TOMORROW EVENING IS THE RECKONING.
That is to say, tomorrow evening at Notre Dame Stadium, two undefeated, top-10 teams will battle it out to see who jumps into the driver’s seat for a College Football Playoff bid with a win, and who will set themselves back a decent amount with a loss.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter the game ranked 8th in the country in the AP Poll (11th in S&P+ rankings and 21st in overall efficiency according to ESPN.com) and carrying some solid momentum after replacing their quarterback and destroying a hapless opponent on the road last weekend.
Meanwhile, the #7 Stanford Cardinal (23rd in S&P+ rankings, 16th in ESPN.com’s overall efficiency rankings) roll into the midwest having escaped an upset on the road at Oregon last weekend, coming back from down 24-7 at halftime and 31-21 with less than 5 minutes left to force overtime and shock the Ducks 38-31 in Eugene.
The Cardinal have won the last three matchups and 6-of-8 since Brian Kelly took over the Irish head coaching job, but the series has still been an exciting one, with 5 of those 8 games having been decided by a touchdown or less.
How do the two teams match up this time, though? Let’s dive into the #facts, ladies and gentlemen.
Stanford Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Stanford offense has been pretty meh this season so far, as the Cardinal offensive line — though still strong — has not been as dominant as we’ve grown accustomed to (sound like another team also playing in this game that we know?).
In fact, the power running game that has been a staple of Stanford’s success over the years has definitely taken a backseat to the passing game, considering Stanford ranks 120th in the country in rushing yards per game while coming in at 47th in passing offense. This new mix has been good for a mediocre S&P+ offensive ranking of 56th in the nation, and ESPN.com’s offensive efficiency placement isn’t much better at 43rd.
The unit is definitely more driven by QB KJ Costello this season, as the junior has already, in his 4 games this season, more than halved his passing attempts from the 11 games he played in in 2017. Costello’s had a very efficient and productive season with that increased usage, throwing for 1,056 yards and 9.26 yards per attempt, completing 64% of his passes, and throwing 10 TD while only surrendering 3 picks.
70% of those passing touchdowns have gone to 6’3” senior wideout JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who’s wrangled in 17 passes for a whopping 408 yards in amassing those 7 TD. Arcega-Whiteside is a big play threat at all times (has a long catch of 80 yards this year), and managed 4 catches for 38 yards and a TD in the team’s 38-20 win over the Irish in 2017.
Arcega-Whiteside isn’t the only receiver that Julian Love (15 tackles, 9 PBU), Troy Pride Jr. (22 tackles, 4 PBU, 2 INT), and the ND safeties need to worry about in coverage, though. Stanford always has a couple really good tight ends that they love to throw to, and this season is no different.
Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson have combined for 26 catches, 361 yards, and 3 TD (all Parkinson) so far this year, and Costello relies heavily on them to help move the chains and to convert on TDs in red zone situations. Safeties Jalen Elliott (26 tackles, 2 INT), Alohi Gilman (31 tackles, 2 PBU, 1 FF), Nick Coleman (8 tackles, 1 PBU), and Houston Griffith (7 tackles, 1 PBU) will all need to work in tandem with the Irish linebackers — particularly guys like Asmar Bilal (19 tackles, 2 TFL) who have the athleticism and speed to go with linebacker size to cover these guys — to ensure these guys don’t get open, as their size and hands will allow them to reel in big catches for first downs.
Other wideouts alongside Arcega-Whiteside include senior Trenton Irwin (15 rec, 127 yards) and Osiris St. Brown (4 rec, 102 yards), whom you may recognize as the middle St. Brown brother, between ND’s own Equanimeous and USC’s freshman sensation Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Love and Pride Jr. are easily the best corners Stanford have, and probably will, face all year, but it should be interesting to see if Arcega-Whiteside, Irwin, and St. Brown are able to get the same separation on them that they’ve gotten on lesser DBs.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. We’re previewing Stanford’s offense and haven’t even once mentioned RB Bryce Love, who finished as the RUNNER-UP FOR HEISMAN last season.
Love is still as good as ever in 2018, but because the offensive line hasn’t completely put it all together yet, his numbers are way less gaudy than normal — he’s amassed 254 yards and 2 TD on 4.3 yards per carry so far this season. To put that in perspective, Love ran for 2,118 yards and 19 TD in 2017 while averaging 8.1 yards per carry, and has never in a single season averaged less than 7.0 yards per carry. This Cardinal rushing attack is just plain less effective than we’re used to seeing.
