College football generally is serious business – especially like it is this week in South Bend and Palo Alto with two top-eight teams preparing for a Notre Dame Stadium showdown Saturday night with early-season College Football Playoff implications.
Yet when your team is 4-0, it’s a bit easier to smile – as Irish head coach Brian Kelly discovered Tuesday.
With assembled media members doing their best to dream up ways to question Kelly about Ian Book and Brandon Wimbush and the Irish plans to utilize them, longtime Notre Dame football follower and media member Tim Prister acknowledged Kelly’s postgame remarks from Winston-Salem when the Irish coach said he had not slept well the night before his team’s game at Wake Forest, knowing he was replacing a starting quarterback (Wimbush) who was 3-0 in 2018.
Said Prister, “If you thought starting Book was controversial last week, try not starting him this week.”
Retorted Kelly, “Well, thanks for the advice. Appreciate that. It’s not often I get it here.
“I usually get it at home, but getting it here is quite nice, too.
“It’s a full-time job.”
Book’s impressive play Saturday made that exchange as accurate as it was enjoyable. And Kelly, like a handful of his colleagues with highly rated teams, now believes he has not one but two quarterbacks he is convinced can help his squad win football games.
Expect lots more media questions week to week for Kelly in hopes of understanding his strategy with the pair. Expect Notre Dame’s head coach to say, at every opportunity, that the Irish will continue to prepare both players to help the Irish win. On Tuesday Kelly almost seemed amused at a few of those attempts.
One questioner noted this, “On Saturday you mentioned you’re going to reserve the right each and every week to determine who your starting quarterback is.”
Said Kelly, “Can we just replay that each and every week so we can not have to worry about the question being asked?”
Then, on a serious note, he added, “They’re both going to prepare the way they have. Look, it’s important that everybody knows that both of these quarterbacks can win football games for us. That’s the most important thing.
“So as coaches, we have to keep both of them sharp. That’s the challenge in making sure that during the week of our preparation that they’re both sharp. We’ve got a lot of work to do each and every week to make sure that that happens in terms of making sure that they get the right looks in the red zone and short yardage and third down and long and blitz packages. It’s a lot of work during the week, but we’ll make sure both of them are ready.
“They complement each other, but I don’t think they have the same skill sets. Our offense allows for both of them to separate quite easy within the playbook. What’s installed within our offense, we’re not going into a whole new chapter and verse to play call for one versus the other. We like plays for one versus the other, and we’ll call the game accordingly — so we have to prepare them accordingly during the week.
“We’re looking for somebody to facilitate the offense and get the ball out to our playmakers, and that was one of the reasons why we thought Ian would be a great fit for that. And that happened.
“It’s in the moment. Whatever is going to get us a win against Stanford this week — if we feel like playing both of them every other series is the best thing to win — we’ll do it.
“We’re just trying to win games.”
The deliciousness of this game between No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 7 Stanford is that there are so many other intriguing aspects to the matchup:
— No team has had more recent success against Notre Dame than Stanford. The Cardinal has defeated the Irish in four of the last five seasons and seven of the last nine (one of those two Notre Dame victories no longer counts in the official record).
There are a handful of other similar streaks way back in the Irish record book – Michigan in the 1800s, Pittsburgh in the 1930s (and again in the 1950s), Iowa in the 1950s, Michigan State and Purdue in the 1960s and then Penn State and Air Force in the 1980s.
Yet, of late (since 2000), only Michigan (2009-13), Boston College (2000-04) and USC (eight straight wins from 2002-09) can boast comparable four wins-in-five years accomplishments.
Stanford has only left Notre Dame Stadium victorious four times, but those have been attention-getters:
- Unranked Stanford 36, No. 1 Notre Dame 31 in 1990
- No. 19 Stanford 33, No. 7 Notre Dame 16 in 1992
- No. 16 Stanford 37, unranked Notre Dame 14 in 2010
- Unranked Stanford 17, unranked Notre Dame 10 in 2016
Stanford has won five games against the Irish as the higher-ranked squad – 1997, 2001, 2011 and 2013 at Stanford and 2010 at Notre Dame.
All that gets the attention of everybody in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
Kelly understands his seniors take the field Saturday night knowing they have yet to defeat a Stanford team.
