Notre Dame Football: Ben Gardner

The turnover plague of 2011 came back to nearly ruin Notre Dame's perfect season Saturday, leaving another quarterback the subject of second-guessing following an overtime win over Stanford.

Everett Golson lost three fumbles before being knocked out with a concussion on the Irish's final drive of regulation. Golson is responsible for all seven of his team's turnovers this season -- three interceptions, four fumbles -- and the gaffes have his coach alarmed.

"Very concerned," Brian Kelly said Sunday. "It's something that obviously we cannot continue to have. He's got to take better care of the football, and he's got to do it in practice, and he's got to be smarter."

Golson, who picked up turf toe in the second quarter of last week's win against Miami, remains Kelly's guy after six career games, and he is expected to be cleared Tuesday after his concussion and return to work. Tommy Rees has yet to turn the ball over in mostly relief action after giving it away 20 times last season as a starter.

The biggest yip came in the second quarter, when Golson was drilled in his own end zone by Stanford's Ben Gardner, losing the ball. Chase Thomas dived on it for the Cardinal's only touchdown of the game, putting Notre Dame behind in a contest for the first time in 2012.

Golson coughed up the ball at the Stanford 12 after a 20-yard run in the third quarter, a play Kelly said the redshirt freshman should have rushed out of bounds on sooner, though replay showed he may have stepped out before the fumble.

Turnover No. 1 came on a bobbled exchange to Theo Riddick on Notre Dame's first drive, with Golson getting "credit" for the fumble despite what Kelly called a breakdown by multiple players.

"Well, there were three people involved in that: The center, the quarterback and the running back," Kelly said. "The snap was off and high to his right; the back was not in his proper alignment; and the quarterback, if ever he feels that a handoff is in jeopardy, he's supposed to tuck it. So there wasn't one singular player. There were three people that were not at their best on that play."

Still, the Irish's seven turnovers through six games pale in comparison to their 10 after two contests last year. They are tied for 19th in the nation in fewest turnovers lost, and they are 10th in the nation in turnover margin (1.33), as their defense came up with two more picks Saturday to give them 15 takeaways, one more than their season total from 2011.

"All of them are correctable, and we'll continue to work on it with him so we can eliminate these mistakes," Kelly said.

It was wet and often times ugly with No. 17 Stanford at No. 7 Notre Dame. As expected, it was physical and the weather made for some sloppy play on Saturday. Sixty minutes wasn't enough. The Irish clutched up and won 20-13 in overtime. Here's how it all went down:

It was over when: After Notre Dame went ahead in overtime on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Rees (in for the injured Everett Golson) to TJ Jones, the Irish defense stopped Stepfan Taylor from the 1-yard line on third and fourth down. The final play even went to review to determine when Taylor's forward progress was stopped. The call on the field was upheld. It was high drama until the very end.

Game ball goes to: The Notre Dame front seven. They clutched up when it mattered in overtime with two huge stops. It was ugly, it was messy and it was a heck of a football game.

Unsung hero: Though he's part of that front seven, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was huge, leading all players with 11 tackles. A fantastic performance from one of college football's marquee players.

Unsung hero II: Fans were screaming for Rees, but they didn't get him until Golson was injured. He came in off the bench and was 4-for-4 for 43 yards and the touchdown in overtime.

Unsung hero III: Give some credit to the Cardinal defense as well. It provided Stanford with its only touchdown of the game when Ben Gardner sacked Golson in the end zone and forced a fumble that Chase Thomas recovered for a touchdown in the second quarter.

What it means for Notre Dame: The Irish remain undefeated, showed they can win ugly, and now have three wins over teams ranked in the Top 20. Expect a nice slot for them when the BCS rankings come out Sunday.

What it means for Stanford: It was the second straight week the Cardinal have gone to overtime, though the outcome was different last week. Stanford needs to figure out how to score on the road. The Cardinal have two touchdowns in two road games this year and both came from the defense. They are on the road again next week at Cal.
We overlooked previewing Notre Dame’s Week 6 opponent, Stanford, last month. Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Robert from San Diego for pointing it out. Now, without further adieu …

Week 6: Oct. 13 vs. Stanford (at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.)

