Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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It seemed a little too easy going into halftime for the Irish. Maybe that explains why Notre Dame seemed to backpedal their way to the finish, holding on for a six-point victory over Pitt 23-17 on a beautiful afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium.

“As we’ve shown, we’re really good at stubbing our toes,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that’s us. I’m trying to get used to it or it’s going to make me look really old, really quick.”

Welcome to the life of those that care about Notre Dame football, Coach Kelly. The past dozen years have been an exercise in inconsistency, with the Irish looking like world beaters in some instances and a sinking ship in others, often on the same afternoon. That was the case Saturday for the Irish, who managed to win a football game they were outgained in by playing excellent special teams and winning the turnover battle.

In the end, only the “W” is important, as the Irish get back to .500 after losing three of their first four games. With games against Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming before a much needed week off, the Irish have a chance to put together a run before their November 13th date with Utah.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned:

1. Notre Dame won that football game thanks to excellent special teams.

If there was any question about Mike Elston’s troops, it was answered this afternoon with a resounding performance in special teams leading the Irish to victory.

“We flipped the field position today,” Kelly said. “Ben Turk was outstanding punting the football. They’re dangerous, one of the best S.T. teams we’ll see this year was Pittsburgh. Well coached.”

Punter Ben Turk rebounded from a terrible start to the season by launching punts all afternoon. He averaged over 46 yards per punt and pinned the Panthers inside their 20 three times in the fourth quarter as Pitt tried unsuccessfully to rally. That field position was critical as the Irish offense sputtered down the stretch, falling to turn drives into touchdowns.

The Irish also benefited from some unlikely miscues by Pitt. Once again, Brian Kelly benefited from the miscue of Pitt holder Andrew Janocko, as the backup quarterback muffed a hold on a short field goal attempt that took three points off the board for the Panthers. It was Janocko that couldn’t handle a snap late in last season’s Pitt-Cincinnati game that ended up creating the one point difference in the Bearcat’s 45-44 victory. Janocko’s struggles weren’t the only ones in the kicking game, as kicker Dan Hutchins missed his first field goal attempt shorter than 30 yards in his career, keeping Pitt off the scoreboard in the second quarter.

More importantly, fifth-year senior Barry Gallup came up with a great individual effort, thwarting Pitt’s fake punt attempt by making a shoe-string tackle when he was the last man to beat. After giving up the fake field goal to Michigan State in overtime, it’s great for morale to successfully stop a fake, especially one that was as well-designed as the play Pitt ran.

2. David Ruffer is the next walk-on Notre Dame hero.

In the line of Rudy Ruettiger, Reggie Ho, and Mike Anello, David Ruffer’s walk-on story shouldn’t take a backseat to anyone. A scatch high school golfer, Ruffer never played football until he joined the team at William & Mary during his freshman year, a school he attended after he failed to get into Notre Dame. Ruffer worked hard on his grades as a freshman, successfully transferred into Notre Dame, and was plucked off the interhall squad of Siegfried Hall during the bye week of the 2008 season. Ruffer made it into a game that year, missing his only kick of the year, an extra-point attempt against Washington.

Since then, Ruffer has been nearly perfect, connecting on every field goal he’s attempted since filling in for Nick Tausch when he went down with a leg injury last season. Winning the kicking job outright at the start of the year, Ruffer’s done nothing to let go of it, entering today’s game one field goal shy of tying Tausch’s all-time record for consecutive kicks made at 14. Ruffer knocked through his first attempt today — a 32-yard chip shot to tie Tausch, but stared down a 50-yard field goal attempt to grab Notre Dame history to himself. Even though the snap was low, Ruffer absolutely drilled the kick, splitting the uprights with almost 10 yards to spare, and putting his name into the record books with an exclamation point.

“He kicked that thing into the net. I had to look twice that it was 50 yards,” Kelly said. “Ruffer is doing things that obviously many people, including myself, thought he couldn’t do. Nobody would have thought 50 yards was like automatic.”

