Notre Dame Football: 10 Things We Learned in Irish's Loss to Stanford
Notre Dame suffered its fourth loss of the regular season Saturday evening, falling, 27-20, at the hands of then-eighth-ranked Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif.
The Irish were in it until the bitter end due to a gutty performance from their defense, but the team was ultimately hindered by two Tommy Rees interceptions on consecutive drives late in the fourth quarter.
So, what exactly did we learn about Notre Dame during its loss to Stanford?
Let's explore that question.
The Defense Was Spectacular in the Second Half
After an Anthony Wilkerson touchdown run put Stanford ahead, 21-6, with 11 minutes remaining in the second half, the Irish defenders flipped to another gear.
Stephon Tuitt and Co. allowed just six points during the final 26 minutes of action, while coming up with a key interception from cornerback Bennett Jackson late in the fourth quarter. However, that turnover didn't pay off in the end.
Regardless of what the box score displays (yes, allowing 261 rushing yards isn't pretty), Notre Dame's defense played with a tenacity and toughness head coach Brian Kelly called for leading up to the game.
A Patchwork Offensive Line Played Well in the Second Half
Entering the loss to Stanford, Notre Dame was already down two starting offensive linemen: center Nick Martin (hand injury) and Christian Lombard (back surgery).
The line was even further depleted when left guard Chris Watt went down late in the first half with an apparent knee injury, although it was his right knee, and not the left knee which already had a torn PCL suffered against Air Force.
In his place was Conor Hanratty, along with freshman Steve Elmer and junior Matt Hegarty at center.
While the group was shaky to begin with, it jelled extremely well in the second half, giving quarterback Tommy Rees excellent pass protection and providing a decent amount of a push in the running game.
Turnovers Doomed the Irish
Early in the fourth quarter, the Fox broadcast displayed a graphic explaining that Notre Dame is 26-1 under Brian Kelly when it is plus or even in turnover margin.
At that time, the Irish were on the plus side, though they later pulled even with Stanford's two interceptions.
Rees matched Stanford's Kevin Hogan with two costly picks, which ultimately proved as the most costly mistakes for Notre Dame all season. It was a micro example of the macro view of Rees' career, unfortunately.
Tarean Folston Isn't Great in Pass Protection
Notre Dame fans have been calling for freshman running back Tarean Folston to receive more playing time all season.
But in times when he doesn't play, there is, indeed, a reason, despite what those same fans may think.
On obvious passing downs, particularly in the shotgun, Folston is a liability in pass coverage. Multiple times against Stanford, Folston blew his blocking assignment, leading to Rees sacks or unnecessary pressures.
While it's frustrating, it's simply part of the learning process for young running backs.
George Atkinson III Played His Way Out of More Carries
For all the praise George Atkinson III received during the preseason, it's all gone now.
The junior received just four carries for one yard against Stanford, a direct result of his maddening tendency to run east and west, rather than north and south.
To add to the Stockton, Calif., native's struggles, he continued to show a habit of running with a high pad level, which leaves the 6'3", 218-pound running back susceptible to bone-crushing hits from any defense, particularly Stanford's ultra-physical unit.
While Atkinson still has one more year of eligibility remaining, it's tough to imagine a scenario in which he's a regular part of the running back rotation during the 2014 season.
Freshman LB Jaylon Smith Had a Quiet Game
After beginning his career with a bang, Jaylon Smith was relatively quiet against Stanford.
The heralded freshman was spectacular from the second quarter of the season on, though the Cardinal did an excellent job of taking the 6'3", 230-pound linebacker out of the game by running away from him and applying two blockers when headed in his direction.
While some would see this as a sign of concern, it's anything but, as it's a sign of respect for Smith's abilities.
That's great news for the Irish, who will have Smith's services for at least another two seasons.
CB Bennett Jackson Had His Best Game of the Season
Stanford is certainly a run-first offense, but when it goes to the passing game, it's often in an attempt to gain large chunks of yardage through play action.
But senior cornerback Bennett Jackson was ready for that passing attack.
The Hazlet, N.J., native was excellent on the perimeter against receivers Devon Cajuste and Ty Montgomery, which forced the Cardinal to go down the seam to the mammoth tight ends.
Jackson came up with a key interception late in the fourth quarter on one of the best one-on-one coverages we've seen from the senior during the 2013 season.
The Irish Defense Missed NG Louis Nix
What Stanford's offense does best is run the football straight down the opposition's throat.
Against an offensive style such as that, it helps to have a massive player of Louis Nix's size at your disposal. But Notre Dame didn't have Nix Saturday evening, as the 6'3", 357-pounder sat at home and watched from the couch with a season-ending meniscus tear that also caused the big guy to miss last week's win against BYU.
Stanford ended up with 261 rushing yards, a majority of which came right up the gut.
Notre Dame Was in It Until the End Despite a Lack of a Rushing Attack
As is typical in the game of football, success is usually experienced when an offense has an effective rushing attack.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the Irish offense didn't have a semblance of a ground game against the Cardinal, as they pieced together just 64 rushing yards.
Folston led the way with 50 yards on 14 carries, while Cam McDaniel had 17 yards on four carries.
It was expected that Stanford would take away the Irish's rushing attack, though the end result wasn't. The line for the game stood at 14 prior to kickoff, though Notre Dame was within four points well into the fourth quarter.
It just goes to show you what a valiant effort from your defense can do for you.
The Irish Can Begin to Focus on 2014
As has been the case with Brian Kelly, the now-fourth-year head coach uses the allotted 15 bowl game practices for lower-tier bowl games to prepare for both the game as well as for the upcoming season.
In this case, the Irish are likely to fall to the Pinstripe Bowl against an outmatched team from the American Athletic Conference, making a placement of focus on the 2014 season during bowl game practices an added bonus.
And should former quarterback Everett Golson be reinstated to the university, the Irish would be able to include him in those practices, getting a jump-start on 2014.