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Outside the Irish Huddle: Stanford Has Their Way With Notre Dame

There are two facts that we now need to face.

One, the game against Stanford was not close.

Two, this season has not gone the way many thought it would.

The debate now turns to whether this is the low point of the season or if we still have not seen the bottom of this disappointment.

With the exception of a handful of bright spots, there was nothing to like about Saturday’s loss to the Cardinal and it is going to take a lot of reassurance and positivity to keep people from jumping off a cliff.

This week’s Outside the Irish Huddle is going to be a free-flowing discussion of different topics and questions as Notre Dame seeks to refocus for the last two-thirds of this season.

Stanford is For Real

I thought there was a decent amount of respect for Stanford before Saturday, but there was still enough opinion makers out there who thought that the Cardinal were overrated, they weren’t as good as their ranking suggested and that a win over them wouldn’t be too huge.

Come on, it’s Stanford, right?

Well after watching Saturday’s game I don’t think anyone can debate that the Cardinal are for real. They are a team that is tough as nails, extremely well coached and with just enough talent to mix it all together and be one of the best teams in the country.

Please don’t insult my intelligence and claim that beating Stanford wouldn’t have been the biggest win in years or that this wasn’t a case of Stanford completely controlling the game and playing a heck of a lot better than any of the doubters believed.

We’ll get a better picture of just how good Stanford is in the coming weeks as they play Oregon and USC up next, but I would be shocked if the Cardinal don’t at least split those games and finish the year 10-2 or better.

However, I wasn’t as impressed with Andrew Luck as I thought I would be. Not to say that he played bad, but he didn’t amaze me at any point the way you would expect a possible top draft pick to. Statistically, he wasn’t amazing, but he kept making crucial third down throws and moving the chains when his team needed it.

The thing about this game was that Stanford was dominating in the ugliest way possible. They continually pounded the ball on the ground, weren’t really explosive in doing so, and then Luck would drop a pass to a tight end for a first down.

That was the story all game long and it just repeated itself for four quarters with Notre Dame unable to do anything about it.

Something that wasn’t talked about enough coming into the season and into this game was just how dominant the Stanford offensive line is. They came into the 2010 season ranked as the ninth best unit in the country by Phil Steele, but after four games they could easily be in the top five.

This is crucial to Stanford’s success and it was positively apparent on Saturday that the Cardinal line was not letting anyone near Luck and that they would pound the ball on the ground and love every minute of it. Consider this a major advantage for them going against the rest of the Pac-10.

Did Crist Play Terrible?

This was not a very good game for Crist, but I think it’s a little harsh to say that he played terrible.

This is all part of the Jimmy Clausen hangover and the crazy expectations that all of us have for a quarterback in his first year of starting in the biggest of spotlights and against the toughest early season schedule in the nation.

Stats don’t tell the whole story and he had some garbage time yards and all of that, but he still ended up throwing for 300 yards and throwing only one interception (albeit an ugly pick six). Even Clausen had much worse outings than that.

We all know the offense hinges on Crist and his ability to make plays, but I thought this was definitely a case of Stanford just playing much better on defense than No. 10 collapsing and playing scared.

Stanford ran a perfect game plan with a lot of early and effective stunted blitzes while putting some big hits on Crist. That first quarter plan set up the rest of the game where the Cardinal shadowed Kyle Rudolph and dropped seven or eight back in coverage.

There’s no doubt that Crist was rattled, but with this Stanford game plan and a lack of a running attack, the young quarterback had an uphill battle to climb all afternoon. Sure it would have been nice if Crist raised his game under such duress and led the offense to greater productivity, but that would probably be expecting too much.

Not very many quarterbacks in their fourth career start play well against a top 20 team with a very tough and physical defense and Crist is no exception.

The Offensive Line Did Not Show Up

Through three weeks the offensive line was looking very strong and much better than almost anyone expected with three new starters. After Stanford came to town, a lot of bad memories from the past came right to the fore front.

To put it bluntly, the offensive line got their butts handed to them in what better be their worst performance this year. They gave up sacks, they got beat off the edge, they opened almost no running lanes and were pushed all around for four quarters.

All the credit in the world to Stanford for bringing their lunch pal and going to work, but Irish fans should be much more upset with the performance of the offensive line than with Dayne Crist.

Will the Running Game Ever Become a Threat?

Later in the week I’ll examine the running game more in depth, but for now let’s just say the team has to severely improve the rushing performance.

