Onward to Stanford

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I’ve been as guilty as anyone these last two weeks looking past the actual football games to the juicy subplots that seem to have taken over the month of November. But today the Irish board a plane for Palo Alto where a Saturday night date with the Stanford Cardinal awaits. And if there was anything this team needed, it was an actual football game, somewhere to take the season’s frustrations out on an able opponent. 

Vegas has Stanford favored by ten points against Charlie Weis’ Irish squad, and that number is kind of mystifying, but signifies the dead in the water feeling many have for this football team. That point spread also has a lot to do with the respect the national media gives Jim Harbaugh and this Stanford team, who up until last week’s upset loss to Cal, looked to be the hottest team in the country.

What can we expect from the Cardinal? Well, we all know about Toby Gerhart. The bruising running back has catapulted his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation and is second in the country in rushing yards and leads the entire country in scoring (23 touchdowns, 2 two-point conversions). We’ve also seen redshirt freshman Andrew Luck blossom, playing efficient football and showing a dangerous mobility that will likely haunt the Irish defense. The Stanford Cardinal that throttled USC did so behind 325 rushing yards, 73 percent efficiency on third down, and absolutely stepping on the throats of the Trojans in the fourth quarter, running up 27 points on Pete Carroll’s squad in what was questionable, but definitely understandable, sportsmanship.

So how do we explain the four Stanford losses? The early season loss to a four-win Wake Forest, where Stanford blew a 17-3 halftime lead? Or Jacquizz Rodgers putting up 271 combo yards and scoring four touchdowns in a ten point Pac-10 track meet loss that looked much closer than it actually was? How about blowing a 28-13 lead and giving up 415 yards passing to Arizona quarterback Nick Foles while losing another high scoring affair 43-38 to the Wildcats? Then, after beating Oregon and USC, hemorrhaging  477 yards of offense to Cal, including 193 on the ground to backup tailback Shane Vereen, and losing the biggest game of the season 34-28.

Even amidst all the distractions, I’m not one to count the Irish out, and I’m certainly not one to think that the Irish should be ten point underdogs, especially since they’ve played every game this season to within a touchdown. The biggest reason I think the Irish will compete is the Stanford defense. It’s mediocre.

Deep in the lower tier of total defense rankings is Stanford, notching in a slot below the disappointing Irish defense at 81st. Even worse, they’re ranked 97th against the pass, giving up a woeful 244 yards per game. Even more surprising is their inability to force turnovers. Even including turnover heavy games against USC (four) and Washington (three), Stanford has only forced 14 turnovers, good for 101st in the nation. Even more horrific is the Cardinal red zone defense, which should be a suitable tonic for Notre Dame’s own deficiencies inside the twenty. Stanford ranks 115th in red zone defense, allowing their opponent to score 89 percent of the time, with a touchdown registering at 62 percent. If you’re looking for a reason why Stanford isn’t an elite football team, it’s because the defense has been letting them down. (Sound familiar?)

Most have the Irish dead and buried, but I’m optimistic that we’ll see a care-free Irish team looking to make a statement against a team that’s probably getting far more respect than they deserve. While Gerhart has been getting it done on the ground, his 1568 rushing and receiving yards are only 102 yards better than Golden Tate’s 1466 combination yards, and that doesn’t take special teams yardage, or the fact that Golden is doing it on a fraction of the touches.

Whatever the outcome, it’ll be good to get back to talking about football, instead of all the action that’s taking place far from the sidelines.