Notre Dame capped off the regular season on Saturday with a 21 beating of rival Stanford to snap a five-game losing streak on the farm. The Irish started off slow, leaving Irish fans frustrated for the first 20 or so minutes but eventually pulled away from a beaten-down Stanford squad. For the sake of this column, this was a perfect type of game – there was plenty to like despite there being more than enough to not like as well. Let’s start with the five things I liked in Notre Dame’s 10th win of the season.
1. Finally beating David Shaw in his – very empty – house
This one is the most obvious, but it was about damn time Notre Dame beat Stanford and David Shaw in Palo Alto. What made it even better was seeing how empty the stadium was because the Stanford “fans” didn’t show up for Stanford’s Senior Day in a little bit of rainy, cold weather.
It didn’t start as the prettiest of performances with a depleted Stanford squad jumping out to a 17-7 lead in the second quarter before Notre Dame’s offense woke up and its defense adjusted. This time Notre Dame reeled off 31 unanswered points before Stanford added a late, meaningless touchdown.
This place was a house of horrors for Notre Dame over the last ten years. The Irish had the game won in 2015 under Brian Vangorder’s defense couldn’t hold the Tree offense off for 37 seconds. In 2017 the Irish took the lead into the 4th quarter only to give up 21 unanswered 4th quarter points before falling 38-20.
Beating a bad Stanford team on the road to end the season doesn’t make up for Notre Dame’s earlier season transgressions, but as Greg so eloquently put it on Sunday, our sense of disappointment is a sign of the progress the program has made. It might not feel that way, but it is a good thing that a 10-2 regular season is once again seen as disappointing.
2. A successful screen pass go for a touchdown
Notre Dame has had some problems with the screen game this year. For whatever reason, they’ve struggled to execute them when they should be a staple of the Irish offense given the personnel. That is why seeing a nearly perfectly executed screen for the first Irish score of the game was encouraging. Ian Book dropped back and lofted a perfect toss to Tony Jones Jr, who had a convoy of blockers in front of him. I said it was nearly flawlessly executed because Jones needlessly ran into a blocker downfield for some reason. Luckily it didn’t impact the play as Jones scored with ease.
It would have been nice to see the screen game a bigger part of the Notre Dame passing attack this year, but Chip Long shied away from them for most of the year – as he did with the wide receiver screen play that Notre Dame just never was able to pull off this year. With the backs Notre Dame has, this is a play Notre Dame should be able to use more effectively next year – especially with the addition of Chris Tyree.
3. Notre Dame’s crazy backdoor cover on a defensive touchdown
I am not a gambler and didn’t have any money on this game, but I loved how Notre Dame scored a garbage-time defensive touchdown to get a sneak backdoor cover. It looked like Stanford was going to cover the 17-18 point spread with their own garbage time touchdown, but Ade Ogundegi’s strip-sack that Khalid Kareem extended the lead back to 21 and Notre Dame got the cover. Expect to see this on Scott Van Pelt’s bad beats this week because Kareem’s first career touchdown made a big difference to a lot of people who had money on this one.
For those of you that are the gambling type, that’s three straight covers for Notre Dame to end the season. Notre Dame 8-4 against the spread this season. The Irish failed to cover against Louisville, Michigan, Virginia Tech, and USC.
The play also highlighted the late-season emergence of Ade Ogundeji. The senior defensive end with a 5th year available in 2020, has played very well over the last few weeks since the injury to Julian Okwara. Assuming he returns, he could have a big year next year.
Notre Dame ended the game on back to back tackles by Isaiah Foskey, who turned the game around completely with a blocked punt in the first half. Foskey was playing for the 4th game of his freshman season and will be shut down for the bowl game to retain a year of eligibility, but if the staff is being honest with themselves, is that 5th year going to be needed with someone like Foskey? He looks like someone more likely to leave after three years versus five. He is going to be an animal.
4. Notre Dame using Braden Lenzy in creative ways
Notre Dame has been struggling to run the football since mid-October when Tony Jones Jr ripped off 176 yards against USC. Since then, Ian Book has been Notre Dame’s most productive runner. Credit Chip Long for manufacturing a rushing game using the likes of sophomore Braden Lenzy. Notre Dame’s speedster ran the ball four times for 48 yards on Saturday and overall had at least one play of 40 or more yards in each of the last three games.
It is almost impossible to see a freaky fast #25 taking jet sweeps for big gains without having flashbacks of Rocket Ismail, and while Lenzy might not be quite that fast, it does look like he is going to be a bigtime playmaker for this team moving forward. He matched his 48 yards rushing with another 48 receiving on just two grabs. He had the chance for another long touchdown, too, but he can Book were not quite on the same page. Those six touches are the most of Lenzy’s career, besting his previous high of three.
Lenzy has made every Notre Dame fan forget about Michael Young transferring. If anything, he has a lot of Notre Dame fans wondering why the Irish were not able to utilize Lenzy’s speed better in the first half of the year – specifically back in September in Athens when Notre Dame struggled to sustain offense, but Lenzy was unavailable due to a concussion. You also have to wonder why Lenzy touched the ball one time in that disastrous loss to Michigan.
Hopefully Long continues to find ways to get Lenzy the ball in the bowl game and even more so next year
5. Flashes of the Jafar Armstrong we thought we’d have all year
It was brief, but for a moment, we got a glimpse of the Jafar Armstrong that we all expected to see in September on Saturday afternoon. Since returning from injury, Armstrong has struggled to regain his explosiveness and has mostly been ineffective as a result. Against Stanford, Armstrong ran the ball three times for 44 yards. That might not seem like a cause to celebrate, but until Saturday, Armstrong’s season-high was 37 yards, and that took 19 carriers to accumulate.
Many thought that Armstrong could be a breakout candidate for the Irish in 2019 as a focal point of the offense. For the first drive of the season, it looked like that would be the case with Armstrong touching the ball three times for 26 yards on the drive before getting injured. He was never the same this season even after he was cleared to return for the USC game.
After the last two seasons, two things are clear concerning Armstrong: 1) when he’s healthy, he has a lot of talent 2) it’s a challenge to keep him healthy. Kelly and Long need to find a role for him in 2020, though. That role might not be as the feature back, but they need to find a way to both keep him healthy and utilize his skill set.