The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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We’ve got a month to spend talking about what comes next for the Irish, but let’s talk about what just happened first. With the Irish given one last chance to perform on a big stage, they turned into wallflowers, tripping over their feet when they finally got their chance to tango with a Stanford team likely going to their second BCS bowl in as many years.

Notre Dame’s 28-14 loss to the Cardinal could have been uglier. It also could’ve been a far more interesting game if the Irish just took advantage of some opportunities, which makes Saturday night’s loss a microcosm of one of the more bizarre Irish seasons in recent memory. But after twelve games, you are what you are. And this football team’s inconsistencies and inability to limit mistakes doomed this team from day one against USF and continued on to the season’s finale in Palo Alto.

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the Cardinal’s 28-14 victory over the Irish.

THE GOOD

* Michael Floyd. The senior wide receiver took down one last record for good measure, with eight catches on Saturday night, giving him 95 on the season, a single-season record snatched away from former teammate Golden Tate.

The past two seasons, Floyd has been saddled with severe instability at the quarterback position, and a rather large bulls-eye on him thanks to opposing defensive coordinators identifying the Irish’s one game-breaking threat. It hasn’t stopped Floyd, who has been robbed of some of his downfield big play opportunities, but instead become a super-charged possession receiver, complementing the Irish running game on quick throws that allow the 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior inflict pain on defensive backs.

Against Stanford, Floyd put together another terrific game, but also showed just how complete of a player he is by chasing down a Cardinal defender who made an interception and blasting him to the turf. Great effort and wonderfully physical football in what had to be another frustrating night. The Irish have one game left with the school’s best wide receiver ever. He will be severely missed.

* Tyler Eifert also moved his way into the Irish record books, with his 14-yard grab in the third quarter moving him ahead of Ken MacAfee for the school record for catches in one season by a tight end. Eifert’s 55 grabs turned him into Notre Dame’s second option in the passing game, and he also became only the fifth tight end at Notre Dame to eclipse 1,000 yards in a career.

Eifert looks to have the inside track for the Mackey Award, given to the top tight end in college football. Whether that means he’ll forgo his senior year and try the NFL hasn’t been decided, but unlike Kyle Rudolph last year, Eifert still could lift his stock by returning for another season and becoming a more complete player.

* Second half defense. It was a tale of two halves for the Irish defense, victimized by both air and ground in the game’s first 30 minutes, only to respond impressively in the second half. Sure it was too little, too late. But in a game that could’ve gotten ugly, Bob Diaco’s troops turned things around quickly.

Even with Coby Fleener’s 55-yard touchdown catch, the Irish held Luck and the Cardinal offense to just six first downs in the second half. After giving up 6.3 yards a carry in the first half, the Irish cut that in more than half, giving up just 3.1 yards a carry after the break. Take out Fleener’s 55-yard score, and the Irish gave up just 87 yards on 30 plays. That’s impressive work, even if you can’t just forget a long TD pass.

* The Youth Movement on Defense. It’s a shame the Irish lost Stephon Tuitt to a serious illness down the stretch because the group of freshmen – Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Louis Nix — have already shown themselves to be quite a trio. With Kapron Lewis-Moore set to return next year and Sean Cwynar all but certain to be there as well, the Irish should take a huge step forward along the defensive front, when in the past the loss of two veterans would have been crushing.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the statistical breakdown of the two groupings:

NIX/LYNCH/TUITT
18 Starts
97 Tackles
12 TFL
5.5 Sacks
4 PBUs
15 QB Hurries
1 Forced Fumble

ETHAN/KLM/CWYNAR
17 Starts
67 Tackles
5 TFL
1.5 Sacks
3 PBUs
6 QB Hurries
1 Forced Fumble

Add guys like Troy Niklas, Chase Hounshell and Ishaq Williams to the picture and there’s reason to believe that the Irish front seven will be even better next year, even having to replace standouts like Johnson and Darius Fleming.

(Credit Funk Doctor Spock for the breakdown.)

* Andrew Hendrix. Only the Notre Dame faithful would be ready to proclaim a quarterback that went 11 for 24 with an interception (and what could have been two more) as the answer to their prayers, but the sophomore quarterback certainly looked the part Saturday night after coming off the bench in relief of Tommy Rees.

When tasked with running a bigger chunk of the offense, Hendrix seemed to thrive, gaining a bit of rhythm in the passing game and playing the role of battering ram as a runner. His third quarter touchdown drive was a thing of beauty, and might be the closest thing the Irish have seen to vintage Brian Kelly offense since the coach has been here. Take away the sack yardage loss, and Hendrix basically averaged five yards a carry — and the option to keep the ball seemed to open up some things for Cierre Wood.

Throwing with touch will be an evolutionary process, but Hendrix doesn’t lack for arm strength, rifling just about every throw all around the yard, showing off another skill that has Irish fan’s salivating.

At the very least, Hendrix has given the Irish’s next opponent a huge headache — with a strong-armed running quarterback now captured on tape as opposed to merely being a change-up, wildcat threat. He’s also jump-started one of the most interesting quarterbacking battles we’ll see in quite some time, with Rees, Hendrix and Everett Golson all ready to take dead aim at the 2012 job.

* Nice job Dan Fox. On a muddy field, the junior linebacker looked rock solid in coverage.

* Louis Nix played a great ball game with a heavy heart after his father had a heart attack earlier in the week. He is going to be something next season.

* Quite an athletic pass breakup by Harrison Smith. That’s covering a lot of ground against one of the best college quarterbacks since Peyton Manning.

THE BAD

* Notre Dame’s opening drive. After getting a three and out from the Cardinal, the Irish offense absolutely crumbled, giving back any momentum they might have had even before they took a snap. Two false starts backing the Irish up to a 1st and 20 was only the beginning as Tommy Rees was drilled on his first throw and forced from the game, before Hendrix finished the drive and Ben Turk punted. Just a terrible start to the game for the offense.

* The offensive line play. Losing Braxston Cave has continued to haunt the Irish offensive line, and Stanford exposed the middle of the defense early and often. The five sacks against the Cardinal were more than the Irish gave up with Cave in the lineup all season. Cierre Wood was unable to get on track either, averaging only 3.4 yards a carry. It’s hard to pin all of this on Mike Golic’s insertion into the puzzle, but against good defensive fronts (USC and Stanford) the Irish couldn’t run the ball. It’s been a big step forward by Ed Warinner’s troops, but Saturday wasn’t their finest moment.

* The first half offense. Punt. Fumble. Punt. Missed field goal. Punt. Interception. Halftime. How’s that for the worst sequence of football the Irish had all season, when they absolutely needed it most. Tommy Rees deserved the quick hook after fumbling away the best drive the Irish had and then failing to capitalize on a 1st and 10 from just outside the Stanford ten yard-line. But the first half wasn’t all on Rees as the Irish offensive line struggled to match the intensity of the Cardinal front seven and Rees was still battling the ill effects of a crushing tackle.

* Performance Anxiety. With a chance to make a statement in a marquee game, the Irish flopped. That’s another football game where the Irish came out in the opening rounds of a heavyweight battle and got knocked to the canvas early. Against teams like Stanford and USC, you can’t spot opponents points and after sluggish starts by the offense, that’s exactly what the Irish did. Brian Kelly knows that can’t keep happening, and it’s likely why a quarterback like Hendrix — able to exploit the defense’s adrenaline by keeping the ball on a zone-read — might be a better answer once he gets bridled.

* You’ve gotta make that kick, David Ruffer.

* The punt return game. There’s no true explanation for it. I expect some of the bowl preparation, and a lot of time in spring practice being dedicated to fixing this unit. What a lost opportunity.

THE UGLY

* Stanford’s Nike Pro Combat uniforms. Did the Cardinal really think Senior Day was the right time to breakout those terrible new uniforms? What an unfortunate keepsake for all those families having to explain what exactly their kids were wearing in that final home game. More importantly, when Stanford goes to frame Andrew Luck’s record-breaking touchdown pass, they’ll have to immortalize him looking like a Kool-Aid soaked storm trooper. Next year, break those out during the Big Game. Twenty-five Kodak moments with thank you.

* Stanford’s Turf. The only thing uglier than those uniforms was the grass. What a lousy playing surface and an embarrassing situation for the school.

 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame
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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.