On November 28, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith sat in a cramped, windowless room inside Stanford Stadium lamenting the defense’s final failure after a last second loss to the host Cardinal. The Irish junior was nevertheless lauded thereafter for his squad’s gritty effort to keep Stanford Heisman Trophy finalist Christian McCaffery (30 touches, 111 scrimmage yards) in check.
“He’s their best player. He’s the game-wrecker,” Smith said. “You can’t let that No. 1 guy beat you.”
While McCaffery doubtless contributed heavily to Stanford’s 38 points he was corralled in a manner that afforded Notre Dame a chance to win the game. Fast-forward three weeks to ongoing Irish preparations for No. 5 Ohio State and the Buckeye’s pair of dynamic offensive weapons, quarterback J.T. Barrett (10 TD passes; 11 TD rushes) and running back Ezekiel Elliott (1,672 yards, 19 TD).
“One thing that we’ve done all year consistently is we’ve taken away the one player than can hurt you,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Whether it been (Navy’s) Keenan Reynolds, Christian McCaffrey or any of the individual players all year, we’ve done a really good job there. It’s been some of the other guys that we should be able to defend with our guys – we haven’t done a very good job.”
Guys like Virginia’s Canaan Severin, Navy’s Quentin Ezell and Stanford’s Devin Cajuste to name a few. And the favored Buckeye’s aren’t short on additional skill position players capable of denting the Irish defense.
“Other guys” in that regard include athlete Braxston Miller (TDs in excess of 50 yards both rushing and passing) and wide receivers Michael Thomas (eight touchdowns) and Jalin Marshall (5 scores).
“We’re gonna have to do that again Barrett and Ezekiel and do a better job against the other guys,” said Kelly. “That will be the plan going into this game.”
LOOKING OUT FOR NO. 1
With due respect to UMass wide receiver Taje Sharpe (8 receptions. 83 yards), below is a list of Irish identified “Game-Wreckers” limited by Notre Dame’s defense this season – and their teammates that inflicted damage in their stead.
-- RB Jonathan Gray (Texas) – Eight carries, 40 yards, long gain of 11 yards on the evening.
…However: Nothing. Nothing happened. No one on Texas was capable of doing anything offensively. I’m not sure why I included this.
-- RB Smoke Mizzell (Virginia) – 18 carries, 66 yards plus four receptions for just 10 yards. Kelly stated post-game that Mizzell was the Cavaliers player the Irish were intent on limiting throughout the afternoon in Charlottesville.
…However: WR Canaan Severin carved up the Irish secondary for 153 yards on 11 catches, 9 of which resulted in first downs.
-- QB Justin Thomas (Georgia Tech) – Suffered through 11 carries with a net gain of 27 yards while hitting just 8 of 24 passes for 121 yards.
…However: Thomas connected on two TD passes in the final 0:48 after being shut down for 59 minutes prior. Former Stanford fullback Patrick Skov scored three touchdowns on the afternoon though two occurred in the final minute.
-- QB Deshaun Watson (Clemson) – Rushed 16 times for 93 yards and a touchdown while completing 11 of his 22 pass attempts for two scores with an interception. Watson threw for just 97 yards vs. the Irish defense.
…However: Senior RB Wayne Gallman rumbled for 98 yards on 22 carries.
-- QB Keenan Reynolds (Navy) – Rushed for 110 yards on 15 carries but was just 2 of 4 passing for 16 yards. Reynolds totaled 75 yards on his final 19 combined rushes/pass attempts.
…However: Fullback Quentin Ezell hit for 75 yards and two scores on just six rushing attempts.
-- WR/Returner Adoree Jackson (USC) – His lone reception ended in an 83-yard touchdown sprint. Rushed two times for 9 yards and was limited to 101 return yards on four attempts. Solid numbers but the long was a 33-yard kickoff return.
…However: JuJu Smith compiled 139 yards on 6 receptions with a touchdown.
-- RB Jahad Thomas (Temple) – Earned 82 yards on 21 carries with a huge fourth quarter touchdown to tie the game at 17.
…However: Wide receiver Ventell Bryant moved the chains on six different occasions including a trio on third down, finishing with 91 receiving yards and drawing a pass interference that led to an Owls TD.
-- WR Tyler Boyd (Pittsburgh) – Caught 3 passes for 84 yards including a garbage-time 51-yard touchdown. Ran three times for 42 yards as well.
…However: Wide receiver Dontez Ford and tight end JP Holtz combined for five catches and 116 yards.
-- RB/Returner Christian McCaffery (Stanford) – Limited to 113 yards from scrimmage on a whopping 30 touches, one of the two best defensive efforts against the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2015.
…However: Imposing target Devin Cajuste snared 5 passes for 125 yards with a touchdown and the game’s decisive 27-yard gain on Stanford’s final drive. Cajuste also drew a (questionable) crucial pass interference penalty that led to a Cardinal score.