Alright you turkeys, it’s Thanksgiving weekend and I know we’ve all got plenty of other things to do, so I’m going to keep this week’s preview pretty short and sweet and potentially awkward, like the small talk you might have had yesterday with one of your cousins you aren’t particularly close to, or something.
Your Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team will finish their 2019 regular season tomorrow in Palo Alto, California, taking on the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford enters the game at 4-7 on the year and #79 in the SP+, which is almost certainly the worst they have been in all of head coach David Shaw’s tenure.
Neither their offense (#76 in SP+) or their defense (#81 in SP+) are very strong, and so the 9-2, #16 Irish — who are #15 in the SP+ (#22 offense, #20 defense) — should be licking their chops at the chance to win in Stanford Stadium for the first time since 2007.
Considering a slew of critical injuries the Cardinal have suffered, does Stanford stand any chance of upsetting ND and upholding their home win streak against Brian Kelly and his squad?
Let’s dive into the matchups.
Stanford Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Stanford offense has been bad this year, plain and simple.
Obviously it hasn’t helped that the Cardinal have lost numerous key guys to injury — starting tackles Walker Little was lost for the year with a knee injury, the other starting tackle, Devery Hamilton, is out indefinitely with a knee injury, and starting guard Dylan Powell is out for the year with an ankle injury. That’s...uhh...60% of the starting offensive line, you guys — no wonder the Cardinal are #123 in the country in rushing offense and #112 in yards per carry.
So, even though the Cardinal have a couple talented backs to hand the ball to in Cameron Scarlett (797 yds, 4.2 ypc, 6 TD) and Austin Jones (194 yds, 5.1 ypc, 1 TD), don’t expect the Cardinal to get too far on the ground tomorrow. The ND rushing defense is pretty mediocre overall (#75 in the country in rushing defense, #50 in yards per carry allowed), but the typical crew of LBs Asmar Bilal, Drew White, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (202 tackles, 26.5 TFL combined) should be all over the Cardinal ball carriers, especially considering the weakened Stanford offensive line will be struggling to just get a push against the ND defensive front, although that group will be a bit less stout than usual.
DTs Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (21 tackles, 1 FR, 5 QBH) and Jayson Ademilola (24 tackles, 4 TFL) will both be very limited in what they can do, if they play at all with the injuries they have. Guys like Kurt Hinish (14 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF) and Jacob Lacey will be asked to step up and get that push in the middle, holding the point of attack so that the linebackers can shoot gaps and hit the Stanford backs before they get into the second level.
So, assuming Clark Lea’s crew can mostly shut down a Cardinal rushing attack that lesser defenses have also been able to contain, it will likely be on the Stanford passing game to make any moves in this one.
Luckily for Stanford, the passing offense is certainly their relative strength (#40 in the country in total passing offense, #77 in yards per passing attempt), but very unluckily for them, they are nowhere near elite in that category, whereas the Notre Dame defense is TOP NOTCH in defending the pass.
The Irish secondary is #3 in the country in total pass defense and #5 in both yards per attempt allowed (5.7) and passer rating allowed (107.49). Add in that ND is #36 in sacks, #2 in fumbles forced, #3 in turnovers gained, etc., and it seems likely that Stanford will not only struggle to move the ball through the air, but also could end up with a few turnovers against such a talented opponent.
That thought goes double due to the fact that starting QB K.J. Costello (1,038 yds, 61% completion, 6 TD, 3 INT) is out for this one, meaning backup Davis Mills will once again be leading the Stanford offense.
Mills is no slouch at QB and has done reasonably well in Costello’s stead this season — 1,677 yards, 8.6 yards per attempt, 67% completion, 9 TD, 5 INT — but with a piecemeal offensive line trying to block the likes of Khalid Kareem (40 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 9 QBH, 10 TFL, 3 FF), Jamir Jones (4 sacks, 2 FF, 6 TFL), Adetokunbo Ogundeji (26 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR TD, 4.5 TFL, 4 QBH), Owusu-Koramoah (5.5 sacks, 1 FF, 9.5 TFL), and others, it’s likely that Mills will be forced to rush some throws against a dangerous secondary that LIVES on capitalizing on questionable decisions to create turnovers.
