Notre Dame (+7) at Stanford
Notre Dame first played Stanford way back in the 1924 Rose Bowl---the first ever bowl game in Fighting Irish history. Since then, Notre Dame has played the Cardinal 24 more times, including meetings in 21 out of the past 23 years.
Stanford has been ranked in four meetings with the Irish, including last year, while Notre Dame has been ranked coming into the game against the Cardinal on 13 occasions.
Saturday's matchup will be the first ever meeting between two ranked Notre Dame and Stanford teams.
The One Foot Down Stanford game preview will begin after the jump.
How Has Stanford Been Doing This Year?
The Cardinal opened up 2011 with a first-half schedule about as easy as anyone in the country.
They beat San Jose State 57-3 despite being only +136 in total yards, then traveled across the country to beat Duke by 30 while being +169 in total yards.
They were supposed to receive their first test of the season against Arizona in week three, but the Wildcats are currently 3-8 on the season and lost by 27 to Stanford (+234 yards).
The Cardinal then ran through three lower-tier Pac-12 teams, beating UCLA by 26 (+99 yards), Colorado by 41 (+289 yards), and Washington State by 30 points (+218 yards).
Washington was the best team they had played to date on October 22nd, but Stanford ran away with that game by 44 points while being +185 yards.
Despite a late-game pick six, Andrew Luck and Stanford were able to defeat USC in triple overtime (+84 yards) when the Trojans fumbled near the goal line. The Cardinal headed to Corvalis the next week, got off to a slow start, but ended up winning by 25 points (+222 yards).
Two weeks ago Stanford suffered their first and only loss of the season to Oregon---thanks to 5 turnovers. The Ducks were only +2 in yards but built a lead that couldn't be overcome by Luck & Co.
Last week Stanford had a much-too-close game against main rival California, ultimately winning by 3 points and being only +45 in total yards.
The Cardinal come into this game with a 10-1 record and ranked 6th in the BCS, 4th in the AP, and 5th in the Coaches Poll.
Notre Dame Defense vs. Stanford Offense
The Cardinal have broken in three new starters along the offensive line this season, but also return a pair of the nation's best linemen.
Senior left tackle Johnathan Martin is a 1st team All-Pac-12 player as is senior right guard David DeCastro. Both players are ranked third overall nationally at tackle and guard respectively, as draft eligible players by Phil Steele.
Sophomore left guard David Yankey, Senior center Sam Schwartzstein, and sophomore right tackle Cameron Fleming all had little to no experience heading into 2011.
At running back Stanford is led by junior Stepfan Taylor---in the middle of back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. He currently has 1,036 yards on 186 carries (5.6 average) with 8 touchdowns---eerily similar numbers to Cierre Wood---so you know Taylor is good.
Junior Tyler Gaffney (415 yards on 64 carries with 7 TD) and sophomore Anthony Wilkerson (275 yards on 52 carries with 3 TD) also are very productive from the backfield, as is 5th year senior Jeremy Stewart (173 yards on 44 carries with 8 TD) who is used in many short-yardage situations.
We all know about senior quarterback Andrew Luck. His numbers read as thus: 2,937 yards passing, 241 completions on 343 attempts (70.3%) with 31 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. Don't forget Luck can pull the ball down too, coming into this tilt with 133 yards on 39 carries and two scores.
What's amazing about the Stanford offense is how little the receivers are used---instead the Cardinal utilize the tight end probably more than any team in the country.
With speedster receiver Chris Owusu out with an injury, there is very little experience and production from the rest of the wideouts. Senior Griff Whalen is the number one target by far with 47 catches, 652 yards, and 4 touchdowns, but the next three healthy receivers total just 272 yards on the season.
In this truly old-school power offense, the tight ends are the anchors and a huge safety valve for Luck. The trio of junior Levine Toilolo, 5th year senior Coby Fleener, and junior Zach Ertz^ (all 6'6" or taller) have combined for a ridiculous 72 receptions, 1,165 yards and 16 touchdowns.
^Ertz is doubtful for the game.
You would think starting fullback Ryan Hewitt would get a lot of carries in this pro-style offense, but he's averaging about 1 rush a game, but also 30 receptions for 266 yards and 5 touchdowns---so keep an eye out for him.
|OFFENSE RANKINGS||Stanford||Notre Dame|
Despite Andrew Luck, the Irish must focus on shutting down the Cardinal running game and doing everything possible to disrupt their tight ends when they leave the line of scrimmage.
Stanford is a little bit more productive on the ground this year (5.4 team average vs. 5.2 last year) and that is with Luck's rushing total going from 453 (8.2 average) to 133 (3.4 average).
Stanford wasn't very explosive in the running game last year against Notre Dame (3.7 average), but they churned out 166 yards and were a perfect 5 for 5 converting 1st downs on third and short.
It will be a big test, but Notre Dame has to limit the damage Stanford's tight ends can inflict and force Luck to rely on his rather shaky and inexperienced receiver corps.
