Pete Sampson: Not to go all the way back to September, but I think a lot of Notre Dame fans watched Stanford lose to Northwestern and figured this team was going to take a few steps back. What did they get corrected after that game and was that performance more of an aberration in hindsight?
Mark DeVaughn: What I took away from it was it seemed to erase all momentum from the end of last season. They played that day like the Stanford that Notre Dame saw last year or like the team that lost to USC when it reached Trojans’ territory on every possession and lost 13-10. They regressed to that level. Ultimately where we are today shows it really was a blip.
It took a few drives in the home opener against UCF and then it took a few drives against USC, but once you saw where they were then, you saw Northwestern as an aberration. The early morning kickoff, the fact Northwestern is no pushover, all that played a part, even if that doesn’t explain everything that happened that day.
PS: Christian McCaffrey’s numbers really are ridiculous. He’s No. 2 in rushing and No. 1 in all-purpose yardage by a wide, wide margin. How did they use him and what makes him so special?
MD: If you’re a running back you’re nothing without instincts and a solid offensive line. He’s blessed to have both, and that includes four returning starters on the line. He brings an array of instincts. And on top of all that, the coaches recognize his talent and are learning from their mistakes last year when Stanford went long stretches without using him. This was a running game where no one player really stood out last season. No single player rushed for 100 yards last year.
PS: He’s unlike every back Notre Dame has seen from Stanford in Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney. How’s he different?
MD: I just go back to instincts. He knows how to find the hole. He knows how to make people miss. He’ll make one guy miss and do it without breaking stride or losing momentum. He’s not like those other backs, he’s barely 200 pounds. He’s a departure from those other backs, but he’s grown into a similar role and now his stature is even greater.
PS: Notre Dame’s front seven has been solid but the back end has been inconsistent and now is without its best player in KeiVarae Russell. Does Stanford have the personnel at receiver or tight end do push Notre Dame there? Is this group a step back from where Stanford was at its peak? McCaffrey leads the team in receiving.
MD: Good question. As a unit that can stretch the field, they’re as explosive as what Andrew Luck had. Since Luck’s senior year there’s been an imbalance that Stanford has since corrected. Look at the last time Notre Dame played here, the Stanford tight ends were a non-factor. But when Notre Dame played here in Luck’s senior year, it’s was all tight ends. That was the entire passing game.
Receivers Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector have come on lately. Rector had a big drop at Northwestern that helped decide that game, but he’s come on recently. The tight ends are getting keyed on more now, starting with Austin Hooper. He hasn’t been as productive lately because teams are focusing on him. So I think the balance is better now.
PS: Defensively, Stanford has had guys that just beat the crap out of you in the front seven. They lost a lot off last year’s team. Is this group as mean as what we’ve seen?
MD: Their philosophy is the same. That mean streak started with fundamentals. That hasn’t changed. Don’t miss tackles. Don’t miss assignments. That’s still there. But they don’t have the difference-making group of years past. They don’t create a lot of turnovers (No. 120 nationally with just 10 for the season). They don’t have nearly the amount of sacks. The 2012 team had 57 sacks. It was insane. This group has 23.
This front seven is much more patchwork. Linebacker Blake Martinez is by far the biggest difference-maker. But beyond him and Kevin Anderson, who can show flashes, you don’t have the array of talent that you had before. This defense doesn’t overwhelm you. Oregon gashed them. Against Cal, they let Cal get yards but not big plays. It seems like Notre Dame, with a drop back passer who can put the ball into tight windows, it’s not clear to me how that plays out.
PS: Where have teams really tried to attack Stanford’s defense? What’s worked against them?
MD: When quarterbacks can find their first option and don’t have to go through their reads, that’s been a problem. USC took advantage of that. Washington State did that, working shorter patterns and moving up and down the field, although Stanford was great in the red zone. Oregon really hit Stanford for some deep ball mistakes where guys were wide open in addition to getting guys in space in more of a classic style. Against Northwestern the only touchdown was a missed assignment on a quarterback keeper, but really the issues are more like those Pac-12 games where quarterbacks can pick out their first option and just go with it.
PS: Outside of running back Christian McCaffrey, linebacker Blake Martinez and quarterback Kevin Hogan, who are you most interested to see against Notre Dame? Which players will be most critical if Stanford wins this game?
MD: Somebody who’s a decoy but can also make things happen when he does touch the ball is running back Bryce Love. He’s a true freshman who turned heads in the preseason because of his speed. He can catch. He can run. If he gets into the open field he’s gone. When you have a strength like McCaffrey, you want a complement to that. They’ll play them both together and against Cal they pounded it to McCaffrey again and again and again, then pitched to Love for a 49-yard touchdown. That clinched the game.
PS: What’s your sense for how Saturday plays out? This is a difficult game to call from my perspective.
MD: It is. It is hard to predict. I’d be surprised if Notre Dame didn’t come focused and ready. I’m not sure their heads were in the game last weekend, wearing alternate uniforms, baseball stadium, far from home against a three-win team. I’m curious to see if both teams can rise to the occasion. For Stanford, it’s the final home game, how do they focus knowing that a week later there’s a game that’s even more important? I would predict a close game for all those reasons. It’s Notre Dame’s last chance to impress the committee and the same is true of Stanford, even with much slimmer chances to make the playoffs. Still, there’s going to be a lot of emotion for Stanford to process this weekend.