If there's one thing we can say about this year's edition of the Stanford Cardinal, it's this: every game is a big game. Some, of course, are bigger than others, and Saturday's game against #7 Notre Dame at South Bend is definitely bigger than most.
The Cardinal has only played one road game thus far, and that ended in disaster. Not only did Stanford lose the game, but in the days that followed the fanbase erupted with dissatisfaction, and most were demanding a change at the quarterback position.
Coach Shaw did not waver, however, and his faith was rewarded as Josh Nunes had the best game of his short career during the win over Arizona last weekend, throwing for 360 yards and accounting for five touchdowns in the process.
This weekend Nunes will face the most difficult test of his career. He will be venturing back out onto the road and into an environment dripping with history and nostalgia, but more important than any of that, he'll be facing one of the best defenses in the nation. The Irish are currently ranked second in the nation in points allowed at 7.8 per game, and they haven't allowed a touchdown in the past three games.
I think the Stanford defense will limit the Notre Dame offense, possibly keeping them under 20 points, but the game will clearly be decided by how effective the Stanford offense can be against Manti Te'0 and the Notre Dame defense. If Nunes can avoid mistakes and even create some offense of his own as he did against Arizona, the Cardinal just might be able to come away with an upset win and their fourth straight victory in this series, derailing Notre Dame's national championship dreams in the process.
This is typically the point in the piece where I turn things over to an opponent's blogger for the inside scoop on that team, but this week we're lucky enough to have two different experts weighing in. Please welcome John Vannie from Notre Dame Nation (you can read my answers to his questions here) and Eric Murtaugh of One Foot Down. Lots of great stuff below, so check it out...
First up is John, focusing on the offense.
Go Mighty Card:
The Irish have had trouble settling on a quarterback for the past couple years, but now it looks like they've found a keeper in redshirt freshman Everett Golson. What are his strengths and weaknesses as a quarterback?
Notre Dame Nation:
Golson's strengths and weaknesses are the mirror image of the guy he replaced, Tommy Rees. Golson is mobile and has the ability to escape the pocket for positive yardage or to find a receiver downfield. He has a strong arm and is accurate on the short and intermediate throws. Neither he nor
Rees have mastered the deep ball, but at least Golson's pass will arrive before sunset and no audible quacking will be heard. Golson's progress is tied to his ability to recognize defenses and make the proper adjustments at the line of scrimmage, which is a critical requirement in Brian Kelly's offense. Kelly stuck with Rees longer than expected for this reason, but he realized this spring that good coaching and game experience will improve Golson's command of the offense while Rees' physical limitations are not going to improve. Finally, Notre Dame came out of the bye week with a few read option plays for Golson to run, and he performed well. Kelly had previously kept these plays in mothballs while Golson learned the progressions in the passing game.
Here at Stanford we definitely appreciate good tight ends, so I'm looking forward to watching Tyler Eifert. His numbers are down this year. What makes him so good, and why has he fallen so far off of last year's pace?
Eifert has good size and speed downfield, but his success on tough catches can be attributed to his ability to position his body without pushing off so the defender is effectively screened out from a play on the ball. He has excellent hands has worked very hard since coming on board as a lightly regarded recruit. After much success in the first two games this season, both Michigan schools and Miami made it a point to take him away from the offense. This is a reasonable strategy since there is no Michael Floyd among the Irish wide receivers, but others such as T.J. Jones and DeVaris Daniels have started to take advantage of additional opportunities.
The Stanford defense has had great success stopping the run. What's the state of Notre Dame's rushing attack? Cierre Wood broke out last week. Can we expect him to carry the load again on Saturday?
Wood is Notre Dame's most complete running back, but he has been in and out of the coach's doghouse this season for various reasons. It was good to see him perform well last week and I expect he will be featured again on Saturday. George Atkinson has exceptional speed and Kelly tries to get him to the edge of the defense, while Theo Riddick is a more accomplished pass receiver who still dances a bit more than I like to see from a ball carrier. Irish fans are excited about the 376 yard performance against Miami and noticed two new wrinkles that were installed during the bye week. First, the use of Golson as a runner, and second, the alterations in the blocking scheme to generate more quick-hitting runs including traps and misdirection. The line blocked more crisply on these plays than they have on the stretch play and other slow developing runs. Notre Dame won't rush for 300 yards this week, but I'd be happy if they break 150.
Looking at the offense as a whole, what can we expect to see on Saturday? When Brian Kelly was hired, he talked about wanting to install the high-octane attack he used at Cincinnati, but is it right that the Irish aren't quite up to that speed?
Kelly has acknowledged that Golson is not ready for an Oregon-like blitzkrieg. Also, he understands that he can rely more on his defense than he did earlier in his coaching career, so quick three and outs are not going to help him win at Notre Dame. As Golson's football education advances past the 101 stage, we'll probably see a faster pace. This week, I expect him to test Stanford to see how they cover Eifert off the line and when he is split wide, and adjust accordingly. He will move Golson around in the pocket so that the height of your pass rushers doesn't affect his throws and they are forced to respect the running threat. Finally, Kelly likes to find ways to spread out a defense to utilize his speedy backs and receivers in favorable matchups.
What are the expectations surrounding the team? Are fans talking about a national championship? Have players or coaches spoken about any goals?
