Notre Dame will be looking for its biggest win in years tonight as it takes on the No. 4-ranked Stanford Cardinal. Stanford has beaten Notre Dame two years in a row, winning last season’s matchup by a 37-14 score in Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish come into this game banged up. Three starters are out for the game (Jonas Gray, Braxston Cave, Kapron Lewis-Moore), another is doubtful (Theo Riddick), and two of Notre Dame’s best defensive players (Ethan Johnson, Manti Te’o) are nowhere close to 100-percent. To make matters worse, freshman end Stephon Tuitt has been battling a serious illness and is unlikely to play tonight.
Notre Dame will have to play its best game of the season on both sides of the ball if it wants to beat Stanford. The Irish special teams will also have to make a strong appearance in this game if the Irish are going to pull off the upset.
It is possible for Notre Dame to win this game, but it will not be easy. If the Irish are able to pull off the win it will be the first November victory over a Top 10 opponent since Notre Dame beat No. 1 Florida State back in 1993.
Here are the keys to an Irish victory:
1. PROTECT THE FOOTBALL
Notre Dame caught a lot of breaks last week against Boston College. Quarterback Tommy Rees threw one interception and was almost picked off on at least three other occasions. Rees was careless with the football, and the result was Boston College staying in the game thanks to Notre Dame’s inability to put the ball in the end zone. He was fortunate that Boston College dropped a number of easy interceptions, as the Eagles could have easily won the game had they been able to convert his poor decisions and throws into turnovers. If Rees makes those same mistakes this week Stanford will make him pay. Turnovers in this game will result in a blowout. This puts Rees in a tough spot because Notre Dame cannot win without a big game from him, but he must also value the football and not turn it over. He has to make big plays but he also cannot force balls that lead to turnovers. If he is smart and accurate with the football Notre Dame can win the game, but if he turns it over like he has done most of the year the Irish don’t stand a chance. The rest of the offensive players also have to stay within themselves and protect the football. Notre Dame has not had a skill player lose a fumble in quite some time, something that must continue tonight.
2. GET REES GOING EARLY
Rees made some good throws early in the game against Boston College, but he also made a number of poor decisions and throws. It was obvious from the outset that he was out-of-sync. Rees never really got into a rhythm with his decision making or his throwing ability. The sloppy play helped keep Boston College in the football game. Rees is truly the key to the Notre Dame offense. Notre Dame should be able to run the ball effectively, as it has done all season long. When Notre Dame has struggled offensively it has primarily been a result of Rees not playing well. When he struggles teams can focus more resources on the run game, which takes away the best weapon the offense has. Stanford will look to take away the Irish run game, and Rees has to make them pay. Rees is the type of player that needs a good start to have a good game. Rarely has he come out of the locker room scuffling only to see him turn himself around. When Rees plays well it is usually a result of him coming out of the locker room hot and then maintaining that level of play. Notre Dame must play well offensively if it wants to win the football game. It must also play well early if it wants to stay in this game, regardless of what Stanford does. The Cardinal have outscored opponents by a 209-103 margin in the first half, and the majority of their opponents have been out of the game by the half. If the Cardinal come out hot it will be up to Rees to match them and keep the Irish in the game. If the Cardinal come out scuffling and the Irish defense is able to keep them in check early it will be up to Rees and the offense to build an early lead as it prepares for what will certainly be a vicious comeback attempt. Stanford will eventually score points. Only once in the last two seasons has Stanford scored fewer than 30 points. That means Notre Dame has to score to win, and it only scores a lot when Rees plays well. Rees usually needs a hot start to play well, so getting him comfortable early in this game will be essential to a Notre Dame victory.
3. SPREAD THE FIELD, FIND CREASES FOR THE RUN GAME
With the pass game struggling a bit over the last few weeks, the Notre Dame offense has become more of a between the tackles run team. The inside runs have set up the outside runs, which was the opposite of what made Notre Dame so successful running the ball early in the season. Notre Dame has also used more two tight end sets in the run game as it seeks to pound teams into submission. Stanford is a big and physical football team, so it will not be as easy for Notre Dame to line up tight and run the football between the tackles. Losing Jonas Gray also takes away Notre Dame’s best inside runner. The loss of Braxston Cave at center also takes away a key weapon in Notre Dame’s power run game. Michael Golic Jr. has done well at times in recent weeks, but has struggled against power players, something Stanford has plenty of. Golic will have to play well in this game if Notre Dame wants to run the ball effectively. Brian Kelly and Ed Warinner can help him, and the rest of the linemen, with their schemes and playcalling. When Stanford has struggled against the run it has come against teams that can spread the field and get Stanford’s linebackers out of the box or off the field. When Stanford has to go to its nickel defense to match personnel teams are able to run on them. There are also a few formations that Notre Dame could use to exploit the Cardinal defense. There are also some motions and shifts Notre Dame can utilize to gain schematic and alignment advantages. The Irish linemen will have to be aggressive and block well on the runs out of the spread sets, but if they do they will open up run lanes for Cierre Wood to exploit. If Wood is given room to run he will gash the Cardinal defense. Running the ball is going to be key for Notre Dame. If Stanford is able to take away the Irish ground attack Notre Dame will struggle to win. Rees needs to help by playing well early (see point 2), but the Irish ground game also has to be effective early and often to take some of the pressure off Rees. Spreading the field and creating creases for Wood is the best way to get that done.