Ruffer has a year of eligibility remaining if Kelly and company want to bring him back (they should), it’ll have to be on scholarship, a worthy reward for a true student-athlete and a success story.

3. Kyle Rudolph is far from full strength and needs to sit a week out.

As much as Dayne Crist needs his safety valve, Kyle Rudolph is far from healthy. The tight end is battling a nagging hamstring injury, and it’s robbed one of Notre Dame’s best offensive weapons of his explosiveness.

“It’s probably at the point where you have to make a decision to shut him down for a week or keep playing through it,” Kelly said, without mentioning that the Irish play Western Michigan next week. “But you can’t tell Kyle Rudolph you’re shutting him down. He wants to play and he wants to compete. At the end of the day he played pretty good for us. He’s a pretty good tight end at 75 percent right now. So that’s one that we’ll have to continue to have a conversation about.”

Rudolph caught five ball for 38 yards, but it was the ones that he didn’t catch that helped you recognize he was hobbled. On a wheel route in the second half, Crist laid a ball out that looked perfect for Kyle, but Rudolph was unable to catch up to the throw and it fell incomplete. Rudolph also dropped a first down throw late in the game, fighting a ball high above his head as he struggled to get liftoff.

The decision would be a lot easier if backup Mike Ragone would’ve held onto a pass that should have iced the football game late in the fourth quarter. But if the Irish are going to run the table, they’ll need a healthy Rudolph. And with Western Michigan coming to South Bend, expect to see No. 9 in street clothes.

4. The Irish beat the Pitt pass rush with a high-tempo offense.

With Taylor Dever unable to go, the Irish were forced to shift Zack Martin to right tackle and slide senior Matt Romine into the starting lineup at left tackle. Even without standout Greg Romeus, Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar recognized that the Pitt pass rush would be the Irish’s biggest obstacle offensively. So Kelly decided to use the Irish’s conditioning and pace of play to wear out the defensive front.

“We were a little concerned that the math-up could be an issue, so we definitely wanted to try and tire out that front four of Pittsburgh,” Kelly said. “So we decided to move Romine and flip Zack Martin over and I thought tempo would be the best way to slow down that pass rush.”

It seems like the strategy worked, with Pitt getting two sacks early and struggling to get much of a pass rush for most of the second half. In turning up the pressure, for the first time this season, we caught a glimpse of what Kelly’s hurry-up offense can do, breaking off large chunks of yardage quickly. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt admitted after the game that the speed and tempo took the Panthers by surprise.

“We changed a few things, but the biggest adjustment was getting used to the tempo and getting into their type of fast rhythm,” Wannstedt said after the game.

If you’re looking for a sign of what this offense can be, consider what it almost was today. Crist’s 24 of 39
passing for 242 yards looks
rather pedestrian, but consider that two gigantic plays worth over 100 yards of passing where taken off the board by penalties. (Not to mention two poor throws by Crist in the red zone.) And while the box score shows Jonathan Baldwin getting the better of the match-up between he and Michael Floyd, Floyd lost over a 100 yards and two touchdowns on self-inflicted errors, with an assist to an iffy call by a Big East officiating crew. And questions out there about Floyd’s willingness to play hard and play for Kelly should’ve been silenced today. 

Kelly admits that while they’re making progress, he’s still holding back the offense, unwilling to unleash the true fast-paced attack he’d like to run.

“It’s hold on and try to get it down the field,” Kelly said when describing the current offense. “We’re really micro-managing in a sense the offense until we can let it go. We can’t turn it over yet and just let it go because we’d make too many mistakes. We’re trying to manage it, until we get to the point where we can rip it and let it go.”

The next three games are critical for offensive development. Expect the Irish to push the tempo on the next three Saturdays and to overwhelm inferior opponents.

