The first battle of top 10 teams inside Notre Dame Stadium since the infamous Bush Push game 13 years ago is nearly upon us. The 7th ranked Cardinal of Stanford comes to South Bend to take on the 8th ranked Fighting Irish who are fresh off a quarterback change that appears to have rejuvenated their offense. Stanford arrives on the heels of an improbable road comeback fueled by a meltdown of epic proportions by Oregon. Something has to give.
What Worries Me This Week
The David Shaw Factor. I wrote about this two weeks ago when Vanderbilt was in town because Derek Mason coached under Shaw before getting the Vandy gig. In short though, Shaw has owned Brian Kelly in his time at Stanford. That isn’t hyperbole either. Since 2011, Shaw and Stanford have a 5-2 record against Notre Dame. Amazingly, Brian Kelly has a better record since then against USC than he does Stanford (4-3 vs. 2-5).
Shaw’s teams are well coached and disciplined. They might be a bit boring, but a lot like novocaine, eventually they work. Look at last week. Oregon had Stanford dead in the water until a horrible snap that Stanford scooped and scored on. Was there some luck involved there? Sure. But at the same time, Stanford used that sliver of hope to fuel a comeback. That’s the hallmark of a Shaw coached team and one of the reasons his teams have owned Notre Dame the last seven years.
Full disclosure: Shaw is hands down the least likable head coach Notre Dame faces IMO, but he is a damn good coach.
Notre Dame’s pass rush not closing the deal. Notre Dame’s pass rush has been great at generating pressure, but it has not been great at sealing the deal. If that happens again this weekend, KJ Costello is going to throw a lot of 50/50 balls that his massive receivers will haul down more often than not (more on that later).
If Clark Lea decides to send pressure tomorrow, it has to get home or Costello could put up some big numbers on the Irish. Now, Lea could also try to play more zone and only send his front four and force Costello and Stanford to dink and dunk down the field. When he does dial up pressure though, Notre Dame has to a better job of taking down the quarterback. Notre Dame is just 87th in the country at sack rate right now, but are great at generating pressure – just ask Sam Hartman. The challenge this week for Notre Dame is that they are also facing the first really good offensive line of the year.
Covering Stanford’s tight ends and massive receivers. Stanford might be the Cardinal, but their mascot is a tree which couldn’t be anymore appropriate for their wide receivers. Stanford has some huge receivers and tight ends like they always do. Over their current three game winning streak against Notre Dame, those tall receivers have terrorized the Irish defense. Both tight end Kaden Smith and wide receiver JJ Arcega Whiteside hauled in touchdowns against Notre Dame last year. Stanford also features 6-7 tight end Colby Parkinson for the Irish to contend with. Notre Dame will need an answer for all three to get the victory tomorrow.
It will be interesting to see how Notre Dame defends Stanford’s tight ends. If Lea relies heavily on the ROVER position, Asmar Bilal will get the biggest test of his career. His coverage has been better this year, but it is still not his strong suit. This could be a good week for Houston Griffith to get playing time at the nickel with his size and cover abilities. We will also probably see a lot of Donte Vaughn for his 6-3 frame.
History. Not only has Stanford better on the better end of this rivalry for the last 10 years, but Notre Dame as a program has not won a matchup of top 10 teams at home since… wait for it… 1993. That’s right, the last time Notre Dame won a game in Notre Dame Stadium when both teams were ranked in the top 10 was the epic #1-#2 battle with Florida State nearly 25 years ago. That is a lot of history to overcome this weekend for the Irish.
The 4th Quarter. In Notre Dame’s current three game losing streak to Stanford, the 4th quarter has been a nightmare for the Irish. So far this season, it’s been a nightmare for the Irish as well. For Notre Dame to win tomorrow, they will need to play four full quarters of football for the first time this year and for the first time against Stanford since 2014.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
Ian Book. Yes, Wake Forest has a terrible defense but Ian Book did what you are supposed to do to bad defenses – he carved them up. Once he got his feet under him and his receivers started catching the ball last week, Book was nearly unstoppable against the Wake Forest defense. Stanford is a whole other beast all together, but Book showed enough last week to more than suggest he is up for the challenge this weekend.