4. HIT SOME DOWNFIELD SHOTS
Stanford is going to try to force Rees to beat them deep, something most of Notre Dame’s opponents have done of late. Rees has made a few throws throughout the season with the deep ball, but for the most part he has been a poor downfield passer. He has two of the best vertical players in the country in Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert. When he gets them the ball accurately they have made big plays, but getting the ball to them accurately has been a major problem for him. Rees is a gamer, and with both games against USC aside, he has made big throws in most of Notre Dame’s biggest games. If he can continue that trend tonight Notre Dame will have a chance. Getting the ball deep with accuracy is the secret weapon for Notre Dame in this football game. The Irish have serious matchup advantages over Stanford in the pass game. None of Stanford’s cornerbacks can run with Floyd. None of Stanford’s linebackers or safeties can run with Eifert. If Rees can take advantage of this talent advantage and hit them downfield with some accuracy early on it will result in huge plays for the Irish offense. If he is somehow able to find TJ Jones or Robby Toma downfield with legitimate big throws it will do serious damage to Stanford, as it will largely prevent them from focusing all of their pass game efforts on taking Floyd and Eifert out of the game. Hitting these shots downfield will not only result in big plays for Notre Dame, it also forces Stanford to show more respect to the Notre Dame deep ball. That takes Stanford out of their game plan, which opens up other opportunities for the Notre Dame offense. It will be virtually impossible or Stanford to stop the Notre Dame offense if the Irish are able to make plays downfield.
5. PROTECT REES
Stanford is going to come after Rees much like it did Dayne Crist a season ago. Stanford sacked Crist three times last September and the constant pressure forced him into a number of crucial mistakes. When teams have been able to pressure Rees they have been able to do the same thing to him. Fortunately for Notre Dame, few teams have been able to pressure Rees. He does a nice job getting rid of the ball quickly and the Notre Dame offensive line has been outstanding in protection all season long. Stanford has piled up a number of sacks this season, ranking No. 8 nationally in sacks. The Cardinal have put opposing quarterbacks on the ground 33 times this fall. They will not care that Notre Dame ranks No. 7 nationally in sacks allowed. They will attack Rees early and often. Kelly has to have a good plan to attack the Stanford pressure packages and blitzes. If Notre Dame has a good plan for the pressures they will be able to hurt Stanford and take advantage of its aggressiveness. This involves throwing behind them and running away from or underneath the blitz. Golic has to do a good job controlling the snap and not allowing Stanford to time its pressures. Finally, Rees has to stay poised in the face of the pressures, make good decisions with the football, and be accurate with his throws. If Rees handles the blitz well it will be a key factor in Notre Dame pulling off the upset.
1. PRESSURE LUCK
The plan is simple, get after Luck early and often. Luck is no different from any other quarterback in that he cannot beat you when he is lying on his back. Of course, actually getting him on his back is extremely difficult. Stanford does not allow many sacks, giving up just nine on the season. If Notre Dame is able to put him on the ground with any kind of frequency it will go a long way to keeping the points down. Getting sacks is good, but it’s not nearly as important as consistently pressuring Luck. When Luck gets comfortable in the pocket he is impossible to stop, and two or three random sacks is not going to get him out of rhythm. When teams have been able to get him moving when he doesn’t want to, get him out of rhythm, and force him to guess more than he would like they have been able to force him into mistakes. Luck has thrown five interceptions in the last four games, and teams getting pressure on him has been the key. He has rushed more throws and when he rushes throws he tends to not see defensive players. This is something all quarterbacks, great or otherwise, have problems with. Notre Dame has not been a good pressure team this season. There have been times when the Irish have been excellent at attacking the quarterback (Michigan State, Wake Forest, Boston College), and when that happens the defense does quite well. The problem for Notre Dame has been it has rarely been able to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks. Part of the issue is scheme, as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco does not like to turn his front players loose. He has a number of talented pass rushers, led by freshman end Aaron Lynch and outside linebacker Darius Fleming. He has the talent to bring four and attack Luck, much like USC was able to do. He must, however, allow them to attack gaps and run around blockers instead of constantly trying to run through blockers. If he unleashes his pass rushers that will certainly play a big role in pressuring Luck. Designing and calling some good pressures helps as well. Diaco cannot blitz a ton against Stanford. When Luck gets a read on your blitzes from a timing and launch standpoint he will rip your defense. When you are able to keep him guessing as to when you will blitz and where you will blitz from he will makes mistakes. I want to see a nice pressure package from Diaco, one that emphasizes timing and effectiveness over quantity. If his blitzes are hitting him with frequency I am all for him calling more until Stanford learns how to stop it, but if his blitzes aren’t hitting home early he will have to back off a bit. Blitzing and not getting to Luck will likely result in a huge play for the offense.
