Trouble Spot #3 – Stanford

Our annual Trouble Spots series continues with Notre Dame’s biennial trip to The Farm and a head-knocker with the modern rival Cardinal.

One program has earned just three victories in its last nine November outings. The other is 18-4 in the last five seasons during that telltale month (with two of the four losses at the hands of Oregon).

One program has a two-year history of head-shaking attrition along its lines of scrimmage. The *other prides itself on a strength and conditioning program that consistently keeps its players between the lines.

(*For an intriguing read on that subject from the Cardinal point of view, click here).

And one program (per our forecast) will travel cross-country with the lion’s share of game pressure on it for the matchup – a playoff berth within its grasp.

Notre Dame vs. Stanford and the biennial end-season affair is up for review as our Trouble Spots countdown nears its conclusion.

TROUBLE SPOT #3 -- – Stanford

After four consecutive seasons posting either 11 or 12 victories, the Cardinal experienced a minor fall from grace in 2014, finishing with a pedestrian *8-5 mark that included dropping back-to-back contests for the first time since 2009.

(*Hey, that looks familiar.)

Don’t blame Stanford’s defense – it again ranked among the nation’s best, yielding just 3.1 yards per rush, 16.4 points per game, and only 26 total touchdowns against – the latter pair of measurable ranked No. 2 nationally.

Their 46 sacks as a team ranked 5th (and would serve as a program record at Notre Dame) and the Cardinal pass efficiency defense came in at No. 5 nationally.

Defense is a way of life on The Farm and will continue to be the driving force in 2015, but the Cardinal took a major step back offensively last fall, finishing 70th in rushing offense (behind Notre Dame, a passing team), and 109th in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 31 of 57 trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line.

Where’s Toby Gerhart when you need him?

When and Where? Game 12, Week 13, Thanksgiving Saturday in Palo Alto.

In Review: Three seasons of graduation attrition finally took a toll on Stanford and the Cardinal must replace another four NFL Draft picks – each of whom was selected in the first five rounds – this fall.

But one familiar name remains in the fold, starting quarterback Kevin Hogan.

First inserted into the lineup after Notre Dame held off Stanford with a dramatic goal line stand in 2012, Hogan is 24-8 as a starter since including a 1-1 mark against the Irish.

Actual Ranking Among ND’s 12 Foes: Universally accepted at No. 3 or No. 4, I presume.

Game Situation (The Attrition Test): The last time Notre Dame traveled to Palo Alto to conclude its season it played without its starting nose guard, its backup nose guard, and its starting center and right guard.

Last fall, the Irish limped to the west coast without the services of their starting nose guard, defensive tackle, middle linebacker, their backup middle linebacker, and one starting cornerback and safety.

(In 2010, Notre Dame played its regular season finale sans its starting nose guard, inside linebacker, tight end, slot receiver, and X receiver, but prevailed, 20-16 over USC.)

Notre Dame lost its final regular season game in 2011, 2013, and 2014 (as well as 2008 and 2009 prior to Brian Kelly’s arrival). Stanford hasn’t done so since 2008.

Does the 2015 Irish roster have the necessary depth to survive another four months of attrition to combat the physical Cardinal?

Why No. 3 could be too high: It’s not, unless you’re certain Georgia Tech’s offense will be hell on wheels when it arrives in South Bend for Week Three, and that’s not normally the case for triple-option attacks that tend to gel as the season progresses and other foes wear down up front.

Previous No. 3s in the Trouble Spots series include: Boston College 2009, Utah 2010, USC 2011, Michigan 2012, Oklahoma 2013, and Stanford 2014.

A mixed back of results therein: close win, blowout win, lost handily, close win, lost handily, last-second win. Only Utah 2010 proved too high on our list as a reeling Notre Dame program posted a cathartic 28-3 victory over the dead-man-walking (though 15th-ranked) Utes.

Both 2009 Boston College (20-16) and 2014 Stanford (The Everett Golson-to-Ben Koyack special) took Notre Dame to the wire while 2012 Michigan hung in throughout the game’s 60 minutes, finally succumbing 13-6.

2011 USC and 213 Oklahoma made Notre Dame look slow and unprepared on its home turf.

Prediction: Stanford will enter the contest saddled with one more loss than will the Irish and thus be cast in the role of spoiler – that’s a difficult proposition for Brian Kelly’s crew.

However, the Cardinal enter this 2015 regular season finale two weeks removed from an outing with Oregon and seven days after facing chief rival, California. That’s one aspect of the contest that could favor the Irish – will Stanford’s emotional tank have anything left for Senior Day?

(Notre Dame’s arrival serves as a third straight home game to end their season.)

Separation between the teams is minimal, but with the Irish playing for what we project as higher stakes, a season-ending victory – a playoff preserving win? – will difficult to attain. There’s a reason the Irish haven’t prevailed on The Farm since a 2007 season in which the programs combined for just seven victories.

Stanford is usually better equipped for the long haul.

The Skinny:
-- Overall opponent’s strength: One of the top four teams the Irish will face, but unlikely to be the best. It’s the timing of the game that is of major concern.

-- Game situation: End-of-season grind to test a Notre Dame team that’s limped to the finish in three of its last four seasons.

-- Determining factor: Game pressure to be on the Irish though the margin between the teams will be minimal.

 



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