Practice Notes 10/18: Strength Coaches, False Whistles and Offensive Resurrection?

When you play Notre Dame, you can't just beat the team; you have to beat the fans and refs, too.

Let’s get some housekeeping things out of the way first before we dive into the football stuff.

[Strength Conditioning Coach]-Gate

Firstly, Brian Kelly alleged that a Stanford strength coach (who will remain unnamed in this article) came up to him after the game and told him “bye bye” following the Cardinal’s 17-10 victory that (surprise, surprise!) ended on a controversial whistle to finish the game.

Shaw didn’t deny that such an interaction occurred, and said that he had conversations with both football staffers and athletes about “representing ourselves the right way.” According to Shaw, the circumstances surrounding the comment were that there was a lot of confusion going on at the end of regulation because of the scramble for the ball after the whistle and such, resulting in a “lot of mixing” between different groups of people on the field.

“I’m very comfortable with the conversations I had with my people about how we’re going to react in both positive and negative situations, whether we win or lose,” Shaw said. “We’re going to represent ourselves the right way. We had a good organizational talk about that.” 

Though, really, is that really anywhere near the worst Brian Kelly has heard from an opponent on a football field? Yes, the comment was in bad taste. But is publicly airing that dirty laundry really going to do anything? I thought Shaw handled it well – acknowledging it but also not making an overly big deal out of it.

Just a head-scratching, knee-jerk move in the heat of the moment for Brian Kelly… but you can’t really blame the guy. Must be feeling an awful lot of pressure after dropping to 2-5 as the head coach of Notre Dame.

 

Bells and whistles

“As the coaches say, we beat everyone there. We beat the fans with the freaking whistles, we beat the refs, and we beat Notre Dame.” – Trenton Irwin

Remember Whistle-gate to end the game at Notre Dame Stadium in 2012? Notre Dame fans with whistles were back in the stands again on Saturday, and this time, Shaw was ready to publicly air his displeasure with the fans in South Bend even though the fake whistles from the stands didn’t necessarily have a tangible impact on the game this time around. 

“I’ve talked to people at Notre Dame,” Shaw said. “They’re not happy about it. This is not something that’s institutionally backed. They don’t want it, because it’s not within the rules of the game. It’s not in the spirit of college football. I think it’s embarrassing, to a certain degree, that someone outside the field of play would do something to affect the field of play.” 

Shaw said that many of the football team’s alumni voiced their displeasure about the whistles this last weekend, but that it’s just “one of those things” that a team needs to deal with at Notre Dame Stadium more so than at any other opposing field.

According to Shaw, there was at least one play where a false whistle caused J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to stop due to his football instincts to stop at a whistle, and though it was on the backside of a play and didn’t ultimately matter, Shaw lashing back a bit at dirty Irish fans was certainly refreshing to see. 

“Four years ago was tough,” Shaw said. “It cost us, at the very least, another attempt to score a touchdown, because multiple guys stopped. We talked about it before the game, and it’s one of those things at that stadium.”

 

Is the A.T. Hall experiment coming to an end?

Something interesting that Shaw brought up was that the coaching staff wanted to take an extended look at David Bright at right tackle as possibly a permanent solution, since they felt that he played well there in his limited action in the wake of Casey Tucker’s injury.

“I was excited to see him play more at right tackle, to see if that was going to be his permanent spot,” Shaw said. 

Obviously, with Bright injured and not likely to play against Colorado this weekend, this is a moot point now, but once Bright returns (and he shouldn’t be gone long), this means that the writing might be on the wall for first-year starter A.T. Hall, who hasn’t inspired too much confidence from either tackle position, particularly after flipping to the left side after the USC game.

Hall nominally beat out Brandon Fanaika for the final starting offensive line spot, but Shaw feels that Fanaika has been playing his best football since he came to Stanford as the team’s full-time starting left guard in the last two games, which makes it difficult to take him out of the starting line. 

Tucker hasn’t looked all too convincing this season either, but he’s still the more experienced option than Hall. This means that when Bright returns, the coaches will have a tough decision on their hands – and don’t be surprised if Tucker flips back to the left side (I know, I know, enough switching already) to make room for both Bright and Fanaika up front.

 

Coaches happy with Costello’s development

Physical talent is never really a problem for Stanford’s incoming quarterbacks; rather, it’s Stanford’s woefully obfuscated and complicated system that often takes many physically gifted pocket-passers multiple years to fully master. (I have my own strong feelings about the complexity of Stanford’s system and how it might hurt player development, but that, friends, is a column for another time.)

Anyways, quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard is very happy with true freshman K.J. Costello’s progress in terms of his systemic knowledge so far this season.

“He’s really done a good job of progressing in and being able to handle the volume that we take into game weeks,” Pritchard said. “That’s been the biggest part just coming from training and preparing like a starter. He’s taking tests every week, and his tests are just getting better and better in terms of handling the load that we take into game week.”

