The Irish of today serve up Heisman-clinching performances way more than they win them (think of Thanksgiving weekend efforts by Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart). Tim Brown remains the last Notre Damer to earn the award, nine years before Christian McCaffrey was born.
A majority Stanford’s fanbase would prefer to face the Irish at home on October’s first weekend. But not since 1997 have Stanford students been in session to watch this intersectional rivalry. We caught up with Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson, who brought both Notre Dame expertise and frankness to Opposing Views.
“I'm sure Notre Dame would be willing to play at Stanford in mid-October and host the Cardinal over Thanksgiving weekend,” he said. “Interested? Low of 27 degrees on Saturday. Any takers?”
The Bootleg: I think Stanford will face the most talented opposing front seven to date. Who are the defense’s mainstays, and how to they compare to the unit that virtually carried the club to an undefeated regular season in 2012? How many times have the Irish faced a team with a better defense than its own?
Irish Illustrated: Notre Dame's front seven has been a pleasant surprise this year, at least in terms of the defensive line. That was supposed to be the weakness of this club by a wide margin, but it hasn't worked out that way. The position has overachieved through 11 games, even after losing starting nose guard Jarron Jones for the year during training camp to a knee injury. Sheldon Day is the star of the group and is healthy for a full season for the first time in his career. Notre Dame moves him around depending on down and distance. He’s quick without being undersized. He uses his hands extremely well and has a great first step. The matchup with Josh Garnett is basically an NFL-level battle on the college level. That's going to be a lot of fun to watch.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the most athletic linebacker in Notre Dame history. There's no debate about it, really. He's not perfect in terms of assignments, so I'm not saying he's the greatest linebacker in Notre Dame history, but in terms of explosive athletic ability, blitzing, coverage and tackling, he's an all-time great here. Despite some of the high level talent that Notre Dame owns on defense, this unit is not fundamentally sound. Safety Max Redfield has been a major liability at the back end. Strong safety Elijah Shumate is excellent in run support but a liability in coverage. Cornerback Keivarae Russell, Notre Dame's best player in the secondary, broke his leg last week and is out for the year. Notre Dame’s starting outside linebacker, James Onwualu, is out with a knee injury. So while you could argue that this defensive line is comparable to what Notre Dame had in 2012, the rest of the defense is not close, at least in terms of being fundamentally sound. That was a bend-but-don't-break defense that barely even bent. This defense is supposed to be more aggressive but largely fails to force many turnovers (13 all year), get sacks or stop big plays. For example, Notre Dame has allowed 23 runs of at least 20 yards this year. That ranks No. 111 nationally. The '12 defense allowed eight runs of 20 yards in the regular season.
TB: What is the offense’s “bread-and-butter?” When all else fails, who does Brian Kelly trust the most to move the ball and make plays?
II: Good question. I think there's a couple ways to look at this. When Notre Dame is desperate for play, meaning end-of-game situations where the Irish are trailing and need a touchdown, Will Fuller has been outstanding at wide receiver. He made game-winning catches at Virginia and Temple. He roasted USC. He's faster than virtually every cornerback in the country and has really unique speed when the ball is in the air. Basically, if DeShone Kizer throws it up and Fuller is running even with a cornerback on a deep route, by the time the ball gets there Fuller will have three yards on the defender. It's like he has a sixth gear when the ball is in the air.
But if it's short yardage, the go-to play is quarterback keeper with Kizer. He's been Notre Dame's best short-yardage back this year and has converted more third-and-short plays (three yards or fewer) than all of Notre Dame's running backs combined. So when it's short yardage, look for No. 14 to keep it.
TB: I heard someone describe Notre Dame earlier this year as “the undead,” referring to its ability to overcome serious injuries. Of the 22 who took the field for the season opener against Texas, how many won’t play against Stanford? Whose absences have proven to be the most debilitating? On the flip side, whose emergence stands out as vital to the club’s success? Is Josh Adams just the running game’s version of DeShone Kizer?
II: Here's a rundown of the players Notre Dame has lost for the year: Starting quarterback Malik Zaire, starting running back Tarean Folston, starting nose guard Jarron Jones, starting nickel Shaun Crawford, starting tight end Durham Smythe, starting dime Drue Tranquill, reserve guard Alex Bars (started twice this year), starting corner KeiVarae Russell and backup receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Starting running back C.J. Prosise (Folston's replacement) is out this week but will be back for the bowl. Same goes for starting linebacker James Onwualu, out this week, but probably back for the bowl. Starting nose guard Daniel Cage (replacement for Jarron Jones) is back for Stanford after missing a couple games with a concussion.
Before last weekend, the injuries that I thought hurt Notre Dame most were Jones and Crawford. The Crawford one might sound a little weird because he was a true freshman, but he was Notre Dame's only nickel and gave the defense a ton of potential flexibility. The Irish have barely played nickel all year and even moved a receiver over there for a look to help the defense. But the absolute killer is going to be Russell. I just don't see Notre Dame overcoming that one.