5. Losing in the box score but winning on the scoreboard a good thing for the Irish.

Looking for a reason to believe in the new direction of the Irish football program? Try this: Notre Dame won the football game while being outgained by over 50 yards. Pitt’s 382 yards versus Notre Dame’s 329 yards weren’t enough to swing the balance of the game, a credit to the coaching staff and the small battles won that often mean the difference between victory and defeat.

During the Charlie Weis era, the Irish only won three games where they were outgained by more than 50 yards, and two of those games came when the opposition absolutely imploded. In Notre Dame’s win over Michigan in 2008, the Wolverines turned the ball over six times. In Notre Dame’s victory over UCLA in 2007, the Bruins played even worse — coughing it up seven times to the Irish. If you’re looking for the last game that Notre Dame lost the yardage margin by over 50 yards, and played a team that turned the ball over two times or less, it was against Chad Henne’s 2005 Michigan squad, Charlie Weis’ second game at Notre Dame.

This isn’t a referendum against Weis, merely pointing out that while the Irish are a work in progress, they have the makings of a better overall team, doing things that help win games instead of making mistakes that make you lose them. The Irish made plenty of errors today — broken coverage on Jonathan Baldwin and Mike Ragone’s crucial drop come immediately to mind — but they’ve also started doing the things that let you steal a victory.

To Kelly’s credit, he understands this is all part of the development of a football team.

“They have a belief that they’re going to win football games,” Kelly said. “I just told them, ‘Enjoy the win.’ We’ll micro-manage this and talk about what we could have done and should have done on Monday. Enjoy the victory. It’s a good win.”

And while it wasn’t pretty, the Irish stop Pitt’s winning streak at Notre Dame Stadium and pull to 3-3 on the year. With the first lopsided match-up of the year coming with Western Michigan coming to town, the Irish are in a great position to start the run Kelly hinted at after losing to Stanford.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said then. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8 or 9-3.”

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech

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There is not inherently a spot below to discuss Virginia Tech’s entrance to the field at Lane Stadium. This space makes too much of it, admittedly, considering the scribe has long been a fan of former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

The soon-to-be first-ballot Hall-of-Famer used the same entrance song the Hokies use: Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

The classic piece of metal sets the atmosphere in Blacksburg, one that should not reach the crescendo of Hard Rock Stadium last November, but will still very much test Notre Dame’s lessons learned from that 41-8 debacle at Miami.

2017 REVIEW
Virginia Tech relied on a first-year starter in sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson last season, and he began very well, exceptionally well, to win a 31-24 rivalry matchup with West Virginia in the opener. Jackson completed 15 of 26 passes for 235 yards and a score, adding 101 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Such success continued until Clemson visited in week five, picking off the youngster twice.

As the season progressed, though, Jackson seemed to regress. Conference competition and available film will do that. In the regular season’s final six games, he did not break 218 passing yards, throwing for as few as 153 at Georgia Tech and 143 at Virginia. In three of those six, Jackson’s completion rate fell below 50 percent.

Sound familiar, Irish fans?

As Jackson struggled, the Hokies could rely on a fantastic defense. Even with Clemson scoring 31, Miami and Georgia Tech each tallying 28 and Oklahoma State reaching 30 in the Camping World Bowl (all losses), Virginia Tech gave up only 14.8 points per game last year along with an average of 319 yards.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH LOST
This offseason could have been worse for the Hokies, but not by much. For a few days, smoke swirled around Jackson’s eligibility, but when it cleared there was nothing to see.

That was not the case with likely starting senior cornerback Adonis Alexander, gone in June. Senior nickelback Mook Reynolds was dismissed from the program, and junior college transfer cornerback Jeremy Webb furthered the difficulties with an Achilles injury knocking him out for the year.

Even without those unexpected departures, Virginia Tech’s secondary had already lost Greg Stroman (20 tackles, 11 passes broken up plus four interceptions) and Brandon Facyson (19, 2, 5).

