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Things To Learn: As always, Notre Dame-Stanford defined by trenches

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Notre Dame has enjoyed its turkey, its pumpkin pie and certainly the squash that Irish head coach Brian Kelly claims is his favorite Thanksgiving side dish, all courtesy of the Morris Inn before a Thursday afternoon flight west. Yet one plate awaits No. 16 Notre Dame.

For dessert, a generous helping of Cardinal rush pie.

Maybe that description of Stanford’s ground game is forced, but it is from inaccurate, and Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea is assuredly licking his lips at the sight of a few slices of the Cardinal pie coming to his table. This will truly be an earned treat, after Notre Dame held in check the No. 1 rushing attack in the country, Navy, and then bottled up a prolific rusher, Boston College’s AJ Dillon.

Comparing Stanford’s backfield to cheesecake is not hyperbolic. The Cardinal ranks No.112 in the country with 3.61 yards per carry, No. 123 with 104.4 rushing yards per game and is tied for No. 127 with seven rushing touchdowns. How bad is that last number? Only 0-12 Akron had fewer ground scores.

Yes, the program that produced Toby Gerhart, Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love is now deserving of being mentioned in the same sentence as Akron.

This relief comes just in time for Lea and the Irish, with junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa likely limited, if in the lineup at all, this weekend and sophomore tackle Jayson Ademilola not long removed from an ankle injury. All season, the depth at defensive tackle was a worry, and that concern has finally become a reality.

But by putting that off for so long, Notre Dame should be able to now survive the attrition, both because of the coming ineptness and because of the chances the reserves have gotten in the previous 11 games. Namely, sophomore Ja’mion Franklin (pictured above) and freshman Jacob Lacey filled in last week after Tagovailoa-Amosa’s injury and Ademilola was ruled out.

“In talking with [Lea] and (defensive line coach) Mike Elston this morning, they were very pleased with both Franklin and Lacey,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday after the pair notched a tackle apiece in a 40-7 victory against Boston College. “They felt they played very well and felt that [sophome ends] Justin Ademilola and Ovie Oghoufo contributed very well.

“Some of the young guys stepped up nicely for us.”

That young depth has not been needed much at end, despite the season-ending injuries to seniors Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara, thanks to reaches of veteran waves. Giving up nearly 2.5 sacks per game, Stanford may have trouble with seniors Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones and Ade Ogundeji, part of why the Cardinal has made only 31 trips into the red zone, ranking No. 118, scoring only 14 touchdowns on those possessions.

But the lackluster Stanford running game will most benefit Notre Dame’s depleted interior depth, turning a chance of exposure into an opportunity to give more reps to those impressing underclassmen.

While Franklin’s contributions should not be diminished, his real chance to bolster the defense will come next year, once another offseason of recovery strengthens the quad he ruptured in 2018. For now, Lacey’s debut season has given the most reason for future optimism.

“It starts with being assignment-correct,” Kelly said. “He’s so smart as a football player. Very rarely does he make a mistake in terms of his alignment in his assignment.”

Kelly continued with broad thoughts of the intangible items that often keep young linemen off the field. As much as their physical readiness, or lack thereof, their limited understanding of the defensive concepts and the offensive fronts they see can, in turn, limit the Irish defensive approach.

“Obviously, [Lacey] was a very talented player coming in and a lot of these guys usually are, but some of the things that they can’t translate early on is the complexity of what we’re doing, moving the fronts, lining up correctly,” Kelly said.

It is not as simple as Notre Dame will have the chance to get Lacey and Franklin exposure to those worries thanks to Stanford’s atrocious rushing attack; the Irish have to expose them now that injuries have caught up to the trenches. But in doing so, 2020’s defensive depth will be bolstered.

On the other side of the trenches, Notre Dame may have a bit more trouble. Its own rushing attack has been dismal in recent weeks, and the Cardinal have given up more than 200 yards only twice this season. Though the Irish have reached that threshold five times this year, the rushing attack has been far from reliable.

While junior running back Jafar Armstrong has struggled to get back to his preseason form, Irish sophomore C’Bo Flemister has shown enough to garner more touches, scoring four times so far this season. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Not much more time needs to be spent discussing that — the offensive line has simply held on without its starting right side, and the running backs have not flashed as junior Jafar Armstrong appears to have been passed in the pecking order by both sophomores C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith — but on the whole, Notre Dame’s ground game has been less a liability than perceived. To date, it has averaged 175.36 yards per game.

Of course, that is boosted by rushes like sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy’s 61-yard jet sweep touchdown a week ago, but it is a fact, nonetheless.

In the preseason, this space predicted the Irish would average more rushing yards than last year, meaning more than 182.61. If Notre Dame can gash Stanford for 263 yards on Saturday, that average will be reached.

More pertinent than the accuracy of that projection, Armstrong’s chances should be noted. He did not get any touches against the Eagles, seemingly an indication he has struggled to get back to 100 percent after tearing an abdomen muscle in the season opener.

“It’s our decision, in particular [running backs coach Lance Taylor’s] decision regarding the rotation, and we’re using three or four backs right now and he feels like he’s got a group of backs, and he’s going to be very active and interchangeable as it relates to who is playing in the game,” Kelly said. “That’s the rotation he went with for this particular game. I wouldn’t read too much into it. [Armstrong is] not in the doghouse. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s working hard.”

It may be that Armstrong is too compromised to get back into gear during the season. Regaining health can run counter to trying to get into the run of play. Each week without impacts from him furthers the likelihood that his dual-threat possibilities will go unrealized until 2020.

Even without Armstrong returning to form, the Irish offense has found its groove in November, averaging 43.3 points per game the last three weeks, two of those defenses ranking far ahead of Stanford’s by SP+ metrics. That stretch has raised Notre Dame’s season average to 36.36 points per game, a Kelly era high but short of the preseason prediction of 38.

To reach that, the Irish would need to score 56 against the Cardinal, a number reached only once in this series when Notre Dame won 57-7 in 2003, four years before Jim Harbaugh arrived in Palo Alto to start turning things around.

Harbaugh’s first season at Stanford was also the last time the Irish won there. Finishing a third 10-plus win season while the Cardinal miss a bowl game should be the perfect chance to halt that losing streak at The Farm. Consider that the icing on top of the figurative pie.