Vorel: Notre Dame's unexpected identity crisis continues in Stanford loss

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. — What does Notre Dame do well?

No, really. I’m asking. I thought I knew, but I guess I don’t.

Not so long ago, it was exceedingly obvious. For two months, No. 9 Notre Dame (9-3) ran the football with the precision and violence of a veteran butcher. The Irish carved through defenses that knew exactly what was about to happen, but couldn’t remotely stop it. They were too strong and too skilled and too disciplined and too good. They knew exactly who they were. They embraced it. They perfected it.

In the first nine games, Notre Dame rushed for an average of 324.8 yards per game, which — over the course of the 2017 regular season — would rank fourth nationally.

In their last three games, including two losses, the Irish have managed 142 rushing yards per game, which would rank 92nd. In Saturday’s 38-20 regular season-ending loss at No. 20 Stanford (9-3), they rushed for 154 yards and 3.5 yards per carry … against a defense that was allowing 4.7 yards per carry entering the game. More than that, they finished 1-for-4 in third-and-short (three yards or fewer) situations.

Oh, and junior running back Josh Adams — who had 1,169 rushing yards in his first eight games — has had 217 in his last four. He managed just 49 yards and 2.5 yards per carry in a sluggish performance on Saturday.

Notre Dame has nine runs of at least 60 yards this season, but none in its last four games. Heck, the fan who ran onto the field in the second half was more elusive than the Irish running backs on Saturday night.

So, how did all the same players, with all the same schemes, devolve from a historically potent rushing offense into a thoroughly mediocre one?

Seriously, I’m asking, because it doesn’t add up. Your guess is as good as mine.

“I think teams across the country kind of see what we’re doing and what we want to do and how we want to run our offense, and they’re going to do their darndest to not let that happen,” said graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

“Guys bring it a little harder. The game plan is to stop what we’re doing, and that’s part of what happens when you’re as good as we were and as good as we’ve been.”

Notice the past tense. “As good as we were” … and not just in the running game.

Remember when Notre Dame forced turnovers and protected the football? It happened, I swear. Not that long ago, either. I have the numbers to back it up.

In their first nine games, the Irish forced 19 turnovers while committing just seven.

In their last three games, they’ve forced one turnover, and committed eight.

Same players. Same techniques. Same schemes. Different results.

“We didn't play bad football teams and turn it over. We played really good football teams and turned it over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of his team’s recent turnover woes. “If you're going to do that, you're going to put yourself in a bad situation. It’s not that guys were tired, not mentally sharp. (It’s not that) they didn't come ready to play.

“They came ready to play. They were ready to win today. (We’ve) got to hold onto the football. (We) can't turn it over.”

Plus, it wouldn’t hurt — especially on the road — if the Irish defense could take it away.

“I don’t know if it’s teams realizing we were causing turnovers and putting a point of emphasis on the fact that they need to protect the ball,” said senior rover Drue Tranquill, who finished with four tackles in defeat. “I don’t know if it’s us just not doing the techniques we’re coached. So it’s frustrating.”

I don’t know, either. I don’t know much of anything these days.

Who exactly are these Irish? What can they hang their golden hats on? Do they convert touchdowns in the red zone?

They used to, but not anymore.

Do they stop other teams from scoring touchdowns in the red zone?

They used to, but not anymore.

Do they consistently hold opponents to 20 points of fewer?

They used to, but not anymore.

Do they complete a high percentage of their passes?

In fairness, they never did that.

The truth, as strange as it sounds, is that this 9-3 team has lost its collective identity.

I don’t know what they do well, but Kelly and Co. better find out.

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Stanford’s Bobby Okereke (20), left, and Peter Kalambayi (34) bring down Notre Dame’s Josh Adams (33) during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN