by John Vannie
Notre Dame closes its regular season on Saturday evening by visiting fourth-ranked (AP Poll, 6th in BCS) Stanford in Palo Alto. The 8-3 Irish are in search of a victory that will build confidence for 2012 and assuage the sting of disappointing losses earlier this season. Meanwhile, the 10-1 Cardinal have plenty of motivation with a BCS berth on the line as well as quarterback Andrew Luck’s bid for the Heisman Trophy. The game will be nationally televised at 8:00 PM EST on the ABC network. The weather is expected to be cool and dry.
Stanford has come back to earth recently after steamrolling its first nine opponents by a combined 434-149. Oregon handed them their first loss in Eugene two weeks ago with a 53-30 spanking, and the Cardinal barely edged rival California by three points last Saturday. Injuries have also taken a toll as the season has progressed, but Notre Dame is also no stranger to that situation.
The Irish will go into battle without Jonas Gray, whose hard running turned the ground game into a strength this season. Center Braxton Cave remains out of the lineup, and backup Mike Golic, Jr. will have his hands full against the physical Stanford front. Defensively, Manti Te’o and Ethan Johnson remain below 100% and Kapron Lewis-Moore is gone, so Coach Brian Kelly will again rely on talented freshmen to hold off the Cardinal. Stephon Tuitt missed last week’s game due to illness and his status is again doubtful. To make matters even worse, the father of nose tackle Louis Nix suffered a heart attack this week. There was no word as to his condition or whether Nix will travel with the team at the time this article was posted.
First year coach David Shaw’s team is the best opponent Notre Dame will face since USC, whom the Cardinal beat in triple overtime last month. They have scored at least 30 points in 14 consecutive games, and have the nation’s best performance in the red zone with a 98% scoring rate. A missed 33-yard field goal last week marred an otherwise perfect record in 62 tries. A victory over the Irish would likely secure a BCS bowl berth for Stanford. Since Oregon has the inside track on the Rose Bowl, the Cardinal would more likely play in the Fiesta Bowl.
Stanford will join the ranks of several other schools by donning special one-game uniforms for the occasion. Their traditional cardinal and white will be replaced by deep red jerseys and pants with matte black helmets, courtesy of Nike. There is no confirmation yet regarding the rumor that their band will be wearing hot pink chiffon outfits with matching pumps.
NOTRE DAME’s OFFENSE vs. STANFORD’s DEFENSE
Kelly has had a week to think about how he will attack a defense that will likely rush only three men and drop the remaining eight into pass coverage. Stanford employed this strategy successfully last year and will be able to study last week’s game film where Boston College stifled the Irish with a similar plan. Notre Dame would normally counter with a greater reliance on the run, but Gray’s absence will shift the burden to Cierre Wood. Freshman George Atkinson may also be called upon to share the running chores, since Wood is not powerful enough to be a 25 carry workhorse.
The more probably scenario is that Notre Dame will throw the ball quite a bit with Tommy Rees. Kelly will attempt to attack the coverage by creating plays to isolate Michael Floyd or Tyler Eifert against single coverage, and keep Rees from throwing into heavy traffic. This plan will place a heavy burden on Rees to make good decisions and throw accurately, especially if Stanford clogs the short passing lanes because they are not concerned about the deep threat.
The Cardinal do not feature any superstars on defense now that linebacker Shayne Skov is out for the season, but they have a collection of talented players that blend well together. Nose tackle Terrence Stephens leads a three man front. Linebackers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy are big, tall and very solid against the run. Each can rush the passer. This group puts a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as evidenced by their 33 sacks. Another linebacker, freshman A. J. Tarpley, has also come on to perform well recently. The team has allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards per game this year.
Safety Michael Thomas leads a veteran secondary that is known for physicality rather than cover skills. The unit has only four interceptions on the season despite an effective pass rush. While Rees will have to worry about Stanford’s linebackers dropping into the passing lanes, there will be opportunities if the Irish can isolate Floyd and others against the Cardinal cornerbacks.
STANFORD’s OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’s DEFENSE
At the college level, Luck is to the Stanford offense what Peyton Manning is to the Indianapolis Colts. The Cardinal have multiple options for each play, and it is Luck’s responsibility to call the correct variant at the line of scrimmage. Obviously, he has performed these tasks with great success and his ability to do so sets him apart from his peers. Luck is also supported by an experienced and powerful offensive line, led by Outland Trophy finalist David DeCastro at guard and imposing tackles Jonathan Martin and Tyler Mabry. Stanford has suffered only nine sacks in 11 games.
