To say that Stanford has dominated the series with Notre Dame since the ascension of Andrew Luck in 2009 would be an understatement. The Cardinal has won seven of the nine games since 2009, and both of the losses could easily have been victories. In fact, any Stanford fan -- and any player from the 2012 team -- will tell you that Stepfan Taylor scored not once, but twice in overtime. But, as fifth-year senior Jesse Burkett explained this week, "When you play at Notre Dame, you gotta know that you're going to get some calls that don't go your way." The hope, of course, is that those calls don't swing the game in one direction or the other, the way they did when the officials ruled Taylor was down, even though replays clearly showed he wasn't, and that he didn't cross the plane of the goal line, even though replays clearly showed he did.
But all of that's ancient history. All that matters now is the game in front of us, a matchup between the seventh- and eighth-ranked teams in the country that will have definite playoff implications.
For the Irish, the playoffs essentially begin in September, because fairly or not, history shows that they have to run the table to make the final four. A win over Stanford wouldn't just be an impressive line on their résumé, it would keep them alive. A loss would probably eliminate them.
The stakes aren't quite as high for Stanford, however. A close road loss to a favored top-ten team wouldn't look bad to the playoff committee, and unlike the Irish, the Cardinal has a conference championship to play for. If Stanford runs the table in conference play and wins the Pac-12 Championship game, they will be a playoff team, no matter what happens on Saturday night. In fact, I could even see a scenario in which a two-loss Pac-12 champ could slide into the playoffs.
Okay, but back to the game. I have my own personal issues with Notre Dame, issues which run as deep as my Michigan roots, but it doesn't feel like this game is as important to the fan base as it once was. I know there's a trophy that's passed back and forth, but the rivalry seems a bit manufactured and not nearly as compelling as the games against USC and Oregon. Even so, this game still means more than just a win or a loss on the ledger. Due to Stanford's high academic standards -- and Notre Dame's somewhat higher than average standards -- these two programs often target the same recruits. Stanford's latest rising star, sophomore cornerback Paulsen Adebo, was a Notre Dame commit before his Stanford acceptance arrived, and just two weeks ago offensive lineman Walter Rouse spurned the Irish and committed to the Cardinal. This game matters for 2018, but it also matters for the future.
If Stanford is to win, it will be because of the defense. The Notre Dame offense struggled to open the season, scoring just 24, 24, and 22 points in wins over Michigan, Ball State, and Vanderbilt. There were concerns about quarterback Brandon Wimbush, so Ian Book took over against Wake Forest. All he did was throw for 325 yards and two touchdowns as the Irish rolled to a 56-27 win. The offensive domination was thorough, as Notre Dame also rushed for 241 yards, a total that's more than a little concerning.
Stanford's defensive backs will certainly provide more resistance than Wake Forest's did, so the key will be controlling the Irish running game on 1st and 2nd downs. I realize this is hardly deep analysis. You could say this about any team in any game at any level, but I think it will be especially true on Saturday. The Stanford secondary is good enough to make things difficult for any passing offense in America. If Book is consistently forced into obvious throwing situations on 3rd down, things will go well for the Cardinal. (Yes, I've seen the stats about the Cardinal defense on 3rd and long, and yes, I know they aren't pretty, but I choose to believe what my eyes told me during the second half against Oregon and the best college quarterback in America. If they can limit Justin Herbert, they can certainly limit Ian Book.)
Meanwhile, the Stanford offense continues to improve. The biggest adjustment we saw from the Cardinal in the final quarter and a half against Oregon was an increase in the number of spread formations. With teams reconfiguring their defensive schemes to stop Bryce Love, and thanks to an increased confidence in quarterback K.J. Costello, offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard has opened up the offense a bit. Coming off the field after last week's win against Oregon, Costello was heard telling Burkett, "Once we get settled, we're good!" Burkett's response was quick and to the point: "We need to get to that sooner." It will be interesting to see if Burkett gets his wish. If the playcalling is aggressive in the early going, take that as a good sign. If the offensive line can perform a bit better in run blocking, take that as an even better sign.
