Frozen Five lead potential wild cards for Notre Dame-Stanford clash

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Even Brian Kelly’s wife couldn’t get a straight answer about the fate of the Frozen Five and how that might play out this week as Notre Dame’s academic fraud investigation process finally moves into its hearings phase.

Keeping the uncertainty of a perplexing process from becoming more than a benign annoyance for the probe’s first 64 days has been one of the fifth-year Notre Dame head football coach’s truly unsung coaching accomplishments — not just of this season, but of his entire coaching era at ND.

But the questions and the stakes are bigger this week. And the aftermath, no matter how eligibility-friendly, could tax the focus of ninth-ranked Notre Dame (4-0) as it readies for a 14th-ranked Stanford squad (3-1) in a Saturday matchup that, for better or for worse, will redefine the Irish season.

Would the fates of the five players —starters KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and DaVaris Daniels; and reserves Eilar Hardy and Kendall Moore —be announced as the hearings are concluded individually or en masse?

Are vacating victories from 2012 and 2013 still in play? Would word come from via press conference or something from prepared statement land? A messy aftermath or true closure?

“I have no idea what the process is, other than what a couple of the players have informed me of relative to the hearings taking place this week,” Kelly said at his weekly Tuesday press conference.

“But I have no knowledge of when a decision will be levied, how that will take place, whether the players are informed through an e-mail or a letter. I just don't have any of that information.”

Not all the wild cards and uncertainties of this week are necessarily unwelcome or potentially detrimental.

If there ever was a week where new formations, new personnel wrinkles, new plays, new offensive tempo, new ways to play chess with the Irish defense fit snugly within the game plan, this would be it.

Stanford’s muscle and size on the offensive line and its suffocating front seven on defense present the Irish with challenges they haven’t seen yet this season.

That, in turn, could put in play a player such as Ben Councell, a 6-foot-5, 254-pound outside linebacker who has yet to record his first tackle of the season.

That’s largely because he doesn’t fit in first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme when the Irish are matching up with offense that force you to play in space.

Offensively, the Irish could try to speed things up, a week after running a season-high 80 offensive plays in a 31-15 subduing of Syracuse. They could mix in more power formations, or do the opposite and try unload the box by attacking the Cardinal at the perimeter.

Stanford’s own offense has been constantly bitten by the turnover bug (120th out of 125 nationally in turnovers lost, 85th in turnover margin), and is the main reason why this Saturday matchup isn’t one of five national showdowns this week between unbeatens.

As it stands Arizona-Oregon, Texas A&M-Mississippi State, Alabama-Ole Miss and Oklahoma-TCU will ensure there will be no more than 13 undefeated FBS teams come Sunday.

Its Cardinal defense, though, is more than living up to expectations.

Though the numbers are slightly skewed by a schedule that includes FCS lightweight UC-Davis (115 total yards vs. Stanford) and a 1-3 Army team that just lost to Yale (9 passing yards vs. Stanford), but the Stanford defense’s accomplishments can be daunting to an opposing offense:

• Stanford has surrendered 26 points this season, the fewest allowed by a Cardinal team through four games since 1940 (20). The Cardinal defense has allowed only 19 of those points (Washington recovered a Stanford offensive fumble and returned it for a score). The Cardinal has allowed two offensive touchdowns in four games.

• Stanford has held opponents under 30 points in each of its past 27 games, the nation’s longest streak. The Irish have scored at least 30 in their first four games of the season, for the first time since the 1943 national champs came out of the gates with six such games.

• Stanford has allowed just four plays of 20 or more yards this season, second-fewest in the FBS.

• The Cardinal rank first nationally in pass-efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense.

All of which push ND’s realigned offensive line squarely into the spotlight.

All but left tackle Ronnie Stanley were shuffled after ND’s 30-14 semi-scare from Purdue on Sept. 13. Their performance against Syracuse showed both potential for growth and for concern.

“Communication was probably the one thing that we'll have to do a better job of — communicating with each other and just being comfortable with some new roles,” Kelly said.

