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

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Ultimately, TJ Jones said everything that was needed after the Irish’s 27-20 loss, putting into context the 8-4 season the Irish just completed.

“You’re not great. You’re not terrible,” Jones said of the 8-4 record. “Little better than average, I guess you can say.”

Notre Dame was game for most of the evening against Stanford, but was unable to cash in early chances or make a play down the stretch when it was needed. And as Stanford has done over the past few years, the Cardinal leaned on a power running game and a suffocating defense, daring the Irish to beat them in the fourth quarter.

The Irish couldn’t.

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.

THE GOOD

Hanging Tough. Brian Kelly won’t take moral victories, but I’m inclined to give them one for Saturday night. As I tweeted mid-game, Notre Dame fans needed to remember the moment, because this was exactly what it feels like to be an undermanned team hanging around with a superior opponents.

Offensive line play. Losing Chris Watt could have killed the Irish. Yet just like the week before, the next man in did a very good job. With an interior of Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty and Steve Elmer, the Irish did a great good job protecting the quarterback, holding Stanford to just one sack.

Running the ball was a different story, but even against one of the top run defenses in the country, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston averaged a not terrible 3.7 yards a carry on their 18 touches.

Dan Fox. Gutty performance by the fifth-year senior, who made 15 tackles from his middle linebacker position. Fox started the season banged up, lost his job to Jarrett Grace, then finished the season playing the best football of his career.

Austin Collinsworth. Watching the senior safety get steamrolled in the backfield might solidify the opinion that he’s not physically impressive enough to be anything more than a role player, but 11 tackles and an interception is a nice day at the office.

Collinsworth gave it his all and played the best game of his career.

Matthias Farley. He’s been the whipping boy a bit lately, but outside of one bad missed tackle, Farley brought his lunch box to work on Saturday night and played a solid game as well.

Zack Martin. He might not end up being a first round draft pick, but some team is going to be very happy when they take Martin in next year’s NFL Draft.

You’ve got to scroll WAAAAY down the box score to find Stanford All-American Trent Murphy’s name, with the nation’s leading sacker held to just two tackles.

Just as important as his play on the field has been, Martin has been an anchor both on and off the field for the Irish.

Go ahead and talk about Taylor Lewan as one of the top tackles in the draft. I’d make the argument for Martin, and don’t think I’d have a hard time backing it up with game tape.

Quick Takes:

* Great interception by Bennett Jackson. Picture perfect technique and a clutch play. It’s good to see Jackson finish on a high note, making a play that evaded him earlier in the year.

Tarean Folston looked the part. Next year’s running back depth chart will be tons of fun.

Both James Onwualu and Corey Robinson ended up in the box score. But what makes Onwualu so interesting is that he made a big special teams tackle as well as a clutch reception.

Thinking back to some conversations I’ve had with Onwualu’s high school coach Mike Scanlon, Scanlon always thought James could succeed as a jumbo safety. Looking at the profile of Irish recruit Drue Tranquill, could you put 20 pounds on Onwualu and turn him into a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, like the staff will try to do with Tranquill?

Or is Onwualu too good of an offensive player?

Notre Dame has a weapon in Kyle Brindza. Expect some awards attention for Brindza next season.

THE BAD

Late Interceptions. I was told pregame by someone that would know that nearly 80% of the offensive game plan was put on Tommy Rees’ shoulders, relying on Rees to get the Irish in the right play against Derek Mason’s tough Stanford defense.

Kelly echoed that in his postgame comments, calling Rees’ work presnap masterful.

Unfortunately, when you throw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, nobody remembers your excellent game management for the other three quarters.

Rees had quietly put together a good game against the Cardinal defense, sitting at 14 of 28 with 2 touchdown passes and no turnovers at one point. But with the game on the line, Rees completed just 2 of his final six throws, with two of those misses going to Wayne Lyons.

Stopping the tight end. I’m not sure Devon Cajuste is technically a tight end, but the Irish were done in by Cajuste and tight end Davis Dudchock, who teams for 6 catches and 99 yards on Saturday, the lions share of the Stanford passing game.

With the Irish selling out to hold up against the run, the Irish were vulnerable against the pass, and even in a season where Stanford’s tight ends all but disappeared, they came back and killed Notre Dame on Saturday.

Red Zone offense. Want to get it done against Stanford? You’ve gotta get 7 instead of 3. The Irish weren’t able to cash in their first two appearances in the red zone, settling for Kyle Brindza field goals before cashing in touchdowns to TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels.

Too little, too late.

Third Down defense. Stanford converted 8 of 13 third downs, moving the chains far too effectively, and doing it a few times on some critical draw plays.

I’ve read some criticism today by fans picking on Bob Diaco’s scheme, but it’s hard to take that too seriously when you look at the personnel the Irish were playing on defense, especially with the heart of the unit — the team’s depth — all but gutted.

Rush Offense. It’s hard to be too tough on an offensive line featuring four first-year players, but establishing a ground game in the red zone would’ve been helpful. Getting just 64 yards on 24 carries isn’t good enough.

Critical Decisions. It’s impossible for us to know the progressions of Rees’ reads during the fourth quarter. But the idea to target two first-year receivers with the game on the line isn’t the best.

Throwing the deep ball to Will Fuller isn’t a bad decision. He’s the team’s best home run threat and has shown himself to have great ball skills. But that redshirt freshman CJ Prosise was the intended target running up the seam, and that Prosise was allowed to get bodied off his route, isn’t good. That Rees was so quick to pull the trigger to Prosise also doesn’t make much sense.

With the game on the line, Notre Dame targeted receivers that have caught 11 balls. No, I don’t necessarily think they were the primary read.

But that’s not the way I want to go down.

THE UGLY

The Missed Opportunities. It’s too simplistic and narrow-minded to call this season a lost year. But it’s hard not to think about what the Irish could have been, especially when you think about this team playing with Everett Golson, a full-strength defensive line, and a better idea of the team’s offensive and defensive identities.

The work Notre Dame does from now until the bowl game will be crucial towards building to spring practice, where the Irish will need to develop some key leaders. Don’t expect much from Everett Golson, he won’t be allowed to start practicing until December 20. Depending on the bowl game, that could be just days before the Irish play.

Notre Dame will say goodbye to three captains. They’ll also miss the leader of the offense in Tommy Rees, Danny Spond, a guy who would’ve likely worn a C if he didn’t go down for the year, and key starters like Chris Watt, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.

The roster returns plenty of talent, but leaders will need to emerge quickly– and if that’s Stephon Tuitt (or Louis Nix), the Irish coaching staff will be very happy.