Notre Dame football: Not much has improved in three months


South Bend Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Before the ink had a chance to dry on Stanford's 27-20 win over Notre DameSaturday night, Irish coach Brian Kelly was asked to put the 8-4 football season in perspective. He grappled with the ups and downs of his fourth year at the helm. Words didn't come easily to articulate the frustration at Pitt a few weeks ago. "Stinker" was the most appropriate adjective verbalized. "Look, we're better in November than we were in September," Kelly said, finally finding a bottom line. "I'd like to take this team and look at it, 'Where are you in November compared to where you were in September," the coach continued. "I guess I've gotta find a way to get better in September (Kelly chuckled, as did the reporters). That's the way we've got to do it." In Kelly's eyes, his Irish are better with a considerably large group of players who were afterthoughts — or not really thought about at all — in September. In September, who would have imagined that safety Eilar Hardy being suspended for a game would have been significant? It certainly wasn’t the first time it happened — for the Purdue game in week 3 of the season. Matt Hegarty seemed like a nice guy with a great story who might never have seen anything more than mop-up duty at center. Nose guard Jarron Jones was a future project at defensive end. If Ronnie Stanley was good enough at right tackle to move Christian Lombard to guard, was Conor Hanratty ever going to see any snaps at guard? In Saturday's loss at Stanford, all of those guys played critical roles. Notre Dame had healthy players way back then. Guys such as middle linebacker Jarrett Grace, nose guards Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke, outside linebacker Ben Councell and offensive linemen Lombard, Nick Martin and Chris Watt were all operating at peak potential before the leaves changed color. So, why are the Irish better now? They couldn't run the ball. Rushing for 64 net yards against Stanford was Notre Dame's lowest production of the season. Its 263 yards of total offense was second-worst to 224 against Michigan State — in September. Quarterback Tommy Rees was intercepted twice on fourth-quarter passesSaturday night that were woefully behind their targets.No change there. Kickoff coverage against the Cardinal was as bad as ever. Notre Dame, among the worst in the country in that stat (third from the bottom), yielded almost 32 yards a crack on four returns, including a 51-yarder. Against the Irish defense, nobody has had as big a day all season as did Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney. He rolled up 189 yards and a one-yard touchdown on 33 carries. "The blocking up front (made Gaffney special)," said Irish linebacker Dan Fox, who led the team with a career-high 15 tackles. "Sometimes, it felt like I was stuck on some blockers. (Stanford's offensive line) did a real good job." The other disturbing number from the loss was the Cardinal's 8-of-13 third-down conversion rate. That's really good. Three of those conversions came as a result of passes, five from runs. Stanford coach David Shaw's offensive play-calling was the part of the game that didn't add up. While the Cardinal line owned the Irish, quarterback Kevin Hogan's two picks came on long passes. Why bother? Why risk the turnover when the ground game is so effective?Oh well, that's their problem. How would this Notre Dame team, the one decimated by injuries, have handled Michigan or Oklahoma? Or Michigan State, for that matter? Kelly hates hypotheticals, so don't even bother going there. Like any coach, he's trained with a single-minded focus to fix problems. His next fixable concern will be to mold the healthy bodies that can make it to the bowl game into a cohesive unit that's better in December than it was in November. No doubt, 9-4 would be a whole lot better than 8-5. "Losing is unacceptable," Kelly said. "We lost some tough games. But (that's an) excuse. We want to win football games. We come to Notre Dame to win football games. "But, you know, it is what it is." No matter what month it is. | 574-235-6318

Stanford head coach David Shaw and Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly meet at midfield following the NCAA college football game between Notre Dame and Stanford on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN