Your #8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will complete their regular season tomorrow, playing in Palo Alto, California against the #21 Stanford Cardinal in a game that means a lot more to Notre Dame than it probably does to Stanford.
The Irish are looking to add another top-25 win to their belts and improve to a 10-2 season record, securing a NY6 bowl berth. Stanford, meanwhile, is 8-3 and much more focused on hopefully winning the Pac-12 Championship next weekend and securing a NY6 bowl bid via those means.
So how do these two teams match up tomorrow? Let’s dive right into it, folks.
Stanford Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
This will not come as a shock to you, but the Stanford offense goes as the Cardinal’s Heisman candidate RB Bryce Love goes, too. The junior is 2nd in the country in rushing yards with 1,723, 3rd in yards per carry at 8.8, and 7th in rushing touchdowns with 16. He’s a strong, compact, fast bowling ball who is incredibly tough to bring down and who makes the Stanford offense go (Stanford is 96th nationally in passing offense, and 26th in rushing offense).
Love has battled some injuries this season, and without Love it became clear that the Stanford offense is otherwise pretty hapless. The Cardinal BARELY defeated a terrible Oregon State team earlier this year without Love, and the churn at QB and lack of many big-play receivers have left Stanford without much of a passing offense to lean on. Furthermore, backup RB Cameron Scarlett is a pretty good back, but the drop-off from Love to Scarlett is large enough that the Cardinal offense just isn’t effective without their Heisman hopeful.
Thus, for ND the key will certainly be to corral Love -- if he plays at all. Love is questionable for this one as he appeared to re-aggravate a sprained ankle last week against Cal, and many Stanford fans would actually rather have Love rest and be fresh for the Pac-12 title game than potentially injure himself further in what is essentially a meaningless game for Stanford in terms of their Pac-12 season. However, it’s been reported that he should be playing tomorrow, so the Cardinal should have their best player available.
If Love doesn’t go or is limited, then Stanford will rely on Scarlett to pick up some of the slack (352 yards, 6 TD on the season), but also will need now-starting QB KJ Costello to make some plays with his arm.
Costello took over the role from Keller Chryst earlier this season and has been solid, if not spectacular. He’s thrown for 993 yards, 5 TD, and 2 INT while completing 60% of his passes. His main targets in the passing game are JJ Arcega-Whiteside (37 rec, 595 yards, 5 TD), Trent Irwin (37 rec, 402 yards, 1 TD), and Kaden Smith (16 rec, 269 yards, 2 TD). Along with Connor Wedington, Dalton Schultz, and Donald Stewart, those are the guys the ND secondary will need to watch out for, but considering the way guys like Julian Love have played this season, I don’t anticipate too much of a problem for the Notre Dame pass defense.
Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara will need to step up their pass rush, though, as Costello is good enough to make some big throws if he has the time to sit back and pick apart the defense.
The key for the Irish defense, nevertheless, will be guys like Jerry Tillery, Te’von Coney, Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, and Drue Tranquill getting into the backfield to contain Love or Scarlett before they can do damage at the second level.
The Stanford offensive line may not be quite as good as it has been in the past, but it’s still full of big, athletic, physical blockers that specialize in opening holes in a physical running game. How Mike Elko’s defense stuffs the run will likely decide if Stanford has any sort of offensive success or not tomorrow.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Stanford Defense
On the other side of the ball, Stanford’s defense is definitely not as strong as it’s been on past David Shaw teams, but it is still a solid unit with plenty of talent. 60th in total defense (58th in pass defense, 70th in rush defense), the group is led by a really good player at each level of the defense: Justin Reid at safety, Bobby Okereke at LB, and Harrison Phillips on the defensive line.
Phillips and Okereke will be the most important players on the day for Stanford, as their ability to get penetration against the ND offensive line and get to Josh Adams and the rest of the Irish ball carriers before they can get out in space is absolutely crucial. Okereke and Phillips have combined on the season for 148 tackles, so ND will certainly have its work cut out for it against those guys.
LBs Jordan Perez and Peter Kalambayi will need to have big days as well, and if the Cardinal is able to slow down the Irish running attack, Stanford will be in good shape. The Stanford secondary has held up pretty well against the pass-happy Pac-12 offenses it has faced, and there is plenty of talent back there with S Justin Reid (team-leading 79 tackles, 4th in the country with 5 INT this season), CB Quenton Meeks, and DBs Alameen Murphy, Frank Buncom, and Ben Edwards.
It will be very intriguing to see how Notre Dame does passing the ball if it comes to that, as Brandon Wimbush made a few throws in the rain against Navy last week, but overall has still struggled mightily to produce through the air. WR Kevin Stepherson will be crucial, as he has emerged as one of the few consistent weapons through the air for Wimbush. He had 5 catches for 103 yards and 2 TD last weekend, and his speed could be critical in stretching out the Stanford defense and attacking their DBs for big plays.
However, I do not expect Wimbush to be asked to throw too much unless the Irish get down early, considering the Stanford defense seems like the physical, slower kind of defense that ND’s running game has thrived against this year (similar to Michigan State, NC State, etc.).
Overall, if Wimbush is asked to do too much with his arm, expect to see Reid and Meeks potentially create some turnovers.
The key will be Chip Long’s offensive play-calling and how effective the ND offensive line can be after a couple of bad weeks against Miami and Navy.
I’ve been told Stanford punter Jake Bailey is a very good punter, so look for him to try to flip the field and change the game, field-position-wise, multiple times tomorrow night.
Stanford kicker Jet Toner has one of the best names in the country, so there’s that as well.
ND KR CJ Sanders is so incredibly due for a touchdown return, and he has a history at Stanford. I’m calling it now — he breaks another one tomorrow evening.
Bryce Love will have a typical 100-plus-yard rushing performance, and Stanford will absolutely keep this game close by controlling the clock and playing tough, physical football.
However, I think the Irish come out more physical and nasty with the rushing offense that’s been missing the past few weeks, and ND pulls away in the 4th quarter for a 30-21 victory with Stanford looking ahead to their bigger game next week in the Pac-12 title game.