The shockwaves from a crazy college football Saturday are still being felt. But after beating Stanford 17-14, Notre Dame is one of the few Top 10 teams that survived and advanced this weekend, with Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and UCLA all getting tripped up.
In the fourth-straight meeting between ranked Stanford and Notre Dame teams, the Irish escaped with a victory, sticking with the trend of the home team winning. That came courtesy of some late game magic by Everett Golson, who found tight end Ben Koyack in the corner of the end zone.
With the dramatic events still playing through most Irish fans’ heads, let’s run through the good, bad and ugly from a Saturday to remember in South Bend.
The Rush Defense. Notre Dame knew it faced its stiffest test in the trenches when they battled Stanford. That it was such a one-sided victory remains one of the best outcomes of the weekend.
Stopping the Cardinal running game was a key to the Irish’s success, and limiting Stanford to just 1.5 yards per carry certainly qualifies as a tremendous victory. With worries that Notre Dame’s linebackers were too small and the front four too inexperienced and thin, the “D-Boys” certainly silenced those critics.
The Pass Defense. That Notre Dame took dead aim at Ty Montgomery, Stanford’s best offensive playmaker, and shut him down completely says quite a bit about the play of cornerbacks Cody Riggs and Cole Luke. Playing man coverage for a lot of the afternoon, the Irish duo held Montgomery to just 12 yards on four catches. Add in Montgomery’s five carries, the Cardinal’s All-American candidate gained just 26 yards on 10 touches.
Cole Luke was the first Irish defender since Manti Te’o to have two interceptions in a game. He also chipped in a sack, a forced fumble and another pass breakup for good measure.
Riggs was solid in coverage, playing excellent in run support as well with six total tackles. While he gave Irish fans another heart attack with a bobble on punt return, the diminutive senior is so important in the Irish’s defensive blueprint.
While Austin Collinsworth got on the field for the first time this season, safety Elijah Shumate isn’t going anywhere. Not after another six tackle performance, where he was also credited with a sack on the game’s final play, a perfect blitz that forced Kevin Hogan’s intentional grounding penalty.
Collinsworth gave Max Redfield a break for a series when he picked up his first tackle on the year, likely revealing how well Shumate’s been playing at strong safety. Add in Matthias Farley and the secondary might have given up one or two more than they wanted to, but holding Kevin Hogan to 18 of 36 for just 158 yards and two interceptions, and it’s a good day at the office.
The Offensive Line. Now hear me out. I saw Steve Elmer and Christian Lombard struggle early. I saw tire tracks down Matt Hegarty’s jersey, too. But if you were to place a guess which team would average 2.5 yards per carry more than the other, you likely wouldn’t have put your money on Notre Dame.
After a slow start, we saw Harry Hiestand’s offensive line start to come together. That bodes very well for the next few weeks, which will be critical as this team tries to achieve its goals.
“We did a really good job in the last drive of picking up some stunts and blitzes with our offensive line,” Kelly said. “I was really pleased with that.
“And we started to come together on our combinations and our run game, which is very, very important. So we’re getting there, because we saw the kind of defense that we’re playing. We’re consistently playing at a high level.”
Surviving Stanford is an accomplishment, especially protecting the quarterback at a time in the game where failing meant a loss. But the next step is establishing some dominance up front. They’ll have that opportunity against a North Carolina team that’s struggling on defense.
Everett Golson. He didn’t play great football. And maybe he even ended all the stupid Heisman speculation that turned September’s performances into some silly measuring stick.
But after making two critical mistakes in the first half, Golson did what he needed to do, throwing the football well in really difficult conditions, and rallying the Irish to a victory. After coming out of the game in 2012 when the moment was at its largest, Golson made the game-changing play that was needed.
“This was really his first two-minute drive,” Kelly said after the game. “If you really look at it. This was truly his first one. And I think he’s going to be better for it.”
Jaylon Smith. Another tip of the cap to Smith, whose 14 tackles were a career-high and the most since Te’o roamed the sidelines. The sophomore linebacker continued his ascent Saturday afternoon, seemingly everywhere during Notre Dame’s victory.
After the game, Smith showed the type of maturity and poise that has you wondering what planet produced the Fort Wayne product.
“Coach Kelly says it all the time. It’s not about rising to the occasion. We sink to the level of our preparation,” Smith said. “And we prepared so great this week. We all knew going into the week, Stanford week, it’s going to be physical. They are going to try to hit you in the mouth and we just had to match that intensity and penetration was key.”
Ben Koyack. If there’s an offensive player that deserved a big play like this, it’s the senior tight end. After being stuck in one of the toughest battles on the field as a blocker, Koyack played hero when his flag route flooded behind cornerback Wayne Lyons.