Kelly is careful to downplay any long term discussions regarding the team's potential this season and focus on the next game. The players have bought into the one day at a time approach, but the students and fans are not immune to the buzz after two decades of relative mediocrity. If I break down the remainder of the season, I would say the next three games against Stanford, BYU and Oklahoma will tell us where we are headed. A 2-1 margin in these contests is important if the team is going to qualify for the BCS. After the Sooners, it looks like relatively clear sailing until we play USC in the Coliseum. We appreciate Stanford's recent success against the Trojans and may finally have the type of defense and overall physicality to give them a run for their money. The effects of such a demanding schedule really makes any 12-0 dreams seem out of reach, but no worse than 10-2 and a BCS game would be very satisfying.
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick recently said that the Stanford series would remain intact after the University joins the ACC, but that was largely to preserve recruiting avenues on the west coast. How do fans view the Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry? Do they ever wish their mascot were a Tree
instead of a Leprechaun?
Irish fans believe we should continue to play Stanford, as we have more similarities than differences and there is considerable mutual respect. That said, there has been discussion among our patrons that we might not want to play Stanford every year as we do USC. Some suggested that we could work in other PAC-12 opponents from time to time since it is doubtful that we'll be in a position to play three West Coast teams going forward. As for the Leprechaun, I believe that today's Notre Dame administrators see themselves as much more sophisticated than their early predecessors, and are more than a little sheepish about being represented by a group of underachieving, brawling, beer-swilling immigrants. Too much has been invested in branding, tradition and merchandising, however, so they're pretty much stuck with it. It suits me just fine.
Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?
As that famous Irishman Clubber Lane once said, "I predict pain." Seriously, though, it should be a low scoring affair. My concerns with Stanford are that its defensive front seven will control our offensive line, and its excellent special teams will create a measurable advantage in field position. If Notre Dame can run the ball enough to have some semblance of balance, I like their chances. I give Golson the edge over Nunes, primarily due to Nunes' poor performance at Washington and the fact that Arizona's defense is awful. Golson also has a few more weapons and speed at his disposal. Montgomery's absence will make it tougher for the tight ends to run roughshod over our secondary. I'm calling it 20-13, Notre Dame. I expect you will predict a similar score with Stanford on top.
And now, here's Mr. Murtaugh, focusing on the defense...
I'm guessing it all starts with Manti Te'o. What makes him so great? Is there anything he struggles with? Any weaknesses at all?
What makes Te'o great? Phew, there are a lot of things. First and foremost is his leadership and character as a human being. I know it's sappy for some people but he's probably one of the best off the field leaders ever at Notre Dame---which is saying a lot.
The Notre Dame defense hasn't allowed a touchdown in three games, and that can't all be Te'o. Who are some of the other playmakers on that side of the ball?
The coaching staff and players pride themselves on their power and strength up front on the defensive line. A few years ago Irish fans would have complained that this was the biggest problem of the defense, but now it's the team's unquestioned strength. The two stars up front are redshirt junior nose guard Louis Nix and sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt. The latter player is one of the few true 3-4 dominant nose guards in the country (think the Patriot's Vince Wilfork) and will demand double teams all game long. If he is single teamed he has the capability to drive offensive linemen 5 yards back while also disengaging and making a tackle in the backfield.
Last year the Stanford tight ends ran wild against the Notre Dame linebackers and defensive backs, and I'm guessing that Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz will again figure prominently in the Stanford offensive game plan. Do you feel like the Irish secondary is ready for this challenge?
As you know, Notre Dame has their own big and fast tight ends so I know how big of a weapon players like that can be. I think the answer is that you have to contain these guys and limit their big-play ability.
The Stanford offensive line is still something of a work in progress, which doesn't bode well as they go against the Notre Dame defensive line. How does that unit perform against the run, and what type of a pass rush can we expect to see? Will Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes have to deal with a lot of blitzing on Saturday?
Notre Dame's defense has a first priority to stop the run, recruiting has been built around this, and they've been wildly successful at it since Brian Kelly took over and most especially this season.
How big is this game for Notre Dame? Does the Stanford game raise the interest level at all for fans, or is this simply another game on the schedule?
Oh, I think it's a huge game and very important to Notre Dame fans.
For Stanford fans who might be visiting South Bend for the first time this weekend, what are the can't miss destinations on game day?
Unlike a lot of other places, most of the good stuff is right on campus. There's the College Football Hall of Fame and a handful of restaurants/bars in South Bend that might be worth your time, but if it's your first visit I would stick to campus activities. Friday is a good time to sight see on campus if you arrive early enough from out of town. There will still be crowds but it won't be overwhelming like it will be on Saturday. There's a pep rally on Friday night that will be held inside the Joyce Center next to the football stadium. You can also check out the massive Hammes Bookstore as there will be plenty of game day gear with Notre Dame and Stanford logos. I'm not sure on the exact time but at some point in the late afternoon after the teams are finished with their walk-thru's they allow fans to walk inside the north gate, down the tunnel, and right down to the field. It's a pretty neat experience if you can do it.
Finally, how do you expect the game to play out? Give me a final score and explain how we get there.
You can read my preview and prediction of the game right here. I think it will be a very close game but I have Notre Dame winning 24-20. I think the Irish are finally ready to match Stanford's toughness and they now have an edge in talent as well.