If that sounds like it would result in a dearth of depth, it pales in comparison to the Hokies’ linebackers. Tremaine Edwards (109 tackles with 14 for loss including 5.5 sacks) heard his named called 16th overall in the NFL draft and Andrew Motuapuaka (92, 11.5, 3.5) is gone, as well. Including others, Virginia Tech essentially lost all of its linebacker rotation to natural attrition.

To top off the defensive woes, tackle Tim Settle (36 tackles with 12.5 for loss including four sacks) went to the Washington professional football franchise in the fifth round of the draft.

Offensively, the losses seem minimal in comparison. Running back Travon McMillian (104 rushes for 439 yards and two touchdowns) transferred to Colorado, top receiver Cam Phillips earned first-team All-ACC honors in his final season (71 catches for 964 yards and seven scores), and first-team All-ACC right guard Wyatt Teller finished his collegiate career.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH GAINED
Not necessarily intentionally, the Hokies counteracted some of those defensive farewells by bringing in 10 early-enrolled freshmen. That may not pan out in production, but given the NCAA’s relaxed views on eligibility concerns, there is a better chance than ever that some of those freshmen make their presences felt.

More specifically, speedy freshman running back Cole Beck will be a local favorite throughout his career, hailing from Blacksburg. His quickness alone could get him onto the field.

Justin Fuente (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Junior receiver Damon Hazelton sat out last season after he transferred from Ball State, where he caught 51 passes for 505 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. That debut campaign made him think he could play at a higher level, and Virginia Tech agreed.

HEAD COACH
Justin Fuente enters his third year in the unenviable role of being the guy to replace a legend, but thus far Fuente has fared well following in Frank Beamer’s footsteps. The Hokies won the ACC’s Coastal division in 2016, finishing 10-4, and then fell to second in the division last year behind Miami.

Fuente’s system might be a bit more familiar to Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long than it is to most. Long arrived at Memphis immediately after Fuente and his staff headed east. In familiarizing himself with his new team, Long undoubtedly studied an abundance of Fuente’s film. That does not necessarily mean he knows the intricacies and nuances, but it is a starting point.

If any Virginia Tech receiver is going to present problems for Notre Dame’s secondary, it will most likely be sophomore Sean Savoy. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
This offense will go as far as Jackson takes it. By season’s end, his will likely still be the only name on it known nationally. The best other chance would be sophomore receiver Sean Savoy. As a freshman, Savoy caught 39 passes for 454 yards and four scores. If he emerges as Phillips’ replacement, those numbers could all easily double.

Fuente has made a career of preferring a running back by committee approach. Three look ready to share carries this season:
Junior Deshawn McClease: 108 carries for 530 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior Steven Peoples: 70 carries for 267 yards and two touchdowns.
Sophomore Jalen Holston: 70 carries for 226 yards and three touchdowns.

As such, do not be surprised if Jackson actually leads the Hokies in rushing yards, having gained 324 yards and six touchdowns on the ground in 2017. One way or another, Fuente generally insists on running the ball, even if unsuccessfully at points.

Three returning starters along the offensive line will attempt to keep Jackson upright, but it was not inherently an excellent front last season, so development will be needed. It cleared the path for the Hokies’ offense to average a mere 3.9 yards per rush last year, including four games of less than 3.0, one of which was against FCS-level Delaware.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Any other year this would be a much greater concern for opponents, but defensive coordinator Bud Foster returns only five full-time starters and even less overall experience.

Then again, Foster has been leading the Virginia Tech defense for more than two decades, and he has a strong building block to start with in three returning defensive line starters, led by third-team All-ACC tackle Ricky Walker (41 tackles with 12.5 for loss including 4.5 sacks). Pertaining to Notre Dame concerns, this defense will have had four relatively unconcerning games to come together immediately before facing the Irish.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Of all seasons to have a young defense, the Hokies undoubtedly wish it was not one in which they opened at Florida State on Labor Day. Blame the ACC conference offices. However that game ends, Virginia Tech should cruise to four wins before facing Notre Dame (vs. William & Mary; vs. East Carolina; at Old Dominion; at Duke).

