OFD Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

Ezra Shaw - Getty Images

We're breaking down the matchup between the Fighting Irish and Cardinal to see if Notre Dame can break the 3 game losing streak in this modern rivalry series.

Stanford (+7.5) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET

Television: NBC

Last Meeting: 28-14 Stanford (2011)

The Stanford Cardinal travel to South Bend this weekend for their 14th game ever inside Notre Dame Stadium. Out of all of Notre Dame's traditional or modern rivals, the Cardinal hold the longest winning streak against the Irish at 3 games.

Stanford lost a lot of good players from last year's BCS bowl team, but they still have many great players on their roster for 2012. They come into this game with a 4-1 record and have already defeated the despised USC Trojans this season.

Here is the One Foot Down preview of Saturday afternoon's game.

5 Factoids

3

This is the number of games in a row that Stanford will be playing Notre Dame while coming in to the contest as a ranked opponent. The Cardinal were No. 16 in 2010, No. 4 last year, and head to South Bend this Saturday as the No. 17 ranked team in the AP poll. Over the previous 24 games in this series prior to 2010, the Cardinal were ranked just 3 times before playing the Irish with 2 of those games under the supreme guidance of Tyrone Willingham. Although to be fair, the first ND-SU matchup in the 1924 Rose Bowl predates the AP poll and would have added a fourth ranked Stanford team.

10-3-0

This is Notre Dame's record against Stanford while playing at home. The Irish were roughed up 37-14 in the last meeting back in Brian Kelly's first season as Notre Dame head coach, but before that they had won 7 straight going back to 1994.

103

The amount of plays that Arizona ran against the Stanford defense last week. The Cardinal did give up 617 total yards (their most since Oregon racked up 626 in 2010), but due to the sheer amount of plays they only gave up 5.99 yards per play---not altogether a terrible figure.

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It's been easy to smile for Stanford's tight ends. Joe Nicholson/US Presswire

385.0

This is the average yards Stanford is gaining on offense so far this season, good for 83rd nationally. That average is down over 104 yards from last season when the Cardinal were ranked 8th nationally. Stanford is also averaging 5.71 yards per play this season (66th nationally) which is down from the explosive 6.80 yards per play (6th nationally) in 2011.

54.1%

That is the completion percentage of Stanford first-year starter Josh Nunes. The senior with another year of eligibility left next season has looked good at times in 2012, but often struggles with his accuracy. Stanford has desperately tried to work the deep ball in some games, but not with much success, although Nunes can deliver it with touch on occasion. This completion percentage is pretty stark when looking at Andrew Luck's 2010-11 campaigns both over 70%.

4 Players to Watch

OLB Chase Thomas

The 5th year senior has been a demon linebacker for the Cardinal ever since he stepped on the field back in 2009. He earned freshman All-American and Pac-10 All-Freshman honors in 2009, honorable mention Pac-10 honors in 2010, and All-American as well as 1st-team All Pac-12 honors last year.

Thomas has great size (6'4" 248 pounds) and is one of the most disruptive linebackers in the country with a career stat line heading into Saturday of 189 tackles, 22.5 sacks, 42 tackles for loss, 8 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions.

MLB Shayne Skov

The senior had some off the field troubles this past winter and is coming off a season-ending injury suffered in the third game of last season, but Skov is a great linebacker and leader of the Stanford defense.

Skov finished 4th in team tackles at Stanford as a freshman and exploded on to the national scene in 2010 with a team-leading 84 tackles. You may have remembered Skov playing like a man possessed in the Orange Bowl that season against Virginia Tech ending up with 12 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks.

He's having more of a quiet season this year (26 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss) as the Stanford linebacker corps is deep and talented and he works his way back to form, but Skov remains a major threat.

Football Outsiders' FEI Advanced State for 2012

STATISTIC STANFORD NOTRE DAME
FEI Overall 26 3
Game Efficiency 36 6
Offensive Efficiency 57 34
Defensive Efficiency 34 5

RB Stepfan Taylor

Taylor is one of the better backs in the country and one of the strongest in the Pac-12 conference. The senior is incredibly experienced (640 carries through last weekend) and is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yards seasons in Palo Alto.

As you would imagine with the personnel losses Stanford has suffered, Taylor's productivity is down this year (4.66 YPC versus 5.33 YPC during his first 3 seasons), but the team has been determined to run the offense through him as he is getting almost 6 more carries per game this season compared to last with an injuries to backup running back Anthony Wilkerson.