On Saturday night, expect Love to get some decent chunks of yardage, but for more of the same to continue for the Stanford rushing attack. The Irish defense ranks 6th in the country in defensive S&P+ and 23rd in defensive efficiency, and a huge part of that is how well they bottle up ball carriers and force offenses to try to win with the pass.
Jerry Tillery in the middle (8 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 FF), along with LBs Te’von Coney (32 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 5 QBH, 1 sack, 1 FR) and Drue Tranquill (33 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack), are the main reasons for that success. As long as those three bring it on Saturday, I expect we will see them make a lot of plays that make Bryce Love look much more like 2018-to-date Love and much less like 2017 Love.
Overall, I think Stanford will really try to soften the Irish defense by testing the secondary early and often, and maybe picking on the linebackers a bit in coverage as Costello targets the tight ends. This will be moderately successful, most likely, but I’d be surprised if the ND secondary — which has looked surprisingly strong past Love, who we all knew would be great — gives up too much and isn’t able to make a couple big plays/turnovers happen.
The likelihood of that will certainly be higher if Khalid Kareem (14 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 QBH), Julian Okwara (9 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 5 QBH), and Daelin Hayes (10 tackles, 2 TFL, 4 QBH) find their way into the backfield to get some licks in and pressure Costello into some mistakes. The way they battered Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman last week was very encouraging in this regard.
We’ll see if they can do the same against a much more talented Stanford offense on Saturday night — it will definitely be a fun matchup to watch and another good test for defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s defense.
Offensive Cardinal to Watch
QB KJ Costello
We know Bryce Love is good, even if his offensive line isn’t performing as valiantly this season. But Costello is the guy who’s made this offense go this year, and if he turns the ball over or is unable to convert on 2nd and 3rd downs through the air, it could be a long, long day for the Stanford offense. If he isn’t effective, I think the Irish win by multiple touchdowns tomorrow night.
Defensive Irish to Watch
LB Alohi Gilman
The dude has been an absolute maniac flying all over the field this year, and against a team like Stanford, he’ll need to continue to make plays both in supporting the run against the ever-talented and tough to bring down Bryce Love, as well as in defending the pass against Arcega-Whiteside, the Cardinal tight ends, etc. If Gilman has himself a game, it will be a great sign for ND’s chances to win this top-10 matchup.
Halftime Fun Facts!!!!!
Best Names in the Game
- Stanford K Jet Toner
- Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
- Stanford WR Osiris Adrian Amon-Ra J. St. Brown
- Stanford LB Thunder Keck
- Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
- Stanford DT Bo Peek
- Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
- Stanford CB Paulson Adebo
- Stanford LB Tangaloa Kaufusi
- Stanford CB Treyjohn Butler
Official Cardinal Power Rankings
Folks, I had a blast last week ranking my favorite forests. So, today, I want to rank my favorite cardinals. Let’s have some fun:
1. Cardinal Sins (7 Deadly Sins) — pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth...oh hell yeah
2. Cardinal — has a much more amazing Wikipedia definition than I thought I’d find:
“senior ecclesiastical leader, considered a Prince of the Church, and usually an ordained bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. The cardinals of the Church are collectively known as the College of Cardinals”
I can’t be the only one who thinks that if the College of Cardinals put together a football team, they could win the College Football Playoff and be Princes of the FBS.
3. Cardinal (bird) — the state bird of Indiana, let’s gooooo
4. Cardinal Virtues — justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude...oh hell yeah, but much less fun
5. Cardinal Buses — a bus company, believe it or not...they seem to do decent work
6. Arizona Cardinals — Kurt Warner’s Cardinals team was so much fun
7. Ball State Cardinals — CHIRP CHIRP
8. Cardinal Stritch University — some small school that plays the ND hoops team in exhibition games occasionally
9. Cardinal (color) — it’s basically just red, but more ostentatious
10. Louisville Cardinals — very good at hiring super ethical people in sports whose names rhyme, like Rick Pitino and Bobby Petrino
11. Cardinal numbers — numbers denoting quantity (one, two, three, etc.), as opposed to an ordinal number (first, second, third, etc.)...if I ever learned this in school, I forgot it. The hell is this?
12. Cardinal signs — Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn...astrology is so stupid, but still not as stupid as...
13. The St. Louis Cardinals — baseball team with the absolute worst fans ever
14. Stanford Cardinal — I mean, I had to, right? GOT ‘EM!!!!!
Let’s Get Presidential
As some of you may know, Stanford is one of just four colleges to have had both a Super Bowl winning QB and a United States President as alumni (the other three being the Navy Midshipmen, the Miami-Ohio Redhawks, and, unfortunately, the Michigan Wolverines).
