by John Vannie
Two teams that urgently need a win collide in South Bend on Saturday night when Notre Dame (2-4) hosts the Stanford Cardinal (3-2). The Fighting Irish are burdened with mid-term exams and will begin a much needed fall break following this contest, but the annual battle with Stanford has become a more passionate rivalry in recent years and won’t be taken lightly. The Cardinal has faltered from a recent spate of injuries and uncharacteristic poor play in the past two weeks, resulting in beatdowns from conference foes by a combined 86-22. NBC will televise the game nationally beginning at 7:30 PM Eastern time.
A win for either team would help to restore confidence for players and coaches that have been shaken by recent setbacks. Notre Dame has won only twice in its last eight starts, including a soul crushing 38-36 defeat at the hands of the Cardinal last November in Palo Alto. Stanford started this season with solid wins over Kansas State, USC and UCLA, but were overwhelmed by Washington and shredded by Washington State. The powerful running game that is their signature competency has all but crumbled in the wake of offensive line malfunctions, while the inconsistent play of two quarterbacks has prevented them from taking advantage of defenses that key on star tailback Christian McCaffrey. The problems for Notre Dame have mainly been on the defensive side of the ball, where they have surrendered an average of 33 points in games not played in a hurricane.
Coach David Shaw has stated that his team can fix the “correctable” mistakes that have plagued his team of late. “I still believe we’ve got a very good football team,” he said. “We’re not playing as such. If we didn’t have the capabilities, I wouldn’t say it.” It won’t help Stanford if McCaffrey cannot play effectively or at all on Saturday, but his status will be a game time decision following an undisclosed injury last week. Update: McCaffrey will not play.
Four other Cardinal starters —offensive tackle Casey Tucker, wide receiver Francis Owusu, cornerback Quenton Meeks and tight end Greg Taboada — are expected to return action. Tucker’s return should help stabilize the offensive line, where Shaw has been forced to mix and match available players to cobble together a patchwork lineup. Results have been poor, as quarterback Burns has been sacked ten times in the past two games and McCaffrey has been held to 49 and 35 yards rushing. Fullback and lead blocker Daniel Marx has also been out during this rough stretch and will likely miss Saturday’s meeting. Astoundingly, Stanford’s rushing attack now ranks 100th in the nation.
The Irish have been relatively healthy to date, although a season-ending injury to Shaun Crawford against Texas and disciplinary issues in the preseason have taken three starters out of the secondary. This attrition has forced young players into the heat of battle. It’s therefore less surprising that Notre Dame ranks 100th nationally in pass defense, especially when one considers that the Irish are 125th in sacks.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. STANFORD’S DEFENSE
Stanford has pass defense issues of its own, particularly during the last two games when Meeks and fellow starting cornerback Alijah Holder were out of the lineup. Holder is not expected back on Saturday, but his replacement, Frank Buncom, had a pick six against WSU. This turned out to be the lone bright spot for the Cardinal defense, as Cougar quarterback Luke Falk completed 30 of 41 passes for 357 yards and four touchdowns. DeShone Kizer should enjoy success against this group regardless of who is trying to cover his receivers.
The Cardinal plays a 3-4 defense, led by end Solomon Thomas and nose tackle Harrison Phillips up front, with support from outside linebackers Joey Alfieri and Peter Kalambayi. Joining Buncom and Meeks in the secondary are safeties and leading tacklers Zach Hoffpauir and Dallas Lloyd. Hoffpauir is filling in for Justin Reid, who is suspended for the first half, while Lloyd has two interceptions. This is not an elite unit even when healthy, but Stanford’s ball control offense had kept them from being exposed until recently.
Although Notre Dame is certain to attack the Cardinal through the air, the team really needs to reinvigorate its running game after a 59 yard output last week in 38 attempts. While the conditions were beyond poor, the Irish showed no confidence with a half-hearted effort to run the ball even after it became obvious that throwing it was a fool’s errand. Expect Stanford to shore up its pass defense in this game and try to put as many hits on Kizer as possible. The Irish can counter this by running straight at the Cardinal, but Kelly’s pattern to date has been to run slow developing plays parallel to the line of scrimmage. Results have been decidedly mixed and even worse near the goal line.
