Earlier this week, I exchanged questions with a couple of extremely knowledgeable Notre Dame bloggers about tomorrow's game. Here's what Jon at SB Nation's Notre Dame blog, One Foot Down, and Frank at the Unofficial Home of Notre Dame Football (UHND) had to say.
1. How much does the loss of Jonas Gary hurt the Irish offensively? Who's slotted to replace him as Notre Dame's primary tailback?
One Foot Down: Losing Gray hurts. Jonas was probably Notre Dame's best running back before he went down. Along with Cierre Wood, the Irish had a deadly two-headed monster at running back. The two backs were basically alternating on each offensive series, allowing both of them to stay fresh throughout the game. Gray was also a bigger back than Wood and was hard to bring down. Some people like to refer to Gray as the thunder to Wood's lightning, but I don't really think that's true. Gray was pretty good at making people miss and Cierre has gotten much better at running between the tackles this season. But losing Gray puts the load squarely on Cierre's shoulders. Not that he's not capable of carrying the load - he had 134 yards against Michigan, 191 yards against Purdue, and has had three other games where he had at least 94 yards - but behind him on the depth chart are two true freshmen with a combined 12 career carries. There are rumors of running-back-turned-slot-receiver Theo Riddick moving to running back, but he's been gimpy the past few weeks.
On top of all the football-related reasons why Gray's injury hurts this team, there's the personal aspect, too. Gray came into this season having been buried on the depth chart for his first three years on campus. This was finally his chance to shine on the field. Then, against South Florida, he had the infamous fumble on the 1-yard line that got returned for a touchdown on Notre Dame's first offensive series of the season. Instead of letting that crush him and giving up, he worked harder than ever and even had a chance to break the 1,000 yard mark, all the while going from an unknown to a possible NFL draft pick. He was great story and a joy to watch on the field and it breaks a lot of Irish fans' hearts to see his career end the way it did.
UHND: Without Gray, Notre Dame is dangerously thin at running back. Cierre Wood has already eclipsed 1,000 yards this season – the first Irish running back to do so since Darius Walker in 2006 – but after him Notre Dame has little proven depth. Freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel are the only two scholarship running backs behind Wood while junior running back turned wide receiver Theo Riddick could see some action at running back this weekend if he is able to play. Riddick has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
Gray was the only power back option Notre Dame had so I expect we’ll see a different Notre Dame running game this weekend – especially if/when Atkinson and McDaniel are in the game.
2. We're nearing the end of Year 2 of Brian Kelly's tenure in South Bend. The Irish seem to have rebounded nicely from an 0-2 start, even if last week was a struggle, but what's your assessment of the job he's done so far and what's the outlook for next year?
OFD: There is a small (but vocal) contingent of the fan base that isn't too pleased with him, but those are the fans that are impossible to please. If we won the national championship by 40 points, they would complain that it wasn't by 50 points.
So with that said, I'm pleases with the job Kelly has done. I admit, I'm a bit of a Brian Kelly homer. I was a fan of his when he was at Cincinnati and he was my first choice to get the head coaching job after Weis was let go. Yes, expectations weren't met this year, and each loss this year has been crushing, but I think there are plenty of signs of improvement within the program:
- The pass protection from the offensive line has been nearly flawless. The line went five straight games without giving up a sack. That's a far cry from 2007 when Notre Dame set the record for most sacks given up in a season.
- The Irish are running the ball better than they have since the days when Sweet Lou roamed the sidelines. The Irish had an outside chance at having two 1,000 yard rushers this year after not having even one in the past four years.
- The defense is playing much better. Irish fans like to give Bob Diaco a hard time (some deserved, some not), but this defense is almost night and day from 2009 when they couldn't stop anyone. We're not exactly Alabama, but the defense is no longer a liability, and that's nice.
- Recruiting has been a pleasant surprise. No one was really sure how good Kelly and this staff would be at recruiting, but they've done a great job so far. They're bringing in some very good talent, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. Line play was pretty terrible under Charlie Weis on both sides of the ball, so it's a nice change to have big bodies come into the program and to actually have depth.
- November collapses seem to be a thing of the past. The team isn't wearing down as the season goes on.
The one thing I am a little disappointed in is how slow the process seems to be taking. Like I said, the program is taking definite steps forward and I think it's only a matter of time before this team is back in the mix for a BCS bowl, but the team doesn't seem to be markedly better than they were last year. I think the answer might be that this program was in worst shape than we all thought when Kelly took over. I think Kelly is having a hard time changing the attitude of the team and mold them how he wants to. As his players work their way into the system, that will hopefully go away and this team can be a consistent winner, but that takes time, which is something coaches have a short supply of at Notre Dame.
UHND: Kelly has done a pretty solid job so far. He definitely hasn’t exceeded expectations, but at the same time he hasn’t drastically disappointed and unfortunately, that is progress for a Notre Dame program that has suffered through three consecutive failed coaching tenures.