2. BIG GAME FROM THE LINEBACKERS
Stanford puts a lot of pressure on opposing linebackers. Stanford will run the ball early and often, pounding teams between the tackles and off-tackle. Notre Dame’s linebacker will have to play well against the run if the Irish defense wants to help the team win the game. They will have to be aggressive attacking the line of scrimmage, they will have to be disciplined with their gap assignments, and they absolutely must wrap up well and not allow the Cardinal backs to pick up extra yards. What makes Stanford so dangerous is their potent play-action pass attack, which stresses linebackers a great deal. The Cardinal tore up the Notre Dame linebackers last season, completing pass after pass against the linebackers and safeties. The Irish linebackers have been very poor against the pass for much of the season. Stanford will certainly look to exploit that early and often. If the Notre Dame linebackers answer the challenge they will have a chance to limit Stanford’s effectiveness. If Stanford is able to get its tight ends rolling over the middle the Irish defense will have a very, very long day. This is the stress Stanford puts on your defense. It forces your linebackers to have to play aggressively to stop the run, but also smart enough to know when to drop in order to find and stop the crossing routes and seam routes. It is hard to stop this, but if Notre Dame wants to win this game it will have to force misses in the play-action game.
3. BE DISCIPLINED
This ties into point two in that Stanford is going to look to use its play-action game to attack the defense. This requires a defense to play disciplined football. If a player loses contain or shoots the wrong gap the result is often a huge play for the Stanford offense. Notre Dame has had issues this season keeping contain on the edge. If that happens again today Luck will have a field day throwing to the flats and running the ball himself. The inside linebackers also have to do a good job reading their keys and attacking their responsibilities. Inside linebacker Manti Te’o also has a tendency to get sucked inside against the run, and when he reads pass he does not get into his drops. He must respond better in this game and be more disciplined against the pass. He must have a big game for Notre Dame to beat Stanford and pull off the upset. This does not mean just racking up a lot of tackles. It means tackles plus big plays plus discipline in the pass game. This goes for the edge players as well. Notre Dame’s safeties also have to be aggressive coming up against the run and guarding the Cardinal safeties. If they play well against the pass Notre Dame could pull this upset off. Stanford will also run trick plays like reverses, throwback passes, and “wildcat” runs. Notre Dame has to be aggressive attacking the Cardinal but also play with enough discipline to sniff out and stop the Cardinal trick plays.
4. SLOW DOWN THE RUN GAME
Luck is a Heisman candidate and will likely be the first player drafted in April’s NFL Draft. He has been greatly responsible for turning a dormant program into a legitimate national title contender. Stanford has gone 22-2 in the last two years and 30-6 with Luck as the starter. He is a great college football player, there is no doubt about that. But what truly drives the Stanford offense is its ability to run the football. Stanford has a great quarterback and talented tight ends, but they are not overly deep or talented at wide receiver. When Stanford is forced into obvious passing situations they do not have as many playmakers, which limits its effectiveness. When Stanford gets its ground game rolling and the Stanford pass catchers are put in more one-on-one situations the Cardinal are far more effective as an offense. Griff Whalen might not be the most talented pass catcher, but he is smart, has great hands, and runs tremendous routes. If he finds himself in a number of one-on-ones and Luck has time he will beat you over and over. When Whalen and the other Stanford pass catchers for forced to actually make a lot of plays they are not as good. If Notre Dame can limit Stanford’s effectiveness on the ground and force Luck into more obvious pass situations it helps the defense tremendously. It makes the play-action passes less effective and also allows Notre Dame to turn up the pressure on Luck.
5. KEEP THE POINTS DOWN EARLY
This is an easy point to make. Notre Dame cannot allow Stanford to get a big early lead. Their ability to run the football and limit big plays makes them extremely difficult to come back against. Notre Dame has to keep them off the board as much as possible early. Stanford will get their points, but the Irish defense has to make Stanford work for those points. If they get 30 to 35 points Notre Dame can still win the game as long as Stanford’s points come gradually and throughout the game. If they have over 20 points by the half or get a multi-score lead early in the game the odds of pulling off the upset dramatically decrease. Stanford is also not a great come-from-behind team for many of the same reasons they are so good at playing with the lead. If Notre Dame’s offense comes out hot and the defense can keep Stanford off the board the Irish can get a big early lead, which would be a best-case scenario for Notre Dame in this win.