Associated Press

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites


A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

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Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL

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Notre Dame’s roster fared better than was anticipated when it came to players entering the NFL draft with remaining collegiate eligibility. Left guard Quenton Nelson was always expected to take the leap, as any possible top-five pick should. Running back Josh Adams may have considered returning to the Irish, but logic sent him to the pros, as well. Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown long seemed to be leaning that way.

Those were not surprises.

Getting both linebacker Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery to return was a bit of a shock, and a welcome one for head coach Brian Kelly and his staff.

Of Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents, a few saw top-flight talent depart. Their coaches had assuredly hoped, with varying degrees of reasonability, such players would stay. These losses lower a team’s ceiling, but it does not necessarily spell trouble. USC will not altogether mind quarterback Sam Darnold hearing his name called early in the first round if incoming freshman — and reclassified recruit, at that, having actually been only a junior in high school this fall — J.T. Daniels proves to be the better coming of Matt Barkley.

Speaking of the Trojans, they lead a listing ordered by obvious impact lost:

USC: Not much more really needs to be said about Darnold. His 2017 was filled with stellar comebacks necessitated by poor decisions.
— Receiver Deontay Burnett: With 86 catches for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, it made sense for Burnett to test the next level. Eight of those catches went for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Irish. He had 56 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.

Ronald Jones (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

— Running back Ronald Jones: Finishing his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 39 career rushing touchdowns, Jones proved plenty at the college level. Notre Dame bottled him up this October, but he gashed the defense for 134 yards and a score on only 16 carries in 2016.
— Defensive end Rasheem Green: His final season with the Trojans featured 12.5 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, amid 43 tackles.

Stanford: The Cardinal lost the core of its defense, but the early departure cost could have been much worse. Junior running back Bryce Love returned for another season, waiting until after the declaration deadline to make his decision public.

— Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: Rarely does a defensive tackle lead his team in tackles, and rarely does a defensive tackle total more than 100 tackles. Phillips led the Cardinal with 103 tackles including 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks. Stanford genuinely loses a force with his exit.
— Safety Justin Reid: Only Phillips made more tackles for the Cardinal than Reid’s 99. He added five interceptions and six more pass breakups. Against the Irish in November, Reid managed nine tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.
— Cornerback Quenton Meeks: Stanford lost its fifth-leading tackler, as well, with Meeks taking his 65 tackles away, along with two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
— Tight end Dalton Schultz: He could be a physical presence in the NFL, although he also displayed strong hands throughout his career, finishing 2017 with 22 catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

Florida State: The Seminoles may have had a disappointing season, but there was still plenty of talent on the roster. The defense, especially, held up its end of the bargain. Some of that left, but keep the talent pool in mind when Florida State is undoubtedly hyped in August.
— Safety Derwin James: The Seminoles’ No. 2 tackler with 84, including 5.5 for loss, James also tallied two interceptions with 11 pass breakups.
— Defensive end Josh Sweat: Trailing James, Sweat made 56 tackles, highlighted by 12.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks, adding 3 pass breakups to the slate.

Auden Tate. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

— Defensive end Jalen Wilkerson: Only 19 tackles may not jump off the page, but six of them were for loss.
— Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Providing strong coverage no matter whom Florida State faced, McFadden complemented 30 tackles with 10 pass breakups.
— Receiver Auden Tate: At 6-foot-5, Tate turned a quarter of his 40 catches into touchdowns. His 548 receiving yards were second on the team.
— Tight end Ryan Izzo: His 20 catches were not necessarily that many, but Izzo’s 317 receiving yards and three touchdowns were each third on the team.

Virginia Tech: If noticing an imbalance tilted toward defensive players heading to the NFL throughout this list, that reflects football as a whole. The League is willing to invest in defenders. Most offensive playmakers are seen as a bit more replaceable. On the college level, the best defenses carry teams to the College Football Playoff (see: Clemson), thus getting those individual stars more attention and raising their draft prospects.
— Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds: The Hokies’ leading tackler with 109, Edmunds also managed 14 for loss while notching 5.5 sacks.
— Safety Terrell Edmunds: Virginia Tech’s No. 5 tackler with 59, Edmunds added two interceptions and four pass breakups.
— Defensive tackle Tim Settle: 36 tackles with 12.5 for loss and four sacks this year.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers have made a habit of tripping up a top-ranked team each fall. Losing three contributors will not help that cause, but head coach Pat Narduzzi will certainly have Pittsburgh ready to go Oct. 13.
— Offensive tackle Brian O’Neill: After starting 13 games at right tackle a year ago, O’Neill moved to left tackle with little trouble in making 12 starts this season.
— Safety Jordan Whitehead: The Panthers’ No. 3 tackler, Whitehead added four pass breakups and an interception to his 60 tackles.
— Receiver Quadree Henderson: Only 17 catches for 186 yards is hardly something to speak of, but Henderson did return two punts for touchdowns this season and averaged 20.96 yards per kick return.

