The good, the bad, the ugly: Stanford

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After a evening of reflection and breaking down game tape, Brian Kelly said something incredibly interesting when discussing preparation for opponents.

“One of the unique things I’m learning at Notre Dame, early in the season, you’re not going to get great film sometimes,” Kelly said. “So you have to prepare for every eventuality. I put a lot of that on my shoulders.”

The Irish’s 37-14 loss to a now No. 9 ranked Stanford team saw the Irish take a large step back offensively, largely because of Dayne Crist’s confusion when Stanford dropped eight men into coverage in a three-deep zone.

“They were dropping a lot of guys. They had eight guys in coverage a whole bunch,” Crist said after the game. “They hadn’t shown it really at all in the film that we had. You don’t want to sit and make excuses, but tip your hat to Stanford.”

Stanford’s never dropped eight men into coverage this year because they haven’t had to yet. With convincing victories over Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest, Kelly admitted earlier in the week that he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and if Crist’s play and Kelly’s analysis are any indication, the Cardinal coaching staff won a key strategic battle yesterday, handling Crist just like defenses handled a young Jimmy Clausen during his sophomore season.

The game inside the game is what has me convinced that this Stanford team is a better version of last year’s squad — finally in possession of a defense that can slow teams down with a 3-4 system that’s highly versatile and capable of disguising schemes. (How long that lasts? We’ll see next weekend when the Cardinal travel to Eugene to take on Oregon.)

Before we turn the page to Boston College, let’s look at the good, bad, and ugly from Notre Dame’s 37-14 loss to Stanford.

THE GOOD

All good things must start with Manti Te’o’s performance yesterday. His 21 tackles against Stanford move him up in the statistical rankings to the top tackler in all of college football, averaging more than 13 tackles per game. He’s also giving his teammates a model of how to play the football game.

“One young man that played with that kind of intensity, if you will, we talked about that nastiness, was Manti Te’o,” Kelly said. “He played differently. I know he had a lot of tackles, but he played the
game differently. He’s a great model for us to have that we can point
to you defensively…Whether he knows it or not, he’s going to be pushed out in front quite a bit because of how he handles himself.”

Another group that should be highlighted were the cornerbacks. Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton all played very good games, with Gray becoming a tackling force in addition to displaying great cover skills. The next step for the corners will be turning great positioning into interceptions. While the Irish got the first two interceptions of the year on Andrew Luck, they’re going to have opportunities in Chestnut Hill to pick on a very raw quarterback, as Boston College will be starting either Mike Marscovetra or Chase Rettig at quarterback, after head coach Frank Spaziani decided to bench incumbent Dave Shinskie.

THE BAD

The Irish couldn’t get their ground game on track, and it turned Notre Dame into a one-dimensional offense, something that Stanford capitalized on as the game continued. Kelly acknowledges the need for better balance.

“”I felt after the Michigan State game we established where we wanted to
go offensively,” Kelly said this afternoon. “We took a bit of a step back in this game. We’re in the
process of evaluating where are the things we were missing in this
ballgame. I’d like to have a little more balance. We’re 300-something (passing yards) to 110 (rushing yards), that’s not really where want to
be offensively, in terms of run-pass… We know we can throw the football provided
we’re prepared and put kids in a good position to succeed. We have to
evolve a little further in running the football.”

One of the biggest reasons that the Irish are struggling right now adapting to the new offense is their reluctance to use Dayne Crist as a running quarterback. The zone-read running game necessitates a quarterback that’ll sometimes keep the ball and run, and after the staff saw what was behind Dayne Crist on the depth chart, Kelly conceded that he could be protecting his quarterback too much.

“”You have to say that’s probably true. I don’t think that way, maybe. I
think it’s more towards, let’s make sure we do things that are his
strengths,” Kelly said. “Maybe there’s a little in my mind that we’re protecting Dayne. I don’t know that we can continue to do that.”

At 1-3, it might be time for Notre Dame to take their lumps and develop Crist as a complete quarterback for this system. If that means exposing him to a few more hits, then so be it.

THE UGLY

Notre Dame’s 23-point loss was the first lopsided defeat since the end of the 2008 season, when USC trounced the Irish 38-3 to end the regular season. Since then, the Irish haven’t lost a game by more than one score, splitting the 16 games decided by a touchdown or less.

Obviously, the Irish losing nail-biters is far more gut-wrenching for players and fans, but a blow-out loss points to a larger issue and a team that’s just not close to getting back to the championship level they’d like to be.

While close losses sting, Kelly rightly understands the danger of blowouts on the psyche of a young football team.

“As it relates to our kids, as I told them after the game, if you break it down, it’s 19-6, fourth down and a foot and a half from midfield and we can’t convert,” Kelly said. “Then third-and eight we have a missed assignment where they pick up a first down. Really, a hard-fought game, those are the key plays that turned the game eventually to where it was finished.”

With three straight losses, the Irish will now recalibrate and get back to chasing a victory.

“We’re well past ‘we need a win,” Kelly said. “After the Michigan game, we needed a win. I don’t know that anybody goes around here saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay, be patient.’ We’re at the point now, no question, we need a win. Our players will continue to show up and work. We need a win. There’s no question about it.”