest, daring to acknowledge that Sam Mustipher was terrible snapping the football in a hurricane, got some people up in arms. Never mind that it was objectively true. (Mustipher’s single-game grade was the lowest PFF assigned to any player on Notre Dame’s team this season—by a wide margin.)

Yet Kelly’s postgame comments went viral shortly after he made them. And perhaps more glaring than the coach’s unwillingness to reassess his decision to throw early and often in a hurricane were his comments about Mustipher, perceived (by some) as Kelly blaming his players for a game his team should’ve won.

But Kelly’s postgame media comments came after he addressed his team. And while national headlines and hundreds of message board threads across the internet focused on the comments aimed at evaluating the play on the field and ignored the coaching from the sideline, Kelly’s postgame talk with his players showed the message he sent to his team.

And that wasn’t a coach unwilling to be be critical of his own performance. It was a head coach who point-blank apologized to his players.

“You were ready to play, you were excited to play. You were energized to play. And I couldn’t find a way to win that game for you,” Kelly said, as you can see in the Inside Notre Dame Football episode. “And I apologize. I’ve got to look hard at how I’m doing it, to figure out a way to get a win for you guys. Because you deserved it.”

Any worry that Kelly is mentally checked out can probably be thrown out the window. Because Kelly didn’t speak to his team like a coach already planning an early December vacation. He didn’t sound like a guy ready to look at job openings, if only to consider a fresh start.

“All I can tell you is that I’m just going to work harder,” Kelly said. “I’m going to coach harder. I’m going to commit harder. I’m going to do everything that I can to make sure that we get all three units playing, and ascending, to the level that we’re capable of.”

None of this means Notre Dame is going to win on Saturday. None of it means that everything behind closed doors is happy and worry-free. That’s the cost of losing.

But before we run away carving the assumed into tablets, Kelly’s actual postgame comments—at least the ones that matter—shouldered the blame. And while you wonder why the coach doesn’t want to show that type of truthfulness to the hordes of reporters that cover his daily moves, at least credit Notre Dame for at least counterpunching, utilizing the embedded cameras and commitment to social media to get out both sides of the story—even if one will likely be ignored.

 

 

 

 

 

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. North Carolina State

RALEIGH, NC - OCTOBER 08:  DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is forced out of the pocket and tackled by Kentavius Street #35 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during the game at Carter Finley Stadium on October 8, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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The tar and feather crowd has their ammo. They watched Notre Dame’s seventh-year coach stick to his guns as a literal hurricane blew through town.

They watched a coaching staff with so much offensive acumen—the assistant strength coach has 20-plus years of offensive coordinating experience—fail to make any adjustments during an extended halftime lightning delay that featured swaying stadium lights and biblical rains.

But that’s the kind of season it’s been.

Change the defensive coordinator, the offensive breaks down. Insert a “safer” punt strategy, watch it cost you the game.

With the cyber-mob circling the gates, inside the Gug a search for answers continues. So with Stanford just days away, let’s get to the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

The defensive improvement. Notre Dame’s front seven held its own in the slop. The trio of Jarron Jones, Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage had strong games against the run, with Tillery played the game of his young career with nine tackles.

Again, this feels like a GOOD* considering the weather acting as a 12th man, but you’ve got to credit this group for taking another step forward. Greg Hudson’s rebuilt crew did all they could to limit NC State, giving up zero offensive touchdowns for the first time since last season’s opener.

 

THE BAD

Everything Else. Let’s just get that out of the way now. Pretty much everything else we watched—the offense, the special teams, the adjustments, the trenches, fit in here. (So does the decision to play in the eye of the storm and not delay the start of the game.)

But, since that’s not going to do, let’s get to some of the others:

 

Run-Pass Mix. No, the Irish offense shouldn’t have been chucking the ball non-stop.

New paragraph.

But Kelly all but hinted at the thought-process behind the decision—his team wasn’t going to win in the trenches—when he said this postgame.

“I think it was pretty evident to me that we were in need of throwing the football,” Kelly said. “When we did throw it, we just weren’t as effective as I thought we could be.”