Taylor is a great mixture of size and speed and runs really hard. I'm not sure he's really dynamic enough to take over a game, but he's good enough to do a lot of damage on the ground.

TE Zach Ertz & TE Levine Toilolo

Last year Stanford had a 3-headed monster of epic size and proportions at tight end that combined for 86 catches, 1,356 yards, and 20 touchdowns. Coby Fleener is now off to the NFL with the Colts and Andrew Luck, but two stellar tight ends still remain.

Ertz (6'6" 252) and Toilolo (6'8" 265) have amazing size and are great run blockers. However, without Fleener they still remain a major matchup problem for every defense and outstanding big-play targets in the Stanford offense. Through five games the pair have combined for 34 receptions, 594 yards, 4 touchdowns, and an absurd 17.4 yards per catch.

3 Concerns

Stanford's Run Defense

Stanford's rush defense has been downright stingy this year and despite not playing many great rushing teams using traditional statistics (the average yards per game of their 5 opponents is 80th nationally & yards per carry is 72nd nationally) a lot of that poor rushing from their opponents has to do with the fact they played the Cardinal.

Stanford has only given up 386 yards on the ground this season at a paltry 2.66 yards per rush. It's probably not an elite run defense, but they are very good. If Notre Dame can't establish the ground game this Saturday---and it's been a HUGE problem in the last two meetings---then the Irish will struggle to win.

Turnovers

Stanford has been notoriously strong at protecting the football in recent years and this season they have only coughed it up 6 times in 5 games. The Irish have had a miraculous turn around from last season and are even better with just 4 turnovers in 5 games.

There will be a ton of pressure from both coaching staff's to play it safe and protect the ball. If Notre Dame doesn't turn it over they have a great shot at winning.

Ertz & Toilolo

Stanford's receiving corps is thin and not a focal point of their offense. Their top three receivers' production this season isn't that much worse than Notre Dame's top three (6 fewer catches, 97 fewer yards, 2 more touchdowns) but the Irish have extra playmakers in Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, and young stars ready to breakout in Chris Brown and Davonte Neal. The Cardinal really only have running back Stepfan Taylor and that's it.

Except for those two massive tight ends. It will be imperative for Notre Dame to blanket these two stars in coverage and if they do the Stanford offense will have a tough time moving the ball.

2 Sides of the Line

Stanford's defensive line is okay---factor in the Stanford toughness that stills lingers from Jim Harbaugh and they are probably pretty good. Seniors DE Ben Gardner and NG Terrence Stephens return as starters while the former is a budding star and the latter a decent War Daddy. Junior DE Henry Anderson is a new starter and has been playing okay on the edge.

The Cardinal don't have much depth and in that regard Notre Dame has them beat. Gardner would probably fight for starter minutes at ND but there's not anything terrible special about Stanford's front. The Irish have a few All-American talents and utilize an entire two deep of productive linemen. Stanford's front is disciplined and do a great job at eating blocks in their 3-4 alignment, but the Irish are just as good at that plus more explosive when getting after the quarterback.

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Skov & Co. swarming to the ball. Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Stanford lost two offensive linemen in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the NFL Draft last year, but they are still very solid up front. They've moved junior David Yankey to left tackle and with right tackle Cameron Fleming and center Sam Schwartzstein they form a great nucleus. They have a couple of journeymen-type linemen starting at the guard spots and these two are likely holding the line back from being at the level Stanford's been used to in the past.

Their tackles are very talented and Schwartzstein is the leader of the group, which helps explain this unit only giving up 5 sacks so far this season. Still, even with two huge tight ends and (gasp!) fullbacks to help out in blocking, this unit is only paving the way for 154 yards per game (74th nationally) and 4.42 yards per carry (60th nationally)---both figures worse than Notre Dame.

Both offensive lines are pretty comparable although I'd say the Irish have more talent and potential but will have to deal with the exotic blitzes and crazy formations that Stanford will throw at them---making this a pretty even battle.

1 Prediction

I can think of a handful of reasons why Stanford can win this game.

First, it's obvious to me that the disease of winning is still rampant throughout the Cardinal locker room. Last weekend Stanford was down by two scores with not much time left, but came back to tie the game and force overtime. Chase Thomas then picked off an Arizona pass, and Stanford broke a long (and much too easy looking) touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage once they got the ball.