Jessie Bates (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest: Wherever safety Jessie Bates goes in the draft, Irish fans should take note. His development under former Demon Deacons and then Notre Dame and now Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko was exceptional. Elko may be gone, but his scheme remains. Any version of such development at safety could be the final piece to the Irish defense in the fall.

Healthy throughout 2016, Bates made 100 tackles with seven for loss and picked off five passes. Injuries slowed him toward the end of 2017.

Michigan: None of the other 2018 opponents had players head to the NFL before they had to, but it warrants mentioning the Wolverines didn’t in part because they had 11 drafted in 2017.

A look at Notre Dame’s November in one word: Turnovers

Associated Press

All season, this space has kept track of four specific statistical trends, chosen because they are simple enough to understand yet more telling than Notre Dame’s yardage totals or time of possession extremes. Turnover margin keeps an eye on momentum-swinging errors. Yards per pass attempt indicates any penchant for big plays. Rush attempts per game tells of a confidence relying on the ground game. Third down conversion percentage speaks to overall offensive success.

They showed last season’s defense gave up passing yards and third down conversions at rates beyond overcoming. They emphasized the Irish running game and dependence on turnovers at the 2017 midseason mark. They underscored Notre Dame’s defensive stinginess at this season’s peak, the October wins over USC and North Carolina State.

The fall from that peak was quick. Due to a convenience of the calendar, the season’s storylines break cleanly into September and October versus the four games in November. The only messiness comes from removing some Navy exceptions — the Midshipmen’s 72 rush attempts spike that average, for example.

All laid out below, one of these four predicators stands out.

The turnover drop-off on defense and influx on offense cannot be emphasized enough. More precisely, the rise in Irish giveaways marred November more than anything else.

What made Notre Dame’s November so much different than its September and October? It stopped forcing turnovers and started offering them. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

In the season’s first two months and eight games, Notre Dame turned over the ball only seven times. That rate more than doubled to eight times in November’s four games. Those eight feckless possessions may as well have been touchdowns forfeited.

When not turning over the ball, the Irish offense reached the end zone on 35.81 percent of its possessions this year. That number ticks further upward when accounting for indifferent possessions at the end of halves, but for this exercise, let’s use 35.81 percent.

Without turnovers, such a rate would have delivered Notre Dame another touchdown this weekend at Stanford. Also without those turnovers, the Cardinal would not have scored twice in short fields. Suddenly this thought exercise produces a 27-24 score in favor of the Irish.

The same logic creates a hypothetical 18-17 result in Miami on Nov. 11, again tilting toward Notre Dame.

Aside from that glaring and crippling factor, the Irish offense was viable in November. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush averaged more yards per pass attempt, a sign of finding consistency in producing big plays. The drop in rush attempts per game ties to playing catch up at Miami, only running 31 times.

It may seem overly simplistic, but the flip in turnover margin is the statistic that jumps off the page. A truly elite defense may have counteracted that trend or perhaps an undeniably lethal offense could have scored touchdowns more often than 35.81 percent of the time.

However, for a good team showing glimpses of being very good in mid-to-late October, the simultaneous sloppiness on offense and lack of fortuitous bounces on defense were far too much to overcome.

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: Four key statistical tidbits (Sept. 1)
A statistical look at Notre Dame’s offense through six games compared to the past (Oct. 11)
Notre Dame’s defense has limited scoring, but what keys have led to that? (Oct. 12)
Friday at 4: A statistical look at how Notre Dame routed two top-15 teams in consecutive weeks (Nov. 3)

Turnover margin
First eight games: +11
Last four games: -6
12-game season: +5
Considering the Irish did not turn the ball over against Wake Forest but did force a turnover, the November data becomes even more foreboding when narrowed to the last three games and a -7 differential, including seven turnovers in the two losses alone.

