Tim Prister’s Tale of the Tape

The key to containing Christian McCaffrey? The Irish defensive front won the battle with Stanford’s offensive line, led by Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara.

NOTRE DAME’S ‘GAME-WINNING’ DRIVE

Notre Dame’s 15-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that culminated with 30 seconds left on the game clock Saturday night in Stanford Stadium will not go down in the history books as another game-winning march led by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

But that’s now four times Kizer has led a drive at the end of a game – all on the road – that have resulted in touchdowns, including Virginia, Clemson (which fell a two-point conversion short of tying), Temple and now this brilliantly-directed masterpiece before the defense coughed up the “true game-winning” score in the 38-36 loss.

The notion that DeShone Kizer was “digressing” after the Boston College game was a complete knee-jerk reaction. As Irish Illustrated editor Pete Sampson pointed out, the progress of a young quarterback is not a direct path. It has its ups and downs, and even in one of his down moments, Kizer still directed the Irish to a victory over Boston College. It was the fourth-quarter defense that made it close.

The other factor is that Boston College has an exceptional defense. That plays a significant role, too, when there’s a tendency to overlook the opponent.

Kizer’s numbers don’t tell the whole story in the final drive against Stanford. He was just 4-of-6 for 50 yards with five carries for 15 yards.

But his 22-yard pass on 3rd-and-10 from the Notre Dame 39 to Corey Robinson was vintage Kizer. In his face is outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi, who inexplicably hesitated before closing in on Kizer. (Note: Kalambayi had been spying Kizer in the second half to prevent a scramble, but this was a pure pass-rush situation.)

Not only did Kizer find Robinson as he was backpedaling, but it was a perfect strike to Robinson, who took it to the Stanford 39. After that, it was Josh Adams and ultimately Kizer on the ground with a big eight-yard run on 2nd-and-6 from the 25 and Adams’ six-yard shovel pass from Kizer on 4th-and-1 from the six.

Kizer scored from the two on 1st-and-goal with the officials surprisingly granting him the touchdown when it looked as if his hip had hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane of the goal line.

Ultimately, that may have cost the Irish. There were 30 seconds left on the clock, which we now know was enough for Stanford to get into field goal range for Conrad Ukropina. Had Kizer been ruled down, the Irish would have had a couple more cracks at scoring with a chance to reduce the time on the clock. Then again, there were no guarantees that the Irish would get into the end zone again.

How many ways are there to describe the brilliance of the young Kizer? Not sure, but he has three more years of eligibility to find out and another game this season to add a layer to his expanding folder of highlights.

STANFORD’S GAME-WINNING DRIVE

The Irish caught a terrible break on Stanford’s five-play, 45-yard, game-winning field goal drive when Isaac Rochell was tagged with a facemask penalty against Kevin Hogan.

Rochell was reaching across the block of center Graham Shuler. His rake of Hogan’s facemask was inadvertent, which is made even more unfortunate by the fact that Romeo Okwara was stripping Hogan of the football as Rochell was turning Hogan’s head.

Hogan probably doesn’t cough it up without the rake of the facemask, but with just 25 seconds left when the ball was snapped from the Stanford 27, it was going to be a scramble for the Cardinal. They would have needed to use their second timeout instead of preserving it and having the football placed at their own 43.

Notre Dame was rushing three with Romeo Okwara spying from the middle of the field, just off the line of scrimmage with the other seven dropping back into coverage. With the shortage of time, there likely wasn’t the need for a spy on Hogan after the facemask penalty, so an eighth man could have been in coverage.

And yet would that have mattered if the eighth man played it the way the other seven did? Notre Dame’s safeties, particularly Elijah Shumate, dropped very deep. The reaction underneath by linebacker Joe Schmidt and safety Matthias Farley is perplexing. Schmidt had help to his right from Jaylon Smith and could have shaded Devon Cajuste, who ultimately caught the 27-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal.

Farley’s reaction is the most perplexing because he was supposed to defend it from the inside-out, according to Brian Kelly,. He was flat-footed when Cajuste jab-stepped and easily found the opening coming from the slot position.

