The seventh ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish host the seventeenth ranked Stanford Cardinal this Saturday for a day game with kickoff at 3:38 EST on NBC. The game is the twenty-seventh meeting in a series. The long range weather forecast in South Bend is calling for a high of 66 degrees, winds SSE up to 12 miles an hour, and a 30 percent chance of showers.
The Irish-Cardinal series dates back to the 1924 Rose Bowl, the first Notre Dame Bowl game and the last Notre Dame bowl game for forty-five years. That Notre Dame team was under the tutelage of Knute Rockne and was led by the famed Four Horsemen versus the great Stanford coach Pop Warner and his star Ernie Nevers. The historic clash resulted in a 27-10 victory over Stanford. The Irish capitalized on three Stanford turnovers negating a super human effort by two way player Nevers who outrushed the legendary Four Horsemen by himself. Nevers did it on two recently broken ankles that were just ten days out of the casts. Irish hero Elmer Layden scored three times on two pass interceptions of 70 and 78 yards as well as a three yard run. Both Layden interceptions came off of passes by Nevers.
The series stand in favor of the Irish at 17-9-0. At Notre Dame Stadium the Irish are 10-3-0. Stanford has won the last three games in the series by scores of 45-38, 37-17, and 28-14.
Stanford is led by second year head coach David Shaw, a Stanford alum, and a four year letterman as a wide receiver for the Cardinal. Last year’s Pac-12 Coach of the Year, Shaw began his coaching career in 1995 at Western Washington, spent ten years as an assistant in the pros, and came to Stanford in 2007 as offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh. The son of a thirty-three year coaching father, he became the thirty-fourth head coach at Stanford. Shaw’s career record is 15-3 including 11-2 last year. Shaw has continued the emphasis of tough, physical football initiated by Harbaugh.
Stanford enters the game with a 4-1 record including a 21-14 win over USC and a 17-13 loss against Washington in their only road game up to this week’s game. The Cardinal started the season with a close win over San Diego State and a blowout win over Duke. Last week the Cardinal defeated Arizona in overtime 54-48.
The Cardinal offense is physical and presents problems that the Irish haven’t faced this season. The top priority of the Stanford offense is the rushing game and its purpose is to impose its will on their opponents and seek their breaking point. Stanford will show a lot of unbalanced line and heavy formations to fit their “we’re tougher than you” mindset. They like to line up and overpower their opponents when possible and keep the game close figuring to win on their toughness. They use multiple personnel groups and they often use more than one offensive lineman in their sets. They run the Wildcat and a power I. They can also play a wide open passing game as well and they get great production from their tight ends from any formation.
Cardinal wide receivers run a lot of ins and crossing patterns lulling you to sleep for a play action shot at the deep ball. The tight ends run a lot of outs, high-low combos, seams, and are surprisingly good at the double move and in going deep.
Quarterback Josh Nunes, #6, came of age last week against Arizona. His decision making, his passing, and his running helped Stanford win the game. Had he played the way he had played the past two weeks Stanford would be 3-2 instead of 4-1.
Stanford has outscored their opponents in every quarter but the second quarter. They usually start fast having a 44-10 first quarter scoring advantage, but they have also outscored their opponents in the second half.
Stanford was ranked 105th in total offense going into the Arizona game, but their 617 yards Saturday moved them to 82nd in total offense averaging 387 yards per game, 70th in rushing at 156 yards per game, and 62nd in passing at 231 yards per game. Scoring offense find the Cardinal ranked 48th at 32 points per game. They are 19th in turnovers only giving up six, two fumbles and four interceptions. Stanford is 109th in third down conversions averaging 31 percent.
In the red zone, the Cardinal are ranked 24th with 17 scores on 19 penetrations inside the 20. This breaks down into six rushing touchdowns, five passing touchdowns, and six field goals.
Trick Plays & Wrinkles
Stanford has historically used the halfback pass, wide receiver reverses, or end-a-rounds. Kelsey Young #39, a backup receiver has three rushes that average 25.7 yards per carry and 1 touchdown. They will run the Wildcat from an unbalanced line with a heavy set in short yardage or first down, but will also split the receivers out as well. They run reverses out of the Wildcat too.
