NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It doesn’t matter how many times they go through it, they simply cannot dig out of the hole.
Loss No. 5 was Close Loss No. 5, and the Irish don’t have the slightest idea how to pull themselves out of the rut, other than to simply go back to work.
They’re just precocious and naïve enough to believe that if they get back after it again, maybe the sixth time will be the charm.
“It’s less of a fear of ‘I don’t want to screw up,’ and more of an excitement to want to get out there and play,” said junior safety Drue Tranquill.
“We hear each and every day that you have to learn from your experiences. When we come out of this and are able to look back, we’ll have all these things in our back pocket. We’ll know what it’s like to lose five out of seven games.
“It’s tough, but all we can do is learn and move forward. I’m not going to change the outcome of that game. No one in here is going to change the outcome of that game. The only thing we can control is how we come to work next Monday.”
It sounds good. It sounds real. Tranquill means it and so do his teammates.
But also real is the 2016 Notre Dame team’s complete and total lack of understanding how to win. Stanford has the culture, the winning culture, and Notre Dame has the culture, the losing culture.
Few would have thought it would infect DeShone Kizer, who just a couple of weeks ago was being hyped as the top quarterback prospect in the NFL draft (should he choose to enter).
But he’s a shaken young man now as his two interceptions within the first six-and-a-half minutes of the second half swung the pendulum in Stanford’s favor, and the Cardinal responded.
Stanford has an inexperienced offensive line. Stanford has inexperienced quarterbacks. Stanford had a first-time starter at running back that carried 23 times (two more than his season total through five games) and netted 129 yards (5.6 per carry), making the injury to Christian McCaffrey meaningless.
When the Cardinal defense had to come through, it held the Irish to zero points and a mere 120 yards total offense in the second half.
Stanford wins; Notre Dame loses. It’s as simple as that.
SIGNS OF A RUSHING ATTACK
For one half of football and the first three plays of the second half, the ills of the Notre Dame running game – which Brian Kelly abandoned in Hurricane Matthew last week – washed ashore in Notre Dame Stadium against the Cardinal.
Tarean Folston looked rejuvenated after missing the last two games. His three carries for 26 yards in Notre Dame’s second drive – a six-play, 74-yard touchdown march – gave the Irish the balance they were looking for.
Yet after the Cardinal surrendered 357 yards through the air last week to Washington State, the Irish managed just 154 yards, offsetting a rushing attack that totaled 108 yards in the first half and 153 for the game.
Had someone said Notre Dame would rush for 153 yards against the Cardinal, one would have figured DeShone Kizer would have a 300-yard passing day.
The running game looked for real – as well as the commitment to it – when Notre Dame opened the second half with three straight running plays, including a seven-yard run on 2nd-and-9 and a three-yard run on 3rd-and-2. Those are usually passing downs for the Irish.
Even Kizer looked like his old self in the running game, snapping off 49- and 32-yard runs en route to an 83-yard performance, which included a eight-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter that sure looked like it would stand up as the winning score when the Irish took a 10-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.
But alas, it was only an illusion. The Irish managed 45 yards rushing on 18 carries in the second half, and when Kizer opened with back-to-back picks, the offense – and the running game – were never the same.
We always knew the defense would be the backbone of the 2016 team.
Under Brian VanGorder, the Irish couldn’t get out of their own way defensively during a 25-game stretch from the North Carolina game of 2014 through the Duke game of 2016.
The Irish gave up 33 points to Syracuse, but “just” four touchdowns. It was a much better performance than those numbers indicated. Last week, albeit in a monsoon, the Irish did not give up a touchdown and allowed three offensive points while limiting the Wolfpack to 198 yards total offense.
Stanford finished with just 296 yards, or less than five yards per its 60 snaps. The Cardinal ground game started to get away from the Irish down the stretch when the offense couldn’t muster an attack and the defensive unit had to stay on the field too long.
It’s still progress. At least they’re flying to the ball. At least you’re seeing guys filling a gap with gusto and slamming into a ball carrier. The silver lining in this mess is that the defense is legitimately developing a semblance of team play with individuals standing out.
There’s another aspect of the defense that is coming alive.
THE PASS RUSH
Notre Dame’s three sacks against the Cardinal doubled the team’s output through the first six games. Greer Martini had two of them and Jarron Jones – leaving everything on the field – had another. Jones was a beast.
It’s been refreshing to watch the Notre Dame pass rush the past two games, which realistically if not theoretically, is the Syracuse and Stanford games because there was no footing for anyone against N.C. State.
Notre Dame’s defensive line is going for it. Guys are getting up field. Against Syracuse, they put pressure on the quarterback with a three-man rush. Against Stanford, it was a mixture of three- and four-man fronts with some blitzing linebackers mixed in. Guys are coming off the edge and bursting up the middle.
It wasn’t until the end of the first half that the Irish finally got a pick against Ryan Burns, who was pressured while still completing passes. But the determination and consistency finally paid off.
Can the Irish double their new sack total of six over the last five games of the season to finish with a dozen? There’s a chance if they continue to pursue the quarterback in the manner in which they have the last three games.
ZAIRE, KIZER AND SPIKING THE FOOTBALL
• Didn’t have a particular problem with Zaire spelling Kizer to provide a spark. Now, some will argue that the game to play Zaire was last week, which is true. But there was nothing wrong with inserting Zaire after Kizer was picked twice and went three-and-out.
Unfortunately, Zaire looked rusty, and quite frankly, if you don’t prepare well during the week – which he almost undoubtedly hasn’t because he can’t stand the idea of being the backup – you’re going to look unprepared and inaccurate throwing the football in game conditions.
• Until the day I breathe my final breath, I will never understand why offenses throw away a down with a spike when a simple hand signal can initiate a slant or a fade to the corner of the end zone or a quick-out to the sideline to stop the clock.
When the Irish got to 2nd-and-4 from the Stanford eight with 28 seconds remaining and no timeouts, the game ended on a sack, a spike of the football and a sack. In other words, on the last three plays of the game from the starting point of the eight-yard line, the Irish never attempted a pass.
Kelly said they had a fade called on fourth down. But two downs are better than one, and wasting a down on a spike when all it would take would be a couple of extra seconds to run another legitimate play seems like a total waste.
The game is so over-coached as it is, I can’t believe coaches haven’t tried to maximize every opportunity to score in the red zone, especially when you’re down to your final plays.