Closing out the regular season portion of the 2017 campaign for the Notre Dame this Saturday isn’t as bitter as it was last season, when the team’s losing record relegated it to watching bowl games instead of playing in one. While the local for the finale is once again California, the opponent this time is the Stanford Cardinal.
Last Saturday, the Irish needed to get back in a winning mode after being pounded by Miami and were able to outlast the Navy Midshipmen. Against the Cardinal, they’ll be up against a team that’s 8-3 and bounced back from some early-season woes that could garner them a spot in the Pac-12 title game. While this non-conference meeting won’t factor into that quest, Stanford definitely wants to have momentum entering the postseason.
For Saturday’s clash, below are some of the key matchups to focus on:
Notre Dame Defense vs. K.J. Costello
Injuries and struggles behind center have changed the look behind center for the Cardinal, with Costello replacing Keller Chryst. Costello is a 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman who surpassed Carson Palmer’s numbers in high school who was heavily recruited before landing in Palo Alto. Costello and Chryst have put up similar numbers, with Costello nearly at 1,000 passing yards and connecting with his receivers at a rate of nearly 61 percent.
Over the past few weeks, Irish opponents have focused more on establishing their running game, with each of the last three opponents rushing for over 200 yards. Prior to this shift, Notre Dame had seen an improved pass rush and been more aggressive overall on the defensive side, factors in the uptick when it came to turnovers.
Costello may try to challenge soft spots within the Notre Dame defense, but considering he’s far from a polished product, he might be tempting fate. One factor in how much Costello puts the ball in the air is likely dependent upon how banged up the team’s offensive focal point, Bryce Love, is for this game.
Josh Adams vs. Bobby Okereke
In his last opportunity to impress Heisman voters, Adams looks to build on his second half performance against Navy that put him over the century mark in yards gained. That reversed a frustrating stretch that had stalled his campaign to win the prestigious award. Another big day against the Cardinal will help put him over 1,500 yards on the ground for the year.
Okereke has been able to shine both against the run and the pass from his inside linebacker spot. He’s shown an ability to get to the quarterback this season, but the fact that he’s currently third on the team with 73 tackles shows that he’s usually around opposing ballcarriers, which clearly fits the description of Adams.
Notre Dame Weak Side Guard vs. Harrison Phillips
Phillips is in contention for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and is someone who’s been routinely double-teamed all season. Such things tend to occur when the player in question leads his team in sacks (five), tackles-for-loss (13) and quarterback hurries (6). In short, Phillips knows how to get past blockers and to the quarterback.
Whether that Irish weak side guard is Quenton Nelson or Alex Bars probably doesn’t matter. Both have had solid campaigns this season, but will have a formidable task in trying to contain Phillips, who has managed to collect 78 tackles on the year, just one takedown away from tying for the Stanford team lead.
Tevon Coney vs. Bryce Love
Love, like his Notre Dame counterpart Josh Adams, is among the top Heisman contenders, with his numbers of 1,723 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns serving as notable calling cards. Love’s only collected six receptions this year, but being able to tamp down his production in this game is imperative to giving the Irish a good chance at the win.
Coney continues to swallow up opponents and now stands at 93 tackles on the season after five solos and five assists against Navy. His range on the field will be valuable, while his team-leading 11 tackles-for-loss could help him to stop Love before the Cardinal back ever gets started.
Love isn’t a big back, but it’s clear that he’s been able to take advantage of the holes opened up by the Stanford offensive line. His prolific production and the difficulty that defenders have in bringing him down has allowed the Cardinals to not skip a beat in having to replace last year’s Heisman runnerup, Christian McCaffrey.
Chase Claypool vs. Quenton Meeks
Given the seemingly weekly changes in exactly who Brandon Wimbush favors, it’s hard to say if Claypool, Equanimeous St. Brown or Kevin Stepherson will be who Meeks lines up against. Even though Stepherson has emerged over the past few weeks, Claypool still sits atop the receiving leaders for the Irish with 28 grabs for 391 yards and two touchdowns.
Irish fans who can remember last year’s Stanford battle will no doubt have a queasy feeling at the mention of Meeks’ name. That’s because his pick-six of a DeShone Kizer pass helped spark the Cardinal to victory. This season, he has two picks and four pass breakups and has 52 tackles to his credit.