Projected Stanford Offensive Lineup
QB Josh Nunes #6, 6-4, 225, RS junior, 9 games, 5 starts
RB Stephan Taylor #33, 5-11, 215, senior, 44 games, 31 starts
FB Ryan Hewitt #85, 6-4, 248, RS junior, 29 games, 13 starts
WR Jamal Rashad Patterson #21, 6-3, 208, senior, 16 games, 0 starts
WR Drew Terrell #4, 5-11, 180, senior, 37 games, 5 starts
TE Levine Toilolo #11, 6-8, 265, RS junior, 19 games, 16 starts
LT David Yankey #54, 6-5, 301, junior, 20 games, 18 starts
LG Khalil Wilkes #65, 6-1, 291, RS junior, 15 games, 5 starts
C Sam Schwartzstein #64, 6-3, 292, Fifth year senior, 24 games, 18 starts
RG Kevin Danser #76, 6-6, 298, RS junior, 23 games, 5 starts
RT Cameron Fleming #73, 6-6, 314, RS sophomore, 16 games, 16 starts
Quarterback Josh Nunes #6 is in his first year at the helm of the Cardinal offense. He has improved his overall play making since the opener and Coach Shaw is a happy camper with the decision to start him this season. Spending three years studying behind Oliver Luck Nunes has learned Stanford’s offense well as the Cardinal playbook hasn’t been dummied down. He manages the run game, the protections, shows poise in tough times, and gets the Cardinal in to the right play.
Nunes is a tough runner, slower than Luck, but almost as effective when scrambling, on a designed run, and especially on the power option. His average isn’t high due to sacks and short yardage runs, especially on the goal line, but he has a long run of 16 yards. Last week he ran 7 times for 33 yards and 3 touchdowns that came on the power option and were crucial in Stanford’s win.
As a passer Nunes is coming off his best game against Arizona. He has a strong arm and touch when needed. He’s worked hard on his high fade for the tight ends. A less than 50 percent passer the previous two weeks he went 21-34-0 for 61 percent, 360 yards, and 2 touchdowns against the Wildcats. On the season he is 85-159-4 for 54 percent and eight touchdown passes. Early on he missed a few hot reads, but made the adjustment and had a career day. His decision making in the red zone has a long way to go to match Luck’s, but he did a better job against Arizona than in the first four games. Except for the Washington game Nunes has made the big plays when Stanford needed them.
Running back Stephan Taylor #33 is an excellent back, possibly in the top five in the country, who will play in the NFL. He has first day draft talent. Taylor has good speed, reads and uses his blocks well, and is a good blocker. Taylor is tough after contact and has great balance. His quick feet and cutting ability have yielded big touchdown runs of 21, 38, and 59 yards and a 23 yard screen pass. Only Washington has kept him from a double digit yard run this season. Statistically he is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and five touchdowns. He is the third leading receiver with 15 catches for a 5.5 yard average, a long of 23 yards, and one touchdown.
Not much activity has been recorded by Taylor’s backups. The second leading rusher, wide receiver Kelsey Young has 77 yards on 3 attempts. An injury to Anthony Wilkerson #32 early in the year has limited him to 9 carries, an average of 4.6 yards, and a long of 11 yards. He’s doubtful for Saturday’s game. Remound Wright #22 has 7 carries, an average of 3.6 yards, and a long of 15 yards. Ricky Seale #30 has 6 carries, and average of 4.3 yards, and a long of 9 yards.
I don’t think I’ve ever listed tight ends before wide receivers in these previews, but Stanford’s pair of tight ends has been more productive than the wide receivers and are arguably the best set of tight ends in the country. Levine Toilolo #11 and Zach Ertz #86 have improved their blocking.
Toilolo has soft hands, runs well after the catch, and usually excels using his height advantage. I don’t think he’s real adept at judging the ball when it’s in the air yet. He misses too many balls he should catch. He has 13 receptions, averages a gaudy 21.4 yards per catch, a long of 46 yards, and two touchdowns.
Ertz has good hands, runs good routes, and does a good and subtle job of pushing off the defender to get open. Ertz is talented enough to be the first tight end taken in the draft in 2014 if he stays another year. The danger Ertz presents is the running of outs, crossing patterns, and then giving the double move to get deep. Ertz leads Stanford in receptions with 21 for an average of 15.0 yards per catch, and a long of 46 yards, and two touchdowns. Both tight ends may be aligned out wide at any time in the game or in the slot and they aren’t out there as decoys. Both may align in the backfield as well.
The Cardinal wide receivers, especially the starters, have been criticized over their production and are led by Ty Mongomery #88. Montgomery is the fastest wide receiver and the second leading receiver for Stanford. He’s improved his blocking from last year and runs better routes too. Montgomery, who has 18 receptions, a 9.3 yard average, a long of 32 yards, won’t be playing this week with a leg injury. The other starter Drew Terrell #4 is a good blocker. Terrell has 10 receptions, a 14.3 yard average, a long of 28 yards, and two touchdowns.
Back-up wide receivers are Jamal-Rashad Patterson #21 has four receptions, a 25.0 yard average, a long of 54 yards, and a touchdown, Kelsey Young #39, with 3 receptions, a 4.0 yard average, and a long of 9 yards. Young, as mentioned above is a threat on reverses and end-a-rounds.
The fullback Ryan Hewitt #85 is actually a tight end aligned in the backfield most of the time. Hewitt is a tough minded individual and a good blocker on the inside and in space. He’s an excellent receiver out of the backfield into the flats. Hewitt has only two receptions averaging 9.0 yards per catch with a long of 11 yards this season. Last year he had 34 receptions including three catches against the Irish and he can line up at fullback, slot, tight end, or wide.
As has been the case the past half-decade Stanford offensive linemen are a tough group. Three of the linemen were first year starters on a team that went 11-2 and only allowed 11 sacks. The Cardinal big guys have only allowed 5 sacks this year. As a unit this group averages 299 pounds and 6-5 and have contributed mightily to Stanford’s 4.5 yards per rush team average.
Left tackle David Yankey #54 started 13 games at guard last year and was moved to left tackle this season because Stanford wants to bring their freshmen tackles along slowly. Yankey is considered the best offensive lineman for the Cardinal by West Coast media, but he’s a better guard than tackle and I’d give the best tag to his opposite, Cameron Fleming. He doesn’t have the great feet you’d like in a left tackle. He’s a decent pass blocker when he locks up on the opponent, but he has trouble with fast, strong defensive ends. Not a consistently good short yardage blocker which is surprising for a guard type.
Left guard Khalil Wilkes #65 has good hands and good feet. He gets out well on pulls and screens. He also has great leg drive on short yardage plays and does a good job coming off combo blocks and seeking defenders at the next level.
Center Sam Schwartzstein #64 uses his feet well in sealing off defensive linemen and he stays on his blocks. Schwartzstein isn’t fast on pulls and screens, but he’s good keeping his head on a swivel looking for defenders as he runs. He uses his hands well on pass blocking and he also has great leg drive on short yardage plays.
Right guard Kevin Danser #76 is strong, uses his hands well in pass blocking, and pulls well. He‘s not as good in space as Wilkes, slower in getting out on screens, but he too uses his legs well in short yardage.
Right tackle Cameron Fleming #73 is good with his footwork, but not real quick. He is relentless though and has a nasty cut block. He also has a nasty disposition on the field and could draw retaliatory penalties.
The Cardinal base front is still the 3-4. Physical and well-disciplined are the adjectives used to describe the Cardinal defense. Despite giving up 617 yards and 48 points against Arizona they held USC to 14 points and nearly 150 yards under their average.
Despite last week’s poor showing against Arizona Stanford held USC’s offense to a 1 for 13 conversion rate on third down. They also sacked Matt Barkley 4 times, hit him a dozen times, and had 9 tackles for losses. They also stopped Arizona when they need to in the fourth quarter.
Stanford is ranked 55th in total defense allowing 380 yards per game, sixth in rushing defense at 77 yards per game, and 113th in passing defense permitting 302 yards per game. In scoring defense the Cardinal is ranked 41st allowing 22 points per game. Stanford is ranked 38th in creating turnovers with 11, three fumbles and eight interceptions. Thwarting third down efforts has Stanford ranked 12th allowing opponents to convert only 30 percent of their third down efforts which is a major strength of the Cardinal defense.
In the red zone, Stanford is ranked 73rd allowing 15 scores on 18 penetrations inside their 20. Those scores came via seven rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns, and six field goals.
Projected Stanford Defensive Lineup
DE Henry Anderson #91, 6-6, 278, RS sophomore, 18 games, 5 starts
NG Terrance Stephens #99, 6-2, 305, senior, 36 games, 12 starts
DE Ben Gardner #49, 6-4, 275, RS junior, 29 games, 17 starts
OLB Trent Murphy #93, 6-6, 261, RS junior, 20 games, 18 starts
OLB Chase Thomas #44, 6-4, 248, Fifth year senior, 44 games, 38 starts
ILB James Vaughters #9, 6-2, 246, sophomore, 17 games, 4 starts
ILB Shayne Skov #11, 6-3, 242, senior, 31 games, 25 starts
LCB Terrance Brown #6, 6-1, 178, RS junior, 24 games, 14 starts
RCB Barry Browning #31, 6-1, 182, junior, 24 games, 11 starts
SS Jordan Richards #8, 5-11, 208, sophomore, 18 games, 11 starts
FS Ed Reynolds #20, 6-2, 207, RS sophomore, 10 games, 5 starts
Stanford’s front three are led by defensive end Ben Gardner #49. Gardner gets off run blocks, has a good wrist-club and arm over pass rush, and gets good penetration. He has a great motor, great technique, and is the leading defensive lineman statistically by a good margin. Gardner has 19 tackles, 11 solos, six tackles for losses, three sacks, one quarterback hit, two passes broken up, and two passes defended.
His opposite number at defensive end is Henry Anderson #91. Anderson is very strong in the lower body, not exactly fast, but has a good motor. He often plays nose guard in the Cardinal’s line rotation. Anderson has 217 tackles, four solos, 1.5 tackles for losses, a sack, three passes broken up, and thee passes defended.
The nose guard is Terrance Stephans #99. He’s a second year starter who mostly ends up gaining a stand-off versus a win against the offense. He doesn’t get as much push as his backup, nor does he have the statistics of his backup. I wonder if he has a nagging injury. He has 2 tackles, 1 solo, and 1 for a loss. His backup is David Parry #58. Perry seems to have a much better motor than Stephens and gets better penetration. Parry has nine tackles, two solos, two for losses, one sack, one pass broken up, and one pass defended.
A physical, instinctive, and active unit led by Sporting News All American Chase Thomas #44 that has, among their first eight in the rotation, 16 tackles for losses, seven sacks, two interceptions, four quarterback hits, five passes broken up, seven passes defended, and two forced fumbles. This is the premier group of linebackers in the PAC-12.
Thomas, an outside linebacker, is another Cardinal with NFL first day talent. The leading tackler for Stanford, he has 31 tackles, 20 solos, six tackles for losses, 2.5 sacks, one quarterback hit, one interception, one pass broken up, and one pass defended. Last year, he recorded two sacks against the Irish.
His opposite is Trent Murphy #93. Murphy’s weakness is in pass coverage. He does stand up run blockers well and quickly finds the ball. He has problems rushing against good offensive tackles, but he can overpower backs and tight ends. He often drops down into a defensive end slot at times. He scored Stanford’s only touchdown against Washington by batting a pass, catching it and running 40 yards for the score. He has 23 tackles, 13 solos, 5.5 for losses, two sacks, one quarterback hit, one interception, two passes broken up, three passes defended, and a forced fumble.
Inside linebacker James Vaughters #9 is fast, physical, and a good tackler. He just loves to hit all the time and is tough versus the run. He comes up fast and punishes runners and receivers that are in front of him. His weakness is pass coverage and he’s often removed in obvious passing situations. Vaughters has 14 tackles, six solos, one for a loss, and one sack. Tarpley has 13 tackles, eight solos, 1.5 tackles for losses, a quarterback hit, two passes broken up, and two passes defended.
Shayne Skov #11 is the other inside linebacker and the defense’s emotional leader. Considered a first day NFL talent he’s a good tackler and drops into his zone well. Until his injury in the third game last year Skov was a wild man on the field playing with the much coveted “reckless abandon” moniker. Skov missed the first game due to a DUI. Since he’s returned against Duke he hasn’t been the same player he was last year. Whether it’s the injury or rust I can’t say. Skov has 26 tackles, 12 solos, 2.5 for losses, one quarterback hit, one pass broken up, and one pass defended.
Skove and Vaughters are in rotation with two other very good inside linebackers, Jarek Lancaster #35 and A. J. Tarpley #17. Lancaster has 18 tackles, 12 solos, two for losses, and a sack. Tarply is the better pass defender and he has 13 tackles, 8 solos, 1.5 for losses, a quarterback hit, twi passes broken up, and two passes defended.
This unit is in the bottom third of the PAC-12, but the starting four have six interceptions. Because the Cardinal defense is so tough against the run the secondary defends a lot of passes by opponents who are averaging 49 passing attempts per game.
Right corner Barry Browning #31 has started three games each of the last two years, the second of which he was replaced by the other corner Terrance Brown #6. They opened up this season as the starting cornerbacks and Brown is still the better corner of the two. Browning has 15 tackles, 13 solo, two for losses, one pass broken up, and one pass defended.
Brown left the game early against Arizona after having been kicked in the face. If he can go he comes into the game as the best cover corner Stanford has despite his propensity of putting his hands on the receiver before the ball get there and being over physical in doing so. Against USC he had two interference penalties and could have had a few more, but he did pull down an interception in the game. Brown has 25 tackles, 16 solos, two for losses, a interception, four passes broken up, and five passes defended.
Free safety Ed Reynolds #29 is not a great athlete, but he usually stays deep, up to 15 yards, and comes up strong. He takes good angles, tackles well, and sells out on short yardage plays. Reynolds has 22 tackles, 13 solo, three interceptions, three passes broken up, and six passes defended.
Strong safety Jordan Richards#8 is a good cover back for a strong safety and reacts well to the ball. Jordan’s a good tackler that will hit you big. Richards has 30 tackles, 20 solos, three tackles for losses, two interceptions, seven passes broken up, and nine passes defended.
Stanford Special Teams
The Cardinal place kicker is Jordan Williamson #19. He’s 7 of 11 in field goals with a long of 46 yards. He missed three field goals in the close game against USC with tries of 23, 47, and 51 yards. The following week he made both attempts against Washington and had no attempts against Arizona last week.
Williamson also does the kickoffs for Stanford. His 30 kicks have averaged 63.9 yards per kick with two out of bounds, and 11 touchbacks. His coverage team has faced 17 kick returns and are ranked 17th holding opponents to a 17.7 yard average.
Daniel Zychlinski is the punter and his 27 punts have averaged 42.9 yards, with four touchbacks, six inside the 20, and 11 fair caught. His coverage team is ranked 69th on six punt returns that average 7.7 yards with a long of 23 yards.
The kick returners are Montgomery, who’s out, and Carter. Carter’s five returns have averaged 22.0 yards with a long of 30 yards.
Punt returns are the province of wide receiver Drew Terrell #4 who has returned seven punts for an average of 20.0 yards, a long of 76 yards, and a touchdown.
Which team is the toughest team? Stanford prides itself on its toughness and physical play. Has Notre Dame reached the same level?
Stanford appears beat up at a few positions. Notre Dame seems healthy. The Cardinal may miss Montgomery and corner Terrence Brown. Add to that is the fact Montgomery is a big time kick returner.