So, for this exercise, I want to give you my Top 10 US Presidents ranked in terms of how good they would be at football (excluding Gerald Ford here — not because he actually played football in college, but because that college was Michigan), and my Top 10 Super Bowl QBs who I think would be decent US Presidents (gonna go ahead and exclude Ben Roethlisberger now to avoid the way-too-obvious and way-too-politically-charged-for-my-stupid-sports-article joke that you all wanted made).
Let’s get after it. Oh and I refuse to offer any explanation for these, but feel free to disagree in the comments anyway.
Top 10 US Presidents Who Would Be Good at Football Stuff
- Teddy Roosevelt
- Andrew Jackson
- William Howard Taft
- Zachary Taylor
- James K. Polk
- George W. Bush
- Ulysses S. Grant
- George Washington
- Abe Lincoln
- Dwight Eisenhower
Side Note: Not sure we’ve had a worse stretch of Presidents in terms of looking like they could be good football players than we did from 1913 to 1953 with Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, FDR, Truman...buncha nerds right there.
Top 10 Super Bowl Winning QBs Who Would Be Good at President Stuff
- Peyton Manning
- Drew Brees
- Kurt Warner
- Steve Young
- John Elway
- Roger Staubach
- Doug Williams
- Johnny Unitas I guess
- Bob Griese?
- What the hell — Nick Foles!
Second to Last: Phil Simms
Last: Joe Montana — you don’t endorse Sketchers Shape-Ups and then get my respect as a potential US President, Joe.
Alright cool, that was an excellent use of our time. Now let’s get back to the meaty stuff.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Stanford Defense
Last Saturday afternoon in Winston-Salem, the Notre Dame offense exploded under new starting QB Ian Book, scoring 8 touchdowns (5 contributed by Book) and piling up 566 total yards of offense.
The Irish hope to bring that momentum into tomorrow night’s game and keep it rolling, for sure. Stanford’s defense is, per usual, pretty stout, as it’s ranked 11th in S&P+ and 19th in ESPN.com’s defensive efficiency rankings. However, Oregon’s offense last week was able to do some major damage, as Ducks QB Justin Herbert was able to pick the Stanford D apart for much of the game, completing 26 of 33 passes for 346 yards.
ND will look to do the same with Book, who’s shown a fantastic ability this season to be accurate and decisive in his passing — especially in the short-to-intermediate distance, where QBs NEED to be efficient in order to keep drives alive on 3rd downs. Book’s completed 28 of the 37 passes he’s thrown in 2018 (76% completion rate and 9.14 yards per attempt), so he certainly will hope to capitalize against the Stanford secondary in much the same way as Herbert did.
The Cardinal secondary, though, is certainly no pushover. They have a number of big, athletic, aggressive DBs who will look to suffocate Irish receivers and then use their natural ball hawk talents to pick Book off, or at least bat the ball down.
The ringleader of that talented Cardinal secondary is Paulson Adebo, who many of you may remember as a former Notre Dame commitment who flipped to Stanford once he was accepted and got an offer. Adebo has been fantastic so far in 2018, amassing 22 tackles and breaking up a ridiculous 11 passes in the first four games — more than even Julian Love, the master of PBUs.
Adebo is joined in the secondary by a host of names that Irish fans will remember from the past few years — Alameen Murphy (22 tackles, 2 INT), Alijah Holder (15 tackles, 4 PBU), Frank Buncom (15 tackles, 3 PBU), Ben Edwards (15 tackles), and Malik Antoine (2 INT). These guys are all veteran, talented DBs who play key roles in the Cardinal defense and who certainly plan on continuing to make the Notre Dame wide receivers struggle to create separation.
The Irish receivers, in the face of that Stanford secondary, will look to build upon a much more productive week against Wake Forest than they’d had the first three weeks of the season. Chase Claypool (11 rec, 151 yards, 1 TD) and Miles Boykin (9 rec, 167 yards) both will be needed to come up with catches, so the two big receivers will need to find a way to shed the Cardinal DBs and get free to give Book a couple big targets.
Chris Finke (14 rec, 142 yards, 1 TD) will do his thing in the slot, Alizé Mack (12 rec, 135 yards) will try to continue his hot streak, and young guys like Brock Wright (1 TD last week), Kevin Austin Jr. (3 rec, 39 yards last week), and Michael Young (66-yard catch and run last week) will need to keep stepping up and making big catches here and there to move the sticks and prevent drives that stall.
