by John Vannie
Notre Dame places its 5-0 record on the line Saturday when the Irish host Stanford in South Bend. The 4-1 Cardinal came from behind last week to beat Arizona 54-48 in overtime, while Notre Dame crushed Miami by 41-3 in Chicago. After playing three consecutive night games, the Irish and NBC television have returned to the more familiar 3:30 PM Eastern time kickoff. Stanford has won the last three games in this series, although the Irish hold a 17-9 overall advantage.
While Notre Dame’s matchup against Miami was a contrast in styles, there are striking similarities in this week’s pairing. Both teams are developing new starting quarterbacks, are strong and deep at running back and tight end, and have new faces at wide receiver. Each offensive line opens holes in the ground game and protects the passer extremely well. Defensively, the Cardinal and the Irish boast a tough, experienced front seven in their respective 3-4 alignments and a young but athletic secondary.
Stanford Coach David Shaw, who played for the Cardinal in the early 1990’s under Bill Walsh, is in his second year at the helm. His 15-3 overall record includes an 11-2 mark last year with Andrew Luck at quarterback, and he has already managed to knock off the USC Trojans last month. The lone defeat for the Cardinal came in their only away game of the season at Washington, and Shaw expressed concern that his team would be ready to play well against the seventh-ranked Irish.
“That’s going to be the big test,” Shaw said of the challenge of playing at Notre Dame. “I told that to the team yesterday. That’s our gauntlet. The gauntlet that’s thrown down in front of us is, can we play our best game on the road.”
“We’ve gone on the road one time this year and we did not play well. Defensively, we did a solid job against Washington, but we still allowed a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver. We’ve done that two games in a row. We need our defense to play their best game this week.”
Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly is also aware of the physical challenge posed by the Cardinal, and he believes his team is ready to rumble. “Yeah, they haven’t beaten Stanford and if there is one team that has beaten us physically it’s Stanford, and they know that”, he said. “Secondly, they turned the film on and watched what they did to their opponents, they physically intimidated their opponents and that’s clear. They see when they turn on the film and watch the way they play the game, they don’t need much push from me to know what to expect this weekend.”
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. STANFORD’S DEFENSE
The Irish unveiled a few new wrinkles in the running game last week as blocking schemes were adjusted to allow the backs to get to the hole or to the edge of the defense more quickly. Cierre Wood and George Atkinson ran traps and counter plays with authority and Cam McDaniel kept things going in the fourth quarter even though Miami knew what was coming. Although Notre Dame won’t run for 375 yards against a Stanford team that is ranked fourth nationally in rush defense, it is important that they remain balanced.
Golson added another dimension to the Irish attack by picking up valuable yardage with the zone read option. His efficient 17 for 22 passing performance underscored the fact that the offense is becoming less predictable and more difficult to defend. Although Golson did not attempt any deep passes last week, the game plan was to grind out yardage and keep Miami’s explosive players off the field. It worked to perfection as Notre Dame recorded 34 first downs and held the ball for 39 minutes.
Stanford’s defense is geared to stop the run and pressure the quarterback in passing situations, so the Irish may throw it a bit more on first and second downs this week. The Cardinal linebackers are big, physical difference-makers lead by seniors Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy on the outside and Shayne Skov inside. The line is anchored by another pair of seniors, end Ben Gardner and nose tackle Terrence Stephens. This group has dominated the opposition by generating 16 sacks, batting down passes and recording more than 40 tackles for loss in five games, although they did have trouble adjusting to Arizona’s up-tempo style last week.
The secondary has been vulnerable at times when the quarterback has time to throw, but that has not occurred very often to date. USC’s Matt Barkley had some early success against the Cardinal but spent much of the second half running for his life. Cornerback Barry Browning is the only returning starter. He is joined by Terrence Brown and safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, who have combined for five interceptions. Usua Amanam, a converted running back and now a productive nickel defender, will be in the lineup on passing downs. Reserve cornerbacks Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons are highly regarded young prospects that will also see the field.
If the Irish are going to have success against this physical defense, they must force Stanford to cover the whole field. Kelly will apply pressure with quick hitting runs inside and utilize his team’s superior speed outside in both the running and passing game. Golson’s mobility will also come into play, but the sophomore must make good decisions with the ball.
STANFORD’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Cardinal offensive line has been at the core of the team’s success in recent years. The loss of two All-Americans to the NFL has not caused a significant drop in production this season as senior tailback Stepfan Taylor averages 112 yards per game and Josh Nunes has been sacked only five times. Center Sam Schwartzstein and guard Kevin Danser are the leaders up front now that David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin went on to become first round draft picks in the NFL. The Cardinal are in the process of reloading the two-deep with talented freshmen such as Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett.
Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are the primary targets for Nunes, who also utilizes Taylor extensively out of the backfield. Ty Montgomery has been the main outside threat at wide receiver, but he will not play in this game due to a knee injury. Senior Jamal-Rashad Patterson, who played well last week but has generally been an inconsistent performer, will take his place. Notre Dame’s secondary may be able to play more aggressively due to the limited deep threats in Stanford’s passing game, unlike last week where Miami’s speed dictated a more conservative deployment of the Irish safeties.
Like Golson and Notre Dame, the Cardinal offense will expand and thrive as Nunes develops. He is physically gifted but cannot be expected to read defenses and alter the play at the line of scrimmage with the proficiency of Luck, and his 54% completion rate is far below Luck’s 70% in 2011. Nunes passed for 360 yards and ran for three touchdowns in a breakthrough performance last week against defenseless Arizona, but faltered badly the previous week at Washington in Stanford’s only road game of the season to date.
The Cardinal are hoping that Nunes can build on his recent success and perform well in a hostile environment. “I definitely have confidence now,” Nunes said after the Arizona victory. “I made a lot of throws that I didn’t make last week. I applied a few things I was working on in practice – mainly ball position, velocity. I think that helped out a lot today.”
Stanford excels in all aspects of special teams play. Kicker Jordan Williamson’s is reliable from within 45 yards on field goals and he puts the ball through the end zone on kickoffs more often than not. Punter Daniel Zychlinski averages 43 yards per attempt but can launch them more than 50 yards when he is not attempting to drop the ball inside the opponent’s 20. The Cardinal coverage teams are statistically very solid. One negative for Stanford is the loss of Montgomery, who is a dangerous return man when healthy.
The Irish will require a solid effort in this area to avoid operating at a disadvantage. The defenses are not prone to give up the big play, so the offenses will greatly appreciate the ability to start any drive in favorable field position. Kicker Kyle Brindza converted two of three field goals last week but his kickoffs were uncharacteristically short. Punter Ben Turk barely broke a sweat in last week’s rout, but the Irish can ill-afford a poor performance by him on Saturday in what has been an inconsistent season to date.
Q & A with STANFORD WEB SITE MANAGER
Earlier this week I corresponded with Hank Waddles, manager for GoMightyCard.com, a web site dedicated to Stanford Football. Here are my specific questions regarding the 2012 Cardinal and his responses:
NDNation: Josh Nunes appeared to have a breakout performance against Arizona as both a passer and a runner. Is he ready for a road game of this magnitude after struggling at Washington?
GoMightyCard: This is obviously the million dollar question. Even heading into the Washington game back when Stanford was 3-0 and people are talking about the Rose Bowl, there will still be concerns about Nunes and his first ever start on the road. Needless to say, it didn’t turn out well, and there were calls from all corners for his replacement. Last week, though, everything changed.
Given his performance in the first four games, Nunes’s numbers against Arizona were phenomenal. Not only did he throw for 360 yards and two touchdowns, he also ran for three — two of them on quarterback options.
He’ll never be considered a running quarterback, but both last week and against USC earlier in the season he made great plays to scramble for key first downs. So statistically, things are looking up, but the real concern is how he will handle the magnitude of the moment. He tends to play on an even keel, so hopefully for the Cardinal he’ll be able to control his emotions and remain focused on the game plan, not the tradition he’ll be stepping into.
NDNation: Everyone knows Stanford’s defensive front seven is very good, but would you say that the young secondary is a weakness or simply underrated?
GoMightyCard: The secondary is definitely a work in progress. Entering the season, that group was definitely seen as a probable weakness, but after the USC game — especially after Coach Shaw revealed afterwards that the game plan had been to encourage Barkley to throw the ball — most observers cited that unit when saying that the defense had evolved from being above average to one of the best in the country. Led by sophomore cornerback Wayne Lyons and sophomore free safety Ed Reynolds, they played well in the loss to Washington, but last week Arizona quarterback Matt Scott threw for 491 yards, and a decent chunk of that came on passes that were actually thrown over the coverage, a violation of Directive #1 for the Stanford defense. I think this inconsistency is a result of their youth. Of the ten players on the two-deep depth chart (including two nickel backs), there is only one fourth-year player, and he’s a second-stringer. Counter-balancing the inexperience, however, is the talent. Even when they rotate in people like true freshman Alex Carter or converted running back Usua Amanam, this is still the most talented Stanford secondary in almost twenty years. When we check back next year, they could be dominant.
NDNation: Is Ty Montgomery healthy enough to be a deep threat in the passing game and as a kick returner?