Yards per pass attempt

Offense Defense (allowed)
First eight games: 5.96 yards First eight games: 6.00 yards allowed
Last four games: 7.43 yards Last four games: 8.56 yards allowed
Nov. excluding Navy: 8.93 yards allowed
12-game season: 6.51 yards 12-game season: 6.22 yards allowed
Season excluding Navy: 6.24 yards allowed

Navy attempted eight passes for 41 yards. Removing such from the defensive data allows for a bit more accurate overall picture.

Rush attempts per game

Offense Opponents
First eight games: 44.63 First eight games: 31.63
Last four games: Last four games: 47.25
Nov. excluding Navy: 38.00 Nov. excluding Navy: 39.00
12-game season: 41.75 12-game season: 36.83
Season excluding Navy: 42.82 Season excluding Navy: 33.64

The Midshipmen rushed 72 times. That skews one half of this data if not removed. Notre Dame had seven genuine offensive possessions, rushing only 30 times against Navy, skewing the other half. For context’s sake: That is even fewer rush attempts than the Irish attempted when trailing so resoundingly against Miami.

Third down conversion percentage

Offense Defense (allowed)
First eight games: 43.33 percent First eight games: 34.09 percent
Last four games: 44.07 percent Last four games: 32.14 percent
Nov. excluding Navy: 26.32 percent
12-game season: 43.58 percent 12-game season: 33.51 percent
Season excluding Navy: 32.35 percent

Navy converted 8-of-18 third downs, skewing the data both in attempts and in success rate. Removing that from November, one sees defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s unit may have held its own down the homestretch. Rather, it gave up big plays more often, as exhibited by the yards per pass attempt. While Notre Dame halted its November opponents more frequently on third downs, it also gave up touchdowns on 33.33 percent of possessions, up noticeably from only 16.38 percent in September and October.

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.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame is far from the finished product it once looked to be

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STANFORD, Calif. — Perhaps this should be renamed Things We Didn’t Learn. For a team that blew the doors off its greatest rival little more than a month ago, Notre Dame has a lot of questions left unanswered at the conclusion of its regular season.

An 8-1 start becoming a 9-3 finish is one thing. It is another conversation altogether when that conclusion comes thanks to two eggs laid in the season’s two best opportunities to forget demons of seasons past. The Irish did not simply lose to Stanford 38-20 on Saturday. They gifted the Cardinal a victory. That is not to take anything away from David Shaw’s team. It had to take the chance offered, and it did. It was just surprising to see Notre Dame put up so little resistance in the fourth quarter, a 15-minute span which it had to know would define the 2017 season, fairly or not.

Such a reaction may be compromised by recency bias. It may be too focused on the micro. It almost certainly comes replete with more criticism than it perhaps should.

Then again, the Irish held a 20-17 lead on the road against a top-25 opponent and offered little-to-no objection to Stanford rattling off three unanswered touchdowns.

Turnovers made the season’s start, and they marred its end.

Through the season’s 8-1 start, Notre Dame was +12 in turnover margin, forcing 19 while giving away the ball only seven times. In its final three games, that shifted to -7, taking the ball away a total of once, an interception against Navy.

To some degree, this is a symptom of opponents’ protecting the ball, noticing defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s focus on aggressiveness and preaching caution throughout their own weeks of preparation. It is also a sign of a tougher schedule — traveling to both Miami and Stanford in a three-week span was always going to be a difficult task. On some level, a regression to a mean should have been expected, no matter who the opposition was.

Whatever the cause, failing to force turnovers slowed the Irish defense’s momentum outright.

“I believe energy is contagious,” senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “Whenever you are causing turnovers, having success, every guy on the field is going to feel more confident. They’re going to trust in their preparation more and they’re going to remember their training more.

“When the energy is not there, sometimes it is hard for guys to focus on that more.”

That loss of energy and focus coincided with the offense developing a bad habit of losing the ball. Eight turnovers in the last three games cost Notre Dame dearly. More specifically, the Irish coughed up the ball nine times in their three losses, losses against top-25 teams. (And, given this victory and the inevitable boost in the polls for the currently-No. 21 Cardinal, three likely top-20 teams, if not even top-15.)

“Each game that we’ve lost this year, we’ve turned the football over against quality opposition, against good football teams,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “… You can’t turn the ball over against really good football teams.”