The game against Stanford was reminiscent of the past two years where Notre Dame tried to run the ball early, had little success and basically turned into a one-dimensional passing offense that played right into what the opponent wanted and expected.

Brian Kelly has stated all year long that championship teams can run the ball, but it is simply not happening right now for Notre Dame. Trust me, this is not a road that Brian Kelly wants to walk down and he should start putting more emphasis on pounding the ball immediately.

As much potential as the Irish passing game has, an offense that cannot run the ball is not going anywhere against good teams. If there’s anything that the past five years taught us it is this fact alone.

Think about it this way, Kelly is really working hard on developing Dayne Crist and he’s being really hard on the first year starter and expecting him to be one of the better quarterbacks in the country. This spread offense demands a lot out of the signal caller, but does this team want to go into next year with Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray with limited touches and minimal experience?

Do we really want to go into next year with a bunch of question marks at the running back position and wondering if this team can even run the ball effectively?

Defensive Edge Play

Even though the safeties lack the play making ability and speed that accompany most top defenses, the back end of the Notre Dame defense has improved a lot this year.

There has been a complete eradication of deep balls being completed, the coverage is usually solid and there aren’t missed tackles all over the field like we saw last year.

No, the biggest problems for Notre Dame on defense are the lack of speed, instinct and play making ability on the edge.

Without top flight defensive ends and outside linebackers teams have constantly taken advantage of this weakness and none more than Stanford.

If an opponent has a good offensive line, all they need to do is run sweeps on the edge, run up the middle and mix in play action to be successful. That’s it.

For the most part, that was exactly what Stanford did on Saturday and Notre Dame just could not stop it.

Right now this is the defenses Achilles heel and the team is getting very little production out of Kerry Neal, Brian Smith, Darius Fleming, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore. This group will have another stiff test next weekend going up against a very tough Boston College offensive line.

When Will the Defense Be Better?

This is the question that I think about often.

How long will it take until Notre Dame has an appreciable better defense? How long will it be until they upgrade on the edge and those positions are no longer a weakness? How long will it be until an Irish defense truly dominates a good opponent on a consistent basis?

Saturday’s loss against Stanford was a pathetic effort by the offense but we can be secure in the thought that Crist will mature and that the pieces are in place to have a strong offense now and in the future.

And I’m actually somewhat surprised and happy with some of the improvements the defense has made this year, but they just aren’t there yet.

It’s not realistic to expect major improvements this year, but will there be any next year?

The defense will have to replace Ian Williams at nose tackle and there are plenty of highly touted prospects ready to fill that role. The team will be losing Brian Smith and Kerry Neal at outside linebacker, with Darius Fleming and Steve Filer coming back for their senior seasons in 2011.

Both defensive ends are coming back and the defense is only losing one player (Darrin Walls) in the secondary. So there is a solid corps coming back next year and a whole bunch of young players looking to step up in the future.

Will it bring about anything better in 2011?

The future will depend upon how much the team will improve on the edge with players like Prince Shembo, Justin Utopo, Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. This team desperately needs the kind of athleticism at those edge positions that are the norm in the SEC and with other top defenses across the country.

And Then There Was Manti

What a performance by linebacker Manti Te’o this weekend as he ended up with a staggering 21 tackles and a handful of bone crushing hits. We may be witnessing the best defender to play at Notre Dame in the past twenty years. It’s pretty amazing that he’s only a sophomore.

What Notre Dame needs is two or three more players on the defensive side of the ball that can play at a similar level to Te’o. I’m not sure there is anyone currently on the roster that can do that in the immediate future.

Bullet Points

*David Ruffer made two field goals on Saturday and still has not missed a kick over the past two years.

*Stanford converted 11 of their 16 third down attempts.

*Crist has thrown for over 300 yards in back to back games.

*Wide receiver John Goodman saw his first extended action on offense and finished with a very respectable five receptions for 59 yards.

*Notre Dame finished the day averaging 1.9 yards per rushing attempt.

*Andrew Luck threw two interceptions on the day, his first turnovers on the season.

*Kyle Rudolph was completely shutdown ending the day with one catch for one yard.

*Stanford’s victory was their first in South Bend since 1992.

*Stanford has won two in a row in the series for the first time ever.

*Notre Dame travels to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts next weekend where the Irish have lost their last three games. Notre Dame has not won at Boston College since 1998.