by John Vannie
Notre Dame travels to Palo Alto on Saturday night to renew what has become an intense rivalry with the Stanford Cardinal. The Irish stand at 8-3 heading into this regular season finale while the Stanford is 9-2. The Cardinal have locked up a spot in the PAC-12 championship game next week against Arizona State, whom they beat rather handily earlier this year. The Irish are looking to maximize their postseason bowl opportunities by knocking off a top ten team on its home turf. The game will be televised nationally on the Fox network with coverage beginning at 6:30 PM Eastern time.
David Shaw, a 1995 Stanford graduate, is in his third season as head coach and has a 32-6 record heading into this contest. Shaw served as Offensive Coordinator under Jim Harbaugh from 2007-2010 before taking over the top spot. Brian Kelly’s Irish squad seemed to find its identity last week while defeating BYU. Kelly employed a relentless ground game and mixed in play-action passes to defeat the Cougars, which was a bit of a departure from the pass-first offense that Notre Dame has deployed in the majority of games this season.
Irish fans would like to see more power football this week, and Kelly indicated it might be likely. “There’s no question that we’ll have to have the same kind of demeanor. You cannot play finesse football against Stanford”, he said. Both teams need to be successful on the ground to keep pressure off quarterbacks that are not elite passers. Notre Dame’s Tommy Rees and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan are most effective when the running game is working and they can drop back to throw without undue pressure. This formula has worked particularly well for Hogan, although the Cardinal lost to USC despite outrushing the Trojans by 210 to 23.
A defensive line depleted by injury is a concern to the Irish, as nose tackle Louis Nix will not be available to slow down the Stanford ground attack and backup Kona Schwenke is hobbled by a high ankle sprain. Both teams have powerful offensive lines, but the injuries suffered by Notre Dame and the distinct advantage at inside linebacker enjoyed by the Cardinal suggest that Stanford will have more success running the ball on Saturday.
In order to get a closer perspective on this matchup, I engaged in a question and answer session with Hank Waddles, editor of the GoMightyCard.com web site covering Stanford athletics. Although it represents a departure from my usual formula for these articles, I believe the content is more valuable to the reader. Here is the transcript of those discussions, starting with my questions for Hank.
1. NDNation: Notre Dame has lost several defensive players due to injury. We know Ben Gardner is out for the rest of the season, but what is the overall health of the rest of the team after three months of football?
GoMightyCard: Stanford is definitely battling some health issues, as most teams are at this point in the season. Ben Gardner has been a big loss, but the defensive line is deep enough to absorb that, and they’ve still been highly productive in his absence. Cornerback Alex Carter (son of former Irish player Tom Carter) missed last week’s game with a concussion, and his replacement, Devon Carrington, was abused by Cal’s passing game in the early going, but Carter should be in the lineup on Saturday. Also, place kicker Jordan Williamson hasn’t been fully healthy for a month, but reports are that he should also be handling all field goals and extra points this week.
2. NDNation: What young players have emerged this season and have a chance to become future stars for Stanford?
GoMightyCard: I’ll go with Andrus Peat. Two years ago the Cardinal signed what some analysts suggested might have been the best offensive line class in recent history, and the first of that group to earn a starting position has been Peat at left tackle. He played in several games last year as a true freshman, but he won the starting job this spring and hasn’t looked back. He’s already solid in pass protection and getting better in run blocking. Stanford’s offensive line has been just as good as always, and he’s been a huge part of it. He’ll be a fixture at left tackle until he decides to head to the NFL.
3. NDNation: Has Kevin Hogan received sufficient credit for Stanford’s success or is he getting more than his share of the blame for the team’s two losses? How do most Cardinal fans feel about Hogan, given that he replaced a legend in Andrew Luck?