Once again the Irish seniors face a team that they haven’t beaten while at Notre Dame.
Stanford’s Nunes grew up as a quarterback last week in another home game. How much did the Arizona defense and their injuries contribute to that growth? Against Washington the crowd noise affected Stanford’s offense. Be loud Irish fans.
Which Stanford defense do the Irish face? The one who beat USC and throttled the Trojan offense, or the one that Arizona put up 617 yards on?
This is exam week for the Irish.
A man-up performance by the Notre Dame offensive line is needed in all phases of the game. The sixth ranked rushing defense of Stanford will try to intimidate the Irish line and backs. The 20th ranked sacking defense (tied with Notre Dame) will put pressure on Golson. Last year the Cardinal had five sacks against the Irish and they return three players who totaled four of those interceptions, two by Thomas, one by Gardner, and one by Tarpley.
Handle Stanford’s stunts. The Cardinal run a lot of twists with their defensive linemen and their linebackers.
Everett Golson needs to play as well as he did last week and get out of bounds when he runs if possible. Stanford is extremely physical when they get a shot at a quarterback.
No turnovers. The Irish have only four turnovers on the year. Last year, after five games, the Irish had 16 turnovers and as a result were 3-2.
Play action fakes to hold Cardinal linebackers. They won’t hold the linebackers unless there is early success running the ball. Arizona’s play action fakes kept the Stanford linebackers from hitting their drops quickly and that helped Arizona to a 506 yard passing effort.
USC hurt Stanford with the tight end over the middle and with crossing patterns, but didn’t use them enough.
I’d talk to officials before the game and let them know about Terrence Brown’s hands grabbing and interfering with receivers while the ball is in the air. Plant the seed.
Play action by Stanford is something the Irish linebackers need to be sharp on.
Irish linebackers and safeties need to effectively cover the high-low and seam routes of the Stanford tight ends. Irish corners must be physical on the fade routes of Stanford’s tight ends.
Be physical. Stanford may be a little beat up.
No cheap points.
Shut down the run and put the game in Nunes hands.
Pressure Josh Nunes relentlessly. He isn’t Andrew Luck at this point in his career.
Recognition before every play is real important this week. Stanford can show a lot of looks, personnel groups, and players in different positions that have to be identified before the snap.
Special Team Keys
No turnovers and no cheap points for Stanford on returns.
Strong punting effort by Ben Turk is needed denying Stanford good field position. Also, the Irish must block Stanford’s good pressure from the middle on punters.
Kyle Brindza leaves no points on the field.
I’ve seen three tapes of Stanford, that being their games with USC, Washington, and Arizona. In general terms this is what I came away with:
Stanford defeated Arizona for three reasons: Arizona’s defense is poor, it lost two starters, and Arizona receivers dropped 7 balls in the first half alone. They defeated USC for three reasons: Barkley had more on his plate with the regular center out, Stanford wore down the USC defense with wide passes, screens, and their pounding running game, plus, USC was its own worst enemy with 3 turnovers. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Stanford’s last two victories and the Blue and Gold colored glasses say ND and big.
Stanford lost to Washington, a team that had lost 4 out of their 5 offensive line starters since fall camp. They lost because Nunes did not play well, 18-37-1 for 170 yards. They lost because they had communication problems due to crowd noise, converted only 5 of 18 third down attempts, and Washington winning out on three crucial fourth downs. On the first fourth down the Huskies broke a fourth and short for a 61 yard touchdown run. The second one kept a touchdown drive alive. The third, a defensive stop on an interception, ended Stanford’s chance to pull the game out. Also, Montgomery did not make plays on three deep passes that were catchable. Finally, Washington passed and ran for more yards than Stanford. My ND glasses scream Irish win big.
There’s just one thing, Stanford only allows 77 yards rushing per game, an average of 2.6 yards per carry. They held USC to 26 yards rushing. Until the Irish running game shows they can run against a tough run defense like Stanford and until Everett Golson has a few more good games under his belt then I remain skittish. So…
Notre Dame 24 Stanford 17