Opponent preview: Stanford Cardinal

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Round four of the opponent previews, leading us into Purdue week. Suggestions and comments welcome. Check out the previews for Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State.

The Overview:

No coach has seen his stock rise as quickly as Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh learned the college game moonlighting as an unpaid assistant under his father Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky University during his final eight seasons as an NFL quarterback.  After two seasons as an assistant coach in the NFL, Harbaugh took to the Pioneer Football League in 2004, running the I-AA University of San Diego Toreros for three seasons, his final two campaigns ending with 11-1 records. His three-year climb at Stanford has been more gradual, but he officially put the Cardinal back on the radar with an upset win over the 2007 USC Trojans, a 24-23 victory by the 41 point underdog, one of the greatest statistical upsets of all time. Harbaugh’s reputation is seemingly greater than his achievements, his high water 2009 season only resulted in an 8-5 season, even with impressive victories over then #8 Oregon and #9 USC, putting up 50-plus points on each. In 2010, the Cardinal return most of the high-powered offense, though the loss of Toby Gerhart could take the engine out of the machine. The defense, which will now employ a 3-4 philosophy, is likely what will determine whether or not Harbaugh’s squad is ready to take the leap to the next level.

Last time against the Irish:

While many suspected that Charlie Weis was a dead man walking, the Irish, led by a black-and-blue Jimmy Clausen and a one-man-army performance from Golden Tate, did their best to win in Palo Alto. Even though the Irish had an 11-point lead in the third quarter, the defense couldn’t get a stop when they needed it, and Toby Gerhart nearly turned another dominant late November performance against the Irish into a Heisman Trophy, coming up mere votes short. Without Armando Allen and Kyle Rudolph the Irish offense needed to be perfect, and between a first-possession fumble from then running back Theo Riddick and a stuffed 3rd and 2 in crunch time to Robert Hughes, 38 points wasn’t enough to protect a horrendous defense.

Said then head coach Charlie Weis after his final game:

“There’s a bunch of 22, 23-year-old men right there finishing out their career losing the last four games. They feel miserable and I feel miserable for them.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Stanford as the seventh most difficult game on the schedule. Here’s the rankings so far:

       4. Michigan Wolverines
       5. Michigan State Spartans
       7. Stanford Cardinal
       8. Purdue Boilermakers

You could make a valid argument that any of the four teams listed should be ranked from 4th to 8th, and I actually expect Stanford to be extremely tough on offense with Andrew Luck running the show after a strong debut.

The Match-up:

For all the credit Stanford got last season, they were an incredibly flawed football team. Protecting freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal were content to ride All-American Toby Gerhart, and work play-action passes off of a smash-mouth running game. In Luck, Stanford has a rising star quarterback, and even without Gerhart returning the Cardinal have plenty of offensive weapons returning. The strength of the team, the offensive line, is returning four starters, though All-American right tackle Chris Marinelli needs replacing.

On defense, wholesale changes are in store for Stanford, which replaced nearly their entire defensive staff. Enter Vic Fangio, who last coached in college back in 1983, and has spent the last 24 years in the NFL, including 11 years as a defensive coordinator. He’ll be implementing a 3-4 defensive system, and doing so with a new secondary coach and a new defensive line coach, former Notre Dame assistant Randy Hart. Hart will look to Sione Fua to anchor the defensive line, as well as leading sacker Thomas Keiser. The linebacking corps will employ ironman Owen Marecic, who is a three-time Pac-10 honorable mention fullback. Harbaugh called him “the perfectly engineered football player.” The secondary returns three of four starters, losing their best player in three-year starter Bo McNally. That said, the passing defense ranked 110th in the nation, so continuity might not be the best thing for the Cardinal.

How the Irish will win:

The key to winning is scoring the most points, and the Irish will happily oblige against a downtrodden defense. Even if Vic Fangio came from the Baltimore Ravens, it’ll be hard to turn any of Stanford’s defenders into Ray Lewis or Ed Reed. Without Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck won’t face eight-man fronts, and the mistake-free freshman All-American will be baited into some bad decisions by an opportunistic Notre Dame secondary, sitting back in a zone defense and bringing pressure from unexpected places. Kyle Rudolph gets his chance to shine against Stanford, missing his opportunity to dominate last season’s contest at The Farm.

How the Irish will lose:

The legs of Andrew Luck turn out to be a problem, as the Stanford quarterback consistently buys time inside and out of the pocket, finding favorite targets Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu to score some much needed early points. The depth chart at Stanford is finally maturing and its that depth that helps slow down the Irish offense, with special teams coach Brian Polian and Hart providing some advanced scouting on Notre Dame’s personnel. This could be the last time Harbaugh faces the Irish with Stanford, trading the red and white for the maize and blue of his alma mater after the season.

Gut Feeling:

The key to beating Stanford will be playing defense, and I’ve got a lot more confidence in Bob Diaco’s new unit than the team the Irish trotted out last season. While Andrew Luck could be ascending to the top echelon of quarterbacks in college football, I’ve got a feeling that the Irish are going to “out athlete” Stanford, and run the Cardinal defense ragged. 

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.