GoMightyCard: Kevin Hogan is a mystery. He received almost all the credit for Stanford’s resurgence last year, since it was the switch from Josh Nunes to Hogan that completely changed the Stanford offense and catapulted the team to the Rose Bowl. This year, however, he has struggled, the offense has struggled, and much of the criticism has been directed at Hogan. Most fans look at Hogan and wonder why he hasn’t improved. I think that he was such an unknown quantity last season that not even opposing defensive coordinators knew what to expect, so there wasn’t much they could do in the way of preparation. He struggled a bit against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. It was a surprise at the time, but now it makes perfect sense. He had four games on film, and the Badgers had almost a month to create a game plan to stop him. This year the Pac-12 seems to have caught up to him. He had a career game against Cal last week with five touchdown passes, so the masses have put the torches and pitchforks away for now, but there’s still some discontent. We were spoiled rotten by Andrew Luck. That’s not really Kevin Hogan’s fault, but the expectations are high for whoever is behind center at Stanford.
4. NDNation: Both teams have surrendered very few sacks this season. Will Stanford’s linebackers blitz the relatively immobile Tommy Rees or will they drop back into the passing lanes?
GoMightyCard: The key to Stanford’s defensive success has been the fact that they can get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. They almost never send more than four men to rush the quarterback, which allows the standard seven to drop back into coverage. They’re able to get this pressure because of the 3-4 scheme that they run. The fourth pass rusher is usually outside linebacker Trent Murphy, a six-foot-six freak of nature who leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss, but you can also expect to see his fellow linebackers Shayne Skov and James Vaughters getting in on the action at times. But given the fact that Notre Dame will be playing a backup center, I think you might see a bit more blitzing than usual from the Cardinal. Skov, especially, likes to blitz up the middle through the A gap, and he has an uncanny ability to time his rush perfectly, as if he had been in the offensive huddle and knew the snap count. I think he’ll have a big game with at least one or two sacks.
5. NDNation: Other than Ty Montgomery, are there other big play threats that Notre Dame must account for on offense or special teams?
GoMightyCard: I’ll go with Michael Rector. He’s only a sophomore, but he’s probably the fastest of the Stanford wide receivers, and he’s been used primarily as a big play threat down field. If the running game gets going for the Cardinal, that will obviously bring play action into play, and Rector has become a frequent deep target for Hogan. He doesn’t usually do anything too fancy; he just lines up outside and outruns the coverage. If Notre Dame’s safeties start sneaking up into the box, watch for Stanford to take a shot or two to Rector.
6. NDNation: Are Cardinal fans already talking about a potential Rose Bowl matchup with Ohio State?
GoMightyCard: When Arizona beat Oregon last week — just as Stanford was putting the finishing touches on the rout over Cal — that was definitely the sentiment. Back to the Rose Bowl. Since then, however, people have calmed down a bit and realized that Arizona State is waiting in the Pac-12 championship game, and they’re actually a good team. (The problem, of course, is that we watched Stanford obliterate them back in September, so it’s understandable that fans are overlooking them.) Even so, short of an appearance in the national championship game — something that easily could’ve happened for this team — a Rose Bowl matchup with undefeated Ohio State would be difficult to top.
Here are the questions regarding Notre Dame posed by Hank, along with my responses.
1. GoMightyCard: What is the overall sense of the health of Notre Dame football under Brian Kelly? Does the fan base expect that he’ll be able to deliver championship contending seasons like 2012 on a relatively consistent basis, or is that unrealistic?
NDNation: Brian Kelly is clearly an improvement over his predecessors dating back to 1997, and he brought credibility to the rebuilding process after a decade of bluster and slogans. He immediately understood the program needed an infusion of talent, but also that a cultural change was necessary. Both the players and the overall management of the program had become soft, and a lack of urgency with regard to winning had permeated the campus. Both Kelly and the current administration bring a renewed commitment to restore excellence in football, and Stanford (rather than Alabama) is viewed as an example of how we can do this without abandoning our standards. Kelly has shown we can contend going forward, but we’re not yet at the level where we can expect it on a consistent basis. Last season’s success and a solid freshman class this year have restored hope and bought Kelly enough time to show what he can do.
2. GoMightyCard: What about this season? Some felt that the loss in last season’s championship’s game was so decisive that it might have a lasting effect on the team. Was that the case? Has this team failed to meet expectations, or was the step back expected?
