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Evaluating the Irish: Stanford Cardinal

By · September 27th, 2010 · 7 Comments
Evaluating the Irish: Stanford Cardinal

Following the loss to Michigan two weekends ago, Brian Kelly made it clear that the moral victories that come from heartbreaking losses are nothing to hold onto anymore. And while I agree with him, that the Irish should be playing with energy and enthusiasm on every down, following Saturday’s loss to Stanford, it seems that moral victories are the only thing keeping the team and its fan base afloat.

Dating back to the beginning of November of 2009, the Irish are an astonishing 1-8. In those 8 losses, Saturday’s loss to Stanford was, by far, the largest margin of victory for an Irish opponent, as the Stanford Cardinal beat the Irish by 23 points. Excluding the loss to Stanford, the average point discrepancy is only 3.4 points. So what’s more difficult for the team, losing a close, hard-fought game or losing by a larger margin?

Looking back on the game against Jim Harbaugh’s squad, there’s plenty of blame to be spread around as to why the Irish had such an anemic showing. But the mistakes by Notre Dame, on both offense and defense, are nothing new for the Irish. They are mistakes that will continue to plague the Irish unless Brian Kelly and his coaching staff can foster some sort of growth and maturity over the remainder of the season.

It’s time for an offensive reality check.

The biggest eye-opener for the people tuning in and attending the game on Saturday was that the Irish offense is a very rough unit. For those that forgot or chose to overlook the details, Saturday was a good reminder that the offensive line is breaking in three new starters. The Stanford defense, who oftentimes only chose put three or four defensive lineman on field, was consistently generating pressure on the still-green Dayne Crist by causing fumbles, registering sacks, and driving Crist to the turf. And while coming into the game the Stanford defense was among the nation’s best in pass defense, it was painfully obvious that Dayne Crist is still maturing.

Following Saturday’s game, Stanford’s defense ranks 16th in the nation in opponent yards per game and nowhere was that defensive dominance more apparent on Saturday than against Notre Dame’s rushing attack. Stanford held Notre Dame to 44 yards on 23 rushing attempts for an average of 1.9 yards per carry. A stark contrast to the Irish average coming into Saturday’s game: 4.2 yards per carry. Comparing those statistics, it’s no wonder that Notre Dame’s offense struggled to produce meaningful drives.

For those who thought that Brian Kelly’s explosive offense from Cincinnati would translate into similar production at Notre Dame, Saturday was a rude awakening. This offense has enough weapons to be explosive. Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd, and Theo Riddick are all capable receivers and Armando Allen is a more than capable running back, but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that Dayne Crist was making his fourth start on Saturday and the Irish are breaking in three new starting offensive linemen.

Throughout the rest of the season, the primary indicator of growth and development on the offensive side of the ball will be consistency. Dayne Crist has the skills and physical attributes to be a great quarterback, but his command of the game has been inconsistent through the first four games of the season. If the offense can begin to eliminate mental mistakes, not only turnovers, but incorrect defensive coverage recognition and poor blocking, then they can begin to be the explosive unit that Kelly’s offense is known for.

You can’t help those who don’t help themselves.

The past three games have been really difficult on Notre Dame’s defense. Against Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford, it has been painfully obvious that toward the end of games, the Irish defense has unfortunately received the majority of the playing time. In no case was that more apparent than when the defense tried to stop Stanford’s high-ranking offense.

Coming into the game on Saturday, Stanford’s Andrew Luck was a Heisman front-runner. He had completed 10 touchdown passes with no interceptions in the three games leading up to the showdown at Notre Dame Stadium. The bright spot on the afternoon was that the Irish defense was capable of disturbing Luck’s rhythm and forced two interceptions. However, toward the end of the 3rd quarter, Stanford finally decided to adopt a run-oriented offense. This isn’t anything new. Stanford just took a cue from Michigan State who did the same thing and wore down the Irish defense late in the game, which proved to be the straw which broke the back of the unit.

The unfortunate conclusion drawn from the way the defense played against Stanford is that, like the Irish offense, the defense played with little consistency, with one notable exception—Manti Te’o. Te’o had the game of his career thus far, tallying 21 tackles. However, the rest of the Notre Dame defense could do little match Te’o’s production. Throughout the entire game, Notre Dame’s defense forced the Cardinal offense to punt only once. The more frustrating factor about that statistic is that the Notre Dame defense had consistently forced Stanford’s offense into 3rd-and-long situations all day, which Stanford regularly converted.

Additionally, Notre Dame’s defense had a horrible day keeping the Stanford offense from scoring, once they got into the red zone. Stanford was a perfect seven of seven in the red zone on Saturday, scoring two touchdowns and five field goals. While it’s somewhat good news that the Irish only gave up two touchdowns in the red zone, that statistic is grossly overshadowed by the fact that the defense shouldn’t have let the Stanford offense into the red zone that many times.

It’s time for a heart to heart conversation.

It seems like, for the past several seasons, there’s been a turning point in which Irish fans need to recalibrate their expectations for the team. This season, it feels like that point is now. Many people, including ESPN personality Mark May, expected this team to do very well this season. However, it’s painfully obvious that the team isn’t living up to those expectations like we had hoped. The most excruciating aspect of the situation in which Notre Dame finds itself is that it’s not too far away from actually living up to those expectations. This team is a few plays away from being 3-1 and only a few mental errors away from being 4-0.

The dominant characteristic plaguing this current Irish squad is the same force that pushed last year’s team to a sub-standard 6-6 final record—consistency. If the Irish are no longer “hanging their hats” on tough, energetic performances, the next step to achieving success is consistency. Unfortunately for Irish fans, consistency is something that takes time. It’s not easily implemented in a week of practice. However, consistency on offense, defense, and special teams will be a better indicator of the maturity of this team than wins and losses. But all is not lost. It’s not time to start looking ahead to next season.

At his press conference following the Stanford game, Brian Kelly relayed the same sentiment.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country. Some are going to finish 1-11, some of going to be 8 or 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out.”

Next week against Boston College will be as good an indicator as any which direction the football team wishes to take this season. But, one thing is certain, for the Irish to achieve the goals that they have set for themselves, consistency will be paramount to getting them there. If nothing else, Saturday’s loss to Stanford proved just that.



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