Heading into this season the goal was a BCS bowl and if Notre Dame had just protected the football those first two weeks of the season, this game would be a matchup of two 1 loss teams trying to impress voters and stake a claim for a spot in the BCS title game. In reality though, this is still a Notre Dame team learning how to win consistently and play up to their talent level and not down to their opponents. Last week was a prime example that this team is still very much a work in progress.
Next season there will be a lot of question marks for Notre Dame. Is Rees the long term answer at QB? Will Notre Dame have receivers to replace Michael Floyd? Will Manit Te’o come back for his senior season? Can the Irish find playmakers in the secondary to replace Robert Blanton, Gary Gray, and Harrison Smith?
Unfortunately, Notre Dame is most likely going to be relying on freshmen next season at positions like receiver and corner which is never an ideal recipe for a BCS run.
3. Defensively, I know about Manti Te'o. Who else should Cardinal fans -- and Andrew Luck -- look out for on Saturday?
OFD: One player who will need to have a big game on Saturday will be nose tackle Louis Nix. Nix will be the key to the Irish stopping the potent Cardinal rushing attack. He needs to clog up the middle of the line and not let Stanford establish an inside running game. I would also keep an eye on Aaron Lynch, the true freshman starting at defensive end. He's not the best against the run, which worries me in this game, but he's an explosive pass rusher. He had a breakout game against Michigan State back n September but has been relatively quiet ever since. It'll be important for the Irish to establish a pass rush against Andrew Luck and Lynch might be our best chance to do that.
UHND: Aaron Lynch. Stanford fans will get to know Lynch’s name pretty well over the next three seasons because the true freshman has lived up to his recruiting hype and has all the looks of a player on loan from the NFL. The Florida native is already the best pass rusher on the team and despite being a bit hobbled with an ankle injury, he is still making his presence felt. He still plays a bit undisciplined at times, just like most true freshman, but his raw skill will be hard to miss on Saturday.
Harrison Smith is another name to know. Smith is a 5th year senior and the only permanent captain on the Notre Dame roster. If Notre Dame is going to slow down the Stanford passing attack, I suspect Smith is going to need to help in coverage on Toby Fleener because the Notre Dame linebackers have struggled all season in coverage.
4. The Stanford secondary has struggled at times this season. Do you think the Irish's chances of upsetting the Cardinal hinge on Michael Floyd's having a big day in a shootout, or would Notre Dame prefer a low-scoring affair?
OFD: How about a little bit of both? The key to the Irish pulling the upset will be running the ball effectively with Cierre Wood then hitting Floyd or Tyler Eifert for big gains once the defense starts to creep up. I don't think Notre Dame wins a shootout because I don't think they can consistently move the ball against the Cardinal defense. I think Notre Dame gives themselves their best chance to win if they play solid defense and control the clock on the ground. I think Notre Dame has to play a game like they did against USC last season. Against the Trojans, the Irish ran the ball well with Wood and Robert Hughes and Floyd caught 11 balls while the defense held USC to 261 total yards and only 80 yards rushing. Obviously, Stanford is much better than last season's USC team led by Mitch Mustain, but my point stands. Getting into a shootout would put the game squarely on the shoulders of Tommy Rees and I just don't think he's capable of playing a game like that. If the Irish slow the game down, they'll be in a much better position to win.
UHND: I don’t think Notre Dame has the fire power to win a shootout. For Notre Dame to pull off the upset this weekend, they will have to run the ball effectively and keep Luck and the Stanford offense off the field. Given Stanford’s stout run defense, I don’t expect to see Notre Dame run wild, but as long as they can run it effectively they have a chance.
All of that said, Notre Dame can’t win this game without a monster performance from Michael Floyd. Floyd is going to have to find ways to get open and haul in everything thrown his way. The last few weeks Floyd has uncharacteristically dropped a number of very catchable balls. That can’t happen this week.
The other key for Notre Dame is going to be third downs. Last year against Stanford the Irish defense actually held Luck in check and forced one of his poorest performances of the season, but the Irish offense converted just 4 of 13 third downs compared to 11 of 16 for Stanford. A similar stat line this weekend will result in a similar final result.
5. Teams have gotten Luck out of rhythm and forced him into some mistakes with an effective pass rush in recent weeks. How's Notre Dame's front 7?
OFD: In a word - young. The defensive line features a sophomore and two true freshman. The starting linebackers include a senior, two juniors, and a sophomore. The Irish have been hurt by injuries with senior defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore both injured. Lewis-Moore is lost for the year, but Johnson should play, though he's not at 100%. The pass rush hasn't been great this year, but the Notre Dame defense doesn't blitz a whole lot. The Irish are usually content rushing only three or four players and playing bend-but-don't-break defense. Of course, letting Andrew Luck sit comfortably in the pocket is not a recipe for success, so maybe Bob Diaco will loosen things up a bit and bring some heat.
UHND: Notre Dame’s front has been playing very well despite suffering a number of injuries. Senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore was lost for the season weeks ago, senior Ethan Johnson has missed multiple games with an ankle injury, freshman Stephon Tuitt missed last week’s game with a bout of the flu and senior nose tackle Sean Cwynar has been in and out of the lineup.
