In addition to putting another 'W' in the books, beating Stanford enables Notre Dame to head into what is easily its toughest game of the year with momentum and confidence. Losing to Stanford would have been bad. Losing to Stanford after leading 28-7 late in the game would have been disastrous. That's the kind of thing that, frankly, I'm not sure this team could have bounced back from.
So, a win safely secured, here are my collection of random thoughts on the game:
- Opponent turnovers must be turned into points every time. Three first half interceptions by Stanford led to seven points for Notre Dame. While I realize our kicking game is shockingly awful, we simply have to find ways to score when our opponents give us the rock. You only get so many chances to bury the other team during the course of a game and, if this isn't remedied, at some point in the season, it will cost the Irish dearly.
- Pat Kuntz is the anti-Marinelli. Having declared at Friday night's pep rally that he would rip Chris Marinelli's head off, he went out and had a game that included two sacks, an interception and a tipped pass that was intercepted by David Bruton. That is how you back up talk.
- After a relatively slow start, Jimmy Clausen is now averaging 250 yards passing a game and has twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (12/6). It is almost impossible for me to think of him as a sophomore. He just looks so much more polished and mature this season than he did last. It's almost as though he jumped up two or three classes during the offseason.
- Could Golden Tate and Michael Floyd both end the year as 1,000 yard receivers? At their current pace, Tate would end with 950 and Floyd with 802, but with Notre Dame now firmly committed to being the midwest's answer to Texas Tech, it is certainly not much of a stretch to think these two can do it.
- Speaking of Notre Dame's passing offense, they are quickly becoming an offensive coordinator's nightmare. Solid outside threats with Floyd and Tate, danger over the middle and in the slot with Grimes and Rudolph and, just to keep everyone honest, Allen coming out of the backfield. While I would love to see Notre Dame run the ball with a bit more consistency (any consistency?), at the moment, they are clearly playing to the team's strengths. No sense in trying to put put a square peg in a round hole.
- As for that running game, I can't help but wonder if Notre Dame's lack of success isn't partly the result of how and when running plays are called. For one thing, success on the ground is typically a cumulative effort. In other words, it comes as the result of an offensive line continually battering and wearing down a d-line and a running back getting more comfortable with where the holes are and how the defense is playing things. When you only run the ball 22 times, it's very difficult for those things to happen (hell, most solid running backs get 22 carries themselves). Moreover, when you ask the offense to run in an obvious running situation (i.e., short distances, while leading late in the game) without having gotten in a groove first, you're inviting failure. Just a thought.
- I know this is going to be a very unpopular opinion among the ND faithful but, in spite of his behavior this weekend, I have to admit, I do like Jim Harbaugh. He's a heckuva good coach who gets the most out of his players and, based on Stanford's 2009 committments, can recruit. What's more, he was willing to speak out against the lack of academic standards for athletes at his alma mater (Michigan) and, just for kicks, talked a little trash to SC, which his team then backed up. In other words, there are things for Irish fans to like about the guy. That doesn't mean that he wasn't woefully wrong about the interference call or that he didn't act like an ass, it just means he probably shouldn't be put in the same category as Jimmy Johnson or Bo Schembechler just yet.
- I definitely liked the earlier start time. Much less of my day was spent anxiously awaiting kickoff.
The comfortable introduction to the season now comes to an end and the Irish enter a string of challenging games. Over the course of the next three games, we'll have a good sense as to just how good this team can actually be this year. North Carolina on the road will be a huge challenge because of their talent and the confidence they've gained from their success thus far in 2008. Washington, while certainly a winnable game on paper, will be wrought with distractions stemming from the presence of Willingham on the opposite sideline and, what will no doubt be, a feeding frenzy by the press. And, Pittsburgh may finally have settled into the role of talented, top-25 team that so many cast them in when the season started. In short, three unique challenges. An interesting journey yet to come; this truly does mark the end of the beginning.