Doing so would get the Hokies halfway to the bookmakers’ projected win total.

Friday at 4: 40 Predictions, 1-20 with an offensive focus

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A year ago this preview piece remembered a freshman year Canadian roommate who gave one of the simplest and most cutting reviews ever offered of a piece of writing.

“You shouldn’t have started with ‘I think.’ It made your point weaker.”

Well, Mr. Maple Leafs Fan, I think your wedding last weekend was more fun than I expected. I think it was worth spending more than 24 hours in Columbus, Ohio, despite no news coming of a certain Buckeyes investigation. And I think I actually enjoyed eating dinner with two recent Tennessee graduates. Conversations with them and a few Ohio State folks will, in fact, inform certain projections seen in the second half of this series next week.

So there, you married PhD, sometimes “I think” works out just fine, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, I think …

1) Maxing out one’s credit cards in a West Virginia sportsbook on the Notre Dame vs Michigan point total over/under makes all the sense in the world, which inevitably means it will lead to garnished wages. Currently bookmakers have that number at 48 points with a bit of incentive to take the under.

2) How confident might that bet be? The Irish and Wolverines will not even break 41 points, falling a full touchdown short of that current mark.

3) The only way it breaks 48 is with multiple defensive and special teams touchdowns. Both defenses are talented enough to make that happen, but both doing so seems unlikely. That is where the new kickoff rules will be noticed: A kickoff fair caught within the 25-yard line places the ball at the 25-yard line.

It will reduce opportunities for special teams scores. As a collective society of football fans, we’ll notice the change the first weekend, maybe even the first month. By midseason, though, the casual remote-holder will have largely forgotten about the shift toward safety.

4) Notre Dame senior kicker Justin Yoon will make the biggest kick of his life. That may not come against Michigan, but it will become a reality by the end of the season.

5) Remember receiver John Goodman’s incomplete pass to start the fourth quarter at Oklahoma in 2012? That game is remembered as a dominant 30-13 victory, but the final period began with only a 10-6 Irish lead, though Notre Dame was driving deep into Sooner territory. Goodman’s pass toward TJ Jones felt like it hung in the air forever. It had, after all, been five years since Goodman quarterbacked his high school team to an undefeated regular season. Two pass attempts in 2010 had not kept his arm lively.

Enter sophomore quarterback-turned-running back/receiver Avery Davis. At some point this year, he will throw a pass, be it on a trick snap or his own read option or a double pass. It will be a breath-holding three seconds. Perhaps this is simply the voice of a hope, a dream, a want for entertainment.

6) Irish running backs will have more catches than they did a year ago, totaling 24 and led by Josh Adams’ 13 for 101 yards. This was thought even before Davis and sophomore receiver-turned-running back Jafar Armstrong made their respective position moves. Those changes make it a real safe guess now.

The last time the Irish had as little experience at running back as they do now, it was 2013 and 2014 and Cam McDaniel was leading the way. (Getty Images)

7) The last time Notre Dame entered a season with fewer career rushing yards returning in its running back depth than this year’s 875 (641 from senior Dexter Williams, 234 from junior Tony Jones), was 2013 when Cam McDaniel entered with 134 yards and George Atkinson had rushed for 388.

The last time it had fewer career touchdowns than the current 11 (Williams with eight, Jones with three) was 2014. McDaniel claimed four scores and Tarean Folston offered three.

In 2013, the Irish finished with 1,963 rushing yards, averaging 151.0 per game.
In 2014, they managed 2,073 and averaged 159.5.

While Notre Dame will not match last year’s prodigious rushing output of 3,503 yards and 269.5 averaged per game, it will not fall to those depths. Instead, it will finish a bit closer to the most-recent numbers than the ones from earlier in the decade. Averaging between 214.5 and 224.5 rushing yards per game sounds about right. A mobile quarterback deserves credit for some of that reduced regression.