“If you’ve looked back on the last three games, we had a lot to do with why we didn’t win the last two.
“There were 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter last year, and we were leading.
“We went into the second half with a 10-0 lead the year before (2016).
“In both instances we turned the football over.
“This is much more about us taking care of the football and playing for four quarters. We have a great deal of respect for Stanford and how they run their program, but we need to play for four quarters and play good football.”
— There’s the intrigue of the Notre Dame defensive matchup against Stanford star running back and returner Bryce Love, who ironically made his first start in Notre Dame Stadium in 2016 (gaining 129 yards on the ground) when Christian McCaffrey was injured.
Assessed Kelly, “I think he’s going to get his yards. He’s just too good of a player.
“I think you’re really focusing on making sure that you’re not short at the point of attack. You can’t put him in a situation where he can go the distance.
“I think each and every week you’re strategically looking at minimizing his opportunities to turn easy offensive plays into touchdowns. Defenses have been very careful in making sure that the box looks were such that he’s not going to get easy looks.”
— There’s the notion that Notre Dame and Stanford are quite like-minded in their pursuit of the highest levels of performance in both the academic and athletic arenas.
Offered Kelly: “We both are trying to achieve excellence both in the classroom and on the football field as our primary mission. For us it’s a little bit more of a grander scheme in terms of coast to coast (recruiting). But they’ve got a strong academic and a strong alumni base as well.
“The excellence piece, both on the field and the classroom, is probably the similarity.”
— And Kelly and his players could not help but be impressed with what many of them probably viewed personally late Saturday night, after returning home from their win at Wake Forest, as Stanford rallied at the death to win in overtime at Oregon.
“Any time you’re down 24-7 it’s just the grit of a football team that hangs in there and keeps playing,” said Kelly.
“That’s a hallmark of Coach (David) Shaw’s teams. They just keep playing. That’s what they did. They kept playing, they got a couple of things that went their way — and they fed on it.
“Then when they had the chance to get back in the game, they took advantage of their opportunity, made some plays and were able to win the football game.”
— This marks the first time two teams both ranked in the top eight of the polls have faced off in Notre Dame Stadium since the Irish and Ohio State met in 1996. Notre Dame and Stanford have never met with both teams ranked in the top 10. The two teams have not faced each other as unbeatens since their 1925 Rose Bowl battle.
This is the 35th time top-10 teams have opposed each other at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame has won 22 of those previous meetings — four versus USC, two each versus Oklahoma and Miami (Fla.) and one each against 14 other programs.
Notre Dame has lost in its last three home top-10 matchups (Michigan in 1994, Ohio State in 1996, USC in 2005), with the most recent Irish win in that category coming versus top-rated Florida State in 1993.
All that gets Kelly jazzed:
“I hope it’s a great atmosphere. We thrive on our home field. We’ve had a good run going at home. To have a home game against a top-10 opponent when you’re a top-10 team, these are the moments that you wait for.”
Here is Kelly’s analysis of the Irish win at Wake Forest:
- “I thought we played with a sense of urgency, and I made sure that they knew that that’s kind of our standard now.”
- “What we need to do better I think is do that with a consistency week after week. That sense of urgency is going to be needed certainly this weekend against a very good Stanford team.”
- “What we learned is that if you put in the time and you work really hard, winning is fun. It’s enjoyable to get back on that plane after a road win and really enjoy it.”
- “Winning is never easy on the road. It’s another step in the right direction for our football team.”
Here is how the Irish head coach views Stanford:
- “We know about Bryce Love (he has 254 career rushing yards versus Notre Dame), the best back in the country. Once you think he’s down, he’s gone. You’ve got to get him on the ground and tackle him.”
- “K.J. Costello has really come into his own this year, distributing the football. He’s got a number of weapons. I think we all know (JJ) Arcega-Whiteside has been a go-to guy, but now obviously a number of the tight ends are outstanding, big-body types that he can get the football to. We saw that late in the game against Oregon with Colby Parkinson, Kaden Smith. You could go on and on.
“It’s Costello’s ability to stay in the pocket, get the football out, throw for a high percentage. It looks like he’s really in control of that offense. It’s delivering the ball in some really, really tight windows. He threw some great balls on Saturday.”
- “Stanford is always going to have a big, physical offensive line.”