Book didn’t have a ton of success pushing the ball down the field so expect Stanford to play close to the line and dare Notre Dame to go over the top just like they did in 2011 and 2013 when Tommy Rees was the Irish quarterback. Rees’s first hand knowledge of Stanford’s defense should help Book tremendously this week actually.
There will be chances to make plays down the field tomorrow for Notre Dame and Ian Book. If Book connects on some of them, the Irish will have an excellent chance to win this game.
Any rust from Dexter Williams. This will be the first game of the year for the electrifying Dexter Williams, but I don’t expect to see any rust on the senior running back. He’s been practicing and should be in fine shape for a decent workload this weekend. Notre Dame will need their dynamic back to rip off a few long runs to soften up the Stanford defense – something Notre Dame has lacked for the most part through four games this year.
Notre Dame had it’s most success running the ball on Stanford in 2015 when Josh Adams was able to get to the edge a few times and bust off some long runs. If Notre Dame can do that with Williams tomorrow, they will make like much easier on Ian Book. If they aren’t able to and they are forced to air it, it could be a longer night.
The Notre Dame offensive line. For as bad as the Notre Dame offensive line looked against Ball State, it has bounced back with two very good performances since then and the arrow appears to be pointing up for the Irish offensive line under new OL coach Jeff Quinn. Trevor Ruhalnd replaced Tommy Kraemer two weeks ago and then filled in exclusively for him last week while Kraemer was injured, but given the bigger Stanford front, expect to see Kraemer back out there for Notre Dame this weekend. The Notre Dame offensive line has already faced the best defensive line they will see all year in week one, but Stanford offers the biggest challenge since then.
Players to Watch
- Ian Book – Obvious one here, but Notre Dame needs a hot start from Book. In an ideal world Book is able to connect deep downfield early on like Deshone Kizer did against USC in 2015.
- Brandon Wimbush – Let’s not forget about him all together now. Something tells me that there will be at least one time in this game that he will have a chance to make a play for the Irish.
- Michael Young – We got a glimpse of what Young is capable of on his 66 yard wide receiver screen last week. Expect to see him more involved in the passing game this week – especially the short game where Book can get him the ball quick in space.
- Cole Kmet – Underrated storyline of this game is the return of Cole Kmet. If he really is healthy, he could be an x-factor for Notre Dame and wouldn’t it just be some wonderful irony if Kmet had his breakout performance in a win over Stanford given Stanford’s use of the TE?
- Jerry Tillery – Tillery had 3.0 TFL against Stanford last year and historically has played well against Stanford. He’s never played in a win over the Cardinal. Look for a monster performance from him.
- Khalid Kareem – He’s been quiet since week one, but Notre Dame needs him to generate pressure on Costello and deliver some hits early on to get Costello feeling uncomfortable in the pocket just like Hartman was last week.
- Tevon Coney – It’s been an oddly quiet couple of weeks for Coney the last two weeks, but this game screams big time performance from Coney. Last year he had 2.0 TFL against Stanford. I think he at least equals that this weekend.
How’d I Do Last Week?
Not too bad actually. While almost everyone was either predicting a close win or an upset for Wake, I had Notre Dame winning by 15 points. The Irish actually won by 29 but all things considered, not a bad prediction last week.
I am torn on this one. It’s a classic head vs. heart situation for me. My head is telling me Notre Dame’s only played one complete game this year and it came against a very weak Wake Forest team albeit on the road. It’s also telling me that Stanford has owned Notre Dame the last three years and that they will never feel out of this game no matter what the situation. Conversely, it’s telling me that Notre Dame might have the seeping suspicion that it’s only a matter of time until something bad happens.
Now, my heart is telling me that last week was the first step forward for the offense under Ian Book and that Stanford was lucky to come back against Oregon. While their comeback was impressive, it never happens if Oregon doesn’t airmail a shotgun snap when it looked like they were about to go up 31-7.
In the pre-season I had Notre Dame winning this one 17-10 but after seeing both teams play now, I think both of those scores are on the low end and that this one will be just a bit higher scoring.
I wish all of the national pundits were picking Stanford in this one like they all were with Michigan because it would make me feel better about picking the Irish, but I am going to pick them anyway.
Notre Dame 27, Stanford 20