STANFORD’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Much to the consternation of the Stanford faithful, Shaw is still tinkering with a two quarterback rotation. Ryan Burns is the primary performer, but Keller Chryst comes into the game at specified intervals to run the show. The results have been disappointing of late, and local media is urging Shaw to go exclusively with Burns. The senior is a 66% passer, but has been unable to put many points on the board as drives seem to stall for one reason or another.
The Cardinal has talent at wide receiver with speedster Michael Rector and emerging sophomore J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who has caught a touchdown pass in each of the last three games. Coincidentally, those are the only offensive scores recorded by this offense during that span. The return of Owusu to the lineup along with Taboada at tight end gives Burns a chance for success if he can get some protection in the pocket. Conversely, the Irish simply must get pressure this week – there may not be a better opportunity to generate sacks against a Stanford team.
The elephant in the room for the Cardinal is the potential absence of McCaffrey. Unconfirmed reports indicate he will not play at all or participate very sparingly. Reserve tailback Bryce Love is equally fast but not as elusive or versatile. Still, he is capable of giving the Irish problems. Rector is also a lock to run a reverse coming out of a change of possession, and he has been very successful on these occasions.
If Tucker can return to play right tackle, David Bright can get back to his normal left guard position where he teams with Johnny Caspers on the right side to stabilize the line. Graduation losses have left an unsettled situation up front this season, and Shaw has struggled to plug the leaks.
Stanford kicker Conrad Ukropina, who booted Notre Dame out of the playoffs last year, continues to perform effectively for Shaw and the Cardinal. He did miss his first two field goal attempts last week by hitting the upright each time, but has otherwise been reliable. Punter Alex Robinson has averaged 44.5 yards per attempt, although he often leaves room for a return. Once again, the status of McCaffrey is important to the Cardinal return game as he is the primary person in this role. Even if he is healthy enough to participate in the offense, however, Shaw will most likely find another volunteer to bring back kicks and punts.
Tyler Newsome had a punt blocked in last week’s monsoon, but hopefully will return to form on dry land. Justin Yoon has converted five of eight field goal attempts this season, and not been tested from longer than 42 yards. Eventually, he’ll have to hit one from fifty yards or so to win a game. C.J. Sanders continues to add value as the Irish return man, and will try to give the hosts a field position advantage on Saturday.
Stanford is struggling on both sides of the ball due to injuries and the fact that this year’s talent level in the trenches is down from recent norms. Notre Dame should be able to exploit the Cardinal secondary, but should also run the ball to control time of possession. An early advantage on the scoreboard will put added pressure on Stanford’s shaky quarterbacks to make plays and ultimately lead to mistakes. If the Irish fall behind, the Cardinal may just regain the confidence and swagger they have lost during October. Burns and a healthy receiving corps have the ability to do damage to the Notre Dame defense if there is plenty of time for plays to develop, but the Irish rushers should be able to generate pressure. It should be noted that neither Burns nor Chryst is much of a running threat.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Which offense will control the clock and keep its defense off the field?
Can Notre Dame’s anemic pass rush break through Stanford’s porous offensive line?
Will Bryce Love pick up the slack for McCaffrey?
Which team will shake off its recent losses and play inspired football?
Can the Irish rediscover the running game?
Which offense will convert its red zone opportunities?
Will Irish fans just stay home and watch the Cubs?
The Irish have a significant advantage at quarterback, and have no excuse to allow the Cardinal lines to push them around on either side of the ball. The home crowd and pent-up frustration of recent defeats should motivate Notre Dame to play up to its capabilities, although Stanford will undoubtedly be up for this rivalry game as well. The Irish should prevail unless they have collectively decided to mail in the rest of the season, which seems highly unlikely. Still, Shaw will probably conjure a better plan than Kelly and will make this contest closer than it needs to be.
NOTRE DAME 27 STANFORD 23