The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Head-to-Head: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

Observer Sports Writers | Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Andrew Luck era has ended but that doesn’t mean the Cardinal’s fortune in the passing game has. Senior Josh Nunes has the tough task of trying to replace Luck, but that has not stopped the Cardinal from becoming a top-25 team, including a No. 8 ranking after a 21-14 win over then-No. 2 USC on Sept. 15. Nunes has thrown for 1,145 yards and eight touchdowns in five games this year. In the Cardinal’s 54-48 overtime win over Arizona on Saturday, Nunes threw for a career-high 360 yards and two touchdowns. But the biggest stat for Nunes against the Wildcats was the zero in the interception column, as his four interceptions and early inconsistency fueled calls for his benching.

In Stanford’s tight-end-heavy offense, it should come as no surprise that the Cardinal’s top two receivers are tight ends. Senior tight end Zach Ertz leads the team with 21 receptions, 316 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Following Ertz is fellow senior tight end Levine Toilolo, who has recorded 278 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 21.4 yards per catch.  Toilolo recorded a career-high 141 receiving yards against Arizona, including two catches of 40-plus yards. This season, Stanford receivers are averaging more than a first down for each reception with 13.1 yards per catch.

Despite the loss of two linemen to the first round of the NFL Draft, the veteran offensive line has allowed Nunes to ease into the starting quarterback role. The offensive front has only given up five sacks on the year, the lowest in the Pac-12.

The Irish secondary looked impressive – minus the first few near-touchdowns – in Notre Dame’s 41-3 win over Miami on Saturday. The young secondary held Miami junior quarterback Stephen Morris to 201 yards and no touchdowns after he threw for over 500 yards and five touchdowns the week before.The Irish rank 10th in the country in pass efficiency and only give up 16 first downs per game. The defense can also thank Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson for half of its eight interceptions, a mark good enough for 16th in the nation.

The Cardinal rushing attack ran for a season-high 257 yards against Arizona last week, led by senior running back Stepfan Taylor’s 142-yard performance. Taylor averages 111 yards per game and has totaled 555 yards and five touchdowns this season. Nunes led a 14-point  comeback in the fourth quarter with two of his three rushing touchdowns against Arizona.

The Irish defense only gives up 7.8 points per game and has not allowed a touchdown in the last three games. In fact, Notre Dame has yet to give up a rushing touchdown all year and, going back to 2011, hasn’t given up a rushing touchdown in the last 30 quarters.    

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will have yet another intricate offense to deal with this week, as Stanford head coach David Shaw was Jim Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator before taking over as head coach two years ago.

Cardinal senior punter Daniel Zychlinski averages 54.2 yards per punt and each of his four punts against Arizona was over 50 yards. Senior receiver Drew Terrell ranks fifth in the country with 20 yards per punt return.

Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson looked composed in Notre Dame’s 41-3 win over Miami on Saturday.

Despite sitting out the first series after arriving late to a team meeting, Golson infused energy into the Irish offense with 187 passing yards and his mobility. The sophomore ran the ball effectively on designed run plays while avoiding pressure from the Miami defensive line by moving outside of the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield. Golson only threw five incompletions in the entire game and didn’t turn the ball over once.

Sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels leads the Irish in receiving with 207 yards while sophomore running back Theo Riddick leads the Irish in receptions with 12. But senior tight end and captain Tyler Eifert has only three catches in his last three games, while he recorded four receptions in each of the first two games. The Irish only have three passing touchdowns this year, which is as many interceptions as Golson has thrown. Junior quarterback Tommy Rees remains a viable and proven backup should Golson run into trouble.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal defense comes in as the 113th best passing defense in the nation, giving up over 300 yards per game. That bodes well for an inconsistent Irish passing attack, especially  if the veteran offensive line can do what it did against Miami. Junior safety Ed Reynolds leads the Cardinal with three interceptions.

Against Miami, four Irish running backs scored touchdowns for the first time since 1996. Notre Dame rushed for a staggering 376 yards on Saturday and has won its last 10 games when recording at least 200 rushing yards.

Sophomore running back George Atkinson led the way against Miami with 123 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries while senior running back Cierre Wood rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Golson even rushed for 51 yards on six carries to keep the defense off balance. The rushing attack was mostly responsible for Notre Dame’s 34 first downs and over 39 minutes of possession. The Irish also averaged an impressive 7.4 yards per carry.

But Stanford comes into Notre Dame Stadium with the sixth-best rushing defense in the nation. The Cardinal only gives up 77.2 yards per game and ranks fourth in the country with 8.6 tackles for a loss per game. Senior defensive end  and Lombardi Award candidate Ben Gardner has six tackles for a loss this season. Senior lineback Shayne Skov recorded a season-high nine tackles against Arizona on Saturday and is part of a formidable Cardinal linebacking corps.

Stanford’s passing defense has been pretty shaky this season and Irish coach Brian Kelly showed against Miami that he is not afraid to throw the ball against an ineffective secondary.

The only action senior Irish punter Ben Turk saw against Miami was on a roughing-the-kicker penalty that prolonged Notre Dame’s opening drive. Sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza made two of his three field goal attemps, both coming in the first half to help build a 10-point lead. The Irish still have not seen a spark in their return game from either freshman receiver Davonte Neal or Atkinson.