According to Pritchard, those tests consist of knowledge about Stanford’s intricate call sheet (that big ol’ two-sided laminated paper that Shaw carries on the sidelines), defensive looks for the upcoming week (since K.J. is the scout team quarterback) and possible audibles and checks at the line of scrimmage.

This is simply a “just so you know” thing, by the way. Stanford would sooner put Dallas Lloyd or Jay Tyler in at quarterback than burn Costello’s redshirt, I’d bet.

 

The offense has life!

(Not-so) fun fact: The touchdown now officially awarded to Bryce Love (it was originally ruled a fumble recovery by Jesse Burkett, then by J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, then overruled as a rushing touchdown by the conference in a ruling on Monday) to give Stanford the lead for good on Saturday was the first rushing touchdown by the Cardinal since Sept. 17. It was also the first offensive touchdown scored by someone not named J.J. Arcega-Whiteside since Sept. 17.

“Getting that last drive in and scoring was big just for confidence,” Irwin said. “We’ve got to try to progress in every bit of the game we can. We made some Day 1 errors. Everyone did. You just can’t have those types of errors.

“You could feel the offense feeling some hope. We were running the ball really well. Bryce was taking care of the ball and getting yards after contact. He was doing great. I felt like our offense was clicking a little bit. We still had a few mishaps, but we were clicking like we did at the beginning of the year.”

The mention of the offense feeling “hope” worries me, because that implies that the team lost hope at some point, and you really don’t want a defeatist attitude like that going into a second-half schedule that Stanford should, on paper, cruise through (apart from Saturday’s game against Colorado). 

Irwin built on that by saying that in the past few weeks, the intensity has been lacking at practices – which directly contradicts what Shaw has been saying for the last few weeks about practices being more spirited than ever.

“I feel like we’ve been a little dull,” Irwin said. “Last week we were trying to have more intensity.”

He said that he did his part to inject energy back into practices by being more chippy with defenders and by trash talking to a certain extent. But really, the only way to inject more energy into a team that’s underperforming expectations like this is to start realizing their potential and, you know, putting up more wins.

Notre Dame was a good start.

It’s not like the 17 points at Notre Dame were indicative of true offensive futility of the variety that we saw up in Seattle three Fridays ago. Nor were, really, the 16 scored against Washington State last week.

The offensive line, at the very least, trended up against Washington State, improving in its pass protection. The run blocking was still more or less garbage, but it was a welcome upward trend. And then on Saturday, Stanford eclipsed 100 yards rushing for the first time since the UCLA game behind a great performance from Bryce Love and only allowed three sacks of Ryan Burns.

Stanford only gained 296 yards in South Bend, but more promisingly, the Cardinal finished a solid 7-of-12 on third downs (a noticeable area of struggle this season, in which Stanford finds itself outside the national top 100) as they actually moved the ball reasonably well and outpossessed Notre Dame by six minutes.

This time, it was just mistakes (three turnovers, five penalties and another Conrad Ukropina doinked field goal) that killed the Cardinal as they moved the ball downfield and prevented them from converting yards into points.

“We’re moving the ball, we’re pretty much just shooting ourselves in the foot. We have a turnover, we have a penalty, we have a little this, that, mishap here. We just hurt ourselves, in that game especially.”

Unlike the total system failure we saw at Washington, these mistakes are fixable. It’s just on the Cardinal offense to focus, buckle down and take that final step.

“The thing with us is not doing those things to hurt us,” Shaw said. “We moved the ball pretty well on a good defense.”

 

Injury Updates

VERY LIKELY: 

Casey Tucker

Tucker played in a limited capacity at Notre Dame and will start at right tackle if David Bright can’t play on Saturday.

QUESTIONABLE

Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey didn’t practice on Tuesday but was feeling good and will be included in a limited capacity on Wednesday to see how he responds to an increase in action.

“He was on the side going through some things and felt pretty good,” Shaw said. “We’ll see if we can incorporate him into part of practice tomorrow, with the real litmus test being Friday.”

Alijah Holder 

Holder has now missed three straight weeks with a nagging shoulder injury that was re-aggravated against UCLA. Signs are pointing to him again being out against Colorado.

“Better than last week, so there’s an outside chance, but we’ll still be cautious there,” Shaw said.

DOUBTFUL 

David Bright

Bright is “most likely out” for Saturday, according to Shaw. Tucker would start in his place.

“He was coming off a really good game and he was just starting to get comfortable,” Shaw said.

OUT:

Daniel Marx

 

Quotable

“We’ll actually get to play a game that starts and ends in daylight, which is rare on the West Coast. It’s appreciated, to a certain degree. My preference is that two o’clock is always the best time to play a football game. But I’ll take noon.” – David Shaw, on the early kickoff of the Colorado game

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