Analysis: Sifting through Notre Dame's bowl options and what-ifs

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame and the rest of the college football world will have to wait another year, at the very least, to see just how the College Football Playoff Selection Committee defines the word “unequivocally.”

As in the committee’s guiding principal that a non-champion or independent “must be unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country” to fit into the playoff field.

We’ll only have to wait another week to see if said committee has a twisted sense of humor.

Stanford senior kicker Conrad Ukropina, still a walk-on in September and who missed three short field goals in the Cardinal spring game last April, with his game-winning 45-yard field goal Saturday night booted what was left of ND’s dwindling playoff scenarios and kicked the Irish into Peach/Fiesta Bowl discussion that could very well lead to a reunion of sorts with …

Everett Golson.

More irony, if the Irish (10-2) and Seminoles (10-2) do meet up Dec. 31 in Atlanta (noon EST) — as many, including CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm, have begun to forecast — neither of the QBs in last spring’s dance-off between Golson and Malik Zaire would likely start or perhaps even play in the matchup.

Zaire, even with enough mobility now to sling passes in practice, is out until 2016 per ND head coach Brian Kelly. Golson lost the grip on his FSU starting job to Sean Maguire, first to a concussion and then to simple demotion after he returned to the starting lineup.

The former Irish QB/grad-style transfer was relegated to cheerleader in the Seminoles’ 27-2 smothering of SEC East champ Florida on Saturday.

ND’s inclusion in the New Year’s Six bowl lineup, however, isn’t yet guaranteed. Nor is Florida State’s, for that matter. The selection committee selects and reveals the playoff matchups (Orange, Cotton are semifinal hosts) and the rest of the New Year’s Six pairings (Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Peach) next Sunday, Dec. 6.

Tuesday night’s CFP penultimate rankings will provide some clue as to how things might align. And should the Irish ranking there mimic the AP (No. 9) and coaches (No. 10) polls, ND can probably scratch off an apocalyptic drop to the Dec. 29 Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.

The handful of conference championship games yet to be played Saturday could muddle that picture, though, particularly a North Carolina upset of Clemson in the ACC. That could put the Irish and Seminoles in competition for the final New Year’s Six at-large spot.

The Fiesta, played Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz. (1 p.m. EST), right now is just as likely a destination for the Irish as the Peach. If chalk holds in all the title games, with all the Vegas favorites prevailing, ND’s most likely bowl partners beyond Florida State would include Ohio State, Iowa and Group of Five designee Houston.

The Irish can’t play in the Rose or Sugar this year because of conference tie-ins associated with those bowls.

Statistically, the Irish match up best with Florida State and Iowa of those teams, though not necessarily unequivocally.

Sifting through the what-ifs

Ukropina’s 45-yard field goal with no time left Saturday night undoubtedly provided the winning points and a lot of angst in Stanford’s 38-36 topsy-turvy victory over the Irish.

Interestingly, ND’s field goal defense/luck, if there is such a thing when a plethora of actual blocks aren’t involved, had been stellar all season.

Ukropina’s kick was just the ninth field goal converted against the Irish in 17 tries in 2015. That 53 percent conversion rate compares to roughly 72 percent nationwide and 88 percent from ND freshman Justin Yoon.

But it wasn’t at the core of what beat Notre Dame Saturday night, or what lingers into 2016 as the stickiest question for Kelly.

It’s the defense.

And if the Irish couldn’t be elite on that side of the ball in 2015 with Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and 11 games of KeiVarae Russell, what happens next year when they don’t have Day, probably don’t have Smith and could lose Russell to the NFL Draft, as well as sack leader Romeo Okwara, middle linebacker Joe Schmidt and safety Elijah Shumate?

The Irish woke up Sunday with a respectable No. 39 total defense rating nationally, but were 65th in run defense and tumbled 29 spots in a single game to 61st in pass-efficiency defense.

Yes, they were without injured starters Russell at cornerback and James Onwualu at linebacker, and with nose guard Daniel Cage playing sparingly. And yes the Irish schemed to hold Stanford Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey under 100 yards rushing.

But they sprung leaks constantly elsewhere. And the area where ND most separated itself from going 12-0 this season was an opening stretch of defensive regression at Clemson on Oct. 3 that they couldn’t overcome and the final fateful seconds of bad defense Saturday night.

Recruiting strong edge players such as defensive end commit Khalid Kareem, especially if the Irish can finish with luring Daelin Hayes and Oluwole Betiku, could help. And the next wave of linebackers already on campus — Nyles Morgan, Te’von Coney, Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal — show plenty of promise.

Nose guard Jarron Jones returns from MCL surgery, in fact likely by bowl time this year, and young defensive backs such as Nick Coleman will be a year older and presumably savvier in the system.

Of all the season-ending/long-term injuries the Irish suffered in 2015, perhaps the most overlooked is that of safety Drue Tranquill, who brought a unique skill set to the Irish defense, especially in third-down situations.

