Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with Stanford

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It wasn’t long ago that a game with Stanford was a Saturday you might skip. On a schedule loaded with rivals, it was hard to consider the Cardinal one of them. But in a matchup that’s only missed two seasons since 1988, the battle between the two programs has taken flight, mostly thanks to the advancement of the football program in Palo Alto.

From 2002 to 2008, the Irish won seven straight games against Stanford, a streak maintained by Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis over Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, until Jim Harbaugh started his restoration in 2007 . But since the Cardinal beat Notre Dame in 2009, they’ve hardly given back the momentum, with Notre Dame’s 2012 overtime victory the lone victory Brian Kelly has over a program that’s averaging 11.5 wins per season since 2010.

My how this rivalry has changed. On a big college football weekend, there’s likely no better indicator of interest in a game than the secondary ticket market. According to TicketCity.com, Saturday’s game in South Bend continues to be one of the most in-demand seats in college football, running just about even with Alabama-Ole Miss and ahead of the SEC showdown between LSU and Auburn. Quite a change from the Brain Bowl that sometimes took place to the appreciation of precious few.

With Everett Golson set to face off against college football’s best defense and David Shaw’s team looking to resume its climb into the Top 10, Saturday afternoon presents another chapter in a rivalry that’s only getting better with age.

Let’s take a look at the Pregame Six Pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame takes on Stanford at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC or online via Liva Extra.

 

When Notre Dame’s offense meets Stanford’s defense, something’s going to give. 

Everett Golson and the Notre Dame offense have opened the season scoring at least 30 points in four-straight games for the first time since 1943. Stanford’s defense hasn’t given up 30 points in their last 27 games. Something’s got to give.

Even after replacing a significant portion of their defense, the Cardinal are playing perhaps the best defense of the Harbaugh-Shaw era in 2014. And if Notre Dame is able to keep alive their 30-point streak or even break the 20 point threshold, they’ll be doing better than most. Stanford has held opponents to 20 points or fewer in 25 of their last 30 games.

The 2014 edition of Stanford’s defense has given up 26 points… this season. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that this team has allowed just four play of 20 yards or longer.

On Tuesday, Brian Kelly talked about the need to create big plays and how it’ll be a key on Saturday afternoon.

“We won’t win if we don’t get big chunk plays,” Kelly said. “We are not going to go five, seven, ten yards and score enough points to win. We’ll have to find our chances. We’ll have to create opportunities and we’ll have to make some plays down the field, there’s no question.”

 

Stanford’s going to need to be prepared for Brian VanGorder’s defense, too. 

Of course, both teams’ offenses are in for a challenge. That means Stanford’s offense is going to need to create some scoring opportunities against the Irish defense, no easy feat through four games this September.

While the Cardinal will present the biggest challenges for Brian VanGorder’s defense with their power running attack, VanGorder’s exotic schemes remind Shaw of his days coaching on Sundays.

“As soon as I put the film on it was like being back in the NFL,” Shaw said. “The variety of blitzes, the variety of fronts. They know how to attack your protections and get after your quarterback. They’ve got good personnel, they’ve got good pass rushers. They’re good against the run.

“You walk into the game and it’s just like playing against Vic Fangio or Rex Ryan or all those guys that everybody on the defense is a viable blitzer. So they need to be accounted for and they’re going to give you a bunch of different looks. Thankfully in our history we’ve played against guys like this, and it’s an impressive group to watch.”

Those blitzes will challenge Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan, an experienced veteran who maybe hasn’t seen his game progress as much as Stanford fans have hoped. But Shaw’s offense depends on success on first and second down, not allowing VanGorder’s third down packages to put pressure on Hogan and the game on his shoulders.

 

Another big game, another big recruiting weekend. 

Just like when Notre Dame hosted Michigan, the Irish expect a full house of recruits on hand when they battle Stanford. And with a handful of recruits considering both programs, walking away Saturday with a victory on the field could be important come Signing Day as well.

Notre Dame will host top West Coast prospects Equanimeous St. Brown and Frank Buncom this weekend, with the Irish long in the hunt for St. Brown, the lanky receiver from Orange County. An elite prospect, the Servite product is the type of athlete that could play right away, even with Notre Dame’s impressive depth chart.

The fact that Buncom has decided to visit means the San Diego native is taking his recent offer from Notre Dame seriously. An early target for the Irish at safety, Buncom seemed to be the odd man out when Nicco Fertitta and Prentice McKinney committed early. But whether it was the injury to Nicky Baratti or the need to fill out the depth chart at safety with some position switches, Buncom is a perfect profile prospect who also is well respected as a Top 100-type athlete.

