NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame vs. Stanford doesn’t have the same name cache as rivalries with say Southern Cal or Michigan, but in terms of sheer physical football games this week’s ND-Stanford game is at the top of the list.
“They’re a physical football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of the Cardinal at his Tuesday press conference. “They play that way up front, in the back end, their running backs, (and) tight ends. It’s pretty apparent across the board the kind of team that you’re gonna play when you face Stanford. You just put on the film and you see the kind of football team that they have become.”
The transformation started when Jim Harbaugh took over in 2007 and instilled a more “Midwestern” hard-nosed mentality in Palo Alto and it has continued since Brian Shaw took over last year. The Fighting Irish have lost their last three games to the Cardinal and Kelly says his team has to get better this week to have a chance on Saturday.
“We’ll have to improve on our performance against Miami if we want to beat Stanford,” Kelly said. “Our players understand that the plan we have laid-out for them this week is to get better. It’s fundamentals, it’s technique, it’s assignments. It’s all of those things.”
Kelly continued by noting that “the plan” has helped his team win 13 of its last 15 regular season games. Notre Dame’s defense is ranked second in the nation in scoring defense facing a variety of offenses, but Stanford brings its own uniqueness to the table this week.
“Not only do they run the ball out of multiple formations and jumbo packages,” Kelly began. “But they create one-on-one match-ups, so you would think you would play a lot of zone. Well, you have to drop extra players down to defend the run, which gives them one-on-one match-ups.”
If there is one place Stanford has shown itself to be more physical than the Irish during ND’s current three-game losing streak to the Cardinal it is in the rushing game. Stanford has out-rushed Notre Dame by an average of 214-69 over the last three meetings, including a 196-57 advantage in that department last season.
“If there’s one team that physically has beaten us physically it’s been Stanford,” Kelly conceded of 2010 and 2011 games that were decided by 37 points on the scoreboard. “They (his team) know that. Secondly, they turn the film on and watch what they did to their opponents. They physically intimidated their opponents.”
The big question now is how will things be different when Stanford comes to town this week?
“I think we’re stronger physically across the board,” Kelly began. “We’re a mature football team. We have a lot of veterans on defense. From an offensive line standpoint we feel like we can handle ourselves much better.”
Kelly also noted the 20 negative plays and three turnovers by his team in last year’s 28-14 loss at Stanford. Compare that to just one negative play and no turnovers in last week’s 41-3 win over Miami.
“As you know, last year it was a turnover, mistake (or) negative play every other play it seemed like,” Kelly continued. “I think we’re so much further along as it relates to how we play the game on Saturday.”
Beyond the physicality Stanford plays with there is also the physical match-up problem posed by their top receiving targets – 6’8 tight end Levine Toilolo and 6’6 tight end Zach Ertz – who with both line-up wide in the offensive formation.
“It’s a nightmare,” Kelly deadpanned. “Look, Tyler Eifert’s the same problem when we split him out. If we put the ball in a good location he’s gonna catch it every time. We’ve gotta have some answers there. It just becomes match-up every single time one-on-one, we’re gonna have to look at some different key coverages.”
“We’re aware of what our problems are and we’ll have to address them if the game shows them to be real issues.”
Ertz has 21 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns this season, while Toilolo has 13 grabs for 278 yards and two touchdowns of their own.
Notre Dame’s young secondary rose to another challenge last week when it shut down a Miami offense that was putting-up video game yardage and points this season. The Hurricanes managed just 201 passing yards after averaging better than 500 a game in their two games previous to last Saturday. Kelly was asked on Tuesday if he is surprised at the lack of “growing pains” he has seen from the back end of the defense.
“No, there have been growing pains,” he responded. “You probably haven’t seen them as readily as we do on a day-to-day basis. And the growing pains are certainly expected pains. They’re not ‘oh my goodness we’re not doing this’ or ‘he can’t do that’. But there are certainly more areas of growth and development and we need more growth back there as well.”
Kelly went on to say every member of the defense and the team as a whole is challenged on a daily basis to take their game to a higher level.
Everett Golson took the next step in his evolution as a college quarterback against Miami. For the first time this season Golson’s running ability was a part of the game plan. He ran the ball six times for 51 yards (8.5) for the highest single-game total of his young career.
“What I liked that he did in the running game and showed progress other than running him was he went north and south,” Kelly said of Golson. “He wasn’t out there shakin’ and trying to make people miss. He put his foot in the ground and went north and south.”
Kelly says Golson also took a step forward with his passing game, which included a 4-or-4 performance running the two-minute drill to move the offense into field goal range at the end of the first half. Golson’s continued evolution and the confidence that comes with it is a continuing balancing act.
“We want what you saw (on Saturday),” Kelly continued. “We want somebody who’s smiling and having fun and really enjoying it, but also disciplined and getting us in the right plays and making the right checks. I guess the easiest way is we’re just really working hard towards meeting in the middle and we’re getting there.”
The Perspective of the Process
If there are two words we have repeatedly heard since the start of fall camp more than two months ago they would be “the process”. Kelly has continually emphasized the importance of keeping his team focused on getting better on a daily basis. Kelly says the dialogue cannot change now, even with a 5-0 team that has more and more to play for every week.
“We don’t talk from that level of 30,000 feet, because it really doesn’t do us any good,” Kelly said. “Really all that we can focus on is what we can control on a day-to-day basis.”
Kelly says he has let his team know that he may talk about those things from time to time with the media, but the team’s focus still stays day-to-day. The challenge is finding the balance, considering the team obviously knows the stakes get higher as the wins keep coming.
“We’re talking about 18 to 21 year-olds that are easily distracted,” Kelly continued. “So the charge is to keep them focused on what they need to do to get better as a football player. I’ve worked this plan for a number of years. I’ve had great success with it. If they choose to continue to follow it they’re gonna continue to have success.”
Kelly says he and his coaching staff are all “singing the same tune” when it comes to keeping the team focused on “the process”.
For the second time this season Cam McDaniel put up very solid rushing numbers in a short amount of time. The sophomore from Coppell, TX ran for 55 yards on 11 carries and scored his first career touchdown against Miami. The fact that Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson are in front of him makes more playing time a challenge.
“Cam McDaniel is one heck of a good running back,” Kelly complimented of the little used back. “He runs the ball as effectively as any of those three. He’s used to the inside-outside zone (blocking scheme) he came from that offense. He came from the shotgun offense and he runs the ball exceedingly well. We just have no hesitation of putting him in the game (but) we only have one football. That’s the problem.”
McDaniel also ran for 59 yards on nine carries in the season-opening win over Navy.
It’s midterm exam week at Notre Dame, which means players have a lot more than football on their minds as they prepare for possibly the toughest opponent they have faced this season.
“All of our coaches have to know what their (the players) schedules look like,” Kelly said of juggling academics and athletics this week. “We have to make certain that proper time is placed on their academics as well as football. There’s gotta be a balance there.”
Kelly says he and his coaching staff will try to be as flexible as possible to allow players to take their exams. That could mean things like moving a weight lifting session.