GoMightyCard: Coach Shaw has followed Jim Harbaugh’s lead and has been notoriously tight-lipped about player injuries. What we know about Montgomery is that he’s currently “working through some issues.” He doesn’t appear on this week’s depth chart, so he won’t see the field. Even though he hasn’t been as productive as hoped, this is still a concern. Replacing him a wide receiver will be senior Jamal-Rashad Patterson, who was once a highly-touted recruit but has failed to live up to expectations as a collegian. Hopefully he’ll take advantage of this start and play up to his capabilities. Montgomery will also be missed in the kicking game, where he’s been dynamic, even last year as a freshman.
NDNation: Is Stanford’s offensive line still a tough, physical group despite losing DeCastro and Martin to the NFL?
GoMightyCard: In each of the last three seasons, there have been questions about the offensive line entering the season, and concern amongst fans as the line struggled a bit in the opening few games. There’s an incredible depth of offensive line talent, so usually things come together after three four games, and by the end of the season the group has usually developed into one of the best in the nation. That’s still the expectation here. While this line certainly won’t look as good as the unit Notre Dame saw last November, they’re still good, and they’re getting better each week.
NDNation: Who are the best players on Stanford’s offense and defense that most people don’t know about?
GoMightyCard: I know that Notre Dame fans have had the privilege of watching a great tight end for the past couple years, but I think they might be impressed with Stanford tight end Levine Toilolo. At 6’8″ he’s the biggest player on the roster, and he’s an absolute nightmare of a matchup, whether he’s being defended by a linebacker or a defensive back. Last year he was used more as a gimmick than anything else, as Andrew Luck would take advantage of his height in the red zone and simply loft a ball up for grabs in the end zone in hopes that Toilolo would win the jump ball and come down with the touchdown. Last week, though, was a breakout game for Toilolo, as he caught five passes for 141 yards and a touchdown, with two separate receptions of more than 40 yards. He’s developed into Nunes’s favorite target, and it’s easy to see why.
On defense, I’d go with outside linebacker Trent Murphy. Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are the leaders of that unit, but Murphy is only a notch below them and just as important. He’s made great plays this season, most notably an incredibly athletic 60-yard pick six against Washington. This week he’ll likely make an impact behind the line of scrimmage. If you hear his name often, it will mean things are going well for the Cardinal defense.
NDNation: Which aspect of Notre Dame’s offense is most concerning to Stanford?
GoMightyCard: I know that Notre Dame doesn’t play with the frenetic speed of Oregon or Arizona, but the tempo of their spread offense is still definitely a concern. Because they play Oregon every year, the Stanford coaches have to deal with the problems of keeping fresh bodies in the game while the opposition is running a no-huddle offense. Even though they gave up a whopping 617 total yards to Arizona last week, I think they still have a system that works. Relying on their depth of talent on defense — perhaps the greatest depth of talent of any team in Stanford history — the coaches can now substitute entire groups of players on the fly to avoid confusion.
Three defensive linemen or four defensive backs or four linebackers will be ready to sprint on the field as soon as the whistle stops a play. Imagine a line change in hockey. There were times against Arizona that all eleven starters were on the sidelines as various groups were rotated in and out. Hopefully that system will work well enough on Saturday.
Both defenses will rely on a strong front seven to neutralize the other team’s ability to run the football. The objective is to force the young quarterbacks on both sides to throw the ball frequently and under pressure, where they each have struggled earlier this season. Golson has demonstrated the ability to create a positive outcome when a play breaks down, but Nunes has also run the ball for critical first downs against USC and Arizona. The team that avoids third and long situations is most likely to win, as each side rushes the passer effectively. Good pressure up front and the ability to disregard the play action fake will ease the burden on either side’s young defensive backs.
Another important aspect of this contest to watch is whether Notre Dame or Stanford will draw first blood on the scoreboard. The Irish have not trailed this season while the Cardinal have outscored opponents by 44-10 in the first quarter. Since both squads are more comfortable playing with a lead, early points could be vitally important.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Which offensive line will best protect its quarterback?
Will either team commit a costly turnover?
Which team will have greater success in the running game?
Which quarterback will be able to convert in third down situations?
Can either team stop the opponent’s tight ends?
Which special teams will win the battle of field position?
Which young secondary will do a better job of preventing the big play?
Neither side will score at will against the other, so the final result will be driven by turnovers, field position and the ability of the respective quarterbacks to execute winning plays. Each coaching staff must be patient and not try to force low-percentage opportunities. Golson has a few more weapons and speed at his disposal, and his running ability will create additional concern for the Cardinal defense. The matchup between team captains Stepfan Taylor and Manti Te’o will also be critical, and I expect Te’o to deliver another outstanding performance. These factors and my misgivings based on Stanford’s poor outing away from home two weeks ago persuade me to predict a narrow win for the Irish.
NOTRE DAME 20 STANFORD 13