The Stanford players and coaches have been saying all the right things all week long -- last year's game in South Bend has no relevance to Saturday's game against Notre Dame -- but I doubt that you'll be able to find a fan who shares that feeling.
You remember how things went. Stanford had a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter before two highly questionable flags flew in favor of the Irish -- one for unnecessary roughness, the other for pass interference -- and aided an Irish drive which ended in a game-tying field goal. After Notre Dame scored a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime, Stanford's Stepfan Taylor appeared to match that score -- twice! -- but the officials didn't agree. Lest you think this is sour grapes, remember that virtually everyone in the sports world, except those wearing Blue and Gold, believed that Taylor should have been awarded at least one of those touchdowns. Now, that doesn't mean Stanford would've won the game, it only means they would've had an opportunity to kick an extra point to tie the game and extend overtime. Even so, the loss was bitter at the time, and the ensuing thirteen months haven't done much to alleviate the feeling of injustice.
But the players are right when they say that this game isn't about revenge. Stepfan Taylor, for example, is in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, and quarterback Josh Nunes has retired from football. Whenever Stanford plays Notre Dame, however, the stakes are high. First of all, it's a high profile game, one that is almost always televised nationally. Second, there's always at least a few recruits who have both Stanford and Notre Dame on their short lists, so it's a good idea to do well while those youngsters are watching.
A few weeks ago this looked like a game that might help Stanford push a bit higher in the BCS standings, but none of that matters any more for the Cardinal. In fact, if we're only concerned with the bottom line, this game has all the importance of a pre-season scrimmage. Win or lose, Stanford will still play Arizona State next weekend in the Pac-12 championship game.
But here's one thing I know -- the players and coaches don't want to hear anything about a glorified scrimmage. They'll come out on Saturday night looking to build on the momentum earned in last week's thrashing of Cal, and they'll want to keep the razor sharp for Arizona State. And while the Irish aren't in BCS contention, a victory over Stanford would be more than just a nice win. Should they beat the Cardinal, they'd sweep their Pac-12 opponents -- traditional rival USC, southern division champion Arizona State, and northern division champion Stanford. Essentially, they'd be Pac-12 champions.
But don't worry; this is a different team than the one Stanford faced last season. The Irish were led by a suffocating defense in 2012. They held five different opponents under seven points, but they only accomplished this once in 2013. They gave up 30 points to Michigan and 34 each to ASU and Navy. Notre Dame boasted one of the top ten rushing defenses in the country last year, giving up just 105.7 yards per game on the ground, but that number has ballooned to 167.5 in 2013 and a whopping 230 per game over their past three (Navy, Pitt, and BYU). Defensive lineman Louis Nix, who paved the way for much of Manti Te'o's heroics in 2012, has been lost for the season, and that's likely contributed to the recent demise of the run defense. Also, this weekend the Irish will be without safeties Elijah Shumate and Eilar Hardy (both occasional starters), who have been left behind in South Bend for violating team rules.
There are also concerns on offense. Quarterback Everett Golson threw for twelve touchdowns and ran for six more in 2012, but he was dismissed from the team during the off season, returning Tommy Rees to the starting position. Rees has definitely been better than he was in 2011, but he isn't a game changer the way Golson was. Also, the Irish will be starting their second-string center, Matt Hegarty. I'm guessing he'll be getting to know Shayne Skov fairly well as the Stanford linebackers test his ability to adjust the pass blocking schemes in the face of the Cardinal's variety of zone blitzes. If Hegarty can't adjust, watch for Skov to come flying through the middle on the A-gap blitz all night long.
I expect a game that might (or might not) look close in the first half before opening up in Stanford's favor in the second. Tyler Gaffney will likely get back over a hundred yards again, and once he gets rolling we'll see more of Ty Montgomery and Michael Rector. Two interceptions from Rees will undo anything positive he creates, and the Cardinal will win easily. Stanford 31, Notre Dame 13.
But in my continued effort to provide a balanced point of view, I have two different Notre Dame bloggers to give us some insight into the Irish and offer their perspectives on the game. Eric Murtaugh from One Foot Down and John Vannie from NDNation were both kind enough to indulge me, and I'm happy to present their responses here. (You can also check out my answers to John's questions over at NDNation.) Enjoy...
Go Mighty Card:
What is the overall sense of the health of Notre Dame football under Brian Kelly? Does the fan base expect that he'll be able to deliver championship contending seasons like 2012 on a relatively consistent basis, or is that unrealistic?
One Foot Down:
Kelly has really improved the health of the program, but I don't think it's realistic to expect championship contending seasons on a consistent basis. Especially if your meaning of contending for a championship is actually making the national championship game which will become incredibly more difficult once the 4-team playoff begins in 2014. I mean even if you look at how well Stanford has played in recent years and they haven't reached a title game. It's really, really hard.
Brian Kelly is clearly an improvement over his predecessors dating back to 1997, and he brought credibility to the rebuilding process after a decade of bluster and slogans. He immediately understood the program needed an infusion of talent, but also that a cultural change was necessary. Both the players and the overall management of the program had become soft, and a lack of urgency with regard to winning had permeated the campus. Both Kelly and the current administration bring a renewed commitment to restore excellence in football, and Stanford (rather than Alabama) is viewed as an example of how we can do this without abandoning our standards. Kelly has shown we can contend going forward, but we're not yet at the level where we can expect it on a consistent basis. Last season's success and a solid freshman class this year have restored hope and bought Kelly enough time to show what he can do.
What about this season? Some felt that the loss in last season's championship's game was so decisive that it might have a lasting effect on the team. Was that the case? Has this team failed to meet expectations, or was the step back expected?
You could probably convince me that the loss to Alabama plus the outrageously terrible off-season had a negative impact on the team heading into this fall. Losing quarterback Everett Golson alone drastically changed the perception around the program and the ceiling for the offense this season. The biggest disappointment has been the defense though as they've been ravaged by injuries and had a couple players take a big step back from 2012. Even though they've shown flashes of dominance at times the defense has let the team down in some big moments this season whereas last year they almost always came up big. Many thought the defense would be as good (or in the same ballpark) as last year but that hasn't been the case. Overall, this season has been a little bit of a disappointment with the loss to Pitt being the data point that swings 2013 in to the negative. Unless of course the Irish can defeat Stanford.
The coaches worked hard to convince the players that the game against Alabama was more competitive than the score indicated, but I don't know if everyone in the locker room bought into that. From my vantage point in the stands, the matchup was right up there with the battle at Little Big Horn in 1876. Notre Dame also had a very tumultuous offseason with the Manti Te'o story, Kelly's NFL flirtation, transfers out of the program, injuries, and last-minute recruiting defections. Still, the loss of Everett Golson was a more significant blow to the team this year than any of these events, including the residual effect of the Alabama game. Everyone expected the offense to be less potent this year with Rees at quarterback, but we did not anticipate that the defense would take a step back as it has this season. Losing Te'o hurt from both a physical and emotional standpoint, but even that does not explain why the overall tackling has gone from crisp in 2012 to awful in 2013.
Tell me about Tommy Rees's development as a quarterback. By some measures he's been much better than he was as the starter two years ago. Do Irish fans point to the loss of Everett Golson as a reason for this season's decline, or has Rees been good enough?
I think Rees is about the same quarterback as he's ever been with the caveat that he's improved his accuracy and ability to throw the ball down field. If we knew he would have improved this area a couple years ago a lot of Irish fans would have been ecstatic because it was the one thing he couldn't do as an underclassman. However, since he's been able to hit some deep throws his completion percentage has plummeted and he's still very much the same QB who struggles with untimely interceptions and can't do anything with his feet. So yes, having to play Rees again explains some of the decline this season.