That’s the part of the quote that should accompany Kelly’s bizarre statement that he didn’t second guess the run-pass ratio. Notre Dame’s head coach knew that his offensive line wasn’t going to win a fight in the slop.

 

 

Lack of adjustments. As we mentioned in the Five Things, as we mentioned in the lede, and as we mentioned just above, there were no offensive adjustment.

That’s a bad. That’s tragically bad.

Because we saw NC State get creative. We saw the Wolfpack use their dynamic running back in a variety of ways. We saw them use their backup quarterback as a wildcat runner. And Kelly acknowledged postgame that they probably should’ve tried something different, though a dose of Malik Zaire as a run-first wildcat likely wasn’t the answer.

“The offense could have been tweaked in that regard. But [Zaire]’s not really a wildcat guy… It was never a thought that we’d go strictly into that kind of offensive structure.”

So the Irish offense stuck with the plan. And the trio of Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford likely spent the flight home and ensuing evening kicking themselves, underestimating the impact that Hurricane Matthew would have.

“I will say this. It was much more difficult throwing the football than maybe, I can’t remember many games where it was this difficult,” Kelly said. “But it was difficult for both teams. We don’t have any excuses, we were atrocious offensively.”

 

 

The decision to kickoff the game as scheduled.  The fact that this game stayed in the window it was played in made zero sense. Other than because it needed to stay in that window to stay on ABC in front of a national audience.

Because safety was a legitimate concern. Field conditions were atrocious from the first quarter on. And the elements had a far bigger impact on this game than anything either team did.

Kelly was asked about the decision to play the game when they did, and he made no excuse.

“There was never a conversation about it not being played,” Kelly said. “I was a little concerned obviously about the conditions, but they were the same for both teams.”

This wasn’t a Notre Dame decision. This was a decision made by the ACC and NC State, with the visitors only providing the suggestions we heard from Kelly on Tuesday, Notre Dame willing to delay the start all the way until Sunday at noon.

Each team did their best to counter the weather. Each team also made critical mistakes—NC State blowing a 1st-and-goal from the 3-yard line and the Irish not getting anything from a 1st-and-goal of their own, a slick football and horrible conditions wreaking havoc all game long.

But Kelly was quick to credit the work the officials did to keep dry footballs cycling onto the field.

“I thought the officials did a great job of getting dry balls in. We used 36 balls and it’s generally an 18 ball rotation. They gave us 36. I thought from that standpoint it was managed terrifically.”

 

THE UGLY

A 2-4 Football Team. Nothing turns quite as toxic as a bad Notre Dame football season. And with every loss (that’s four losses by a total of 21 points), things seem to get exponentially uglier.

This loss feels different than others. In a vacuum, a hurricane usually requires at least the thought of a mulligan for a coaching staff—acts of god often finding their way into customary exclusions.

But not this season.

Because Kelly himself acknowledged the difficulty of this defeat, a game that falls square on the shoulders of the team’s braintrust—something the head coach pointed out, though hardly anybody noticed.

“I feel terrible we let them down,” Kelly said. “We let them down in the sense that they were prepared for another noon start, they had great energy, they played with great heart on defense.”

He expanded on those thoughts later, a nine-minute media session that reminds you of the toll that this job puts on coaches.

“They were excited to play today. You want to be there for them.  You want to make the right call, you want to put them in the right position,” Kelly said. “You second guess yourself. Maybe we should’ve been in a three-man wall there, instead of rugby. You second guess yourself in games like this, when your team is ready to play and excited to play.”

Those are hardly the explanations that make critics happy, not when Kelly is barking at his center for rifling a shotgun snap past the quarterback with the game on the line.

“He thought he heard something,” Kelly said postgame about that fateful fourth down. “We were trying to scan the play and get a peek at what it was, and he heard something and the ball got snapped.”

But that’s what losing does. It takes over everything.

And after being just two plays away from an undefeated season in 2015, some are calling for Kelly’s head. And that’s before he leads his troops into the meat of his schedule.