Wherever Notre Dame ended up in the latest college football playoff rankings, winning at Stanford to close out the 2015 regular season was always a must. The Irish have already dropped a game to #1 Clemson and their hold on the #4 playoff spot was always tenuous with two weaker opponents on the schedule, Wake Forest and Boston College, two three win teams. With the Big 12 teams finally getting around to playing anyone who was good–at least on paper–it was extremely predictable that one of those teams would make a jump up the rankings. Couple that with Notre Dame’s sloppy play in the last two contests, they find themselves on the outside of the playoffs and with one last chance to prove themselves worthy.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame does not enter this contest with their team fully intact, by any stretch of the imagination. Having lost starters C.J. Prosise and KeiVarae Russell to injury, this leaves them with nine starters and 12 front line players out against the Cardinal. Not what you want against one of the most physical teams in the country that also has one of college football’s biggest stars in running back Christian McCaffrey. An already difficult task got even tougher.
It would make sense if the playoff committee looked at this Notre Dame team and wondered how good Notre Dame can be going forward with all the injuries they’ve suffered. Is this the same, explosive team we saw against USC and Navy? Or is it now the team that struggled to move the ball on Wake Forest and turned the ball over five times to Boston College?
Let’s be clear, Notre Dame is better than Stanford, it’s been proven out over the course of the season. Notre Dame has the higher ranked offense–29th versus 37th–the higher ranked defense–40th versus 43rd–they’ve beaten more top 25 teams, three to two, and they also haven’t lost twice, as the Cardinal have. And Notre Dame has done all this while losing starters left and right, while the Cardinal have remained relatively injury free. However, Notre Dame isn’t markedly better than Stanford and road games in the 2015 season have been a little shaky at best; only against Pittsburgh did the Irish win by double digits. Couple that with the aforementioned games that were less than impressive, the Irish need to find their mojo.
I always find it weird when analysts or writers proclaim, “this is what X team needs to do to win.” Like, I could tell you that Notre Dame needs to stop Christian McCaffrey to win the contest on Saturday. Well, yeah, he’s their best player, stopping him would be a good idea. The truth is, there are a lot of ways to win a game, and games sometimes go completely the opposite of conventional thinking. So I’m not a big, this-is-what-needs-to-happen guy.
But, I’ll tell you what would be nice, if Notre Dame’s star players–meaning Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Will Fuller and the offensive line (yeah, the entire unit is a star, even you Steve Elmer)–had themselves their best game of the season. Those are the players that separate Notre Dame from all the other teams in college football, and especially what separates Notre Dame from Stanford. Notre Dame has lost some key players this year; the quarterback is a freshman, the running back is a freshman, the tight end is a freshman. If there was ever a time for the stars on the Notre Dame football team to put it all together, now is the time.
Let’s start with the best player on either team, Jaylon Smith. He’s been steadily good this year, and once a game he’ll do something that is just absolutely incredible, like when he ran down Pitt’s Tyler Boyd on a sweep like a lion pouncing on a gazelle. He hasn’t dominated a game yet this year, or in his career at Notre Dame, at least not in a marquee game like this. It’d be nice if this week was the “they have Jaylon Smith and we don’t and we have no one to block him so we lost” game. It’s time the Notre Dame coaches turned Jaylon loose on an offense because when they do, it’s rather terrifying. At his best, Jaylon can be a gamewrecker for Stanford, to coin a Brian Kelly phrase.
Defensive line captain Sheldon Day has a big time matchup with Stanford guard Josh Garnett, one of the best linemen coming out in the next NFL draft. Day has been Notre Dame’s best lineman by far this year, with 14.5 tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hurries and four sacks. He’s been a constant for Notre Dame this year with stellar play and you can expect that he will active again against Garnett and the Cardinal. If Smith is the best player in the trenches for either team that opens things up for Isaac Rochelle and Romeo Okwara to do their thing and put pressure on quarterback Kevin Hogan, a guy who isn’t a big fan of pressure.
More than any other unit, the offensive line have been what makes Notre Dame’s offense good in 2015. Notre Dame is not a playoff team if this unit is not the best on the field, they just aren’t. The line goes hand in hand with everything Notre Dame does; they open holes in the running game and they give Kizer those valuable extra seconds to find Will Fuller on his deep routes. They’ve been playing at a high level all season, and they will need to be at their best against a Stanford squad that usually gives the Irish fits up front. This is especially true with Adams getting the start for the injured Prosise, who has performed well in the seniors stead this season, but let’s face it, he’s a true freshman starting a game with Notre Dame’s season on the line. Whether or not he’s ready for that responsibility remains to be seen, but the line, which includes probable top 10 pick Ronnie Stanley, has a chance to ease his burden and dominate their matchup.
The same can be said for Fuller, who for the first time in his career is coming off of two straight games without a touchdown catch. Fuller let down his team last week, dropping a sure touchdown late against BC and then later a third down pass that would have extended a Notre Dame drive. No Irish player besides Smith has more star power than Will Fuller; he can’t be guarded one on one, as he proved against Pitt and USC, and he is lethal with the ball in his hands. Stanford simply does not have an answer for him if he is playing at his best, and just as Jaylon could single handedly derail Stanford’s offense, Fuller can do the same against the Cardinal defense. The “we have Will Fuller and you don’t” game is out there for the taking; we saw it against Pitt, let’s see it in the most important game of Notre Dame’s season.
Notre Dame has had a dominating performance in them that hasn’t come out yet this year. I’m not talking about a domination of a bad team, like we saw against Texas. I’m talking about a whipping of a team that the college football world respects, like Stanford. It doesn’t happen often, since 2010 Stanford has only lost by 14+ three times, all to Oregon. Which would make a dominating win that much more impressive, and if you saw the latest rankings, Notre Dame could use a dominating win against a top 10 team right about now. The 2012 team made their statement on the road against #8 Oklahoma with a 17 point victory. It’s time for the 2015 team to go on the road and realize their incredible potential.