Final thoughts before kickoff

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The sun has yet to rise in Northern California. But it will soon set on another Notre Dame football season, with the Irish having one more shot to win a very big football game. On first glance, the deck seems stacked against Brian Kelly’s squad, with injuries up front on both sides of the ball making it an uphill battle against a Stanford team that’ll likely be hellbent on winning the war in the trenches.

Let’s take a walk through some final thoughts before this evening’s football game between the Irish and Cardinal.

Stopping the run. How well the Irish hold up against the Stanford ground game is crucial. It’s an obvious statement, but one that will be the defining test for Bob Diaco’s group. This won’t just fall on the front line, where Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day will need to be active against Stanford’s offensive tackles, but also requires excellence by the rest of the defense.

That means great run fits by inside linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. It means keeping leverage for Prince Shembo and Jaylon Smith. Both Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley need to be better tacklers, and cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell need to support as well.

This game won’t be won or loss by the work Jarron Jones does replacing Louis Nix. But it’ll be a team effort to slow down Tyler Gaffney and the Cardinal ground game.

Making Big Plays. If there’s a place where Notre Dame has to feel somewhat good about things its with its playmakers. After playing in some miserable conditions, Saturday will be perfect football weather. That means guys like TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Tarean Folston will get a shot to bring some athleticism to the field after a few weeks of just surviving.

Stanford holds opponents to less than 100 yards per game on the ground. And while it might not be smooth sailing for the Irish running the football, manufacturing a few big plays with Folston and George Atkinson should be a priority, especially if Cam McDaniel is asked to get the tough yards.

If there’s been something this Irish offense has been good at this year it’s been making big plays down the field. Tommy Rees ranks sixth nationally in yards per completion at 16.13. That number hasn’t been touched in South Bend since Jarious Jackson averaged 16.7 yards per completion in 1998.

Notre Dame needs to get down the field and take yardage in chunks against Stanford when it gets the opportunity. It may not be often, but they’ve got to take their shots and be efficient with them.

Handle the pressure. Matt Hegarty did a nice job stepping in and playing well against BYU. Doing that at The Farm, against a pressure defense that’ll likely try to overwhelm the inside of the Irish offensive line, will be key.

Whether its Conor Hanratty or Steve Elmer playing right guard, they’ve got to play tough, assignment correct football against a Cardinal defense that thrives at creating chaos.

The last time Notre Dame went to Stanford, the moment swallowed the Irish offensive line, with Stanford bringing pressure early and often and knocking Tommy Rees from the football game. That can’t happen Saturday if the Irish want to win.

Win the special teams battle. If there’s one matchup that should scare Irish fans it’s in the return game. Ty Montgomery is one of the top return men in the country, and Notre Dame’s kickoff coverage has been pretty horrible, as injuries have forced the Irish to rely on a lot of youth on the coverage teams.

If Notre Dame is going to win, they can’t let Stanford dominate field position with special teams. It’s been a long time since the Irish have tried anything tricky in the kicking game, with the last fake field goal or punt attempt coming in 2010 (I believe it was Irish captain Bennett Jackson going 20 yards on a fake punt against Tulsa). It wouldn’t be the worst time in the world to try and steal some momentum.

Hold on to the football. No words written here can trump ball security. The Irish are 13-0 when Brian Kelly’s teams don’t turn the football over. This is the type of football game where one turnover might be too many, and we’ll have to see if Tommy Rees is capable of playing mistake-free against Stanford.

Tackle well. When games like this go bad, it’s because you see opponents pinball off Irish defenders and break into the open field. Unfortunately, if you cut together a highlight film of opponents this season, you’d see Irish safety Matthias Farley in a lot of those plays, missing a tackle that’s the difference between a big play and a back-breaking play.

Farley might be taking an unfair amount of the blame this season, but that’s what happens to safeties who don’t tackle well — they get noticed for doing the wrong things.

Self Belief. Listening to some Irish fans, you’d think Nick Saban was leading his team out of the tunnel this afternoon. Notre Dame will have to play their best game of the season to beat Stanford. But the Cardinal are certainly beatable. USC showed that. So did Utah.

Irish fans groaned when they heard safeties Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate didn’t travel with the team after they were late to a team meeting. Blue and Gold’s Lou Somogyi pointed to the suspensions Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters before the Irish played USC in 1988, and how they turned into a galvanizing force.

Nobody’s going to confuse Hardy or Shumate (who may not have played much anyways because of a hamstring injury) for Brooks and Watters. But it could be a bit more fuel for the Irish as they look to silence some doubters in a game many think isn’t winnable.