In that situation, Farley has to play Cajuste as if it’s a matchup zone defense on a basketball floor. Farley clearly had help behind him. If he doesn’t defend Cajuste, what purpose does he serve in this defensive alignment?

And yet after 12 games with the squandered use of defensive personnel, this isn’t on the players. It’s on a defensive coordinator whose players didn’t really know or react as to how they should defend this play.

To be sure, it’s a difficult time to defend. It’s the nature of the college game now. Put in a similar situation, the Notre Dame offense would have been able to make that throw as well.

But the reactions of Notre Dame’s back seven says it all. It looked like another Brian VanGorder defense that the players didn’t really know how or didn’t feel comfortable executing. =

Throwing your hands in the air and saying, ‘The defense didn’t execute what we asked them to do” isn’t good enough.

CONTAINING MCCAFFREY

Notre Dame’s defense did a superb job of limiting the Pac 12’s all-time leading single-season all-purpose yardage man – running back/return man Christian McCaffrey – who should pass Barry Sanders’ mark of 3,250 yards at Oklahoma State with at least two games remaining. He’s a bit more than 200 yards away.

How did Notre Dame limit McCaffrey to 94 yards rushing on 27 carries (3.5-yard average)? The simple answer is that Notre Dame’s defensive front won the battle with Stanford’s offensive front after a Cardinal surge in the opening series.

It was almost like playing an option team in that the Irish defense needed a series to get caught up to the speed of the Stanford offense. After that, Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara repeatedly beat their men off the snap. Day whipped past left guard Josh Garnett to stop McCaffrey for a one-yard gain in the second series. Jerry Tillery manhandled center Graham Shuler on a key 3rd-and-1 tackle for a loss of McCaffrey in the fourth quarter. At worst, Rochell and Okwara held the point of attack, but they also won many of their battles.

The front seven did a nice job of coming at McCaffrey in waves when he tried to string it out and find a crease with another attempt to kick it wide. It was somewhat reminiscent of the waves of defenders that the Irish sent against Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack.

Jaylon Smith was absolutely everywhere in this game. Joe Schmidt – when not confronted by an offensive lineman in his lap – had an active game. Greer Martini shows on a weekly basis that he is well prepared as to the tendencies of the opposing offense. He frequently is reacting a beat ahead of the design of the play. Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield each were credited with 10 tackles and it showed.

You couldn’t help but expect McCaffrey to spring one at some point because the Irish used so many run blitzes. All it takes for McCaffrey is one crease, which Irish fans should be familiar with watching C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams all season. Yet it never happened. McCaffrey’s long run was 11 yards.

THE NEXT PHASE OF JOSH ADAMS

It’s easy to conclude that with a Notre Dame freshman record 168 yards on 18 carries (9.3-yard average) -- including a beautiful 62-yard touchdown run -- that Josh Adams had his best game in an Irish uniform.

It’s true, but it goes beyond the numbers.

Adams looked and played like a complete back against Stanford. He played with a toughness and a body language that screamed confidence. He ran with power, a forward lean, and a fall-forward style. He had his best game as a blocking back. His two blocks on DeShone Kizer’s 48-yard run not only were executed well, but showed great determination and aggressiveness.

He used his blockers well, evidenced in particular by the way he got on tight end Nic Weishar’s back and then steered him into cornerback Alameen Murphy for a 17-yard gain early in the third quarter.

But for pure aesthetic beauty, go to Adams’ 62-yard third quarter run in which he flows right, sees the crease, kicks it into another gear and then steers his way back across the field to avoid pursuit en route to the end zone. A bunch of skills are displayed on that one play, and his skillset is expanding every game.

RED-ZONE OFFENSE FAILS AGAIN

In the last two weeks of the 2015 regular season, Notre Dame made 11 red-zone penetrations, scoring touchdowns just three times.

Against Boston College, it was turnovers; against Stanford, it was the inability to convert field goals into touchdowns.

It wasn’t until Notre Dame’s fourth try in the red zone before the Irish finally punched it in. The game was lost, however, in the second and third quarters when three red-zone trips resulted in nine points.

The Irish out-gained Stanford by 111 yards. But Notre Dame scored one touchdown on four red-zone trips and Stanford scored five touchdowns on five red-zone trips.

Here’s what happened on the first three failed red-zone entries.