NDNation: The coaches worked hard to convince the players that the game against Alabama was more competitive than the score indicated, but I don’t know if everyone in the locker room bought into that. From my vantage point in the stands, the matchup was right up there with the battle at Little Big Horn in 1876. Notre Dame also had a very tumultuous offseason with the Manti Te’o story, Kelly’s NFL flirtation, transfers out of the program, injuries, and last-minute recruiting defections. Still, the loss of Everett Golson was a more significant blow to the team this year than any of these events, including the residual effect of the Alabama game. Everyone expected the offense to be less potent this year with Rees at quarterback, but we did not anticipate that the defense would take a step back as it has this season. Losing Te’o hurt from both a physical and emotional standpoint, but even that does not explain why the overall tackling has gone from crisp in 2012 to awful in 2013.
3. GoMightyCard: Tell me about Tommy Rees’s development as a quarterback. By some measures he’s been much better than he was as the starter two years ago. Do Irish fans point to the loss of Everett Golson as a reason for this season’s decline, or has Rees been good enough?
NDNation: Rees has earned everyone’s respect by working hard to improve his effectiveness as a passer. Although he has looked great at times, he cannot salvage a bad play call by scrambling like Golson or even Kevin Hogan. Since he is basically a one-dimensional player, defenses can get him to change the play call at the line and then adjust accordingly. This predictability puts Notre Dame at a disadvantage, and the results have sometimes been catastrophic. I’d say the best outcome with Rees at the helm this season would be a 9-2 record coming into Palo Alto. We’re actually 8-3, but never should have lost to Pittsburgh. That loss is more on the coaches than Tommy Rees, though. The overall plan and in-game decision making that night were atrocious.
4. GoMightyCard: The Irish will be playing without their starting center. How do you expect this loss to affect the running game and the offensive line’s ability to protect Rees in the pocket?
NDNation: Matt Hegarty performed very well against BYU despite being thrust into the game with minimal practice time. Notre Dame was running the ball well that day and did not miss a beat when he took over at center. Also, there were not many obvious passing situations where BYU could send a ton of pressure. Stanford will provide a stern test, however, and I expect the Irish will find themselves in quite a few third and long situations. I’m interested to see if Shane Skov will be able to blitz the quarterback through the A gap as successfully as he has all season. Rees is accustomed to a clean pocket, and Hegarty must hold up physically and mentally or it will be a long night for the Irish.
5. GoMightyCard: Louis Nix must also be a huge loss. How has the defense been playing without him? Which names might we expect to hear frequently on Saturday?
NDNation: The loss of Nix really hurts in a game like this. His presence in the middle allowed end Stephon Tuitt to dominate the game against USC last month, and Nix also helped to cover up what is a decidedly mediocre group of inside linebackers. I suspect that Stanford will double team Tuitt and not worry too much about the other guys. Sophomore Jarron Jones is physically gifted and had a breakout performance last week, and Irish fans are hopeful that he can be stout this week as well. Backup nose tackle Kona Schwenke has a high ankle sprain and will try to stay on the field, but he only managed a couple of series against BYU before limping to the sidelines. Sheldon Day is another talented defensive lineman for the Irish, but he has not been 100% since early September. As you can tell, I have great concerns regarding Notre Dame’s ability to stop the run this week.
6. GoMightyCard: Finally, how do you expect the game to play out? Give a final score and your best justification for how we get there.
NDNation: I expect a physical game that will be played at a high level. Stanford is more likely to run the ball well and make Hogan a more effective quarterback, whereas Kelly is quick to abandon the run if it is not immediately successful or he falls behind. This puts Rees in greater jeopardy of making mistakes. I’d say the winning team will throw the ball fewer than 30 times, and it’s more likely to be the Cardinal. Other factors favoring Stanford include Hogan’s ability to extend drives with his legs, Notre Dame’s inexplicably bad special teams, Stanford’s record of success at home and Notre Dame’s relatively poor performances on the road this season. Notre Dame’s best chance is to get off to a strong start and stay ahead on the scoreboard, but I think the opposite will happen. Also, David Shaw is less likely to panic and start chucking the ball all over the lot if things don’t go his way early. My estimated score is 27-17 Stanford.