Head to Head: Notre Dame vs. Stanford
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, October 14, 2016
When the Irish and Cardinal met last November, the Notre Dame defense held dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey under 100 yards rushing. But despite that, the Cardinal put up 38 points on the strength of quarterback Kevin Hogan’s arm.
Hogan’s arm is now gone at “The Farm,” and his replacement, senior Ryan Burns, has struggled to emulate the success of the now-Cleveland Browns quarterback. The Cardinal have thrown for just 166.2 yards per game, one of the lowest marks in the nation, finding the end zone just five times.
But on the other side of the ball, the Irish secondary has been one of the nation’s weaker units this season. Notre Dame has allowed 10 aerial gains of 30 yards or more this year — at least one in each of its games not played in a hurricane — and 20 gains through the air of more than 20 yards.
Saturday’s contest presents an opportunity for either the Cardinal pass offense or the Irish pass defense to get its season back on track.
Stanford junior running back Christian McCaffrey entered 2016 among the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy. But without strong play at quarterback or on the offensive line, McCaffrey hasn’t been as effective as expected, rushing for 520 yards and accounting for 154 receiving yards. Both those stats, as well as his all-purpose touchdown and return yardage marks, lag behind his 2015 numbers.
But he only factors into Stanford’s plans if he’s able to go Saturday, after McCaffrey left last week’s game with an injury. Cardinal head coach David Shaw indicated McCaffrey’s status would not be known until Friday at the earliest. If he doesn’t go, the Cardinal will go to sophomore Bryce Love, who’s carried just 21 times this year, in McCaffrey’s place.
Regardless of who’s in the backfield for the Cardinal, though, it will be interesting to see how the Irish attack their opponents’ run game. Last season’s game saw Notre Dame have success limiting McCaffrey’s impact — having Jaylon Smith on the field helped with that. Will Irish defensive coordinator Greg Hudson look to junior Nyles Morgan to fill a similar role?
Notre Dame has, at times, struggled to stop the run this season, ceding more than 200 yards against Texas, Michigan State and Duke. But a matchup against an uncharacteristically weak Stanford offensive line gives the Irish front seven a chance to make its mark at home under the lights.
CARDINAL OFFENSIVE COACHING
For the second time in three years, Stanford is firmly out of the playoff picture in mid-October. The Cardinal, who went 8-5 in 2014 before rebounding last year to finish the season No. 3 in both the AP and coaches’ polls, have largely stuck with their grind-it-out offensive system that relies on getting a strong push from the offensive line.
The Irish defense looked better last week at North Carolina State, but weather conditions worked in the unit’s favor. It still needs to find a full-game effort in normal conditions to prove real strides have been made.
CARDINAL SPECIAL TEAMS
Irish fans will look to the field Saturday and see the man who ended their team’s playoff chances last year: fifth-year kicker Conrad Ukropina. Ukropina, who’s already hit from 50 this year, gives Stanford a fairly reliable kicker who’s hit at an 81.8 percent clip in his career.
Sophomore punter Jake Bailey is much improved from 2015, averaging 45 yards per effort this year, while the Irish return game has, bright flashes aside, largely struggled to get going.
Junior DeShone Kizer and the Irish passing game really struggled for the first time all season last Saturday at North Carolina State, but it’s hard to put too much blame on the unit while playing in driving rain and tropical storm-level wind gusts. The young receiving corps struggled to get open in the rough conditions, as Kizer struggled to a 9-for-26 day.
More stock, perhaps, should be taken in the stellar display the unit put forward against Syracuse two weeks ago. Kizer threw for 471 yards, keying in on sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown as the target of 182 of them, as he set the school record for passing yards in a win.
Stanford’s defense has struggled the last two weeks, giving up 86 points to Washington and Washington State, with the Cougars amassing 357 passing yards in their 42-16 win last Saturday. But on the whole of the season, the secondary has been suspect, surrending 200 or more passing yards in every game so far.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
Despite playing in rough conditions a week ago, Notre Dame largely stayed away from the ground game at N.C. State. For most of the game, the Irish offensive line struggled to get the necessary push, as sophomores Josh Adams and Dexter Williams combined for just 64 yards on 20 carries. Senior Tarean Folston, through injury, has not seen a carry the last two weeks, with his big run at Texas now a distant memory.
Its crushing loss at Washington aside, the Cardinal run defense has been a stout unit so far this year, ranking 26th nationally in yards ceded — just 120.2 per game. Even in the Washington State defeat, the Stanford rush defense had a solid game, limiting the Cougars to just 101 yards on 30 carries.
The Irish ground game, which rushed for more than 200 yards against both Texas and Nevada, has not hit the mark since, will need a banner day to do so against the Cardinal front seven.
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
In the last week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has often noted that the Irish offense has had chances to tie or win the game in each of the team’s four losses. However, the common retort from Irish fans is that Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford haven’t put the unit in a position to be successful down the stretch. Against Texas, facing third-and-long, the Irish opted for a conservative rush in a tie game, taking away Kizer’s ability to win the game, while last week’s decision to throw 26 times in adverse conditions remains a baffling one.
Stanford, on the flip, has seen its defense hemmorhage points the last two weeks after posting three straight solid games to open the season. The high-powered Irish pass game should test a secondary that’s struggled.
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
It’s another week for the Irish special teams unit and the story line remains the same: inconsistency. When sophomore kicker Justin Yoon was called upon at N.C. State, he was successful from 40 yards. But junior punter Tyler Newsome, after hitting a 69-yard punt earlier in the game, conceded the only touchdown of the loss when his fourth-quarter punt was blocked andreturned by the Wolfpack for a score.
If healthy enough to go, Newsome and Yoon will be kicking to Christian McCaffrey this week. That’s not necessarily a recipe for success.