Time/TV: 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC

Series: Notre Dame leads all-time, 17-9

2011 record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12; second place, North Division)

Head coach: David Shaw (11-2, one year)

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

RB Stepfan Taylor, FB Ryan Hewitt, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, C Sam Schwartzstein, OG David Yankey, OT Cameron Fleming, OLB Chase Thomas, LB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner

Key losses

QB Andrew Luck, WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleener, OL David DeCastro, OL Jonathan Martin, S Delano Howell, DE Matt Masifilo, S Michael Thomas

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Stepfan Taylor* (1,330 yards)

Passing: Andrew Luck (3,517 yards)

Receiving: Griff Whalen (749 yards)

Tackles: Jarek Lancaster* (70)

Sacks: Chase Thomas* (8.5)

Interceptions: Michael Thomas (3)

Three questions for ... Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell:

Despite the talent around Andrew Luck, there are many non-believers about Stanford. Who will be his replacement, and how will the Cardinal fare in Year 1 after Luck?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, that seems to be the million-dollar question. There are a couple of guys fighting to replace Luck -- Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham. Those two emerged from the pack of five in the spring and will continue the competition into fall camp. As for how they will fare? Well, I think we can certainly expect some drop-off. But it might not be as significant as people think. Luck was a once-in-a-generation quarterback, but they still return three talented offensive linemen (two were freshmen All-Americans) and a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher in Stepfan Taylor. Luck is gone, but the team's identity isn't. They are a run-first, power football team that will grind away on opponents.

And, by the way, they return six of the starting front seven on defense and they get Shayne Skov -- one of the top middle linebackers in the country -- back after he missed the bulk of last season with a knee injury suffered in Week 3.

One point head coach David Shaw has been making is that whoever does replace Luck shouldn't try to be Luck. That's the easiest way for them not to win the job.

Aside from the QB position, what will the offense look like now without Colby Fleener? Stanford's three-tight end sets proved to be frustrating for defenses, but will they be as effective without a high NFL draft pick looming as one of the big threats? Will it even matter, given the depth the Cardinal have in the backfield?

KG: I'd expect they'll still run a lot of multiple tight end sets. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- two of the three tight ends -- are back, and they do some things better than Fleener did. What made them such a talented group all together is they complemented each other very well.

The backfield depth did take a hit when Tyler Gaffney opted to pursue a professional baseball career rather than returning to Stanford. But Anthony Wilkerson will likely start as Taylor's immediate change-of-pace back and Ricky Seale emerged in the spring.

Also, fullback Ryan Hewitt returns as possibly the most versatile player in college football. He's great on short yardage, is an outstanding run-blocker and can line up as a tight end to give the Cardinal three-tight end looks. With the personnel they have, the Cardinal can still be very multiple.

Will the secondary be a liability? Who's most likely to step up and make plays there for Stanford?

KG: I'd expect the secondary to make some big strides this year -- mainly because of highly-touted cornerback Wayne Lyons. He missed most of his true freshman season with a foot injury, but he's that lockdown corner that the Cardinal were missing last year. They also add a very talented player in Alex Carter from this year's recruiting class. He could make an immediate impact as well. But losing safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas will take its toll leadership wise. They need youngsters Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards to build off of the experience they got last season and really take charge of the secondary.

What we learned about Notre Dame: Week 13

November, 27, 2011
1. Another loss, another quarterback controversy: We went through this with Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees following the Irish's Week 1 loss to South Florida. Now it looks like it's between Rees and Andrew Hendrix, the latter starting the third quarter and playing the entire second half, leading the Irish on both of their scoring drives. The two sophomores will have extra practices to duke it out for the right to start Notre Dame's bowl game, likely the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 29 in Orlando, Fla. "Anything's possible," Brian Kelly said after Saturday's loss.