Well, you can, but only if you are efficient and dangerous in every other facet of the game.

The greatest cost to any given turnover is it eliminates an offense’s chance to score. It is the equivalent to a strikeout in baseball, where the most-prized non-scoring commodity is a baserunner, because he creates the possibility of a run. Simply having possession of the football creates the possibility of a touchdown.

When losing those opportunities, nearly every remaining chance must be converted. For whatever reason, the Irish are not capable of that.

Simply put, Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s 2017 was filled with more lows than highs, despite his record-setting rushing performances. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

One primary reason seems to be the quarterback and, more broadly, the passing game.

Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush showed moments of promise this season. All the way back in the fourth week, he made some genuinely nice passes at Michigan State. His composure was as noticeable as anyone else’s when North Carolina State blocked a punt for a touchdown a month ago. Clearly, his legs are a threat for which every defense must adjust.

Wimbush also showed constant inconsistency. No amount of receivers’ drops justifies a completion percentage of 49.8 percent (133-of-267), including a disappointing 11-of-28 performance at Stanford. The fact that he finishes the regular season with only six interceptions is amazing and a commentary on defenders’ struggles to catch more than anything else.

Kelly was clear Saturday: Wimbush is Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.

He should be. He has his skills, and they are more dynamic and present a higher ceiling than any other set do on the Irish roster, all respect offered to sophomore Ian Book. Nonetheless, a season’s worth of concerted effort could not create a viable passing game, and the onus for that falls to Wimbush’s struggles.

Those struggles were not helped by Notre Dame’s overall tiring in the closing month.

Kelly insisted junior running back Josh Adams is healthy. That is hard to reconcile with his production in November, but he also took 20 carries Saturday. If the former Heisman candidate was more than nicked up, that workload would not have been the case.

At that point, the conclusion is, the Irish tired. The offensive line did not get the push against the Cardinal like it did in all of September and October, giving up season-highs of 6 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Adams did not break tackles like he used to. For an offense that once made its living on long rushes right through the opposing defenses, the longest run at The Farm went for a lackluster 14 yards.

Strength and conditioning is too encompassing of a cause to be entirely rectified in just one offseason, especially considering the state of that part of the program as recently as December. First-year strength coordinator Matt Balis did yeoman’s work, but that task is clearly not yet finished.

There was only so much Irish senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill (23) and the Notre Dame defense could do to limit Stanford when Irish turnovers twice gifted the Cardinal short fields. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The one area remaining beyond excessive criticism is Notre Dame’s defense.

Sure, Stanford scored 38 points Saturday, but 14 of those came on drives of 29 and 18 yards thanks to turnovers. The defense could have halted those, and attempted to.

“We have to get a stop,” Tranquill said. “Our offense was struggling a little bit. Whenever that happens, the defense has to force a field goal or force a turnover themselves, and we didn’t do that tonight. Ultimately, the results are what they are because of that.”

None of Tranquill’s sentiment is false, but it should also be viewed with a grain of salt. If the Irish had not been put in those situations and the Cardinal scores only 24 points, the expectation for one more score from Wimbush and the offense would be whole-heartedly reasonable. The offense would not have produced that touchdown, but such is no fault of Tranquill, Elko or anyone on the defensive side of the ball.

Notre Dame stepped forward in 2017, but not as far forward as it once seemed.

The Irish blew out USC, a team looking more and more like what was expected in the preseason. They won nine games, losing only to the best team on its schedule and twice on the road to worthwhile opponents. (Anyone insisting Stanford is not good can just see themselves out of this space. The Cardinal have coalesced very well as this season has progressed, yet remained under most radars.) Elko transformed a toothless defense into an attacking unit that largely held opponents in check, unless its corresponding offense put it in a bad position.

But Notre Dame is not yet able to overcome the mistakes inherent to any game. It is not yet a notch above, let alone in the top-whatever of the country.

Will that day come? Not this year.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“I would call it just the first coat of paint for where we are,” Kelly said. “There’s another level for us. We’ll certainly look at this season and feel it was a good foundation for us to look to be one step higher next year, to reach higher, for more.”

Then again, this may have been the best realistic case expected after the disaster that was 2016. The Irish beat the teams they were supposed to beat this year. That is step one.

If Rome wasn’t built in a day, it certainly was not rebuilt in one, right?