Considering this is the Stanford defense and not Wake Forest, the pass rush should be stronger tomorrow than Ian Book and the ND offensive line had to deal with last weekend. Stanford’s front seven features 7 guys who have sacks so far this year, led by DL Jovan Swann (3 sacks, 4.5 TFL), LB Joey Alfieri (2.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 FF, 1 FR TD), LB Jordan Fox (2 sacks, 3.5 TFL, 2 QBH), and LB Bobby Okereke (2 sacks, 4.5 TFL).
Add to that group some D-linemen that have a surprising number of tackles at the point of attack like Dylan Jackson (17 tackles) and Michael Williams (16 tackles, 2 QBH), and the front line is very solid and can wreak havoc for sure. The ND offensive line looked better the past couple weeks, but considering the struggles they’ve had — especially at tackle — don’t be surprised if Stanford gets to Ian Book a time or two for big hits/sacks.
Luckily for Notre Dame, they have an X-factor returning this weekend in RB Dexter Williams. Williams had been suspended for the first 4 games of the year, but now the Irish have back their biggest offensive home run threat. Williams managed to run for 9.2 yards per carry last season, picking up 360 yards and scoring 4 touchdowns despite being a backup to Josh Adams and also missing significant time due to injuries.
His speed and shiftiness will be a huge asset for offensive coordinator Chip Long to utilize alongside Jafar Armstrong (245 yards, 5.2 ypc, 5 TD) and Tony Jones Jr. (263 yards, 5.7 ypc, 3 TD), who both seem to improve every game in how effective they are running the football.
Add in that those two backs are dangerous as receivers (11 combined receptions for 175 combined yards), and Ian Book suddenly has a bevy of dynamic and diverse talent with him in the backfield, which is fun to see considering all the uncertainty at running back entering the season opener.
The Stanford linebackers will certainly have their work cut out for them, but as the 39th rushing defense in the country, it would seem logical that a combination of guys like Sean Barton (29 tackles), Okereke (23 tackles), Alfieri (21 tackles), Mustafa Branch (16 tackles), Fox (14 tackles), and Casey Toohill (14 tackles) will be able to at least somewhat slow down Armstrong, Jones Jr., Book, etc. Williams’ addition to the mix could be a major wildcard because of his speed and athleticism, but overall the Stanford defense has to be at least a little confident that they can bottle up the Irish running game better than most teams.
All in all, I think this will be the matchup to watch, as the ND offense is CLICKING and CONFIDENT after getting to tee off on a bad Wake Forest defense, while Stanford’s defense comes in as an experienced, physical opponent that will be ND’s toughest test since Michigan, without question. I think Book and co. find a way to move the ball despite that, but it may not come easy in the early going.
Defensive Cardinal to Watch
LB Bobby Okereke
He’s the heart and soul of the Stanford defense, and he will be needed in all aspects of the game — in chasing down Irish ball carriers, in getting pressure on Ian Book, in covering RBs and TEs on passing downs, etc. Okereke’s play will be crucial in Stanford’s shot at shutting down the Notre Dame offense.
Offensive Irish to Watch
RB Dexter Williams
Plenty of options here, but how can my choice not be Dex, who is FINALLY active and who could give the offense a shot in the arm with a couple big runs that gash the Cardinal defense and make them so worried about the run that they accidentally let Kevin Austin Jr. slip behind them...
In terms of special teams efficiency according to ESPN.com (no idea what exactly that means but I refuse to do more than 2 seconds of research on special teams), Stanford is 27th in the country (ND, for context, is 45th). However, both teams are eerily similar in S&P+ special teams rankings (Cardinal are 51st, Irish 53rd), so there probably isn’t a huge advantage here for either side.
Tyler Newsome is certainly the best punter in the game, but Stanford’s placekicker is named Jet Toner, so it’s hard to say who will prevail in this arena. I’m thinking Justin Yoon has a good day and Newsome manages to pin Stanford deep in their own territory a couple times, and that will help the Irish in their ultimate victory. Who’s to say, though?
Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One
Notre Dame 34, Stanford 27
Why: I was as big of a skeptic of Ian Book at starter as anyone, and I still want to see how he does against Stanford before I crown him the starter for the rest of the year. But for now I’m at least buying into the hype — the offense just moves better and can do more things with Book out there, and if he continues to take care of the ball, I’m not sure Stanford will be able to slow down that offense enough to win, especially considering KJ Costello and the Cardinal offense will definitely be slowed down by a criminally underrated Irish defense that’s carried the team in every game until last week (and even last week, they shut down what was a high-powered offense before garbage time and backups happened).
The Irish will pick up a HUGE win and jump a few spots in next week’s rankings, setting themselves up well for College Football Playoff rankings in a few weeks (assuming they don’t trip up and lose to a team who lost to Old Dominion or anything like that).