Even with those injuries, the Irish defensive front has held up all season because of contributions from players like Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, and freshman Chase Hounshell. Notre Dame will have Johnson back this week although its not known how close to 100% he is. Tuitt is still a question mark though.
For Notre Dame’s front to make an impact though, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is going to have to get out of his comfort zone. Diaco has not had the Irish blitz too often this year, but this weekend he is going to have to. If Diaco employs a similar conservative bend, don’t break gameplan like we saw against USC back on October, Luck is going to light up the Irish defense and use the game to make a statement for the Heisman just like Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart did on Thanksgiving weekend’s past against the Notre Dame defense.
6. What's Tommy Rees' best attribute and do you expect him to be Notre Dame's starter in 2012?
OFD: Oh boy. That's opening a can of worms. Head over to One Foot Down and open any post - it doesn't matter what it's about - and you'll inevitably find a discussion in the comments about Tommy Rees and his prospects for next season. Notre Dame continues to win with Rees as the starter - 12 wins against just two defeats - but the debate is over whether that's because of Rees or in spite of him.
All of the ingredients are there for Rees to be great: a strong offensive line, two (well, one now) dynamic running backs, two potential first-round NFL draft picks to throw to, and a pretty good defense. But for whatever reason, Rees has been maddeningly inconsistent. He throws into coverage when he has a man wide open, he throw the ball away when he could have picked four or five yards on the ground, and he has no touch on balls thrown outside the hash marks or deeper than 15 yards. Worst of all, he doesn't seem to be getting better - he continues to make the same mistakes every week.
But there's a reason he's the starting quarterback. The kid is unflappable mentally. While Dayne Crist could be seen staring off into space on the sidelines when things took the wrong turn, Rees is in his receivers' faces or going at it with Kelly. If he throws an ugly interception it won't affect his play the rest of the game. And while I just said his decision making has been questionable, he's a very smart player. Kelly has repeatedly praised him for his ability to check into the correct play at the line and setting the protection. And even though he struggles on the deep throws, Rees gets the ball out quickly and is very accurate on short passes.
Kelly (and most ND fans) would like to see someone more athletic at QB who can hurt the defense with his legs, but Rees is the quarterback we have for now. If Rees leads an improbable upset of Stanford and/or a bowl win, it might be difficult to justify replacing Rees with a redshirt sophomore who has taken less than 20 snaps in his career or a redshirt freshman with no playing experience whatsoever. Personally, I would love to see Andrew Hendrix or Everett Golson get the starting nod in 2012, but I'm not entirely sure Kelly will take that risk.
UHND: Rees best attribute is his demeanor. Nothing seems to rattle him and no situation seems to big for him. Physically, its been well documented that Rees is limited. He isn’t big, he isn’t fast, and he doesn’t have an overly strong arm. Because of that he needs to use his decision making and poise to be effective. Rees doesn’t get sacked much because he has a good idea of where he wants to go with the ball and gets rid of it quickly. At times that’s a strength. Other times it’s a major weakness because he will force a pass he shouldn’t throw and end up turning the ball over.
Like the team, Rees is still a work in progress. He’s shown signs of progress, but then has a game like last week where his deficiencies are on full display – he couldn’t push the ball downfield given a number of chances and threw a truly awful interception that should have never been thrown.
Rees hasn’t done anything in my opinion to have the starting job locked down heading into 2012. I fully expect freshman Everett Golson, an extremely athletic quarterback, to make a run at the starting job in the spring. Should Notre Dame land Rivals’ #1 rated quarterback Gunner Kiel as many expect, I could see the early enrollee throwing his name in the race too.
7. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?
OFD: I'm an unabashed (some might even say delusional) homer, but even I have a hard time picking the Irish to win this game. Stanford dominated the Irish on both sides of the ball last year and while the Irish are a little better, Stanford is, at worst, just as good as they were last year. The Irish can't go anywhere but up after last year's performance against Stanford, so I think they'll at least be competitive for most of the game, but I don't think the game will ever really be in doubt after the first quarter. A late score might make this look closer than it is. I'll put the final score at 31-20.
UHND: I really want to believe the starts are aligned for Notre Dame to make it’s statement game. Prime time game against a top ranked team. I’ve seen this scenario far too many times over the years to get too excited especially after allowing myself to get all psyched up for the USC game this season.
I think the game will be close throughout the first three quarters, but an ill timed turnover will let Stanford create some breathing room before finishing off Notre Dame along the lines of 34-20. I just don’t see the Notre Dame ground game being able to make enough plays without Jonas Gray to take pressure off the Notre Dame passing game.
Defensively, no one has been able to stop Andrew Luck this year and I don’t expect the Notre Dame defense to be the first. If Notre Dame sends pressure more often than they have most of the season, I do think they can slow him down enough to give the offense a chance to make it game through three quarters though.
In the end, Stanford is going to have a little too much firepower and the Irish offense just won’t be able to keep up.