Don’t be surprised to see Kyle Hamilton (35 tackles, 5 PD) add to his team-leading 4 interceptions, or guys like Jalen Elliott (38 tackles, 2 PD, 2 INT) or Shaun Crawford (23 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT) — who have a penchant for coming up with key turnovers — to snag themselves a pick or two on the day.
Add in others who are entirely capable of big plays themselves like Alohi Gilman (63 tackles, 1 INT, 2 FF) and Troy Pride Jr. (34 tackles, 5 PD, 1 INT), and corners with a knack for deflecting passes like TaRiq Bracy (29 tackles, 6 PD, 1 FF) and Donte Vaughn (4 PD), and it will be a tough day at the office for Davis Mills.
If Mills finds some time and space to get the ball to his receivers, though, he does have a few guys who can make plays for him and help him move the ball down the field. WR Michael Wilson leads the team with 46 receptions, 576 yards, and 4 touchdowns, and TE Colby Parkinson has been nearly as productive with 45 catches for 552 yards to go along with a touchdown of his own.
WR Connor Wedington is doubtful for this game after being carted off the field last weekend with an injury, but would have been another dangerous weapon for Mills to lean on, considering his 51 catches for 506 yards and a touchdown.
WR Simi Fehoko, though, is certainly the big-play receiver the Irish need to keep in front of them — he only has 18 receptions on the year, but those 18 catches have resulted in an eye-popping 503 yards and 6 touchdowns. That’s 27.9 yards per catch, you guys. That’s some speed right there.
Equanimeous St. Brown’s little brother Osiris St. Brown is another solid contributor with 24 catches for 242 yards this year, and the running backs also get in on the passing action, with Scarlett and Jones having combined for 35 receptions and 299 yards receiving in 2019 to-date.
Overall, this seems like a really tough matchup for the Cardinal. Their relative strength matches up horribly with ND’s elite pass defense, and their lack of a good ground game — which is where teams can do a little damage against this Irish defense — will leave them pretty one-dimensional on Saturday and struggling to move the ball down the field. I think the ND defense wins this matchup pretty handily and gives Ian Book and the Irish offense plenty of opportunity to build a big early lead.
Offensive Cardinal to Watch
WR Simi Fehoko
QB Davis Mills is probably the X-factor for Stanford tomorrow, but I think the guy to truly watch and who could truly make a huge impact on momentum and how this game goes is WR Simi Fehoko, considering his immense playmaking ability. If the Irish secondary somehow loses him once or twice, Stanford could hang around in this one — especially if something goes awry with the ND offense, which seems unlikely but wouldn’t be unheard of with this team.
Defensive Irish to Watch
CB Troy Pride Jr.
I think the ND secondary and their elite pass defense will make or break this game, either smothering the Cardinal as they have other opponents, or making some mental mistakes at the end of a long season on the road on Thanksgiving weekend. I think the former is much more likely, and am looking to Pride to have himself a nice little game in coverage to finish out his ND regular season career.
Best Names in the Game
Just wanted to say, as you peruse the list below, that I think Stanford far and away has the best names, as a whole team, in the country this year. The depth and amazingness of their names in this list are sensational.
- Stanford WR Osiris St. Brown
- Stanford PK Jet Toner
- Stanford LB Thunder Keck
- Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
- Notre Dame LS Axel Raarup
- Notre Dame S Litchfield Ajavon
- Stanford OT Wakely Lush
- Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
- Stanford CB Kyu Blu Kelly
- Notre Dame DL Hunter Spears
- Stanford DT Bo Peek
- Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
- Stanford CB Paulson Adebo
- Stanford LB Aeneas DiCosmo
- Notre Dame DE Nana Osafo-Mensah
- Stanford CB Treyjohn Butler
- Notre Dame CB Temitope Agoro
- Stanford TE Scooter Harrington
- Notre Dame DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji
- Stanford TE TaeVeon Le
- Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong
- Stanford WR Diego Preciado
- Stanford FB Houston Heimuli
- Stanford WR Brycen Tremayne
- Stanford OT Walker Little
- Stanford DE Trey LaBounty
- Stanford LB Tangaloa Kaufusi
- Stanford LB Levani Damuni
- Stanford CB Obi Eboh
- Stanford WR Simi Fehoko
- Stanford DE Jovan Swann
- Stanford CB Zahran Manley
- Stanford CB Donjae Logan
- Stanford G Branson Bragg
Notre Dame Offense vs. Stanford Defense
The Stanford defense isn’t quite as hapless as the Stanford offense, but they still are nowhere near the level of defense we’ve been used to seeing from the Cardinal over the past decade or so.