- “On the defensive side of the ball, they continue to employ a very aggressive, multidimensional unit. Very physical, tough group, tough-minded.”
- “(Defensive end Jovan) Swann plays with a great motor, especially the last couple of games we’ve seen him. Against us last year he was all over the field.”
- “(Linebacker Bobby) Okereke, it seems like, has been around forever.”
- “(Linebacker Joey) Alfieri is just a guy who turned the game around against Oregon with the scoop and score.”
- “In the back end, there are veteran players back there — Paulson Adebo is playing really well at the cornerback position. We know about Alijah Holder — he’s been around for a few years. Ben Edwards and Frank Buncom are guys we’ve recruited here.”
- “We play for a traveling trophy, the Legends Trophy, which is very important to us. We haven’t had it here in our lobby since the end of the 2014 season.”
- “David Shaw has run a great program. His teams are well-coached, organized. Their systems are consistent within their program, their systems in terms of how they recruit, their systems of offense, defense and special teams are consistent. I think if you look at him as the president of a business or an organization, there’s a great consistency from the top to the bottom there, and that usually equals success, and it has in his case.”
Here are details of presentations and introductions that will take place Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium when Notre Dame and Stanford face off:
- –The national colors will be presented before the game by Terri Vitale, president of the Notre Dame Monogram Club. She was a three-year monogram winner in tennis and is starting the second year of her two-year term as president.
- There will be a pregame flyover by “The Blacklions,” a strike fighter squadron out of Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia. There will be a formation of four F/A-18 “Super Hornet” aircraft. The aircrew are as follows:
|LION1||LCDR Jason Geddes||LT Kathryn Martinez|
|LION2||LT Stephen Sasso||LT JT Gregg|
|LION3||LT Matthew Buss||CDR Pat Baker (commanding officer)|
|LION4||LT Andrew Wolfe||LT AJ Seator|
- The Presidential Team Irish Award will be presented to the Colombian Peace Accords Matrix. The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame has concluded, based on careful studies of the 34 agreements signed in the world to end armed conflicts in the past three decades, that this peace agreement in Colombia is the most complete and comprehensive ever reached. The team on the field today is the Peace Accords Matrix team at the Kroc Institute. This team provided key research, monitoring and implementation support to the Colombia peace process, helping to end one of the oldest armed conflicts in the Western Hemisphere.
- The Notre Dame band will perform at halftime, joined by jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandival.
- The Notre Dame faculty recognition goes to Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, professor of law. Mayer brings more than a decade of experience at the Washington, D.C., office of law firm Caplin & Drysdale to his work at Notre Dame. The Law School’s associate dean for academic affairs from 2011–2015, he is an authority on nonprofit, tax and election law. Mayer is coauthor of two legal casebooks and is a graduate of Stanford University.
- The Notre Dame student-military recognition Saturday salutes Eric Winenger, United States Coast Guard airman and aerospace engineering and industrial design major in Notre Dame’s Class of 2020. Winenger spent his first year on the USCG Cutter Legare in Portsmouth, Virginia, as a main prop engineer deploying for hurricane relief during Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012 as well as in the Caribbean and Columbia. He underwent tactical training in South Florida, where he served as a boarding team officer during countless drug interdiction cases. Next came an opportunity to train as a helicopter rescue swimmer in 2014. As an airman, he served at air stations in Savannah, Georgia, and Traverse City, Michigan.
- The official game program for the Notre Dame-Stanford game will include feature stories on the evolving history and tradition of the Notre Dame Stadium field markings (by John Heisler), the 2018 Notre Dame NCAA championship in fencing (by Joanne Norell), Irish player Devin Studstill and his late mother (a letter from Studstill), the 1973 Notre Dame national championship season (by Jerry Barca), two current Irish football players who returned for a final season after completing their degrees (by Josh Flynt) and 2018 Irish captain and center Sam Mustipher (by Todd Burlage).
- The Notre Dame-Stanford pep rally will be held at Eddy Street Commons from 6-7 p.m. Friday.
- Fans coming to campus this weekend also can attend these Irish home events: the Joe Piane Invitational cross country meet Friday (1 p.m.), men’s soccer Friday vs. Boston College (7 p.m.) and women’s soccer Sunday vs. North Carolina State (1 p.m.).
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.