Pregame Six Pack: Looking for a win

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Perhaps the least controversial place for Brian Kelly to be this week is on the sidelines. Because after creating a stir in front of a post-game microphone, and with media speculation ramping up from all the predictable places, Kelly—Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach and the owner of a contract extension that is set to keep him in South Bend until 2021—is ready to get back to football.

And more importantly, he thinks his team is, too.

“They’re ready. They just have to break through,” Kelly said Thursday. “They’re doing all the things I’m asking. They’ve just got to go win. It’s going to happen. I would have liked it to happen a few weeks ago, and they would have as well.”

That it didn’t is why we’re in this 2-4 mess. And it’s why there are storm clouds amidst the pleasant weekend forecast, a slew of unhappy fans forcing a head coach’s approval rating to sink like a major party presidential candidate.

So let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. With a a big game under the lights and two football teams in desperate need of a win, it’s another big weekend for football in South Bend.

With or without Christian McCaffrey, the objective on defense will be the same. 

There’s still no word on if Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s heart and soul, will take the field this weekend. But even if he’s a scratch, Brian Kelly doesn’t believe the defensive objective changes for Notre Dame.

“It’s like anything else. It’s not that we had an hex on him and he fell down. We controlled the line of scrimmage,” Kelly explained Tuesday. “We will have to control the line of scrimmage again, and if you can control the line of scrimmage and win the match-ups up front you can definitely slow him down. Teams have shown that.”

There’s progress being made up front, with Jarron Jones playing better football, Jerry Tillery ascending and Daniel Cage finding his rhythm as the Irish play more of a three-man front.

And even if Stanford is 102nd in the country in yards per play, this will be a stern test.

Getting the offense back on track will be key as well. 

Nobody wants to forget NC State faster than Notre Dame’s offense. Because a group that was averaging 40 points and 500 yards a game looked terrible—maybe (gasp!) even worse than the game plan. (On second thought, maybe not that bad.)

But there’s plenty of confidence in this unit. It didn’t just disappear in a week. And assuming nobody’s aiming a firehose at DeShone Kizer, he should have time to pick apart a Stanford defense that’s really struggled the past few weeks.

Kizer talked about the challenge ahead and raising the bar for the offense.

“We need to be a team that goes out, starts strong, maintains that same strong start throughout the whole game, and then finish as strong as we started,” Kizer said. “We go out and we show great spurts. We have athletes all over the field. We have a great offensive line. We’re completely sound across the board and very skilled.

“But with that, we haven’t done a good job of going out and keeping our pedal to the floor the whole game. We hit lapses, and that’s the truth. That’s the reality of how this season has started and those lapses have come back and ended up with four losses.”

Those lapses have included uneven play from Notre Dame’s rising star at quarterback. While Kizer’s three-game stretch of passing against Michigan State, Syracuse and Duke was the second-highest total in school history, his consistency disappeared at times, plagued by accuracy issues and decision-making that feel spurred on by a quarterback pressing to do too much.

But Kizer sees improvement coming. And he thinks it’s just around the corner.

“The confidence I have is because we haven’t had a full game. We have so much more to move forward on,” Kizer said. “We have so much more out there, and as an offense we can still put so many more points and move them forward. That potential makes me excited for what this offense can do.”

Playing great offense means playing better on first down. 

The Irish haven’t just been plagued by defensive struggles. The offense has also had a hard time digging itself out of early holes. And while some have focused on the team’s third-down struggles, Kelly mentioned that the team’s self-scout has pegged the problems on first down production.

“Our self-scout shows that we need to be better on first down. There is a trickle down affect into our third-down manageability, if you will,” Kelly explained. “So what we have looked at since Monday is why we were in the numbers that we were in and our self-scout shows some negative plays that we’ve got to get out of our offense. It’s really the negative plays, and that has got to be cleaned up for us to have a better third down efficiency.”

Those negative plays have often been because of some inconsistency along the offensive line. And those struggles were on full display against NC State, an Irish front that struggled in the trenches against the Wolfpack defensive line.

Left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey talked about the line’s need to take a step forward. And he pegged it not to anything having to do with technique or scheme, but rather the groups attention to detail.

“I think it is a mindset, and it’s a mindset about execution. And that’s all really offense comes down to is executing your job,” McGlinchey said. “I think it just comes down to a mindset of, yes, I’m going to get my job done, and I’m going to execute to the best of my ability on each and every play. And as soon as we can do that as consistently as we want to do that, I think we’ll be a lot better off.”

With very little fanfare, Stanford has become a wonderful rivalry. 

Maybe it’s the fact that the two schools are institutional peers. Maybe it’s because the rivalry has featured some wonderfully exciting games these past few years.

But it’s worth taking a look at the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry through a different lens, because after some questioned the decision to keep Stanford among the yearly rivals when games with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue all went to part-time opponents, the decision to go all-in with Stanford has been paid in full by the Cardinal, who have played elite football since Jim Harbaugh revived the program, turning this battle into something players look forward to.

“As much as you don’t want to say it’s just another game, but it’s not. It’s Stanford. It’s our rival,” McGlinchey said. “They’re a traditional powerhouse. They’re a phenomenally coached football team just as we are. And it’s just one of those things that you get up for certain games and this is one of them.”

Nobody was calling Stanford a traditional powerhouse when Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris were running the program into the ground. But with David Shaw building a program that has some Irish fans wishing it was the one in South Bend, it’s worth tipping your cap to Jack Swarbrick for making sure the Irish and Cardinal battle each year.

No time like Saturday night to get the pass rush rolling. 

The Irish ended their sack drought. They ended their forced-fumble streak against NC State. But getting off the schneid is one thing. Now it’s time for the Irish defensive line to make some forward progress—especially getting after the passer.

Because Stanford’s offensive line looks fragile. A unit that was viewed as one of the best in the country is now looking at a two-week run where they’ve given up 15 TFLs, including 11 sacks.

PFF College’s grading system tells the story. Only one of Stanford’s five starters up front has a positive grade this season. Last year? Four of five, with Joshua Garnett playing at an All-American level and Johnny Caspers not far off.

The strength of Notre Dame’s defense has been the front seven. Very quietly, Jarron Jones has been thriving—the team’s highest-graded defender on PFF. Isaac Rochell is right behind him. Jon Bonner has been impressive in his limited snaps. Jerry Tillery followed  his worst performance of the season with his best. Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes are finally earning snaps along with Andrew Trumbetti.

The opportunities are there for the taking. And winning the line of scrimmage in the run game shouldn’t be the only goal.

Even at the bottom, Brian Kelly believes this team has the ingredients of something special. 

Notre Dame’s head coach wasn’t in the mood to go big-picture on Thursday. But prodded into thinking back to other struggles he’s had over his 27 years as a head coach, Kelly made an interesting comparison for this football team—looking back to when some of his players were in diapers.

“It reminds me of my Grand Valley State team in 1999. We went 5-5-1, and then we went 50-3 or 50-4,” Kelly said, before joking that even this quote will be taken out of context. “It reminds me of a team that once they gain their confidence and once they break through, they’re going to have some success for a while.”

That’s the goal from here on out. Find that confidence. Find that momentum. And realize that this roster, even if it feels frustrating and difficult now, will be the one that’s tasked with winning football games in the very near future.

“[We] played a lot of young players. Let them experience it. Held them to high standards,” Kelly said of that Grand Valley team. “We’ve heard that before and really didn’t make any excuses. They were young, but [we] pushed them pretty hard, knowing that they were going to be successful.”

Kelly might be selling hope, a valuable commodity for a head coach on the lookout for hard-to-find wins. But he’s likely to get the benefit of the doubt from his bosses, a season that looks like an outlier during a career that’s seen Kelly win clips at a rate among the best in the game.

But that doesn’t buy him unlimited time. And after four losses by 21 points, Kelly knows that his team needs to break through.

“We’re going to be in close games. We’ve just got to finish them,” Kelly said. “That’s the will, the single-minded focus. I think they clearly understand that. They’re ready to win.”