As Notre Dame trudged off the field at Stanford Stadium Saturday evening following a 27-20 loss at the hands of then-eighth-ranked Stanford, the Irish left with more than just a defeat to ponder.
Head coach Brian Kelly and Co. were given a first-hand example of, perhaps, the most consistent program in the nation during the past half-decade aside from the massive crimson machine humming in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Irish are still in search of a similar annual consistency, after finishing the regular season with records of 7-5, 8-4, 12-0 and 8-4 during Kelly's first four seasons on the job.
And if there's any program Notre Dame can extract lessons from, it's Stanford, a similar academically inclined program playing at a BCS-contending level from year to year under head coach David Shaw.
Following Notre Dame's most recent loss to the Cardinal, what exactly were the specific takeaways?
One tenant of Stanford football is consistently being on the plus side of the turnover margin.
The Cardinal prides itself on playing a nasty, aggressive defense keen on creating turnovers, while its offense plays a conservative, pro-style approach that preaches patience, discipline, consistency and constant protection of the football.
Kelly has consistently preached the importance of protecting the football during his tenure, but his words haven't resulted in a consistency in that department. During his tenure, Notre Dame is 26-1 when on the plus side or even in turnover margin, but considering Kelly has coached 51 games with the Irish, consistency is not apparent in this department.
Running the Football
Another incredible statistic is that the Irish have won 20 consecutive games when attempting 30 rushes or more.
However, there exists a rather peculiar trend line in that offensive category with Kelly and offensive coordinator. Specifically with quarterback Tommy Rees guiding the offense, Kelly and Martin display an extreme reluctance to stick with the running game when the Irish fall behind in games.
Those two should have learned quite a virtuous lesson Saturday evening in Palo Alto, Calif. While Stanford only trailed briefly, while Notre Dame got out to an early 3-0 lead, the Cardinal never once abandoned its running game.
Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney finished with 189 yards on 33 carries to go along with one touchdown, which opened up the passing game for quarterback Kevin Hogan.
I'm not suggesting the Irish adopt Stanford's vanilla, albeit effective, approach, but learning not to be so fickle with the running game is a relatively important takeaway, given that the Irish return each of their running backs as well as a deep, experienced offensive line in 2014.
Playing with Confidence, Swagger and Toughness
Prior to Notre Dame's loss to Stanford to end the regular season, Kelly spoke to his team not having consistently met his expectation of toughness.
What the Irish saw from Stanford was a toughness and tenacity displayed consistently for 60 minutes without a lull or pause. Too often does Notre Dame simply go through the motions and play down to the level of its competition, case in point being the Irish's crippling loss at Pittsburgh three weeks ago.
If Kelly can bring his program to consistently play with an attitude of toughness and an expectation to win, the Irish will be in even better shape heading forward.
Consistently Controlling the Line of Scrimmage
If there's one constant for Stanford's football program, it's controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Call me a purist, traditionalist or what have you, but the root source of winning football games is being able to dominate at the line of scrimmage, which is what Stanford hangs its hat on.
Whether it's the Cardinal's beefy offensive line blasting through opposing defenses like a bowling ball through pins or penetrating into opposing offensive backfields, Stanford epitomizes that aspect of the game.
While Notre Dame has experienced occasional success in this department—specifically during the Irish's 2012 season—the program still has work to do in terms of establishing control along both lines.
The team's lack of depth along the defensive line was apparent against the Cardinal, as the loss of Louis Nix was a significant factor in the defense allowing Stanford to rack up 261 rushing yards.
That issue will most likely be resolved through recruiting and player development, though that's a time-consuming, patience-requiring process.
A combination of the previously descripted facets of the game has resulted in one overarching positive for Stanford: winning.
Since head coach David Shaw took over in 2011, the Cardinal boasts a 33-6 record, including two BCS bowl appearances (a 40-37 loss to Oklahoma State in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl and a 20-14 victory against Wisconsin in last season's Rose Bowl).
Notre Dame, despite its trip to last season's national championship game, has struggled to consistently win at a high level, with "high level" meaning being included in the national conversation on an annual basis.
Luckily for Kelly and Co., they're on the cusp of achieving that consistency.
2014 may be a return to the program's 2012 form.
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