“So I thought there were some good things that occurred out there. It's really a work in progress, but there were signs there that we saw that we really liked.

“I mean, given the defense that we saw on Saturday, there was a lot going on. We sorted out a lot of things. That was not the kind of first game you'd want for five guys coming together for the first time. They sorted a lot of things out and did some pretty good things.”

Stanford has had its own offensive line issues given the wealth of talent in that position group.

The Cardinal, with a quarterback in Kevin Hogan who ranks 15th nationally in passing efficiency and is completing more than 88 percent of his passes in the fourth quarters of games, ranks 101st in red-zone offense, 69th in rushing offense and 52nd in sacks allowed.

“They have got all the pieces there,” Kelly said. “You know, it's just a matter of time. We just hope it's not this Saturday.”

Personnel matters

• Slot receiver Amir Carlisle remains on track to return to action Saturday after missing part of the Purdue game (Sept. 13) and all of Saturday’s matchup with Syracuse with a medial collateral ligament (knee) injury.

“I think we are all very surprised where he is today,” Kelly said. “I thought that we would probably get him back to running and maybe doing a little bit of individual (drills), but he's cleared for everything today.

“I'll probably give him 50 percent of the reps that I would normally give him and then I'll have a good sense after today where we are with him.”

• Graduate student safety Austin Collinsworth (MCL injury) went out to midfield for the coin flip, then proceeded to spend the rest of the Syracuse game on the sidelines, though Kelly said he was available for emergency duty.

The captain suffered the injury two days before the Aug. 30 season opener with Rice, and has been replaced by junior Elijah Shumate, rapidly improving and ND’s third-leading tackler.

“Austin is so much further along,” Kelly said. “I would expect that he would help us this weekend.”

• The optimism for a return to the field for Jarrett Grace his hit a wall, though he did travel with the Irish to East Rutherford, N.J., for the Syracuse game.,

The one-year anniversary of the senior linebacker’s most recent game action is Sunday. Four fractures in his right leg and two surgeries have created a long comeback trail for the 6-foot-3, 253-pounder, who was ND’s starter at middle linebacker at the time of his injury.

“It's a day-to-day situation for him,” Kelly said. “And I don't think our trainers could tell you when that day is that he breaks through, but he's made progress every day.”

Martin impresses

Zack Martin, Notre Dame's starting left tackle from 2010-13 has made quite an impression to date as a rookie offensive guard in the NFL.

So much so, in fact, that NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt would have drafted the Pinstripe Bowl MVP significantly higher if teams could do a draft do-over.

Martin, whose younger brother Nick is ND’s starting left guard, went 16th to the Cowboys in the real draft last May. The actual top five were 1. Jadeveon Clowney (DE), 2. Greg Robinson (OT), 3. Blake Bortles (QB), 4. Sammy Watkins (WR) and 5. Khalil Mack (OLB).

But in Brandt’s do-over draft, Brandt has Martin going fifth to the Oakland Raiders.

“The Cowboys took a lot of grief from their fans for passing on (Johnny) Manziel,” wrote Brandt, a former Dallas VP of personnel from 1960 to 1988. “And as tempting as it was for owner Jerry Jones to take the Texas A&M quarterback, the Cowboys stuck with their plan of building up their offensive line and took Martin with the 16th overall pick.

“Martin has paid immediate dividends, stepping in at right guard for the Cowboys from Day One. I thought he was a really good player coming out of Notre Dame (No. 14 in my Hot 100), but he has exceeded expectations. His pass protection is excellent, and his presence on the interior of the Cowboys' offensive line has helped them lead the league in rushing at 165.0 yards per game.”

The rest of the hypothetical top five are: 1. Bortles, 2. Jake Matthews (OT), 3. C.J. Mosley (LB) and 4. Watkins.

Brian Kelly awaits word this week on the five players his Notre Dame team has been without since the start of an academic fraud investigation.AP File Photo