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Notre Dame’s turnovers lead to 38-20 loss and 9-3 finish

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STANFORD, Calif. — Notre Dame had a chance to seize every ounce of control at Stanford on Saturday, just like the Irish had an opportunity in November to force their way into the forefront of the national conversation. By failing to deliver a blow to the No. 21 Cardinal, No. 8 Notre Dame completed its fall to a disappointing 9-3 conclusion from a strong 8-1 beginning.

The final ledger will point toward three fourth-quarter Irish turnovers as the catalyst to the 38-20 loss. Head coach Brian Kelly cited them directly and frequently afterward.

“Each game that we’ve lost this year, we’ve turned the football over against quality opposition,” Kelly said. “… We turned a good game into a not-so-good game by turning the football over late.”

That is not an inaccurate telling of the game, but it is incomplete. Notre Dame outgained Stanford 415 yards to 328, but could never establish its running game, averaging only 4.58 yards on 38 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Cardinal sacked Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush six times, keeping him hemmed in for 81 yards on 11 rushes otherwise. Specifically, that was a piece of Stanford coach David Shaw’s game plan.

“I was not subtle this week about containing the quarterback,” Shaw said. “We had to keep him inside. … Get [Wimbush] to a sideline, he’s going to kill us either with his legs or his arm.”

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) and Notre Dame’s offense never found consistency during the 38-20 loss at Stanford on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Wimbush added 249 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-28 passing, though the scores and 158 of those yards came on two plays alone, an 83-yard touchdown to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and a 75-yarder to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.

Wimbush also threw two interceptions, two-thirds of the crippling dynamic Kelly focused on.

“I thought we were in a good rhythm,” Wimbush said. “I thought we had control of what was going on. I felt good about what we were doing.

“Can’t turn the ball over at that time.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The turnovers did in Notre Dame. That can hardly be denied. Yet, the Irish were not exactly humming before Wimbush’s first interception.

When junior Shaun Crawford downed a punt at Stanford’s one-yard line, he set up the Notre Dame defense to force the Cardinal’s hand. It quickly led to a three-and-out. Junior Chris Finke returned the ensuing punt all the way to the 19-yard line, breaking a tackle before finding a crease. Suddenly, the Irish were set to take a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter, having held Stanford largely in check all night.

“We’ve been really good all year about taking those possessions and turning them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

That is not what happened.

To be clear, the Cardinal did not stop Notre Dame; the Irish did themselves in. Two procedure penalties created a first-and-20 from the 29-yard line. Stepherson gained all 10 of those yards back on a jet sweep — one of the few designs offensive coordinator Chip Long could count on this last month — but the momentum was already gone. The following two plays lost another two yards and Notre Dame settled for a field goal and a 20-17 lead.

“I didn’t feel like it was slipping away in that sense, but I felt like we left some points out there,” Kelly said.

Per usual, fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey was even more blunt about the mishap.

“Just dumb penalties,” he said, himself guilty of the second penalty with a false start. “It can’t happen. That’s the only thing you can say about that.”

The Irish took an ideal situation, squandered it entirely on their own and by the time they had another chance to threaten, Stanford had scored three unanswered touchdowns to create the final 38-20 margin.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
The Cardinal took a 31-20 lead with most of the fourth quarter remaining. Notre Dame was very much still in the game, if not for possibly having already checked out mentally. Irish junior C.J. Sanders took the kickoff from the goal line and did not even get the ball to the 20-yard line. Instead, he deposited it on the grass to be recovered by Stanford.

The Cardinal did exactly what Notre Dame did not after Finke’s punt return. It took great field position and turned it into seven points.

Wimbush will get the headlines and the brunt of the criticism for his two turnovers, but he was not alone. The mistakes came in a number of varieties.

“We played really good football teams and turned it over,” Kelly said. “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to put yourself in a bad situation. There’s not that guys were tired, not mentally sharp, [or] they didn’t come ready to play. They came ready to play. They were ready to win today.

