The Irish closed out the 2011 regular season with a 28-14 defeat in Palo Alto against the now fourth ranked Stanford Cardinal. Notre Dame made a worthy effort in the second half in trying to make a comeback, but the 21-point deficit was just too much to overcome against one of the best teams in the country.
With saying that, I am going to once again take a look at how each position played for the Irish on Saturday. Lets begin with the position that was up and down all evening long against the Cardinal.
Tommy Rees was bad on Saturday. In fact, he was really bad. The sophomore quarterback completed only six of his 13 passes, had a terrible interception and another costly fumble in good field position. Rees was replaced by Andrew Hendrix at halftime and the sophomore stepped in and played well considering the circumstances of the Irish being down big on the road in a tough environment against one of the best teams in college football. In Notre Dame’s second drive of the second half, Hendrix led the Irish for their first score of the game showing off his cannon of an arm and his biggest asset, his legs. Now the biggest question mark regarding this football team is who will be the starter under center for the bowl game.
Running Backs: C
With the Irish getting down early, Brian Kelly’s offense didn’t run the ball as much as in weeks past. Cierre Wood had 41 yards on 12 carries. Wood had a couple of chances to break off some big runs, but tripped because of the poor condition of the field. Theo Riddick had only four touches on the ground and probably should have gotten more carries with Wood struggling with his footing. It was clear how much this team misses Jonas Gray in short yardage and goal line situations. Hopefully the staff can figure that situation out before the bowl game takes place.
Receivers and Tight Ends: C
Like it has been in several games for the Irish this season, it was mostly Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert in the passing game. Floyd in his second to last game of his collegiate career grabbed eight balls for 92 yards and Eifert had four catches for 79 yards. Other than that, there wasn’t much else in terms of production from the receivers and tight ends. John Goodman and TJ Jones had a catch a piece. Robby Toma appeared to have a beautiful catch, but it was overturned in the replay both. Another receiver is going to have to step up if this football team wants to win their third straight bowl game.
Offensive Line: D-
This was by far and away the worst game that this unit has played all year long. Then again, this is probably the best defensive line that they played all year long as well. Coming into the game, Stanford was fifth in the country against the run. When the Irish did actually run, they didn’t run it effectively. The o-line struggled in pass protection as well. Rees and Hendrix were sacked a total five times, a season high, and were pressured many other times. Mike Golic Jr. continues to be the biggest achilles heel of the line. He had a fumbled snap that was his fault and really struggled in both pass and run protection. Luckily for this football team, Braxston Cave should be back for his fifth-year next season.
Defensive Line: C
At every passing game, it is becoming more and more clear how important Stephon Tuitt is to the future of this defense. With the freshman continuing to be out because of mono, the Irish d-line allowed 196 yards on the ground in 42 carries for 4.7 yards per carry. Not exactly earth shattering, but that gets the job done. The defensive line also did a poor job of getting pressure on Andrew Luck. The Heisman hopeful was sacked once and had way too much time to throw the ball on many plays.
A pretty quiet night for the Irish linebacking corps. Manti Te’o like has pretty much all season long lead his fellow linebackers in tackles with eight. Prince Shembo quietly had a nice night with a couple of big tackles in the open field. Troy Niklas continues to see time both on the defensive line and at linebacker and continues to impress. The future is very bright for the freshman.
This unit has been up and down all year long and they were down on Saturday. Gary Gray returned to his early season form of not playing the football when he allowed a lob touchdown pass in the first half. Harrison Smith had an easy interception slip through his hands. If he would have caught it, it would have been his first pick of the season and would have given the Irish some much needed momentum. Robert Blanton had a rough night with a couple of bad penalties.
Return and Kicking Game: C+
It is not even worth mentioning punt returns at this point and George Atkinson was held down returning kickoffs. David Ruffer knocked down both of his extra points, but missed an easy 20-yard field goal. One of the few bright spots for the Irish special teams remains Ben Turk. The punter averaged 42 yards a punt on six kicks and had three punts inside the 20. A whipping boy early on in the season, Turk has bounced back nicely in recent months since doing his rugby style kicking.