The Irish coaching staff will also do their best to swing two prospects committed elsewhere. Safety Calvin Brewton is a Florida State commit who is giving Notre Dame a sincere look. Defensive end Mekhi Brown is an Alabama commitment who might see a wide open depth chart in South Bend if he chooses to walk away from Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.

A handful of current commitments will be on campus as well, with some taking official and unofficial visits. Notre Dame’s staff will also entertain a large group of 2016 prospects, hoping to find that first commitment of the next recruiting cycle.

There are precious few openings left in the 2015 recruiting class. But Notre Dame is still chasing after some difference-making talent, and a few of those players will be on campus this weekend.

 

If you’re looking for a true litmus test to measure Everett Golson’s progress, Stanford’s defense is it. 

We rewatched Golson’s last game against Stanford and gave some thoughts here. But against Derek Mason’s attacking, multiple defense in 2012, Golson struggled mightily, turning the ball over three times and giving Stanford their only touchdown before leaving the game late in the fourth quarter with a head injury.

But asked what he saw in Golson’s game this year as opposed to when he faced Stanford last, Shaw was candid.

“Watching him, it’s the difference of confidence. I think he was really good two years ago,” Shaw said of Golson. “He was very athletic, very accurate, hard to catch and pin down in the backfield. This year, it’s the same, but he almost just seems more composed, where as before it seemed a little frantic. Now he knows you can’t catch him.”

That composure needs to return a week after Golson was sloppy with the football. Kelly revealed that Golson almost didn’t want the FBS Independent Offensive Player of the Week award he earned for his performance against Stanford, feeling like his turnovers and mistakes almost disqualified his 25-consecutive completions. But a victory against the Cardinal will almost certainly earn Golson some well-deserved kudos.

 

In a game that will likely be a close one, converting red zone opportunities will be crucial. And right now, Notre Dame’s doing a much better job of that. 

Few statistics mean more to scoring output than red zone efficiency. And you’d be hard pressed to find a stat that separates Notre Dame and Stanford more than their red zone offense.

Right now, 108 teams sit between Notre Dame and Stanford in red zone efficiency. That’s because the Irish sit at 13th in the country after converting 17 of their 18 attempts for points while the Cardinal rank 121st, cashing in just 12 of 19.

Those struggles cost Stanford a victory against USC, with the Cardinal getting inside the Trojans 32-yard line on all nine of their drives, but only converting those opportunities into 10 points.

“The most frustrating part is that it’s just not one thing. It would be great if there was one thing that we had to change,” Shaw said. “What’s hurt us are turnovers and penalties and missed field goals have crushed us in the red zone. That’s why it’s frustrating. It’s not just one thing.”

According to Shaw, the elements of an efficient red zone offense is the ability to run the ball efficiently and having an athletic quarterback. Stanford has both of those things. But add kicker Jordan Williamson’s slow start to the mix — he’s missed as many kicks (four) through four games as he did all last season, and this could be a huge factor on Saturday afternoon.

 

NFL sons, book club founders, and Snapchat’s Picasso. Notre Dame and Stanford are all about what’s right in college football. 

There hasn’t been a week go by without some negative news taking over the football world. With Roger Goodell thanking Michigan’s Brady Hoke and Dave Brandon for the tag off, it’s been a rough month for the greatest team sport in the world.

But Saturday afternoon matches two great football programs, both representing elite academic institutions. And it’s worth taking note of the student-athletes that’ll be on the field Saturday afternoon.

While Saturday’s sidelines at Notre Dame have started to need velvet ropes for famous fathers, Stanford’s family section might give them a run for their money. The fathers of three Stanford running backs Barry Sanders Jr. (Barry Sr.), Christian McCaffery (Ed) and Ricky Seale (Sam) have nearly 25,000 yards of total offense and a dozen interceptions between them.

The fathers of Joshua Garnett, Andrus Peat, A.T. Hall, Kevin Reihner, Kodi Whitfield and Alex Carter all played in the NFL as well, with Carter’s father Tom picked in the first round out of Notre Dame.

Famous dads aren’t the only thing that separate the Cardinal student-athletes. Receivers Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector spent the summer doing stem cell research. Cornerback Wayne Lyons started a Virtual Book Club. Backup long snapper Austin Tubbs has built a reputation as Snapchat’s Picasso.

We do our best here to celebrate the achievements of Notre Dame’s student-athletes off the field, not just focusing on the wins and losses on it. Stanford has managed to go 49-10 since 2010, behind just Oregon and Alabama for wins in that time period. Notre Dame’s a not-too-shabby 41-15, making this the most competitive game of the weekend.

But putting the wins aside, consider this your reminder that these kids are doing impressive off the field as well.