2. Irish not yet ready for prime time: This isn't necessarily a knock against a team that hasn't won 10 games in five years and is in its second year under a new coach and new system, but it was clear early on the Irish were overmatched against the future No. 1 draft pick and a team that has lost just two games the past two seasons. Trailing 21-0 at halftime, the Irish were outgained in total yardage by a 287-75 margin. Notre Dame finished the regular season 1-3 against ranked teams.

3. However: The Irish did have a nice third quarter, which should surprise no one at this point. Hendrix hit Michael Floyd for a six-yard touchdown pass and the Irish defense limited Stanford to just 38 total yards in the third quarter. Notre Dame has now outscored its opponents in the third quarter this season 84-13, with seven of those points coming on a defensive touchdown by USC.

4. The offensive line received a rude awakening: A unit that went five straight games without a sack in October and November surrendered five sacks for 44 yards. Rees absorbed a hit from Chase Thomas on his first play from scrimmage, sidelining him for the rest of the drive. Notre Dame had five false start penalties, including two to start its first offensive possession. Credit Stanford's defense, too, as it grounded the Irish's hamstrung ground attack and received huge performances from Thomas (three tackles for loss, two sacks, two quarterback hurries) and Ben Gardner (one sack, two hurries).

STANFORD, Calif. -- On the volume meter, Stanford head coach David Shaw usually speaks at a three. On Tuesday, he spoke at an 11 (cue the “This is Spinal Tap” reference).

Shaw called for the national spotlight -- on his team, on his quarterback and on the entire Bowl Championship Series -- and, for better or worse, he got it.

The question, however, is whether a 28-14 win over Notre Dame on Saturday night at Stanford Stadium was enough to change anyone’s mind -- either the BCS pollsters or the Heisman voters.

“I wasn’t trying to change minds,” Shaw said. “I wasn’t bashing the BCS. I wasn’t bashing any other teams. Just the explanations that I kept getting didn’t make sense to me and I’m a common-sense person and I just don’t understand the whys of where we were.”

Andrew Luck
Kyle Terada/US Presswire"I've seen a lot of the other guys and there are a lot of really, really good football players," Stanford coach David Shaw said of quarterback Andrew Luck. "There's nobody like this guy."
As for the Heisman -- as expected -- Andrew Luck said he doesn’t care. You’d sooner get Condoleezza Rice to spill state secrets than to get Luck to talk about Heisman aspirations.

“I don’t worry about what kind of impression I make on anybody,” Luck said.

That’s when tight end Coby Fleener interjected.

“Andrew Luck has my vote,” Fleener said, raising his hand.

“Mine too,” said safety Michael Thomas, raising his hand. “I think he’s the best player in college football.”

“Me too,” said linebacker Chase Thomas, raising his hand.

Luck laughed off the moment, even though it encompassed everything that matters to the quarterback: the respect of his coaches and teammates.

“I don’t have a vote,” Shaw said. “We’ll see what happens. I just know that he’s one of a kind. He’s one of a kind. It’s apples and oranges in my opinion between him and everybody else and I’ve seen a lot of the other guys and there are a lot of really, really good football players. There’s nobody like this guy.”

Luck threw four touchdowns against the Irish -- three in the first half to help the Cardinal build a 21-0 lead at the break -- before closing out with a 55-yard touchdown to Fleener. The tight end finished with four catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns.

All three of Luck’s touchdowns came against Notre Dame blitzes* and both of Fleener’s scores came off of play-action. Against the blitz, Luck was 7-of-8 with three touchdowns, no interceptions and an average of 15.4 yards per completion. He finished the game 20-of-30 for 233 yards and an interception.

“I think, one loss, that’s great,” Luck said. “We’ve done a lot of good things. Someone just mentioned that we’ve been on a 23-2 run. I think that’s very impressive. We put ourselves in position to be in a good bowl game and that’s something we wanted to do.”

Which bowl game remains to be seen. The Cardinal (11-1) needed this win to stay in the conversation for a BCS at-large bid. Stanford could climb into the top 4, assuring it a BCS berth.

