1. After suffering through back to back heart breaking losses how have your expectations for this season changed? Has the rough start affected your expectations for the Brian Kelly era?
As a die-hard fan you enter each year holding out a glimmer of hope that this will be that magical year where against all odds your team will find itself in the thick of the national title race. Those hopes were put on life support when Dayne's Hail Mary sailed into the third row against Michigan and officially died when Charles Gantt crossed the goal line on the fake field goal that happened after the playclock expired.
The reasonable and objective college football fan in me knew "1964: The Remix" wasn't going to happen, but I still thought a nine win season was very attainable. Now sitting at 1-2 with three tough games on deck winning eight more games is a steep mountain to climb. Before the season I couldn't have imagined a scenario where anything less than eight wins was a success, but expectations have been altered if only for my own sanity.
My new expectation is that this team will improve in every regard over the course of the next nine games. Offense, defense, PUNTING--you name it. My hope is that when the season ends in December we won't have to search hard for silver linings, the progress made will speak for itself and set the stage for a huge step forward 2011.
I--along with I assume the entire rational section of Notre Dame's fan base--have not lost faith in Brian Kelly after just three games. Sure, he's made mistakes that are worthy of criticism and people who take the opportunity to express disappointment in those mistakes are certainly justified in doing so. But Kelly has done a lot of good things in a short period of time and there is no debating this is a better football squad than the one he inherited. We're far from a finished product, but you can see a foundation being laid for sustained success in the long-term.
I don't know why I'm so shocked that so many self-proclaimed Irish fans on message boards are already deeming the Kelly Era a failure. The last two weeks were big punches in the gut, no denying that...but be rational. Kelly has improved every situation he's walked into and the groundwork is there to do the same in South Bend. So he didn't burst on the scene like Ara did...neither did Lou.
If you read the articles written about Holtz in his first two seasons at Notre Dame they are strikingly similar to the ones about Kelly today. There were plenty of concerns that he was in over his head, but people close to the program day-in and day-out knew something special was in the works. When you listen to journalists like Tim Prister, Mike Frank, and Pete Sampson--guys who are as in tune with the pulse of Notre Dame Football as anyone who isn't on the sidelines--talk about how the culture is changing for the better it should give you hope. They're not blowing sunshine up anyone's butt; they are witnessing it firsthand unlike the battalion of message board Chicken Littles that seem to have stormed the internet since last Saturday night.
We have no way of knowing or guaranteeing that Brian Kelly will ultimately prove to be a success. It appears he's headed in the right direction, but who knows. What I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is we are so far away from making any sort of educated judgment that it's almost laughable. The people who are crying and moaning and gnashing their teeth about how we're doomed are the same people who were claiming Kelly couldn't recruit last June. Those criticisms have melted away with a few big victories on the recruiting trail. We're only three games into his coaching tenure. Give him some time to silence the critics with victories on the field as well.
2. Our defense has given up 28 points in both of our last two games. But our defense has also forced a few three and outs and has looked fairly stout out times. So on D, are we Jekyll or Hyde? Or are we just a work in progress?
I think most people would agree that we're a work in progress. Last year was probably the worst defensive unit in school history--fundamentally unsound, poorly coached, poorly positioned, the whole nine yards. Diaco has done a great job getting them to play with confidence, not an easy feat considering where their psyche had to be after playing the role of weekly punching bag (on the field and in the press) during the 2009 campaign.
The main issue we have that will stunt the defense's improvement is the lack of depth at everywhere but linebacker. The drop-off is especially steep from first to second string along the defensive line. The new spread attack Kelly is employing has little to no concern for winning the time of possession battle. While the offense seems close to hitting its stride, the lack of ball control is leading to our defense having to stay on the field for ten minutes longer than the opposing team's defense (though if you look at the stat sheet they're out there for the same number of plays...I think against MSU we actually ran two more plays than the Spartans, they just happen to be crunched into a much shorter time period).
The extended time on the field increases the need for substitutions along the defensive line and most of the big plays we surrender are when Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams, or Emeka Nwankwo are giving the starters a blow (see: all of Denard Robinson's big runs and the Baker run in the MSU game). I don't know how Diaco and Kelly plan to fix that problem or if it's even fixable until reinforcements arrive in the form of Aaron Lynch, Stephen Tuitt, and Louis Nix. If you look at strictly the starters though the improvement is vast. There's still plenty of room for more progress, but Diaco definitely has the boys playing a better brand of football.
3. I've heard that Bill Walsh believed that if he saw a player make one great play, he and his staff could coach that player to consistently make great plays. The Irish offense clearly made some great plays against State. Our offense also unfortunately disappeared at critical times. Are we just witnessing the process of Kelly and his staff teaching the lads to consistently make great plays?
This is a young team with a young quarterback learning a brand new offense. Kelly said in the spring that the entire first year would be a scaled-back learning process and it wouldn't be until year two when things would really start to click and the playbook would open up. Honestly, we're progressing faster than I thought we would preseason. Crist has made his share of mistakes but in my eyes he's exceeded expectations and provided he stays healthy (pleasepleaseplease God let it be so) he could evolve into an all-time great.
There were bound to be growing pains and some inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball, I just expected the offensive line and Dayne to be the main culprits...not our potential All-American Michael Floyd. Kelly needs to do whatever necessary to get Floyd refocused from this point forward. If the Irish hope become more consistent and beat solid teams like Stanford they're going to need their superstar to be a rock they can rely on, not a liability--especially in the redzone, where he should be the ultimate weapon.
4. Where would you rank Stanford among the Irish opponents? Would a defeat of the Cardinal be the biggest win of the last six years?
They're #2 behind Southern Cal. Jim Harbaugh has them playing a great brand of football; they've totally reinvented themselves as a hard-nosed, punch-you-in-the-mouth team. Andrew Luck is the best quarterback Notre Dame will see all year and his offensive unit has been shredding opponents every week. They're a legitimate contender in the Pac-10 and will be a huge test for the Irish on both sides of the ball.
Biggest win of the last six years? No. The two opening wins of the Weis Era were bigger because they catapulted us up the standings and re-established us (if only for a brief moment) as legitimate players on the national scene. A win against Stanford would be huge and perhaps kick-start the season, but it'd be big more for internal reasons (the psyche of the players and fans alike) than external ones.
5. While many outsiders and a contingent of fans have cited ND's academic standards as a hindrance to football success, many Irish supporters consider Notre Dame's unique combination of strong academics and big-time football (and faith) as an advantageous niche in the college football world. With stricter admission standards and far-less football notoriety, Harbaugh's Cardinal have burst onto the national recruiting scene to again prove that plenty of really good football players welcome academic challenges as long as they come with a chance to compete at the highest level. Could you foresee sustained excellence by Stanford Football and would you perceive a perennially strong Cardinal program as any kind of a threat to Notre Dame's niche?
I can see Stanford sustaining success for as long as Jim Harbaugh is their coach. It's been phenomenal watching him transform that program and if he sticks around instead of bolting for the greener pastures of the NFL (or...gulp...Michigan) then I think they have the potential to become a force in the Pac-10.
Everyone overthinks why programs succeed and fail. The main reason always comes down to one thing: the head coach. If you have a great head coach then you're going to find success. If you put Nick Saban in Pao Alto I believe he'd succeed. If you put Buddy Teevens at Alabama I believe he'd fail. It's pretty simple. Stanford hit the jackpot with Harbaugh, I just don't think they'll be able to keep him.
And no, I don't even remotely see Stanford as a threat to our "niche" because I don't see us as a niche school. We may lose a recruit or two to Stanford because they can offer the same caliber of academics only in a beautiful California city as opposed to South Bend, IN, but when recruits fall in love with Notre Dame it's because of the total package. They get swept up in the aura and mystique of the place.
Stanford is a phenomenal school and can offer a lot of things, but one thing that it will never be able to offer is a gameday experience like Notre Dame. The pageantry, the tradition, and 80,000 rabid fans is the polar opposite of the laid back, barely even fair-weather fans in Pao Alto.That stark contrast will affect more recruits than some people may think.
6. Let’s talk statistics. Will they matter this weekend?
A. Coming into the game, Stanford has the #3 ranked Scoring Offense nationally (51.67 pts/gm) with the 14th ranked Rushing Offense (242.33 yds/gm). Notre Dame's Scoring Offense ranks 73rd (26.00 pts) with the 99th ranked Rushing Defense (197 yds/gm). Will the Irish be able to contain Stanford's rushing attack?
Notre Dame's rushing yards per game unfortunately is going to go up after playing the Cardinal. Harbaugh is going to make a point of just jamming the ball down the throat of the Irish until the defense breaks. Unless Kelly makes some serious adjustments on the offensive side of the ball to limit the time the defense spends on the field its going to be a tough day.
B. Notre Dame's Passing Offense is 8th nationally (318 yds/gm) and Stanford's Passing Efficiency Defense is 3rd nationally (74 yds/gm). Will Stanford be able to contain the Irish passing attack?
Stanford hasn't played a team with a passing attack that can even be considered mediocre so their passing defense statistics are misleading. Notre Dame will find success in the passing game against a Cardinal secondary that Clausen, Floyd, and Tate torched last season. Crist has improved each week and when he gets in rhythm the offense hums like the juggernaut it's capable of becoming.
The key will be Crist getting in rhythm earlier and maintaining it for longer stretches. That's part of the growing process. Expect Dayne to take another step forward this week and post another statistically strong outing. Whether he makes the big play or the big mistake in the fourth quarter is the real question.
c. Stanford gave up 170 yds rushing to UCLA and 265 yds rushing to Wake Forest. Notre Dame has averaged 133 yds/gm so far. Do you expect Kelly to utilize the Irish rushing attack more?
Another somewhat misleading statistic because UCLA and Wake had to run since they are borderline incapable of passing, but I hope the Irish lean on the run a little more this week. The ground game has been much more effective this year and Jonas Gray--not Cierre Wood--is poised to make a big impact if given adequate opportunity along side Armando Allen. I said this previously (perhaps in the running diary) but I can see Gray morphing into a Robert Farmer-type; he won't ever be the bell-cow week in and week out, but he can post very solid number in a complementary role.
Kelly needs to seek more balance and make an effort to control the ball more in an effort to save the defense--at least this year when our depth along the defensive line is razor thin. He's said he's comfortable adjusting his playcalling based on the circumstances and personnel available. This will be a good test to see if that's indeed the case.
d. Stanford is ranked 4th in Red Zone Defense (50%) while the Irish have the 65th ranked Red Zone Offense (82%). Stanford's Red Zone Offense is tied for 1st (100%) in conversions and the Irish Defense's Red Zone conversions allowed is 36th (75%). Will the Irish be able to stop Stanford's RZ conversions and improve theirs? How would you do that?
This is an area where I haven't seen nearly enough improvement from Notre Dame on the offensive side of the ball, but all analysis and every prediction as to whether we'll get better, what it takes to get better, and whether we can stop Stanford is going to be generic and obvious.
Our failures on offense have been due to a lack of focus and execution. Twice our best player fumbled and turned the ball over when a touchdown seemed imminent simply because he was careless. We need to eliminate that sort of mistake and we'll get better. On defense we need to do a good job stopping the run on first and second down to create some 3rd and long situations where we can unleash the hounds on Luck.
7. 1-2 is pretty tough to deal with for a football team still trying to find its identity. Meanwhile, Stanford is looking like a well-oiled machine thus far. Do you think this Irish squad can really bounce back from another heart-breaking loss against the Cardinal? What if it's not all that close?
I have a hard time dealing with all these negative hypotheticals that have been flying around since the weekend. Why start speculating on how the team is going to bounce back after losing this week? How about if they lose the next three and sit at 1-5? What if we go 3-9? What if we never win again!?! The mentality of assuming the worst is counter-productive and contributes to this terrible blanket of negativity that's already covering the program after three games.
Stanford is a very good team and there's a very realistic chance that they will travel to South Bend and leave with a victory. But there isn't a huge gap between the Irish and the Cardinal--in fact, in terms of talent level we're superior. Our visions and opinions are clouded at the moment by the heartbreaking nature in which the last two defeats occurred, but we're one or two breaks away from being 3-0 and the bandwagon overflowing.
We're far from a finished product and that'd be the case even if we'd found a way to beat Michigan and Michigan State. This transformation in culture that Kelly is trying to achieve is going to take time. The defense has improved and the offense is starting to click. If the Irish can take small steps forward in execution on both sides of the ball and eliminate some mental errors (I'm looking squarely at you Michael Floyd) then an upset is very possible.
Deal in reality. Notre Dame can absolutely win this game. If they end up losing then we can all speculate on whether the team will bounce back. Until then let's hope they turn a corner that's not far away and get things rolling in the right direction.