Kizer's development has been the story of the year. It's not like this guy was supposed to be a backup. He was supposed to be third-string but moved up after Everett Golson transferred. To get this kind of season out of him, it's great work from Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford, the former Stanford assistant. Josh Adams is a capable back, although he was supposed to be fourth-string behind Folston, Prosise and Greg Bryant. I think he will struggle this weekend in pass-blocking, picking up the blitz.
TB: Let’s talk what this rivalry means. Would you say our recent histories are inexorably linked? From a Stanford perspective, the series gave us two landmark wins in South Bend (1990, 1992) that marked this program’s rise. More recently, there was a pair of crushing defeats back there (2012 and 2014). The Cardinal’s winningest coach of the last 45 years (until David Shaw arrived) was supposed to be Notre Dame’s savior. Two of Stanford’s last four wins over the Irish in Palo Alto officially sent Bob Davie and Charlie Weis into unemployment.
II: This is the fifth straight season where both teams are ranked. The '12 win was an iconic moment for Notre Dame football. The stop [Ed: what stop?] of Taylor at the goal line is in the football offices outside Sanford's office. The recruiting dynamics are obvious because there's a limited pool of top prospects who are also top students, although Stanford's admissions are much, much more strenuous compared to Notre Dame.
TB: How long until Stanford is ND’s archrival?
II: Eternity. I love this series. But it's never going to top USC or Michigan in terms of rivalries here, and yeah, Notre Dame doesn't even play Michigan anymore. USC is always going to be the biggest game on Notre Dame's schedule, even though Stanford has been the better opponent pretty much all decade.
TB: The Irish know a few things about Heisman Trophies. How does Christian McCaffrey win one?
II: I'd think 200 yards rushing and a kickoff return touchdown in a shootout win might do it. Notre Dame has a recent history of winning Heisman Trophies ... for Pac-12 opponents. You're welcome, Carson Palmer, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart.
TB: Outsiders see the Irish benefiting from preferential treatment, from the NBC contract to BCS bids in 2000, 2005 and 2006 at the expense of arguably better teams. Then again, it’s not like Notre Dame is going to turn down such perks. No other school would either, given the choice. Can you hear where opponents are coming from (especially here, where the game is tailored more for Notre Dame fans on vacation than Stanford students in session)? At the same time, explain how much this program has earned in recent years, especially since Brian Kelly returned it to prominence?
II: Absolutely. I think the NBC contract was a big deal for the program when it was signed, but now every conference has its own network and most schools make more money off television than Notre Dame does. Put it this way, Purdue is making more off the Big Ten Network than Notre Dame is making off NBC. But exposure is exposure and Notre Dame gets a lot of it. Take last weekend. Notre Dame moves a home game to Fenway Park and plays "visiting" Boston College, which is located just a few miles away. That's brutal. As for the bowl bids that you mentioned, you're right, Notre Dame isn't going to turn them down. Notre Dame sells out those games and other programs don't. [Ed: 2000 Virginia Tech and 2005 Oregon disagree.] Ultimately, if it's not the national title game, it's about revenue. And Notre Dame brings revenue.
I do think Notre Dame has actually fought its way out of its reputation for being overvalued as a team under Brian Kelly. The '12 season was big, beating Stanford and winning at Oklahoma before getting hammered by Alabama. The Florida State loss and the LSU win last year got people’s attention in a disappointing year (again, many, many injuries). Going to Clemson and losing at the end seems to be Notre Dame's best playoff resume line. Even in a loss at Stanford, I think Notre Dame probably has done enough to make a New Year's Six bowl game. Kelly has done a very nice job building the program through recruiting, which has showed this year considering how many injuries the Irish have had. They're still sitting here at 10-1.
TB: These hordes of Irish fans we’ll see Saturday: What’s the ratio of actual alums to just fans/”subway alumni?” Where are they coming from? Do they we realize they at least share a common enemy (USC) with Cardinal fans?
II: Notre Dame fans are everywhere. Where they actually come from, I have no idea because most are more "subway" alums on the West Coast. Notre Dame has a pretty big alumni base in SoCal and I think a bunch make the trip up. Notre Dame fans definitely can share in the hatred of USC and I think the rivalry with Stanford is friendly because of that, plus fans of both programs just seem to be relatively nice people. The Notre Dame draw certainly helps the atmosphere at this game with the students out and Stanford not being a major home draw anyways.
TB: Oh, here we go. Even Central Florida, with students still on summer break, drew 45,000. Care for a rebuttal?
II: I have a warped perception of “major draw” because Notre Dame basically plays in front of a packed house every single weekend. That’s not the usual attendance reality across the country for a lot of teams. Maybe things have changed out there, but I remember a lot games at Stanford where ND fans are maybe 20-30 percent of the crowd. Is that changing? I really haven’t looked at Stanford’s home numbers the past couple of years. Sounds like they’re up? (Okay, I just looked at them and they’re barely off capacity, which surprises me based on previous trips there.)
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