“It was huge. It was huge,” Kelly said after the game. “We were struggling with some of his blocking assignments. He’s so central and critical to what we’re doing in our read zone option stuff.”
That Koyack struggled with some blocks against Stanford shouldn’t be surprising. Go back to the 2012 game and you’ll spot Troy Niklas getting used as a turnstile against the Cardinal’s fierce edge players.
But getting a big play out of Koyack could be the springboard to his season. After talking about how it felt like the pass heading his way was in the air for an hour, Koyack sounded like a veteran player just thankful for the moment.
Corey Robinson let us known how his teammates felt.
“It feels like a movie. When Ben caught that last one in the end zone, I didn’t know what to do,” Robinson said. “I was so excited. I am so happy for Ben and happy for our team.”
* After Notre Dame’s go ahead score, Kyle Brindza hit a clutch kickoff for a touchback over Ty Montgomery’s head. That was the equivalent of a 300-yard drive on the 18th tee that splits the fairway. Big time kick for Brindza, who also drilled a clutch field goal after Hunter Smith decided to try some gloves out.
* Notre Dame got the Big Plays they needed this week, manufacturing the type of offense that doesn’t usually exist against Stanford. The Irish had five plays of 20-yards or more. Going into the game, Stanford had only given up four.
* Welcome to the party, Chris Brown. After wondering if all the praise Brown received this spring was coaching propaganda, it was the junior receiver who emerged in the first half, catching the football confidently as his four catches, 60-yards and first touchdown of the year were critical.
* In just his second game, Torii Hunter Jr. is emerging as a clutch player. The big-time catch he made on Notre Dame’s sidelines after getting an interference call was a huge play.
The Drops. Having gone through and counted the drops, the exact total is probably four for Notre Dame. But there were a few more that should’ve been caught, especially in a game where every yard counts.
Of course, to not mention that it was monsoon-like conditions and freezing cold outside isn’t necessarily fair. And after struggling to get my hands to type in the press box, I’m not sure that catching the football was that easier, either. But on a big stage where every yard was tough sledding, this young receiving corps needs to do a better job.
The Red Zone. The Irish only scored on half their red zone opportunities, converting two touchdowns but getting nothing out of two other drives. Those difficulties have pushed the Irish from the top of the statistical charts when they started 14 for 14 to a rather ordinary No. 46.
Converting points will be critical when the Irish head to Tallahassee. So getting back in the swing of things next week against North Carolina will be important, especially after some shaky work on field goals and some bad decision-making by the quarterback.
The Field Goal game. This isn’t all on holder Hunter Smith, whose name is known now for all the wrong reasons. But the combination of some struggles pacing the snap by Scott Daly and the decision not to wear gloves was a puzzling one.
Here’s a fun tidbit for those that want to bag on Notre Dame and the kicking game for a lack of preparation. During Thursday practice, the Irish staff had team managers dumping water on the football and the ground as the Irish kicking game worked on snapping, fielding, placing and kicking field goals.
The unit was flawless.
But that’s the difference between practice and the moment in front of 80,000 fans. Credit to Daly, Smith and Brindza for getting the clutch 45-yarder down and converted, with Brindza’s make tying him with John Carney for Notre Dame’s school record 51st field goal.
Quick Hitters: The secondary played a great game, but the huge catch they gave up on 3rd and long that set up Stanford’s go-ahead touchdown just can’t happen. Not a great job by Elijah Shumate or Matthias Farley finding the football, though credit Kevin Hogan for a nice throw.
Film will tell us that another interception was left on the board on a puzzling throw Hogan made to the post that was nearly picked by Max Redfield.
* The Irish offense should be killing itself for its struggles in the middle of the field. There seemed to be a brick wall that Stanford put up around midfield that extended to their 30-yard line, and the Irish just struggled to move the football in key situations that would’ve set them up to score points.
Stanford has the nation’s longest streak of holding teams under 30 points. The Irish struggles converting in the middle of the field kept them from getting close.
The Weather. As a native Minnesotan who has played some football games in terrible conditions, that had to be a Top 5 weather game in my lifetime. No, it wasn’t the coldest day around. But the combination of fierce wind, sheets of rain and sub-40 degree temperature made even tailgating a challenge. It certainly played a factor in the football game, too.
Winning Ugly. Brian Kelly probably said it best, when he addressed his team.
On Sunday, Kelly said that the Irish got out of the game relatively injury free, a great update considering the physical toll that comes with playing Stanford. That should have the Irish feeling good heading into North Carolina, a game that counts every bit as much as the one the following week.
Survive and Advance.
Sportscenter probably said it best: