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Irish Blogger Gathering: Enter the Trees

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Welcome to another edition of the Irish Blogger Gathering. Here at One Foot Down we are hosting this week’s round of questioning so check back with us throughout the week as we will add links to all of the responses from our fellow Notre Dame bloggers at the bottom of this post.

After back to back heart breaking losses the Irish will try to get back on track against a Stanford team that has looked quite formidable in beat downs of Sacramento State, UCLA and Wake Forest. The whole scenario has left us with much to discuss here at OFD headquarters so we will get right to the business of answering our own questions.

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?

Whiskey

I started really thinking about this in the wake of the Michigan State loss while watching a black clad Stanford run rule Wake. My short answer is definitely yes in terms of record. Coming into the season I expected some growing pains and thought that those coupled with the schedule would probably result in a 4-2 record in the first half. As of today I’m hoping for 3-3. This Stanford team might be the toughest on the schedule, BC is the jinx and you never really know what to expect from The Stache and Pitt.

Regardless of whether or not the Irish are 3-3 or 2-4 a month from now I still expect a solid second half of the season from this team. Where last season left us with a November to forget I think this squad will actually do the opposite and close out the year on an upward trajectory.

As for Coach Kelly it hasn’t exactly been the start that any of us were hoping for but it is still way too early to rush to judgment. Though two tough losses have left us with an all too familiar feeling there is still a lot of football to be played this fall. Let’s see how it shakes out.

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?

Mouth of the South

Manti Te'o bounces off of State's running back. In the backfield. On third down. The same running back then handily picks up a gift-wrapped first down. I curl up into the fetal position and begin sucking my thumb in Fox and Hound. I compulsively repeat "It's 2010, not 2009" to myself ala Howard Hughes. Giving up that third down hurt. Giving up that third down also reminded me that less than one year ago, we fielded the worst defense in school history. But Coach Kelly made an excellent point at his press conference this week--with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, our Defense held. The same D that gave up a 56-yard run to a State running back whose name no one will remember returned to its first quarter form and shut State down when it counted. When State wanted to impose its will, our Defense said "no."

Our defense played well in the first and fourth quarters. They showed flashes of brilliance. They showed that they can play lights out when they concentrate. They showed, I daresay, "conscious competence." Now they need to bring that level of intensity and focus to every series, to every down. They need to develop "unconscious competence." I think they will. I think they'll learn to consistently do what they did for two quarters against State. I think our defense is a work in progress.

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?

Mouth of the South

Re-watch our offense's three second-half touchdown drives. Then try to tell me that there is another offense in the country that you would take over our offense at the top of its game. Our offensive line is protecting the quarterback. We have the same number of offensive line penalties through three games that it took a much more experienced line three minutes to rack up last season. This line has a grand total of three starts together. The dominant run blocking will come. Our number three receiver hauled in 10 receptions for128 yards and a TD. Our number one receiver will not continue to fumble. Our quarterback is now making the back-of-the-endzone touch throws that he was missing just two weeks ago. We know what our running backs can do. Need I even discuss Rudolph?

Our offense, in short, is pulling it together for 4 drives per game. Consider that the Irish offense had the ball 14 times against State. If our offense can put it together more for 2-4 more possessions per game, we'll be scoring 30-40 points per week. If we eliminate the turnovers, I think 40 points per game is a given. And I think that there are two things that Coach Kelly won't suffer: fools and turnovers. I believe that Coach Kelly is molding a very young offense into one that will consistently make great plays.

P.S. This is off-message, but I like Coach Kelly taking a page from The Colbert Report, as he did when he placed a starting kick returner "on notice" that his job was in jeopardy.

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?

Eric

You could make the case that Michigan State is the most complete team Notre Dame will face in the first half and that Utah and USC will be the most dangerous teams in the second half. But I think Stanford is the toughest opponent in the here and now.

I think the Spartans are going to be a player in the Big Ten this year but we’ve seen them collapse down the stretch far too many times. Meanwhile we won’t get a good grasp on Utah until they play TCU the week before they travel to South Bend and USC has looked rather lackluster in 2010 (and that’s putting it nicely).

So that leaves the Stanford Cardinal as (probably) the toughest opponent on the Irish schedule.

As far as a defeat of this Stanford team being the biggest win of the last six years, well I think it would have to be taken into consideration.

I don’t want to get too much into it because I’m going to expound in great detail later in the week what this game could mean, but Stanford is really good.

This is the highest the Cardinal have ever been ranked coming into a game at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish have lost 11 straight to teams ranked 16th or higher in the polls and the last home victory over a team ranked at or better than where Stanford is right now was six years ago in 2004 against No. 8 Michigan.

So yeah, it would be a pretty big win in Brian Kelly’s first season.

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?

Pablo

Harbaugh likely won't stay long, but he's already turned Stanford into an attractive place to play football. He may even stay long enough to turn the elite, private university into an attractive place to coach football. The way I see it, the only way to stop that kinda cycle is a bad coaching hire, which could happen anywhere at any time. So I could certainly envision the Cardinal sustaining a top-notch football program under the right circumstances.

I don't follow recruiting enough to figure if there are enough of those kinda student-athletes to go around, but I believe Stanford has beaten Notre Dame in some recent recruiting battles. The faith aspect (as well as tradition) still differentiates the institutions, but plenty of ND players (and other students) who go along with the faith thing might opt otherwise if both educational and career opportunities (in football and otherwise) were as good or better at some other place with nicer weather. I sure wouldn't perceive a consistently strong Stanford Football program as a non-threat.

6. Let’s talk statistics. Will they matter this weekend?

Irish Rising

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?

Controlling Stanford's rushing attack will be one of the keys to the game. Despite losing Gerhart, Stanford's rushing offense has improved over last year comparing the first three games (727 yds - 125 attempts - 5.82 yds/carry vs. 614 - 108 atts - 5.67 yds/carry). Some of the credit must go to the offensive line, which returns four starters. The Cardinal gashed Wake Forest's defense for 303 yds last week with almost 8 yds per carry.Though Harbaugh has used a number of RBs, the load will probably fall to Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, both of whom average over 5 yds per carry and can get to the outside. The success of their running game allows them to control time of possession, set up the passing game and be 10th in the nation in 3rd down conversions. Clearly, this will be the sternest test yet for the Irish front seven.

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 has surrendered only 90 passing yds per game - tops nationally, but has not faced anyone close to Crist and his receivers. If the Offensive Line can provide Crist with protection (Stanford is tied for sixth nationally in Sacks), Notre Dame will have success. New Stanford DC Vic Fangio with 24 years of NFL experience has implemented a 3-4. Former DEs Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser provide pressure with 3.5 & 1.5 sacks respectively.

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?

The ability of the Irish to rush successfully is another key to the game. Harbaugh likes to control the game and time of possession with a running attack setting up Luck's passing attack. Kelly will probably utilize Armando Allen and Cierre Wood to a greater extent than in the three prior games. How successfully the offensive line picks up Stanford's four linebackers will be essential to that success. They will see numerous sets from the Cardinal.

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?

Though Stanford's play-calling is imbalanced towards the run, touchdowns are equal - 10 each rushing and passing. Outside of their potent rushing attack, Luck has relied on three experienced WRs - Doug Baldwin (SR, 10 receptions, 194 yds, 19.4 yds/catch, 3 TDs), Ryan Whalen (SR, 10 receptions, 113 yds, 11.3 yds/catch, 1 TD and JR Chris Owusu, who returned from an injury last week (3 receptions, 65 yds, 21.67 yds/catch, 2 TDs). Whalen suffered a hyperextended elbow last week and may not be available for the ND game. Luck has thrown for 10 TDs with no Interceptions and is third in the nation in Passer Rating. Jumping out to an early lead with force Stanford to throw more. Otherwise, Stanford will dictate the game as they did against UCLA, controlling time of possession for 37 minutes.

Notre Dame can improve their percentages with more third and short yardage plays with a better rushing attack and minimizing their mistakes. That will open up more play action in the Red Zone and leave single coverage on our receivers.

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?

Pablo

The sky is not falling. Still, the wrong combination of a coaching transition, tough early-season scheduling, and some bad luck could potentially derail any team's mentality. In response to this concern, BK has expressed, matter-of-factly, that a lot of teams fold under such circumstances and we're not sure exactly how mentally tough this particular team is just yet. While the Irish seem to have strong leaders all over the field and locker-room, many of them are relatively young and inexperienced themselves. I want to believe they can bounce back from a tough loss to a good Stanford team. I don't really wanna think about how they'll respond to a bad loss at this point.

Check out the responses below from our fellow IBG'ers.

We Never Graduate- Mattare reminds us all to stay rational

Domer Law- Wacko agrees that ND is a work in progress. He also likes the Irish in a shootout this weekend.

Her Loyal Sons- Domer MQ makes a great point about defensive angles and also put together a very interesting drive chart for the first three games.

Inside the Irish- NBC's Keith Arnold compares our questions to the written portion of the GRE. Awesome!

Subway Domer- The Subway Domer tells us how he really feels about Jim Harbaugh.

Rakes of Mallow- CW still has the same expectations for the season.