So here's my prediction. Both the offense and defense will pick up where they left off last week. Costello will throw for 300 yards, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will get two more touchdowns, and the offense will begin to scare some people. The defense will do enough to give the Cardinal a 28-24 win.
For a deeper look at the Irish, and perhaps a different outlook on the game, I've brought in Randall Mast from the excellent Notre Dame podcast, Irish Sports Talk. Read on...
There have been times over the past few years when it's seemed like Bryan Kelly was on the hot seat. What's the general feeling about him at this point? If you had to bet, is going to still be there in, say, five years?
Fans have pretty much made up their minds on Brian Kelly, and it’s split into two camps. One camp is ready for a new coach, and the only thing that will change that is winning a national championship. The other camp realizes that being head coach at Notre Dame is a hard job and things are slowly heading in the right direction and a win against Stanford would be a big step. If you would have asked me this summer whether Kelly would still be coaching in 5 years, I would have said no, but it is starting to look like he might. His daughter is a freshman at Notre Dame this year and the decisions being made with recruiting and the coaching staff have me believing that he will be around for a while and is building this team for the long haul.
The Irish are 4-0, but the wins over Ball State and Vanderbilt were less than convincing. Even the best teams have bad games, though, so is that all that was? How good is this team, really?
The team was clearly hung over after the Michigan game and was looking past Ball State and decided to use the game as practice to see if they could turn Wimbush into a pocket passer and did not play to his strengths. The Vanderbilt game had too many mistakes made by each part of the team, offense, defense, and special teams. There were six major mistakes made that could have turned the game into a huge win by Notre Dame. Critical drops on third down by wide open receivers, an interception brought out of the end zone to the one yard line, offense moving down the field, and then switching quarterbacks at the goal line and settling for 3 points, etc.
Let's talk about Ian Book. Is this his team going forward? What did he show you against Wake Forest? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
It’s hard to go back to Wimbush after the performance Book had against Wake Forest but in order for this team to make a playoff run, Wimbush will be needed. Against Wake Forest Book showed how decisive he is and his ability to spread the ball around and make the short throws. His weakness is the deep ball and he isn’t the runner that Wimbush is.
As great as Book was, the Irish still rushed for 241 yards. How important is the running game to the Notre Dame offense? Do any of those running backs stand out, or is this just a committee situation?
With Book at quarterback the running game becomes way more important. If the run game isn’t there the offense would need to dink and dunk down the field with short passes, unless Book shows that he can throw the ball downfield. This is a running back by committee situation, and it will get a big boost with the return of Dexter Williams this week (suspension) and give Notre Dame three quality backs to work with.
The Stanford offense has been most successful when K.J. Costello has taken advantage of the size mismatches his receivers and tight ends enjoy over opposing defensive backs. How do you expect the Notre Dame defense to handle Stanford's big receivers?
Notre Dame's defense isn’t to worried about size after going against their big receivers and tight ends in practice. Three of the five main receivers are over 6’3” and the shortest of the four tight ends is 6’4”. One way to match up against bigger receivers and tight ends is playing in the nickel formation with Julian Love moving from corner to nickel and bringing in a third cornerback in Donte Vaughn, who is 6’3” 212 lbs.
The Stanford offensive line has struggled due to injuries and inconsistent lineups. Tell me about Notre Dame's front seven. Who should we watch on Saturday night?
The defensive line is the deepest position on the team and and the quarterbacks Notre Dame has played against this year would quickly agree! The Wake Forest quarterback was hit more in the first two quarters than he was in the previous three games combined. Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem will be rushing off the edge with Jerry Tillery coming up the middle. Backup defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Adi Ogundeji can come in at any point and bring more pressure than most of the defensive end starters Notre Dame has had in very long time!
Stanford has beaten the Irish seven of the last nine times they've played. What would a win on Saturday mean for the Irish?
It would be a huge step in the right direction. In order for Notre Dame to think about playoffs, they need to figure out how to beat Stanford
Finally, what's your prediction? Give me a final score and your best guess as to how we get there.
This has become a big rivalry, not only on the field, but with recruiting as well and both coaches will have their teams ready to play. It will be a back and forth game with home field advantage being the deciding factor in my prediction. I predict Notre Dame to win, 27-24.