8) Senior receiver Chris Finke will match his career totals of 16 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

9) Two freshmen receivers will outperform then-freshman Michael Young’s 2017 of four catches for 18 yards and a score. Those two will be Kevin Austin and Lawrence Keys.

Once the ‘Has he matured?’ storylines fade, it figures to be a boom or bust season for Irish junior receiver Chase Claypool. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

10) Junior receiver Chase Claypool will not finish second in receptions or receiving yards, as he did in both last season with 29 catches for 402 yards.

11) Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will catch at least three touchdowns, placing no lower than second among tight ends in the category. This thinking is largely based off Weishar’s performance in the red zone last year and the trust he earned there both from the Irish coaching staff and from senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Two of Weishar’s nine catches were for scores. That percentage could comically rise in 2018.

12) Wake Forest sophomore receiver Greg Dortch will score twice against Notre Dame on Sept. 22.

13) Stanford senior running back Bryce Love will equal that, if not more, a week later.

14) The game against the Cardinal will be the first of two in a row in primetime for the Irish. When Virginia Tech takes the field on Oct. 6, it will raise goosebumps, and no 280-character praise will come close to giving it proper due.

15) That entrance will still pale in comparison to the daunting feeling felt by the opposition whenever Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was played in its proper sporting environment, as Mariano Rivera took the field for the New York Yankees. A Red Sox fan of a father used to lament those eight-inning games.

16) Junior Ian Book will attempt fewer than 75 passes, his total of a year ago when he started one game, played the majority of another, saw mop-up duty in four more and collapsed under the lights at Miami, as well. It is the loss of the 18 passes in victorious blowouts that makes this guess most-likely accurate. Freshman Phil Jurkovec will take many of those snaps this year thanks to the NCAA’s rule change regarding eligibility not being affected by appearing in up to four games.

17) Sophomore offensive lineman Josh Lugg will start multiple games. Notre Dame’s offensive line enjoyed remarkable health last season. The only blip came when Alex Bars missed the second half at North Carolina, at which point Tommy Kraemer moved from a timeshare at right tackle to right guard, now his full-time position.

Expecting such fortune again is a bit of a leap, and nearly any injury would activate Lugg. If Kraemer is injured, in steps Lugg. If either tackle goes down, Kraemer is expected to move there, and in steps Lugg at right guard. If now-left guard Bars sprains an ankle, Lugg will be one of two considered, along with classmate Dillan Gibbons.

The only position which may not prompt Lugg would be if fifth-year center Sam Mustipher was knocked out of a game. First of all, that would be an absolute worst-case scenario for first-year offensive line coach Jeff Quinn. Second of all, there is a chance it would elicit Bars moving inward to center, at which point, well, you get the idea.

18) The Irish do not play freshman offensive linemen who do not enroll early. Even then, only three have played since 2008: Trevor Robinson that year, Steve Elmer in 2013 and Robert Hainsey last season.

No offensive linemen enrolled early this spring, yet multiple will play thanks to the NCAA’s shift regarding eligibility concerns. That may not be the most-exciting reason to watch the fourth quarter against Ball State on Sept. 8, but it should be reason enough.

As he competes for backup duties behind All-Pro Aaron Rodgers, DeShone Kizer has thrown for 283 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-30 passing in two preseason games. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

19) Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer threw two touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers on Thursday in a 51-34 preseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. That will be the most success Kizer has this year.