Partially because of injuries and partially just because they’re a little down, Stanford is #92 in total defense (#57 in rush defense, #118 in pass defense), #69 in scoring defense, #103 in yards per play allowed, #109 in turnovers gained, #72 in tackles for loss, #48 in sacks, and #96 in fumbles forced. Clearly, that is not a unit you can expect to do a great job slowing down a Notre Dame offense that has been preying on bad defenses of late.
Ian Book (2,532 yds, 59.5% completion, 7.4 ypa, 29 TD, 6 INT) has been dealing the past three games, lighting up bad secondaries and driving the Irish to score 130 points and just completely blow out the competition.
He’s been helped, of course, by a group of receivers that knows how to dominate bad secondaries, led by Chase Claypool and his 56 receptions for 828 yards and 10 touchdowns. In a different universe, we’d be talking about the NFL-esque matchup we’d see tomorrow between Claypool and elite Stanford CB Paulson Adebo (33 tackles, 10 PD, 4 INT), but Adebo is, unfortunately, out for the game due to injury.
In fact, the Cardinal will likely be missing various defensive backs due to injury. Safety Malik Antoine (31 tackles, 4 PD) and cornerback Ethan Bonner are both listed as OUT for Saturday (along with linebackers Jacob Mangum-Farrar and Ricky Miezan), and cornerbacks Obi Eboh (21 tackles, 1 PD) and Treyjohn Butler are listed as questionable. So, similar to the Stanford offense, injuries have truly decimated their ability to compete out there — especially in pass coverage, where Stanford has already struggled all season.
The names to know in the Stanford secondary, then, will be guys like safeties Kendall Williamson (41 tackles, 1 PD, 1 FR) and Jonathan McGill (33 tackles, 3 PD, 1 INT, 1 FR TD, 3 TFL) and cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, who’s made a few plays this year with 33 tackles, 1 sack, 5 passes defended, and an interception to his name. However, that group just doesn’t have the depth or firepower to match up with all the weapons ND will throw at them.
So, look for not only Claypool, but all the other Irish receivers to make some big plays through the air tomorrow. Chris Finke (35 rec, 410 yds, 4 TD) has come along strong recently, Cole Kmet (36 rec, 405 yds, 6 TD) is as talented and dangerous as always, and Braden Lenzy (8 rec, 199 yds, 2 TD) has now shown that he’s good for 1-2 huge plays per game — and maybe more against such a weakened secondary like Stanford’s.
Hell, even bit-player guys like Javon McKinley (11 rec, 268 yds, 4 TD), Tommy Tremble (13 rec, 158 yds, 3 TD), and Lawrence Keys III (12 rec, 126 yds) can be expected to make some plays tomorrow, as I think Chip Long will have Book slinging the ball all over this defense as he carves them up through the air.
Book should have a good amount of time to throw as well, considering Stanford isn’t exactly elite at rushing the QB. Granted Book is missing the starting right side of his offensive line, I still don’t think the Cardinal will be able to dial up enough pressure to really disrupt Book, especially considering his ability to scamper away and make plays with his feet (487 yds, 5.0 ypc, 4 TD rushing this season).
With that said, the Stanford players who will be asked by David Shaw and co. to try to get to Book will be guys like LB Casey Toohill, who leads the team with 8 sacks and has accumulated 10.5 tackles for loss and 10 QB hurries. DE Thomas Booker has 4 sacks and 8.5 TFL himself, and DE Jovan Swann has 3 sacks and 6.5 TFL of his own. After those three, look for Stanford to send other linebackers like Curtis Robinson (2 sacks) and Gabe Reid (2 sacks) and to rely on other defensive linemen like Michael Williams, Thomas Schaffer, and Dalyn Wade-Perry to get some pressure up the middle.
