Head to head: Stanford
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, September 28, 2018
Notre Dame, under the play calling of Ian Book, who threw for an impressive 325 yards and two touchdowns against Wake Forest, is a force to be reckoned in the passing game. However, the Irish may meet their match in Stanford’s staunch defense, as the Cardinal are holding opponents to an average of 13.5 points through four games. That showing has been highlighted by their containment of the passing game, as they’ve only allowed one throwing touchdown leading up to their epic comeback against Oregon. Stanford’s defense, led by four senior linebackers and senior cornerback Alijah Holder, is a special unit, unlike anything the Irish have faced this season. Notre Dame’s offensive rebranding will need to show up strong to take on the Cardinal secondary.
Stanford’s defense is solid this year, and its efforts against the run have been significant — it is currently ranked as 38th in the country. Sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong and junior running back Tony Jones Jr. really broke out last weekend against Wake Forest, a great sign for the Irish, but their efforts lose some luster when you consider Wake Forest’s abysmal defense. In fact, the Demon Deacons fired defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel after Saturday’s game against the Irish. Stanford’s defense is its crutch. It’s what has kept them in the top ten, and it’s what allowed them to fend off Oregon last week in a contest that could have gone south for the Cardinal. The Irish have the capacity to put up some solid numbers on the ground against Stanford, especially with the return of Dexter Williams this week, but it’d be tough to say Notre Dame has the edge here.
Irish Offensive Coaching
After some flashes but largely frustration with Brandon Wimbush under center, particularly against Ball State and Vanderbilt, the Irish seem to have reached a crossroads. Thanks to Saturday’s performance against Wake Forest, Ian Book seems to have the keys to the kingdom in his hands. The junior made a strong case against the Deacons why he should be the guy with over 350 total yards of offense and five touchdowns. In Long’s system, he looked to be a natural fit, running through multiple progressions, spreading to the ball to playmakers and playing with poise. Stanford’s defense has played very well this year, but lost several pieces from last season and is coming off of a shaky performance on the road against Oregon.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Irish Offensive Special Teams
Justin Yoon is poised to take over the top spot on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list. If that doesn’t tell you how successful the senior kicker is, what does? It’s not hard to feel confident with Yoon lining up to kick a field goal,a although the senior hasn’t been perfect this season. And then there’s the return game. Punt returner Chris Finke has made marked improvement this season — highlighted by his 61-yard return against Wake Forest last week — while the whole squad has made progress in the spread formation and in blocking for the senior, allowing him to make some more significant returns. The Irish haven’t settled on a steady kickoff returner yet, but the rotation of players have been solid.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Last year in Palo Alto, quarterback K.J. Costello completed 14 of 22 passes for 176 yards and four touchdowns, torching the Irish in the red zone on the way to Stanford’s 38-20 win. Through four games this season, the junior has recorded a 64 percent completion rate and thrown for 1056 yards and 10 touchdowns to only three interceptions. Seven of those 10 touchdown tosses have gone to senior wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who poses a dynamic red-zone threat to any secondary.
This Irish secondary is much-improved from the one Costello faced last year, but may still face many of the same problems in South Bend as it did in Palo Alto. For one, the Stanford wide receiver and tight end corps are a tough matchup physically, often using their height to bully shorter defensive backs and win 50-50 balls. Notre Dame had trouble containing Vanderbilt’s big tight end Jared Pinkney, and I envision it might have similar trouble against Stanford tight ends Colby Parkinson (6 foot, 7 inches) and Kaden Smith (6 foot, 5 inches). With Bryce Love also a receiving threat out of the backfield, an improved and experienced K.J. Costello will have too many weapons for the Irish to shut down.
For as much attention as the Stanford run game receives, it revolves around one player — Bryce Love. Shut Love down, and you’ve shut down the Stanford run game. However, that’s a tall task considering the 84.67 yards-per-game the 2017 Heisman runner-up is averaging this season. No, it’s not his staggering 162.9 yards from last season, but it’s enough to be problematic for an Irish defense that has allowed teams to rush for 145 yards on average, including 290 yards by Wake Forest last weekend. Although Love had a relatively quiet night against the Ducks, only totaling 89 yards, he was dominant against Notre Dame last year, torching the Irish for 125 yards and will likely come into Notre Dame Stadium looking to make a statement.
Cardinal Offensive Coaching
Stanford’s offensive unit is led by former Cardinal quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who is famous for leading Stanford to a comeback victory over USC in 2007, connecting to teammate Richard Sherman on fourth down in a crucial play of the game. Pritchard’s offense has been run-heavy so far, giving senior running back Bryce Love over 17 carries in each of the games he’s played so far this year, and Pritchard’s passing unit seems to be focused on making key completions when needed. But despite Stanford’s No. 7 rank as a team, its offensive unit places in the top-50 in only one NCAA FBS offensive category — passing offense. With a back like Bryce Love, who was in the Heisman conversation before the season even started, it’s puzzling that Pritchard hasn’t gotten more out of his offense so far this season. The Cardinals have scored often, but when they have, it has been against weak defenses. Clark Lea and Notre Dame’s defensive talent should be able to limit Pritchard’s unit here.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Cardinal Offensive Special Teams
Stanford kicker Jet Toner has been pretty consistent so far this season, hitting all of his extra points and going five-for-six in field goals so far this season. In the return game, Cameron Scarlett and Trenton Irwin have ability, but have yet to make a real impact this year. After giving up a return touchdown to Michigan in Week 1, the Irish have made defending special teams a priority, and seem to have improved week-by-week by introducing new individuals into the coverage teams and playing with more effort and intensity. Call it a wash.