The sophomore’s ability to play the run, rush the passer, provide speed and strength in pass coverage and line up just about anywhere on any given play certainly could have helped immensely Saturday night in Palo Alto, Calif.

But even when he rejoins the lineup in 2016, likely as a starter rather than a super-utility player, it doesn’t mute the question of whether this defensive scheme is working at Notre Dame or if the creator of it, second-year Brian VanGorder, is capable of coaxing the Irish defense to a level where there’s not such a thin margin for error on offense so often.

Kelly needs to take a good, hard look at where the VanGorder experience is headed. And he needn’t wait until after the bowl to start that process.

Red-faced in the red zone?

Notre Dame’s lack of touchdowns in its red-zone opportunities — 3-of-11 in its last two regular-season games — while alarming seems more immediately repairable than the problems on defense.

Some of it’s the function of a redshirt freshman quarterback, whose learning curve — as Kelly pointed out Saturday night after the game — seems to be the steepest inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. But given the way DeShone Kizer has evolved quickly through so many other tough rites of passage, it seems more a matter of when than if with him.

The injury to junior Durham Smythe hurt too, losing the one tight end on the roster (to injury Sept. 12 vs. Virginia) who was the complete blocking/receiving package at this stage of his career.

The resulting mix-match set-up of primary blockers (Chase Hounshell, Tyler Luatua) or primary receivers (Alizé Jones, Nic Weishar) was hardly ideal in the red zone, where you’d either have to tip your hand as to your intentions or play ill-fitting personnel to keep the defense guessing.

The future of the position is stunningly bright. But in the present, the Irish tight ends have amassed just 17 catches this season, including two from Smythe pre-injury, and a combined two for 10 yards from his successors in ND’s four November games.

Smythe is trending toward returning for ND’s bowl game, however.

Offensive line love

Lost in the bottom line Saturday night, was the brilliant play of Notre Dame’s offensive line.

The Irish ran for 299 yards, the most ever by an opponent in Stanford head coach David Shaw’s five seasons, on 35 carries for an 8.5 per-carry average against the nation’s No. 22 rush defense.

For the season, ND is averaging 5.8 yards per carry as a team, another tip of the cap to the offensive line. If that holds through the bowl game, the Irish will set a modern-day record, eclipsing the 5.6 the 1992 Irish concocted.

The overall record is 6.2 set in 1921.

As far as sacks allowed, the Irish rank a modest 53rd nationally, but putting that in context is the inexperience of the starting quarterback and ND’s penchant for throwing the ball on deep routes.

Also factoring in is the overabundance of strong sacking teams on ND’s schedule, six of the 12 ranking in the top 20 in sacks and three in the top seven in tackles for loss.

Against Stanford, the Irish didn’t allow a sack. That’s just the third time in the Cardinal’s past 59 games in which Stanford did not record at least one sack.

A friendly dilemma

When the Irish are at full strength next spring at running back and quarterback, the simple answer to whom emerges at the No. 1 spot at each of those positions is simple. Competition should and likely will decide the answer.

In the meantime, here’s some historical perspective on Saturday night’s starters at those positions, freshman Josh Adams and redshirt freshman Kizer:

With his 168 yards against Stanford, Adams moved up to No. 2 on the frosh single-season rushing list (757), behind only Darius Walker (786). And that’s while garnering three or fewer carries in five games.

Adams owns the Nos. 1, 3 and 5 rushing performances by ND freshmen of all time at 168, 147 and 141. And his 7.3 rushing average this season ranks fifth all time at ND among all running backs. George Gipp (1920) holds the record at 8.1.

Kizer, meanwhile, has a 63.4 completion percentage, the fourth-highest in a single season at ND, and the highest career percentage (minimum 150 attempts), just ahead of Jimmy Clausen’s 62.6.

Kizer's 151.7 pass-efficiency rating is tied for fifth single season at ND and is second among first-year starters to John Huarte's 155.1 in his 1964 Heisman Trophy season. Kizer’s career rating trails only Kevin McDougal’s 156.7

His 2,600 passing yards rank ninth in a single season, his 19 TD passes tied for eighth with Ron Powlus, his 3,099 yards in total offense tied for seventh with Clausen and his rushing TDs tied for first with Rice and Rick Mirer.

And with 499 rushing yards this season, Kizer ranks fourth on the single-season QB rushing list at ND behind Tony Rice of 1989 (884), Rice of '88 (700) and Carlyle Holiday of 2001 (666).

Kizer's 128 rushing yards against Stanford are the fifth most in a game by an ND QB. He also occupies the No. 2 spot (143 vs. Temple).

“Who wouldn't want that guy back next year?” Kelly said of Kizer after the Stanford game. “I'm sitting on a pretty good situation with the quarterbacks that we have coming back — if I don't screw them up, we should be OK.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder leaves his feet to communicate with his players Saturday night in a 38-36 Irish loss at Stanford. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)