Irish v. Cardinal: Who and What to Watch

O'Malley's game preview offers a collection of questions with the answers likely to determine Saturday's winner in South Bend.

1.) Can Notre Dame Block Stanford's Front Seven? Pardon the simplicity of the first question, but consider the following output by the Cardinal defense in its four outings vs. head coach Brian Kelly's Irish offense:

--10 turnovers created, including two touchdowns scored
-- 25 tackles for loss with 13 sacks (just one sack last year)
-- Irish quarterbacks knocked from the game in both 2011 and 2012…another that was mentally beaten to a pulp (2010). Only Tommy Rees, 2013, survived…

With long-field success unlikely for both offenses Saturday, ball security is paramount. But Notre Dame won't effectively protect quarterback Everett Golson if the offensive line cannot provide timely creases for its three running backs. A consistent push might be too much to ask, but the group excelled in third-and-short situations last week, converting seven straight into first downs.

Can they produce vs. the Cardinal? History suggests otherwise, as aside from a 44-carry, 150-yard effort vs. the Stanford rush defense in 2012, Notre Dame's three-game output vs. the Cardinal in the Kelly era is paltry: a combined 78 carries for 165 yards.

No Irish running back has scored a touchdown vs. Stanford and the only rushing score by the team came after the 2011 contest long-decided, with backup Andrew Hendrix sneaking in near the final gun.

The good news for Irish fans is that the aforementioned 150-yard effort in 2012 was actually 200 in terms of gross yardage, and Golson played a key role, escaping pressure and moving the ball downfield. The bad news? Those 50 lost yards were failed protection of Golson, who fumbled four times.

There is no greater indicator for success Saturday than Notre Dame's ability to protect Golson vs. Stanford's penchant for harassing and hitting the quarterback.

2.) Who'll Earn the Hidden Yards? Field position has been decidedly one-sided in Stanford's favor over three of the last four matchups, with the Cardinal killing Notre Dame's kick return unit in 2010 and last season enjoying a pair of long returns to set up scores vs. the Irish kick coverage unit. Only the 2012 Irish thrived in preventing the coveted "hidden yards."

Backup kick returner Greg Bryant appeared unusually tentative in his new role last week vs. Syracuse. The return of Amir Carlisle to the fold would help, but he could be asked to fulfill only a slot receiver role after missing the last two weeks with a sprained knee.

Fortunately for the Irish, kickoff specialist Kyle Brindza can nullify the outstanding Ty Montgomery (Click here). Brindza will be challenged to do the same when punting, though he's allowed just two punts to be returned to date this season.

A few troubling special teams notes if you're an Irish fan:

-- Stanford's punt coverage has allowed just 1.6 yards per return this season. The Cardinal return crew averages 21.2 per pop.

-- Stanford's kick coverage unit has surrendered just 16.1 yards per return, eighth-lowest in the nation.

-- While Brindza can negate Montgomery, he of the eight career kickoff returns in excess of 50 yards (with two touchdowns), the Irish kicker can't afford a miss. That is, boots out of the end zone might be his only recourse, as Montgomery will doubtless be tempted to take it out and chance his efforts against an Irish coverage unit that has yet to prove worthy as tacklers after struggling throughout 2013. (They haven't had to, with Brindza drilling 21 of 28 kickoffs for touchbacks.)

3.) Any third-down success for either? Sound tackling? Check. Outstanding situational awareness? Check. Aggressive, consistent harassment of opposing quarterbacks? You bet.

Both Notre Dame and Stanford thrive defensively on third down, the Cardinal ranking No. 15 nationally (successful in 42 of 59 situations) and Notre Dame No. 34 (a comparable 40 of 58).

If either offense can convert more than one-third of its third-down situations, it will have an inherent advantage Saturday. (According to Irish Illustrated, Stanford was a combined 1 of 14 in situations of 3rd-and-5 or more vs. USC and Washington.)

Moving the chains consistently will be a tall order, but for the Irish, one or two key conversions can open the door to a shot downfield thereafter.

Which brings us to Point No. 4…

4.) Separation Anxiety? Notre Dame's quintet of receivers has passed every quiz to date. Consider this Saturday the equivalent of a comprehensive mid-term exam. Getting free from the Cardinal corners and nickel could prove challenging.

While Rice had no chance to run with the Irish, Michigan brought a collection of secondary talent that was well-equipped to tussle with Notre Dame's young targets in space.

The Irish quintet worked them over for 60 minutes.

Purdue and Syracuse? Overmatched -- and in the case of the Orange, perhaps plain bad on the perimeter.

Stanford's Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons are likely the second-best cornerback tandem the Irish will face this fall. Lyons intercepted two Tommy Rees passes last season -- though he was beaten deep by Will Fuller on the latter. Carter, son of Irish legend Tom Carter, broke up two passes in last year's contest and also forced a fumble against Golson in 2012. Carter though was beaten by DaVaris Daniels for a touchdown in last year's 27-21 Stanford win in Palo Alto.

If the weather cooperates (it will be cold and raining, but only wind can derail a solid passing attack), Notre Dame's encounters with the Cardinal corners will be an enjoyable -- and telling -- sub-plot to watch.

Two from the pass-catching quintet of Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, C.J. Prosise, Amir Carlisle, and Chris Brown must provide clutch efforts Saturday in South Bend.

5.) In Golson We Trust…but who does he trust? The Cardinal will bring pressure, of that there is no doubt. And at times, Golson will escape his harassers and make a play on the move. But a potentially troubling trend has emerged for the Irish triggerman over the last two contests: he's bailing too early, at times when his pocket of protection is solid.

It's hard to blame Golson for having happy feet, or for looking to make a play on the move as he excels in the latter role. But beating Stanford with backyard football is unlikely. Assuming at least 35 pass plays are afoot, Golson will need to operate confidently from the pocket on at least two-thirds of them if the Irish are to sustain scoring drives.

A portion of that will be up to him.

6.) Are Two Trips to Pay Dirt Possible? My game prediction calls for three total touchdowns to be scored. Combined.

With points at a premium, Notre Dame has an advantage (over most teams) in the presence of senior place-kicker Kyle Brindza, whose 50 field goals are one short of tying a program record. He's famously 18 of 18 in fourth-quarter and overtime situations sans a 2013 miss vs. Temple when the Irish held a 28-6 lead.

Stanford counters with senior Jordan Williamson, already the Cardinal all-time leader in total points (324), though he's missed 24 of 76 career field goal attempts. (His career-long is a 48-yarder in South Bend.)

The game's listed Over/Under of 45 is the lowest of the college football weekend. The teams will come within two scores of that combined total.

7.) Fool's Gold Up Front? Notre Dame's defensive line has far surpassed any reasonable expectations to date. The unit dubbed the team's weak link by most pundits in the pre-season has been anything but, producing 14 of the team's 20 tackles for loss thanks to a consistent nine-player rotation among its base and sub packages.

Stanford's rushing attack will be the season's second toughest overall test (behind Florida State's passing game, Oct. 18) for the revamped, aggressive Irish defense. It's difficult to ascertain how good this youth-filled front line is after facing four teams that won't challenge for anything better than a lower tier bowl game at season's end.

But it's likewise hard to deny they look the part.

8.) Will These Five Continue Their Rise? Corey Robinson, C.J. Prosise, Isaac Rochell, Romeo Okwara, Ronnie Stanley

Answers to all of the above will be provided by Saturday night, and we'll review each Monday at Irisheyes.com.

Notre Dame 17 Stanford 16

Anna Hickey's Prediction

In what will be both Notre Dame and Stanford’s biggest tests of the year when they face each on Saturday, the key matchup is Notre Dame’s offense vs. Stanford’s defense. Particularly of note - Notre Dame’s offensive line vs. Stanford’s rush defense and Everett Golson & Co. vs. the Cardinal secondary. Stanford enters the game No. 1 in scoring defense (6.5 points per game), passing yards allowed (74 per game), and total yards allowed (198 per game). Stringing together 80-yard drives doesn’t appear likely, so Notre Dame must create big play opportunities in opportune moments on both sides of the ball and capitalize.

Notre Dame’s defense will be up to the aforementioned task, and expect to see Brian VanGorder’s underdog and youthful squad produce tackles for loss, key down and distance stops to generate favorable field position, sound tackling, and high energy. Sheldon Day, Matthias Farley, Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith will churn out solid performances.

On the offensive side the of the ball, Notre Dame’s shuffled offensive line and lack of identity at running back will continue to struggle, especially against Stanford’s run defense and front seven. As a result, Golson must ride the wave of pressure he’ll face, avoid turnovers (namely, interceptions on deep balls against stellar man coverage), and extend broken plays with his legs and arm strength/accuracy combination. He’s capable, but against Stanford’s formidable D, it will be more difficult for Golson to find a way. Stanford 16 Notre Dame 13


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