“Got to hold onto the football. Can’t turn it over.”

Stanford took two short fields and turned them into touchdowns. Notre Dame took a short field and turned it into a field goal. Remove the former scores and turn the latter into a touchdown, and this game would have been 24-24. Obviously, that isn’t how football works.

“It’s what we thought it would be,” Kelly said. “We thought the game would get into the fourth quarter and we’d have a chance to win it. We didn’t expect to turn the football over a couple of times.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Wimbush’s first interception created one of those short fields for the Cardinal. After the debacle of a possession off the Finke punt return, Stanford scored a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. On the very first snap afterward, Wimbush tried to force a pass to fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe for about a 10-yard gain.

He did not see Cardinal sophomore linebacker Curtis Robinson reading the passer’s eyes and jumping the route.

“I just didn’t see the Buck defender drop,” Wimbush said. “Then he got into my window. I thought I could squeeze it in there. He made a great play.”

Down only four points, the Irish were in good position to regain control. Three plays later, Stanford had all the control after sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello found senior tight end Dalton Schultz for a 12-yard touchdown pass.

“Brandon is a competitor,” Kelly said. “He’ll bounce back. He is who he is, he wants to win as bad as anybody.

“He’ll go back to work and work on his craft. He’s our starting quarterback. He’ll be starting in the bowl game.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
On the Notre Dame-specific side of things, the focus would go to either junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (six tackles, three for loss including one sack) or St. Brown (five catches, 111 yards, one touchdown).

Notre Dame limited Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love’s big plays, but he still found his way to 125 yards on 20 carries. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

For the game, the honor goes to Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love. Playing with a sprained ankle, as he has much of the season, Love took 20 carries for 125 yards. He broke only one run for more than 30 yards (31, to be exact), but he did enough to mandate the Irish defense’s attention all evening.

“It was tough,” Love said. “It’s just part of the Stanford brand of football, though. We enjoy those gritty games where you have to fight for yard after yard. That’s kind of what it was the first two quarters.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Things turned south for the Irish in a hurry, both in the game and in the season. Only 15 days ago, they were No. 3 in the College Football Playoff selection committee poll, 8-1 and looking to make a statement at Miami. Now, Notre Dame is 9-3 and likely headed to a bowl game in Orlando.

To start the fourth quarter Saturday, the Irish led 20-17 and looked to be in position to slug out a physical win at The Farm for the first time since 2007. In just three minutes and 36 seconds, the Cardinal turned that into a 38-20 margin.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
The outsider’s focus right now may be backward, a retrospective of the season. Inside the locker room, however, the bowl game looms.

“Like any other game, we got to learn from this one and move forward,” junior running back Josh Adams said. “Got to really get back to that grind, finish this [season] out strong. We want to do it the right way, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
3:40 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 83-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 0. (3 plays, 86 yards, 0:39)
0:43 — Stanford touchdown. Trent Irwin 29-yard reception from K.J. Costello. Jet Toner PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 7. (5 plays, 72 yards, 2:49)

Second Quarter
11:29 — Stanford touchdown. JJ Arcega-Whiteside four-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 7. (6 plays, 55 yards, 2:40)
2:36 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 38 yards. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 69 yards, 4:34)

Third Quarter
14:48 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 75-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Stanford 14. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:12)
10:23 — Stanford field goal. Toner 24 yards. Notre Dame 17, Stanford 17. (9 plays, 64 yards, 4:19)
1:23 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 38 yards. Notre Dame 20, Stanford 17. (4 plays, -2 yards, 2:43)

Fourth Quarter
13:46 — Stanford touchdown. Kaden Smith 19-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 24, Notre Dame 20. (7 plays, 70 yards, 2:31)
12:21 — Stanford touchdown. Dalton Schultz 12-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20. (3 plays, 29 yards, 1:22)
10:10 — Stanford touchdown. Cameron Scarlett three-yard rush. Toner PAT good. Stanford 38, Notre Dame 20. (4 plays, 18 yards, 2:06)

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.