From exhilaration to exasperation. Life has turned upside down for Stanford and Notre Dame, who face off as unranked foes for the first time since 2009. Can the Irish rebound from a 2-4 start? Or are they just clowns and jokers, doomed to a lost season? Stuck in the middle – and returning the favor for our visit this week to his site – is Irish Illustrated writer Pete Sampson.
1. Where and when did you realize something was amiss with this Notre Dame team? What are the biggest problems areas that have led to the 2-4 start, and how did they compare with what you and your peers who cover this team predicted?
I think we knew something was wrong immediately when Notre Dame lost in overtime at Texas and gave up 50 points to a true freshman quarterback and another quarterback who couldn't throw. It basically blew up the entire off-season narrative on defense that that unit was somehow going to be better despite losing three NFL draft picks and another two guys who made rosters, plus starting free safety Max Redfield, who got thrown off the team in August.
Even with all those reasons to be hesitant about Notre Dame, most people (including me) predicted a win on opening night and a borderline 10-win type season. But the season was so historically bad that it undercut anything Notre Dame tried to do offensively, which has still been quality most weekends. Did I think Notre Dame would be 2-4 after walking out of Austin? Absolutely not. But you knew last year's issues were back, and maybe even worse. Overall, I think most media here saw Notre Dame in the 10-2/8-4 range with a couple homer publications going as high as 11-1 and making the College Football Playoff.
2. When a team falters to such an extent, a lot of critics start to question a team's talent-level. But we’ve seen Brian Kelly increase the caliber of player in South Bend in recent years. How would you rate the infusion of talent on this team compared to the one Kelly inherited from Charlie Weis?
The talent is OK but not great. Recruiting along the defensive line has been poor but not so abysmal that the position shouldn't have a single sack. I mean, that's just ridiculous. Recruiting in the secondary has been a real problem and I do argue that Notre Dame doesn't have the horses there to play good defense. For stretches the past two games they'll have four freshmen in the secondary at the same time. That's ridiculous and shows how poor your recruiting has been in previous cycles. No quality team should get caught in that position, regardless of injuries or suspensions. In terms of comparing today's talent vs. the Weis era, I'll take today's talent. Notre Dame has turned out six first-round picks in the past five drafts. In previous 17 drafts, Notre Dame had just four first-round picks.
3. How do players there respond to Kelly’s in-your-face, hot-tempered style? Have you seen cases where it motivates them and has its intended effect? Do you think any of it is a response to the unique pressure of his job?
It’s different reactions based on different personalities. Some guys can take it, others can't. And I think that's the real issue here. Is Brian Kelly getting on players who can take it and it makes them better or is he yelling at guys that are going to cave and making them worse? Forget the optics for a second. The head coach (or any coach) should be there to make a player better. If yelling does that, great. If it's just yelling because you need to selfishly blow off steam, that's a problem. Overall, I think most of the guys can handle it OK. But there are some who definitely do not.
4. The Notre Dame that nearly beat Stanford last November was clearly a special team, enough to overcome a plague of injuries and reach the brink of the College Football Playoff. Aside from DeShone Kizer, who are the key guys from that team you expect a big game from Saturday? What players have proven the hardest to replace?
The offensive line lost two great players and hasn't been the same this year despite a couple NFL guys on the left side. I think that's been the season's biggest surprise, that the line has not been better. Receiver has been a positive surprise, but there's no Will Fuller there. The defensive backfield has been a mess but appears to be getting better as they go younger with a new defensive coordinator. Biggest void was probably Fuller, although I think Equanimeous St. Brown has done a nice job there, even if he's a completely different player to Fuller.
5. How do you like Notre Dame's chances of exploiting Stanford's weak links (poor o-line play in recent weeks, unreliable passing game, injured corners)? What's your final score prediction?
I don't see it in terms of Notre Dame's defense being a matchup problem for Stanford. The Cardinal weaknesses there are not Irish strengths. There's no pass rush (three sacks all year). However, Notre Dame has been pretty good in pass protection and very good pushing the ball vertically. The weather is supposed to be perfect, so unlike last week when Notre Dame tried to pass it into a hurricane, that approach actually makes sense. I expect Notre Dame to score. But I don't trust the Irish defense just yet. Stanford 31, Notre Dame 28
6. When you're not covering the Irish, you're most likely to be found where? What's the most memorable game or player you've chronicled? Where did you work before Irish Illustrated?
This is actually my 17th season covering Notre Dame football, which makes me feel very old. I remember covering Tyrone Willingham at Stanford, that was actually my first year on the Notre Dame beat. Right place, right time in terms of getting into the job as I graduated from college in 2000, worked for a paper outside Chicago and joined on at Blue and Gold Illustrated less than a year later. It's been a wild ride, for sure. When I'm not covering Notre Dame I'm driving my kids all over South Bend, basically. Nothing too glamorous. Best game I ever covered was the Bush Push game in 2005. That was incredible on every level.