Things To Learn: Stanford no longer the Playoff vault Notre Dame needs

Notre Dame v Stanford
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SAN FRANCISCO — Notre Dame used to measure itself against Stanford. Of all the Irish rivals, the Cardinal was the opponent Notre Dame most saw as a peer. And early in the Brian Kelly era, that comparison was an unfavorable one.

Including Charlie Weis’ last year with the Irish, Stanford won seven of nine games in the annual matchup. Furthermore, the peak Cardinal years, namely 2015, looked to be closer to a national championship than the peak Notre Dame years did. That year, the then-No. 6 Irish could at least think, with reason, a win at No. 9 Stanford would vault them into the College Football Playoff, anyone shutting down Christian McCaffrey deserving such a boost in the selection committee’s eyes. That loss instead catapulted the Cardinal toward a No. 3 ranking at season’s end.

Even in 2017, though Notre Dame was ranked No. 8 entering the season’s final week and already had two losses — a nailbiter against eventual national runner-up Georgia and the calamity Irish fans wish they could forget at Miami — there was pregame debate in the press box if a win at No. 21 Stanford could elevate Notre Dame into the Playoff. Again, of course, the Irish fell short against their then-most frustrating rival.

None of that is the case anymore. The northern California measuring stick has fallen short, to say the least. No. 6 Notre Dame (10-1) cannot gain points in anyone’s eyes with a win at Stanford (3-8), no matter how many points the Irish score. The Cardinal is suddenly a mere speed bump rather than a roadblock.

Kelly has never been one to aggressively abuse the scoreboard against an overmatched opponent — even last week’s 25-year-best rout of Georgia Tech included a tapping of the brakes in the fourth quarter — and he recognizes there would be little point in doing it this weekend (8 ET; FOX), even if this may be one of two opponents he would not mind trouncing a bit.

“I don’t think it really matters,” Kelly said Monday. “… Adding a few points against Georgia Tech (or another team) is not simply changing their point of view. It’s really, for us, to continue to play solid on both sides of the ball and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

If Notre Dame has a Playoff claim — and while it does, it simply is not as strong of one as other contenders’ — it has been the development of both sides of the ball. The defense was widely panned after giving up 67 points in the first two weeks of the season, but it quickly found its footing with back-to-back 13-point allowances after that, impressive efforts overshadowed by the Irish offense’s struggles. Eventually, that offense found its rhythm, now averaging 37.3 points per game in its last six contests.

“When you talk about game control, you gotta bring in your defense and your offense,” Kelly said. “A balanced football team is just as good.”

Showing a balanced football team at The Farm will start with the ground game, specifically offensively.

Notre Dame’s offensive line was expected to be a strength in 2021. It instead began the year as a weakness, yet that recent scoring surge has been led by the offensive line’s cohesion.

“As the season progresses, and it’s coming to an end here pretty soon, we’re all communicating with each other and seeing things through one set of eyes better,” fifth-year right tackle Josh Lugg said Monday. “Those details that we really wanted to clean up are getting cleaned up. … Just being able to clean up some of those details as the season progressed, we’ve been able to play better ball.”

It should now end on a high note. The Cardinal has given up 6.2 yards per carry (sacks adjusted) this season, and in their last six games, the Irish have averaged 6.01 yards per rush attempt. Notre Dame’s strength is seemingly tailor-made to expose Stanford’s weakness.

“There’s no doubt about it, running the ball is going to be part of the outcome here,” Kelly said. “… Clearly our offensive line is geared toward finishing the season with another good performance.”

Typically, yards per carry can be too surface-level a statistic to truly forecast a game, and from that forecast, predict the national reaction to its outcome and its effects on the Playoff race. But, coinciding averages both north of 6.0 is a complementary enough pair of extremes to trust. The final impression the Irish will give the Playoff selection committee is that of an improved offense running through Stanford.

But it is not the Stanford of old.

No matter how much deference Notre Dame may offer the Cardinal, no impartial observer will mistake this rendition for anything resembling those teams that so plagued the first half of Kelly’s tenure.

“They’re a good team, just a good football club,” Irish senior cornerback Tariq Bracy said. “Have to take each week as a new opponent and a new challenge. Have the most respect for Stanford.”

Crash Davis would be proud. A nitpicking eye could justifiably focus on Bracy’s usage of “just.”

Pick your defensive statistic, and the formerly stout and physical Cardinal are low in the national rankings.

Scoring defense: No. 97 in the country with 31.3 points allowed per game.
Rushing defense: No. 126 in the country in yards allowed per carry, not adjusting for sacks, at 5.83.
Passing defense: No. 61 in the country in opposing passing rating.
Red-zone defense: No. 74 in the country, allowing touchdowns on 61.2 percent of red-zone possessions.
Third-down defense: No. 117 in the country, allowing conversions on 45.6 percent of third downs.

Notre Dame still needs to win to preserve its Playoff hopes, but little else can be accomplished Saturday.

“We have to beat Stanford,” Kelly said. “Regardless of what that looks like, it’s not going to be played as, ‘Oh, that was a signature win.’

“We think a lot of Stanford. We know their personnel, but it’s not going to be perceived that way.”

Never before has the adage — usually applied after hard-fought victories — been truer, “A win is a win is a win.”