I doubt anyone at the beginning of this season would have guessed Notre Dame football would be ranked higher than Stanford at this point.
Heck, I doubt many people thought Notre Dame would be ranked, period, let alone undefeated. I sure didn’t (see here: http://wp.me/prUUN-L9O).
But, here we are. The 5-0 Fighting Irish will meet the 4-1 Cardinal in South Bend on Saturday. It will be another chance for Notre Dame to take revenge on a team that has been on a roll against them the past few years. Stanford is on a 3 game winning streak. In those games they won by an average point margin of just over two touchdowns, including a 28-14 win last year in Palo Alto. But gone are Andrew Luck (#1 over all to my Colts in this past draft), Coby Fleener, David DeCastro and the rest of the crew. They are replaced by Junior quarterback Josh Nunes and junior tight end Zach Ertz, and joined by returning star running back Stepfan Taylor. The Irish have faced more imposing offenses already this year, but this Stanford team is capable of putting points on the board (31.6, T-48th).
The Cardinal also has the distinction as being the only loss to three separate teams this year (San Jose State (4-1), Duke (5-1), and then #2 USC (4-1)).Their one loss against 3-2 Washington is week 4 may seem like a black mark at first based on the Huskies recent history, but those 2 losses were to then #8 USC, and #2 Oregon. Needless to say, this is a team that can play.
The Irish have been riding their defense to heights not seen since the first two years of Charlie Weis tenure (and I use the term “heights” loosely). Notre Dame is allowing only 7.8 points per game (2nd), but Stanford has a more balanced offense than most of their previous opponents, averaging 231.2 yards per game passing (62nd), and 155.8 yards rushing (70th). At first glance it would seem that the Cardinal offense may be outmatched, but appearances can be deceiving. The key to this game, as well as the remainder of the season, will rest solely in the hands of the defense.
3 Things to Watch
Golson vs. Stanford’s Pass D – If ever there was a time for redshirt sophomore Everett Golson to have a break-out game, it’s now. One could make the case that he did so against Miami last week, and while he did complete 77% of his passes, he only totaled 186 yards, and was without a passing touchdown. He also ran 5 times for 61 yards. But head coach Brian Kelly is going to need to get Golson uncorked, and going against the Cardinal’s 113th ranked pass defense could be just the moment he’s been waiting for. Assuming he isn’t yanked for Tommy Rees, that is.
Notre Dame RBs vs. Stanford’s Run D – Stanford’s defense is the epitome of the term “dichotomy.” Whereas they pretty much blow in pass defense, they are superb against the run, allowing only an average of 77.2 yards, good for 6th in the nation. It’s going to be very important that the three-headed monster of Cierre Wood, George Atkinson III, and Theo Riddick keep moving the chains to keep the heat off of Golson (or Rees, whatever).
Irish Defense vs. Stanford Offense – Stanford isn’t the best offense this team has faced, but they aren’t the worst either. Stanford QB Josh Nunes is in his first year at the helm, so that inexperience may help offset the inexperience of the young but improving Notre Dame secondary. Tantamount to the defensive effort will be keeping RB Stepfan Taylor out of the end zone so Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day, and the rest of the front seven can focus on unleashing hell on Nunes all game long.
My 5 Predictions
Golson/Rees Tandem – I don’t know how many plays either guy will actually be on the field for, but history has shown both will be in the game at some point. Because of that I will predict the final stat line for the two combined: 65% completions, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception.
Cierre Wood – I was almost dead on with my prediction for Wood last week. I guessed he’d go for 130 yards and two scores. The final tally? 118 yards and two scores. Not too bad. This week is going to be a bit of a tougher game. If Golson/Rees can keep the ball in the air, things will naturally loosen up for the run game, but I say Wood will go for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Stepfan Taylor – The senior running back hasn’t put up lights-out numbers, but he is very consistent in averaging exactly 111 yards per game. Then again, he hasn’t played a defense as stout as Notre Dame’s. I say the Irish hold him to 60 yards, but give up a score.
Josh Nunes – Nunes has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise, being highly efficient (1145 yards, 8 touchdowns) in replacing Andrew Luck. But see above for previous comments about Notre Dame’s defense. It is a highly aggressive unit and it will attack relentlessly. The key for any team against the Irish D is the passing game. If Nunes can exploit the secondary’s inexperience, they’ll have a better shot. That being said, Nunes completes 50% for 185 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
Final Score – I know I blew the Miami score by keeping it close, but I actually think I’m going to stay the course with this one. Notre Dame wins it 28-24.
Follow me on Twitter @expertfan1