Stepfan Taylor, who like Wood has gained over 1,000 yards this season, is the lead running back. He is supported by Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson and Jeremy Stewart, all of whom see action every week. The group has combined for more than 200 yards per game. The Cardinal typically run a two-back set with a fullback, who in this case is the 240 pound Ryan Hewitt. Both Hewitt and Taylor are adequate pass receivers.
Stanford’s passing game has been impacted by the loss of Chris Owusu, the team’s leading receiver and primary deep threat. Owusu has suffered multiple concussions and is very doubtful for this game. Senior wideout Griff Whalen is a favorite target on third down plays, however the real strength of the team lies with a trio of tall and talented tight ends that create mismatch problems for every defense. The 6’6” Coby Fleener is the most experienced all around player in the group, while 6’8” Levine Toilolo and 6’6” Zach Ertz are not far behind. Ertz has been injured of late and may be back for Notre Dame, while Toilolo left the game against Cal and may not be available this week.
The Irish cornerbacks match up well against Stanford’s wide receivers with Owusu on the sidelines, but linebackers Dan Fox, Prince Shembo and Carlo Calabrese may be in trouble if they have to stay with the Cardinal tight ends or backs. The chess match between Shaw and Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco will be interesting to watch, as will Luck’s ability to recognize and improvise.
The most important test for the Irish will come up front. Stopping the run will be a difficult task for an injury riddled group against a bruising offensive line. If Luck is not faced with many third and long situations, it could be a long night for the visitors. He is a 70% passer with extreme confidence, so Notre Dame needs to make things as difficult as possible for him.
Kicker David Ruffer and punter Ben Turk are performing at a high level for Notre Dame, but kickoff specialist Kyle Brindza’s injuries have impacted his ability to get the ball to the goal line. Freshman Ty Montgomery has done a credible job returning kicks for the Cardinal, although there has been attrition among his blockers due to injuries. Junior Drew Terrell has become a weapon as a punt returner, as evidenced by his 12 yard average. The Irish could use extra yardage on kickoff returns to put Rees in good field position to start drives. The punt return game remains non-existent, and that was no more evident than last week when the offense started many drives against BC from deep in its own end.
Stanford Special Teams Coach Bill Polian is not sure whether place kicker Jordan Williamson will be able to kick against Notre Dame, but his recent absence has had an impact. Eric Whitaker has neither the range nor the accuracy of Williamson, and this may be a factor in a close game. Punter David Green is rarely victimized by a long return and is unlikely to suffer that fate on Saturday.
Notre Dame’s chances diminished somewhat when Gray went down, but a victory is not out of the question. The Irish must avoid digging a hole with turnovers or otherwise falling behind early such that Kelly feels compelled to abandon the running game. Stanford does not appear to have the same energy it displayed earlier in the season, and the exhausting win over USC may have taken some life out of them. Luck is still outstanding even without Owusu, and the recent media noise that he has fallen behind in the Heisman race could provide unwanted pressure as much as extra motivation.
Stanford’s recent history suggests they will score at least 30 points, so Notre Dame must also move the ball well and finish drives with touchdowns. It’s unfair to Rees to have to make the reads and throws to match an exceptional senior, but that’s what it may take for the Irish to win unless defense or special teams can contribute in some unexpected way. Time of possession and fatigue may be a factor, particularly as it relates to Notre Dame’s defense. Rees and company cannot afford too many three and outs, even if they do not score on a given possession.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will Wood effectively pick up the slack for the injured Gray?
Can Stanford pressure the usually well-protected Rees in the pocket?
Will Notre Dame have an effective answer if the Cardinal drop eight men into coverage?
Can the depleted Irish defensive line slow down Stanford’s running game?
Will Notre Dame put a dent in Luck’s 70% completion rate?
Can the Irish avoid a negative turnover margin?
Will Notre Dame be able to slow the Cardinal in the red zone?
Will Luck be holding the Heisman Trophy in New York next month?
I expect that Notre Dame will not dwell on its injuries and compete hard in this contest. The Cardinal manhandled them last year and the beating did not sit well. The team will respond to the challenge of facing Luck and demonstrate how much it has improved physically and otherwise in the last 60 weeks. In the final analysis, however, Stanford will withstand an early challenge and find a way to pull through, whether by skill or by Luck.
STANFORD 31 NOTRE DAME 20