20) Long ago notes for this bit included a scrap of paper buried beneath a pile of legal pads. It speculated ESPN’s “College GameDay” would visit campus when Florida State does on Nov. 10, marking the exact matchup which began the show’s on-site trips 25 years ago. The Irish and Seminoles could conceivably still force that issue, but it seems exceptionally unlikely now with “GameDay” already showing up for the season opener. Rather than count this as a prematurely-incorrect pick, let’s wonder if the Florida State weekend includes a 30th anniversary celebration of Notre Dame’s 1988 title team.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Stanford

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Stanford has come to be known as a defensive-minded, fundamental program. That took a step backward last season, and not only because the Cardinal season was hijacked by the brilliance of running back Bryce Love. If anything, Love’s excellence overshadowed some of the regression.

Ranked No. 13 in the preseason Coaches Poll, Stanford could end up relying on the Heisman front runner even more so this year.

2017 REVIEW
For only the second time in head coach David Shaw’s seven-year tenure, the Cardinal lost five games last season, the most Shaw has ever endured as a head coach. Winning the Pac-12 North took some of the sting out of that struggle, but the year still ended on a two-game losing streak.

Bryce Love (Getty Images)

Love was the story of Stanford’s 2017, exploding onto the scene despite the team struggling to a 1-2 start thanks to losses at USC and at San Diego State. The Cardinal then won seven of its next eight to force its way into the Pac-12 title game, falling 31-28 in a rematch to USC to lose out on a playoff-access bowl bid.

Love was six weeks into dealing with a bad ankle sprain by then, something he could not shake the second half of the season, limiting his relative effectiveness despite playing through it. From a Notre Dame perspective, watching Love take 20 carries for 125 yards in the regular-season finale stood in stark contrast to the entire Irish running back stable failing to fight through sprains and bruises.

Love’s hobbling was somewhat counteracted by then-sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello’s emergence. Costello took over the starting gig for the final six games, leading the way to scoring 30 or more points in four of Stanford’s last five games. He finished the year with 1,573 yards and a 58.8 percent completion rate, throwing 14 touchdowns compared to only four interceptions.

WHAT STANFORD LOST
Criticizing the Cardinal defense from a year ago as subpar for Stanford should stand out when now realizing it will be without two first-team Pac-12 defenders in tackle Harrison Phillips and safety Justin Reid, and a second-teamer in cornerback Quenton Meeks, along with linebacker Peter Kalambayi and defensive end Eric Cotton. They were the defense’s strengths.

Phillips: 100 tackles (as an interior defensive lineman) with 16 for loss including seven sacks.
Reid: 99 tackles with 6.5 for loss and five interceptions.
Meeks: 66 tackles with two interceptions and eight more passes broken up.
Kalambayi: 61 tackles with seven for loss including four sacks.
Cotton: 30 tackles with three sacks.

Offensively, the greatest loss is either former starter and now backup insurance quarterback Keller Chryst, who will be immediately eligible at Tennessee as a graduate transfer, or first-team Pac-12 tight end Dalton Schultz (22 catches for 212 yards and three scores).

WHAT STANFORD LOST IN THE SPRING
A chance to develop Costello. A hip injury kept him sidelined throughout the entirety of spring practices. With Chryst’s departure, that left third-string junior Jack Richardson taking all the snaps.

As well as Chryst played in the second half of 2017, he was still a first-year starter primarily looking to avoid mistakes. He did largely avoid them, but there was certainly room for improvement, both overall and in developing chemistry with his targets.

WHAT STANFORD GAINED
If the Cardinal defense outperforms meager expectations, it will probably have a pair of freshmen defensive ends to thank for that. Four-star recruits Thomas Booker and Andres Fox will both be given genuine chances to crack the lineup this year. Whenever Florida State (both), Clemson (Booker) and Alabama (Fox) recruit a defensive end, take it as a sign of talent. Yes, Notre Dame sought each, as well.

Speaking of former Irish targets, receiver Osiris St. Brown (Equanimeous’ younger, but not youngest, brother) will presumably reach the field after preserving a year of eligibility in 2017.