The Irish running game has definitely been quieter in the second half of the season, but ND will certainly still try to establish some semblance of a running game tomorrow with Tony Jones Jr., Jahmir Smith, and Jafar Armstrong. Jones Jr. has been the workhorse in 2019, stacking up 672 yards on 5.6 yards per carry and scoring 5 touchdowns in the process. Smith has had a nice few games recently when called upon, and has 182 yards on 4.7 yards per carry and 2 touchdowns this season.
Armstrong has not been able to get going much this year with injuries, etc., but could be called upon to eat up some yardage and give the offense a speedier back with which to run the ball. Furthermore, look for WR Braden Lenzy to get his now customary 1-2 carries, as the guy is averaging 23.3 yards per rush and has 2 rushing TDs this year, including that 61-yard touchdown run last weekend against Boston College.
Stopping the run is a bit more in the Cardinal’s wheelhouse than shutting down the pass would be, so look for the Stanford linebackers to be their usual aggressive, physical, sure-tackling selves in trying to bottle up TJJ, Smith, Armstrong, and Book.
LB Andrew Pryts will lead that initiative, as he leads the team in tackles with 67 and will be critical in making sure Jones Jr. and co. don’t get into the second level and keep the chains moving on the ground. Robinson (57 tackles, 2 FF), Toohill (54 tackles, 1 FF), and Reid (38 tackles) will help Pryts in that regard, and Williams (23 tackles, 5.5 TFL), Schaffer (13 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 FF), and Wade-Perry (11 tackles, 4 TFL) will do their best to hold the point of attack against the Irish offensive line and try to clog up any running lanes for ND ball carriers.
Overall, I don’t expect the Irish to come out and run the ball down the Cardinal’s throats, but instead I think it will be more of the familiar Chip Long/Brian Kelly sling it around offense, especially considering how depleted and porous the Stanford secondary is. I think the Irish build a solid early lead via the passing game, and then in the second half, perhaps, Tony Jones Jr. runs behind Aaron Banks and the boys to wear the Cardinal down, eat up clock, and win the game comfortably.
Defensive Cardinal to Watch
LB Casey Toohill
Toohill is important in all aspects of the defense, but as the best pass rusher on the Stanford team, he will need to get consistent pressure on Ian Book to flush him from the pocket and make him uncomfortable enough to make some mistakes.
Offensive Irish to Watch
WR Chase Claypool
With no Paulson Adebo out there to match up with him, I think Claypool will have a FIELD DAY and will be running wild in the Cardinal secondary all day long. Look for a very strong finish for the Maple Bandit’s regular season career tomorrow.
There’s not a ton to talk about here, to be honest. Stanford (#42) and ND (#39) are rated pretty similarly in SP+ for special teams, and although Stanford’s Connor Wedington is #11 in the country in kickoff return average, there’s a decent chance he doesn’t play in this game, or even if he does, he will be limited in his effectiveness.
In the kicking game, Stanford kicker Jet Toner is out due to injury, which is definitely good for the Irish considering he was pretty solid this year and had hit a long field goal of 51 yards. Ryan Sanborn has filled in for him pretty damn well, though, making 11 of 11 extra points and 6-of-8 field goals himself, including a long of 48 yards.
For the Irish, Jonathan Doerer continues to be the best surprise of the season, and he’s now made 48 of 48 extra points and 12-of-14 field goals, including being 9-for-11 from 30+ yards with a long made field goal of 52.
Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One
Notre Dame 37, Stanford 17
Notre Dame’s offense should be able to move the ball pretty easily tomorrow, and although the Cardinal have a few players like Simi Fehoko who could get behind the defense and make big plays, I think the Irish secondary and pass rush will smother Davis Mills and his receivers and make this an easy one for the ND offense to pull away in, giving BK his first ever win in Palo Alto while coaching Notre Dame.