• Trailing 14-7 early in the second quarter with a 3rd-and-3 from the Stanford six, Josh Adams gained two yards to the four. On 4th-and-1, center Nick Martin’s head bobs before the snap and he’s whistled for a snap infraction. Enter Justin Yoon for a 26-yard field goal.

• Starting from its own nine, moving down to the Cardinal seven, and faced with a 3rd-and-4, Notre Dame succumbed to Stanford’s disguised and well-timed blitz by strong safety Kodi Whitfield, who forced Kizer to throw early and high to Corey Robinson in the end zone. Credit Stanford.

• At the start of the third quarter, Notre Dame was just clipping off yardage. A 22-yard pass to Adams on a beautifully-lofted touch pass by Kizer under duress…A nine-yard pass to Will Fuller…A 10-yard run by Kizer…a 17-yard run by Adams with Nic Weishar out front…

And yet Torii Hunter, Jr. had an opportunity to stretch out and make a diving catch just inside the goal line, in the same end zone where former Irish receiver David Grimes once made the greatest no-catch-that-should-have-been-a-catch eight years earlier.

On 3rd-and-6 from the 12, Kizer waited for someone to come open, but he never found anyone, eventually sailing the pass out of the back of the end zone to Robinson with Alameen Murphy on the coverage.

If the Irish convert their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns with the efficiency that Stanford did, that’s an additional 12 points. Notre Dame is up 28-21 at halftime instead of trailing, 21-20, and would then have taken a 35-21 lead early in the third quarter instead of a 23-21 lead.

AROUND THE GRIDIRON

What a well-designed, well-executed 93-yard kickoff return by C.J. Sanders. Sanders picked up blocks by Jarrett Grace and Nic Weishar drifting to his right, Doug Randolph drifting to his left, and the seal by Josh Adams leading the way for Sanders. Te’von Coney stayed square on his man and sealed. Nick Baratti absorbed a block on the run. Matthias Farley and Chris Brown did their work near the sideline. Absolute brilliant execution…Speaking of Grace, his best game in terms of goal line defense and special teams work since suffering the horrific injury midway through the 2013 season…You’re not going to find more energetic, glitzy, and gung-ho coverage of a college football game than the one offered by play-by-play man Gus Johnson and analyst Joel Klatt. Impressive…Great decision by the Irish coaching staff to put Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt on the kick coverage team…Wow, real questionable spot on third-down conversion pass to tight end Austin Hooper to keep what proved to be an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive alive…What a second half of the season by Romeo Okwara. Of course, the pronunciation gremlin bit the Fox broadcasters as well. Is it just more fun to say Ogwara than Okwara?…What incredible athleticism by Stanford receiver Michael Rector to get his right foot down for a 31-yard reception as replay overrules the original call…On the field before the game, the most physically-impressive Stanford player I saw was 6-foot-4, 227-pound wide receiver Devin Cajuste. What a beast. He obviously looked pretty good in the game, too. Great job of boxing out Cole Luke on red-zone touchdown pass and obviously a significant deep threat…

Not sure if Daniel Cage was still impacted by a concussion, but if you’re wondering why Jerry Tillery played much more than Cage, it’s because he was much more effective. It’s time now for Tillery to keep the progression on an upward arc. His relationship with the motivated, dedicated, conscientious Sheldon Day will benefit Tillery in the long run…Stanford had injuries of their own, forcing two sophomores into the lineup at cornerback…Continue to marvel at Quenton Nelson and his ability to block, see, scrape and block again…An absolutely ridiculous decision by Nyles Morgan on block in the back on second quarter punt return. It must be frustrating for Morgan, who wants to play and wants to hit somebody, but is then confronted with a block that he has to know will be whistled…Brady Quinn’s problem as a Fox studio analyst is that he’s just not good looking enough. He really should stick to radio…The decision to go for two with 5:24 left in the third quarter is a bad decision. Every time…Improper interference penalty called against Devin Butler on Devon Cajuste. Credit to Butler for competing hard after missing open-field tackle for score...Great adjustment by Stanford on kick coverage after C.J. Sanders’ 93-yard return…Stanford Stadium, may we suggest artificial turf?


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