“All we can do is play our butts off and prepare and let the voters or whoever else makes the stuff up choose,” Fleener said. “All I know is you gotta win. That’s all I understand. They want to see 12-0 and win out and that’s how you go to the national championship. Other than that, I don’t know how everyone else falls in the pecking order.”

Speaking of pecking -- the defense spent most of the game pecking away at Notre Dame’s quarterbacks. Chase Thomas led a relentless pass rush that sacked Notre Dame’s quarterbacks five times. Thomas accounted for two while forcing a fumble and Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro and A.J. Tarpley all added one. In all, the Cardinal had eight tackles for a loss, holding Notre Dame to 57 yards on the ground. Michael Thomas and Corey Gatewood also logged interceptions.

“We went out and tried to play our game,” Tarpley said. “Maybe [the voters] liked it. Maybe they didn’t. You never really know what to think the way those things are. We played a good game. We could have played better. But we got the win. That’s all that’s important.”

Stepfan Taylor turned in his steady-as-always performance, rushing for 118 yards on 20 carries as the Cardinal accumulated 429 yards of offense.

Notre Dame mounted a minor second-half comeback -- cutting the score to 21-7 after getting a 6-yard touchdown strike from Andrew Hendrix to Michael Floyd. Notre Dame’s big-game receiver had eight catches for 92 yards and the score.

Luck’s first touchdown came on a 3-yard jump ball to 6-foot-8 tight end Levine Toilolo. The second was a 28-yarder to Fleener -- who pulled his defender into the end zone with him, and Ty Montgomery added an 11-yard touchdown reception with 10 seconds left in the first half.

Shaw’s comments last week caused a national stir. The timing certainly seemed calculated. Whether his players’ actions backed up the coach’s words will linger until the BCS bowl games are announced.

“I’m behind coach Shaw 100 percent,” offensive guard David DeCastro said. “He knows what he’s doing. That’s for sure. We don’t care what anyone else thinks. We got the win. That’s all we care about.”

But was the win enough for the team and/or Luck? To be continued ...

*Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.

Halftime: Stanford 21, Notre Dame 0

November, 26, 2011

STANFORD, Calif. -- Quick thoughts from the first half of Stanford-Notre Dame.

Best player: Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas has been all over the field in the first 30 minutes. He has four tackles, including a sack and two tackles for a loss.

Best player, Take 2: Tough not to include Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck (14-of-21, 155 yards) in the conversation — he has three first-half touchdowns to three different players.

Worst play: Normally we reserve this space for the “best play,” but worst play goes to the pooch punt by Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees. On fourth-and-4 at the Stanford 45 early in the second quarter, Rees lined up under center, then checked out into a deep shotgun, took the snap and tried a quick kick, but it was partially tipped by Ben Gardner. It wasn’t his first punt attempt of the season, but it was definitely his worst, going for all of 5 yards.

Turning point(s): A couple of them – all following the pooch punt. On the ensuing drive, Luck was drilled by Harrison Smith as he threw. Notre Dame’s Darius Fleming picked off the wayward throw and returned it 35 yards. It’s the fifth consecutive game that Luck has thrown an interception. Coby Fleener saved the touchdown by bringing down Fleming, but it was a horse-collar, adding 15 yards to the end of the play. The Irish couldn’t punch it in despite starting the drive at the Stanford 10. And then David Ruffer missed a 20-yard field goal.

What Stanford needs to do: Exactly what it has been doing in the first half – lean on running back Stepfan Taylor (75 yards, 8.3 per carry) and then utilize the mismatches with the tight ends. The Irish have no answers for Levine Toilolo or Fleener.

What Notre Dame needs to do: Buy Rees some more time. The Cardinal pass rush has been fierce. Thomas and Gardner both have sacks and even when Rees does get rid of the ball, he’s usually on the ground after the throw.


Drive Through: Everett Golson's Return
Brett McMurphy and Chris Low join Cary Chow to discuss the return of Everett Golson and what expectations for him and Notre Dame should be this season.


Friday, 8/29
Saturday, 8/30