There was a time when Notre Dame dominated its series with Stanford. There was actually a time when most of the college football world dominated Stanford, but those days have been a distant memory around Palo Alto for the last few years.
The Fighting Irish won seven straight games in the series between the two schools from 2002-2008, but the tide began to turn shortly after Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in 2007. Notre Dame beat Harbaugh’s first two Cardinal teams by a touchdown each time, but his team’s won in 2009 and 2010 by a combined margin of 31 points before he bolted to the NFL last season.
Brian Shaw didn’t miss a beat when he took the reins of the program. The Stanford alum and former Harbaugh assistant went 10-2, including a 28-14 win over the Irish, in his first season as head coach last year.
It was an easy and maybe even simplistic assumption that Stanford would suffer a big drop off this season after seeing quarterback Andrew Luck go with the No. 1 pick in last spring’s NFL Draft to the Indianapolis Colts. For the most part that has not been the case.
Josh Nunes has had the unenviable task of replacing Luck at quarterback. He has been solid, but not spectacular in his first full season at the helm. The senior had played in a total of four games in his first three seasons, but he has started all five this year, completing just 54-percent of his 159 passes for 1,154 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
Shaw’s Cardinal started the season 3-0 after beating USC 21-14 on Sept. 15. Maybe the afterglow of the team’s fourth straight win over the Trojans was too much to handle, because they fell flat 12 days later in a 17-13 loss at Washington for what has so far been their only loss of 2012.
The Cardinal was held without an offensive touchdown in that loss, which marked the first time that had happened in five years. Stanford was held to just 65 rushing yards on 28 attempts – a stark contrast from the 2011 meeting between the two teams when Stanford rushed for a whopping 446 yards against the Huskies.
As was Harbaugh’s blueprint, Shaw’s Stanford team wants to play a physical brand of football – especially this year with an inexperienced quarterback. Stanford wants to run the ball to protect the quarterback and shorten the game as much as possible.
Stanford is averaging 155 rushing yards while allowing just 77 on the ground per game this season. The result has been steady production from a quarterback who has not been flashy, but has only lost once as a starter. Nunes has benefitted from a good offensive line that has only allowed him to be sacked five times this season and two of those sacks came in the loss to Washington.
The only Stanford game this season that has not been decided by a touchdown or less was a 50-13 win over Duke a month ago. That includes last week’s 54-48 overtime win over Arizona (coached by former Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez).
Nunes passed for a career-high 360 yards with two touchdown passes and three touchdown runs in Stanford’s dramatic comeback against the Wildcats last week. His three-yard TD run with :45 seconds on the clock sent the game to overtime. It was a stark contrast from his 18-of-37 for 170 yard performance in the Washington loss.
“It’s maybe other people learned that he’s a tough kid,” Shaw said of Nunes after his performance in the overtime victory. “He bounces back. He doesn’t listen to the noise and he’s steady and part of the difference between this game and last game was he didn’t miss a lot of the easier throws. He made the exact same throws on the deep ball and we just made the plays.”
Stepfan Taylor ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns in that game. Taylor leads the Cardinal with 560 yards on 119 carries (4.7) with five TD runs. Tight end Zach Ertz is Stanford’s leading receiver with 21 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns. He is one of five targets with double-digit receptions through five games. Long ball target Levine Toilolo has 13 catches for 278 yards for a 21.4 average.
While Stanford is giving-up just 77 yards a game on the ground, they are more than susceptible to giving it up through the air. Opponents are averaging 302 yards through the air, and Arizona’s Matt Scott passed for 491 yards and three touchdowns over the weekend in the shootout with the Cardinal. Wildcat receiver Austin Hill had 11 receptions for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
Stanford has a plus-5 turnover margin thanks to 11 turnovers caused and just six lost through five games. The defense gets to the quarterback with 16 sacks. Ben Gardner leads the way with 3.0, while Chase Thomas, Usua Amanam and Trent Murphy have 2.5, 2.0 and 2.0 sacks, respectively.
The team also has an impressive 43 tackles for loss through five games – an average of 8.6. Thomas leads the Cardinal with 6.0 TFL as well as 31 total tackles.