That's what winners do, make plays when their team needs it, and do it while ripping your heart out at the very end.

Second, the physicality and power defined by Jim Harbaugh and continuing with David Shaw is still alive and well in Palo Alto. Especially defensively, it is difficult to match the power and intensity the Cardinal bring on game day. As coach Kelly said in his Tuesday presser, they just grind teams down---slowly but surely.

Third---and this is closely related to my second point---if there's a team on the Irish schedule that is capable of standing up to Notre Dame with their offensive line and front seven, it's the Stanford Cardinal. Winning the line of scrimmage is stressed more than anything else by Irish coaches and it's largely the reason why the defense has been playing at such a high level and why the offense, while struggling at times, has been able to come through in the clutch on the way to a 5-0 start.

Now I know you're thinking, "E, that sounds a lot like fluffy intangibles and not much breakdown as to what positions and talent Stanford has an edge in that will lead them to victory", but those intangibles matter.

However, the Fighting Irish have made great strides with these intangibles and despite still displaying many of these attributes 18 games removed from Jim Harbaugh, I think Stanford has taken a step back. What's more, I think Notre Dame is the more talented and better team right now.

There should be plenty enough worry that the Stanford front seven will shut down the Irish running game, but the Irish have multiple weapons they can employ, Golson can make things happen with his feet, and Notre Dame's offensive philosophy is much more diverse in the sense that they can run a lot of misdirection, counters, and option plays to punish Stanford for their super-aggressiveness.

In a game that often rewards the team with the best quarterback, I like Notre Dame's chances with a budding star and dynamic dual-threat Everett Golson versus a pro-style signal caller that is having some struggles with accuracy and making plays on third and long.

Now, take a look at the 10 worst Yards Per Play for the Stanford offense since the start of 2010:

1. Washington, 3.66, 2012

2. San Jose State, 4.18, 2012

3. UCLA, 4.96, 2010

4. Arizona State, 5.06, 2010

5. Oregon, 5.07, 2011

6. San Jose State, 5.25, 2011

7. Notre Dame, 5.32, 2010

8. Washington State, 5.85, 2010

9. USC, 5.86, 2011

10. Notre Dame, 5.88, 2011

The first thing you'll notice is that Stanford's two worst performances have come this season (not surprisingly), with their worst since Harbaugh's first season back in 2007 coming only two weeks ago. You'll also see that while Notre Dame hasn't done great, they've been pretty decent against Stanford's offense the past two years.

Also, Stanford has only rushed for 4.25 yards per carry over the last two meetings. I have a hard time believing that without Andrew Luck, without 2 elite offensive linemen, and without their top 3 receivers that Stanford is going to rush for that many yards against this stingy Irish defense. They'll also be without their top receiver and kick returner Ty Montgomery who suffered a knee injury last week.

The difference in this game is that Notre Dame's defense matches up better with the Stanford offense, more so than Stanford's defense matches up with the Irish offense. Notre Dame can spread the field, hit a lot of short passes, and has a quarterback who could be an X-factor running the ball. If Stanford can't establish their ground game, they really don't have much recourse to do a whole lot else and I'm sure even most Cardinal fans would agree Nunes probably isn't going to win this game throwing the ball 40+ times.

I have no doubt that Ertz and Toilolo will be productive and that there is some big play potential there which could swing the game in Stanford's favor. Notre Dame also has to be wary that this Stanford offense is a lot like Michigan State's except their line is better, their running back runs harder (oh look, there goes Le'Veon Bell dancing in the backfield and jumping over someone!), and they get much more creative with their formations while also using this ancient position called the fullback fairly well.

But Notre Dame is ready to win this game. It's a home game, the defense has been playing phenomenal, the offense is starting to open up with Golson, and I know Brian Kelly REALLY wants to win this game and show the world that the Irish are tough and can take care of business against Stanford.

This is a statement game for the Irish and a victory would mean a likely undefeated season at home for the first time in forever, and a great shot at 10+ wins. If there's concern about there being too many distractions this week with ESPN Gameday and NBC setting up shop on campus, I think they are alleviated by Brian Kelly's program building finally taking Notre Dame up the next step.

Notre Dame should be ready for a dog fight. Notre Dame has to be ready.

Notre Dame 24

Stanford 20

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