Yes, Luck is possibly the best quarterback in the country but remember he was not great last season against the Irish.
Luck's 119.7 passer rating against Notre Dame last year is the lowest mark of the past two seasons, and the Irish are only one of two teams (the other against Oregon twice---both losses) to force more than 1 interception from Luck since the start of the 2010 season.
Notre Dame is also the only team to hold Luck under 60% completions and force more turnovers than touchdowns in a game since the start of the 2010 season.
The Irish showed there are some chinks in that armor.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Stanford Defense
Stanford misses an injured Shane Skov (Freshman All-American in 2009 & Honorable Mention All-Pac 10 in 2010) who had grown into one of the best middle linebackers in the country this year. Skov had 8 tackles, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble last year against the Irish.
On the defensive line, 5th year senior Matthew Masifilo is the lone returning starter and he's accumulated 7 TFL and 2.5 sacks this season. Junior noise guard Terrence Stephens (11 tackles, 4 TFL) and junior Ben Gardner (9 TFL, 3.5 sacks) are both first year starters.
At linebacker senior Chase Thomas leads the way on the outside in Skov's absence. He was an honorable mention All-conference player last year and was a 2nd team All-Pac-12 player coming into this season according to Phil Steele. Thomas has 46 tackles, an absurd 14.5 for loss, and 6.5 sacks this year.
All three other linebackers in junior Trent Murphy (9 TFL, 5.5 sacks), junior Jarek Lancaster (57 tackles, 6 TFL, 3.5 sacks), and sophomore AJ Tarpley (51 tackles, 3 TFL) are first year starters, but have been very productive.
The secondary returns three starters, led by senior strong safety Delano Howell who was a 2nd team All-conference player last year. He's missed some games this year but is very good at the back end.
Senior Michael Thomas---second on the team in tackles and leads the team in interceptions (2)---holds down the other safety spot.
Senior Johnson Bademosi (44 tackles) returns at corner, while junior Terrence Brown (38 tackles) has held down the other corner spot as a first year starter.
|DEFENSE STATS||Stanford||Notre Dame|
Stanford has improved their run defense from last year giving up only 93 yards a game at 3.2 per rush, whereas last year they surrendered 120 yards a game at 3.8 per rush.
Obviously Notre Dame has to improve upon their pathetic 44 rushing yards last year against Stanford.
Stanford is once again in the top 10 nationally in sacks, so protecting Tommy Rees will be vital to the Irish offensive success.
Last year, the Irish offensive line had their worst game of the season (3 sacks, numerous QB hurries, and 14 rushes for 3 yards or less), but this year they have given up only 8 sacks (1 fewer than Stanford) and should put forth a much better effort.
Stanford's passing defense numbers are not very good, but some of that may be attributed to teams being down early and constantly throwing the ball.
Nevertheless, the Cardinal are giving up 240 yards per game (202 yards last year), 62% accuracy (56% last year), 7.1 yards per attempt (6.2 last year)---while surrendering 14 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions (16 TD-18 INT last year).
This has to be a game where Tommy Rees plays very well and keeps the offense moving.
Last year's game against Stanford wasn't so much a blowout as it was a slow over-powering and suffocation.
Stanford was only +53 in yards, and held a 19-6 lead when the Irish failed to convert a 4th and 1 at midfield. The Cardinal then scored on the ensuing possession and took a pick six back on the next Irish series to put the game out of reach.
All things considered, Dayne Crist didn't play as horrible as the history books have written---16 for 30 with 161 yards (through three quarters when the game was close) is decent with no running game and a Stanford defender in Crist's face half the the time.
Without Jim Harbaugh and injuries to key players like Skov and Owusu, Stanford is likely about as good as they were last year. On the other side of the field, the Irish have improved in many ways.
The biggest positive for Notre Dame is that they are stronger and more stout on both lines, and they should give Stanford a much better fight in the trenches this year.
In order for the Irish to win they must put in a solid effort in the rushing game. This will be a big opportunity for Cierre Wood to cement his status as one of the better young running backs in college football.
Notre Dame also needs to keep the ball out of Andrew Luck's hands, as last year the Cardinal held the rock for over 36 minutes. I highly doubt we'll see the fast-paced offense from the Irish, but stranger things have happened.
Lastly, Notre Dame needs to fare far better on third downs on both sides of the ball, but particularly on defense.
Last year Stanford was 11 for 16 on third down conversions, with Luck putting up a ridiculous stat line of 95 yards on 6 for 9 passing and 1 touchdown.
This will be a close game, and Notre Dame matches up really well with Stanford. Brian Kelly has improved this program and made the players tougher up front and more able to stand up tall in these big games.
Nevertheless, I don't think the Irish will pull off the victory. Andrew Luck is too dangerous, and he will find his tight ends in the Notre Dame zone coverage when it's crunch time.
Hopefully the Irish play well enough to carry some momentum into the Champs Sports Bowl.
Notre Dame 24