Most of all, though, Stanford gained Love’s health. At the least, he will be healthy to begin the season. If he can maintain it through the year, a college football-loving nation should be thankful for the blessing. It is hard to fathom improving on a season that finished with unanimous All-American honors and as the Heisman runner-up, but anyone who saw Love grimacing throughout last November knows it is within the proverbial world of possibility.

David Shaw. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Already the winningest coach in Cardinal history at 73-22 (passing Pop Warner’s 71 wins last season the week before Notre Dame arrived in Palo Alto), Shaw has nothing to prove … except it Stanford get over the hump and into the College Football Playoff.

This is not likely the year to figure such out, but it goes to show how well he has done in following in Jim Harbaugh’s footsteps. (For thoroughness’ sake, Harbaugh went 29-21 in four years, a .580 winning percentage, well behind Shaw’s .785.)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Love has been discussed, as has Costello.

His preferred receivers have not been. Junior JJ Arcega-Whiteside and senior Trenton Irwin lead the way, along with last year’s Nos. 3 (sophomore tight end Kaden Smith) and 4 (sophomore receiver Connor Wedington).

Arcega-Whiteside: 48 catches for 781 yards and nine touchdowns.
Irwin: 43 catches for 461 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith: 23 catches for 414 yards, an average of 18 yards per reception, and five scores. He caught three passes for 65 yards and a lead-taking ouchdown against the Irish.
Wedington: 31 catches for 243 yards.

The Cardinal also return four offensive linemen, losing only guard David Bright. That group is highlighted by sophomore tackle Walker Little, who was limited by injury to six starts in his debut campaign.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This is not meant to sound entirely negative. At its worst under Shaw, as last year was, Stanford still trots out a defense that gives up little without contest. That said, it was his worst defense, and it had been trending that way for a few seasons. In both 2015 and 2016, the Cardinal gave up 368 yards per game, then the most of the Shaw era. That skyrocketed to 405 yards last season.

Aside from Shaw’s first season (21.9 points per game in 2011), the last three seasons have also seen the most points allowed per game by his defense: 22.6 in 2015, 20.4 in 2016 and 22.7 in 2017.

Forcing 28 turnovers helped keep that last figure manageable, but losing the aforementioned defensive stalwarts may knock out that crutch from underneath Shaw’s defense. The defensive line returns little experience or depth, setting up the unproven linebackers and secondary for trouble.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Love may be enough to outpace those defensive concerns, but that is asking a lot, even of the electrifying speedster. Stanford’s schedule will not make life much easier. The week before traveling to South Bend, the Cardinal head to Oregon. November includes trips to both Washington and UCLA, now led by Chip Kelly.

For the second-straight year, Stanford’s schedule opens with San Diego State and USC. That should not go as poorly as it did last season, in part because the games are at The Farm, not on the road, but the Aztecs’ perennial rushing attack could lead to issues in this defensive line’s debut.

Nonetheless, preseason polling picked Stanford third in the conference and second in its division (behind Washington). The floor is rather high. Bookmakers offer a win total over/under of 8.5 with still rather even odds.

Notre Dame reveals Yankees-inspired look for 2018 Shamrock Series

NDFootball
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“This is 161st Street—Yankee Stadium.”

Those are the only words included in Notre Dame and Under Armour’s initial unveiling of this year’s Shamrock Series uniforms, but not much else need be said. The jerseys will be worn November 17 against Syracuse in Yankee Stadium and bear clear homages to the 27-time World Series champion New York Yankees.

The shoulders and pants include pinstripes like New York’s home uniforms. The jersey’s primary color looks to be a dark navy blue, both in line with Notre Dame’s home uniforms and the Yankees’ color.

If guessing at the design intentions of the simplistic helmet, the circular logo may be a nod toward New York City subway symbols.

Across the front of the uniform, “Notre Dame” appears in a script unfamiliar to Irish fans. It is one typically used by the Yankees, best-identified by the lead-in tails on capital letters.

The Irish and the Orange are scheduled to meet at 2:30 ET on Nov. 17, and broadcast on NBC.