Behind the Irish: Another chance vs. Stanford


While there’s been plenty of roster turnover between 2015 and 2016, nobody in South Bend has forgotten how last season’s regular season ended. Notre Dame went to Stanford looking for an eleventh win and a potential bid to the College Football Playoff. They went home after giving up a last-second field goal, falling in a crushing defeat.

But with the Cardinal coming to town to battle for the Legends Trophy this weekend, revenge is on the mind. And even if neither team is coming into the game with their best, it’s a huge Saturday for both teams.

Here’s our latest Behind the Irish, with a look back at the heartbreaking finish that ended the latest memorable battle with the Cardinal.

Kizer makes his debut on Mel Kiper’s big board

DeShone Kizer, Ejuan Price

Coming off his worst—and most difficult—game in an Irish uniform. DeShone Kizer is excited to get back into the cozy confines of Notre Dame Stadium, where a picture-perfect weather forecast awaits.

“I’ve never been more excited to be in South Bend, I can tell you that,” Kizer said on Wednesday. “Hurricane Matthew has gone past, and we’re thankful up here.”

As the heart of the season approaches, the goals for the Irish change. And one of those big ones might be the stay-or-go decision for Kizer, who avoided commenting on any decision on the NFL when he was asked about it last week. But if he returns, along with Mike McGlinchey, the entire offense for Notre Dame could be reunited in 2017.

But as game tape accumulates, it’s clear that Kizer has a ton of eyes on him. And the godfather of NFL Draft talk, ESPN’s Mel Kiper, just added him to his most-recent big board.

Kizer ranks only behind Clemson’s Deshaun Watson at the quarterback position, checking in at No. 18 on Kiper’s board.

You all should know about Kizer if you’re following the college football season. Todd McShay has had the Notre Dame signal-caller in his Top 32 for a few weeks. But this is his debut in the Big Board, and it has nothing to do with his talent — it’s because he’s a third-year sophomore. I just don’t know if the 6-foot-4, 230-pound QB has the experience yet. But the tape doesn’t lie; he’s a phenomenal prospect (just make sure you throw out the tape — on every player — of Notre Dame’s loss to NC State in a torrential downpour). I’m excited to see how he progresses over the course of the season.

While Kizer gets an understandable mulligan for last weekend, a nice performance against Stanford this weekend should get the Irish offense back in rhythm, and also re-establish Kizer as one of college football’s premier quarterbacks.



Talking Irish: On to Stanford

PASADENA, CA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Ryan Burns #17 of the Stanford Cardinal calls a play at the line during the first quarter against the UCLA Bruins at Rose Bowl on September 24, 2016 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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.


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: 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.


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

Conrad Ukropina

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)

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.