Rees has earned everyone's respect by working hard to improve his effectiveness as a passer. Although he has looked great at times, he cannot salvage a bad play call by scrambling like Golson or even Kevin Hogan. Since he is basically a one-dimensional player, defenses can get him to change the
play call at the line and then adjust accordingly. This predictability puts Notre Dame at a disadvantage, and the results have sometimes been catastrophic. I'd say the best outcome with Rees at the helm this season would be a 9-2 record coming into Palo Alto. We're actually 8-3, but never should have lost to Pittsburgh. That loss is more on the coaches than Tommy Rees, though. The overall plan and in-game decision making that night were atrocious.
The Irish will be playing without their starting center. How do you expect this loss to affect the running game and the offensive line's ability to protect Rees in the pocket?
I don't think it will have a big impact mostly because the line has done very well replacing a couple injuries already this season and they've been phenomenal in pass protection. The new center Matt Hegarty also played really well last week against an aggressive BYU defense so that offers some optimism. I don't think Notre Dame will have a lot of success running the ball but I don't think it will be primarily because of having a new center.
Matt Hegarty performed very well against BYU despite being thrust into the game with minimal practice time. Notre Dame was running the ball well that day and did not miss a beat when he took over at center. Also, there were not many obvious passing situations where BYU could send a ton of pressure. Stanford will provide a stern test, however, and I expect the Irish will find themselves in quite a few third and long situations. I'm interested to see if Shane Skov will be able to blitz the quarterback through the A gap as successfully as he has all season. Rees is accustomed to a clean pocket, and Hegarty must hold up physically and mentally or it will be a long night for the Irish.
Louis Nix must also be a huge loss. How has the defense been playing without him? Which names might we expect to hear frequently on Saturday?
The defense has held up okay without Nix. The line is not the same without him but the defense has been able to cobble together a decent front in his absence. You can expect to see Kona Schwenke getting the majority of reps inside with Jarron Jones coming on strong in recent weeks but it still young and might have a lot of ups and downs against a team like Stanford.
The loss of Nix really hurts in a game like this. His presence in the middle allowed end Stephon Tuitt to dominate the game against USC last month, and Nix also helped to cover up what is a decidedly mediocre group of inside linebackers. I suspect that Stanford will double team Tuitt and not worry too much about the other guys. Sophomore Jarron Jones is physically gifted and had a breakout performance last week, and Irish fans are hopeful that he can be stout this week as well. Backup nose tackle Kona Schwenke has a high ankle sprain and will try to stay on the field, but he only managed a
couple of series against BYU before limping to the sidelines. Sheldon Day is another talented defensive lineman for the Irish, but he has not been 100% since early September. As you can tell, I have great concerns regarding Notre Dame's ability to stop the run this week.
Finally, how do you expect the game to play out? Give a final score and your best justification for how we get there.
I haven't quite finished my preview on our site yet but I think it will be a close game with Stanford pulling away in the second half. I think the Irish can stand up to the Cardinal running game and that could lead to more field goal attempts to keep the points down. On the other side of the ball I don't have much faith in Notre Dame being able to consistently run the ball or having to put the game in Rees' hands to beat Stanford through the air. I'll say Stanford wins something like 27-13.
I expect a physical game that will be played at a high level. Stanford is more likely to run the ball well and make Hogan a more effective quarterback, whereas Kelly is quick to abandon the run if it is not
immediately successful or he falls behind. This puts Rees in greater jeopardy of making mistakes. I'd say the winning team will throw the ball fewer than 30 times, and it's more likely to be the Cardinal. Other factors favoring Stanford include Hogan's ability to extend drives with his legs, Notre Dame's inexplicably bad special teams, Stanford's record of success at home and Notre Dame's relatively poor performances on the road this season. Notre Dame's best chance is to get off to a strong start and stay ahead on the scoreboard, but I think the opposite will happen. Also, David Shaw is
less likely to panic and start chucking the ball all over the lot if things don't go his way early. My estimated score is 27-17 Stanford.