Prister’s Preview: ND vs. Stanford

Notre Dame will try to use its big-play passing offense to offset Christian McCaffrey and Stanford’s ball-control rushing attack that led the Cardinal to eight straight victories.

STANFORD HEAD COACH

David Shaw (5th year at Stanford) – Shaw, 43, picked up where Jim Harbaugh left off and hasn’t looked back en route to a 51-14 record, a pair of Pac 12 championships and a shot at a third next week in the 2015 Pac 12 championship game.

Shaw spent 10 seasons with four NFL organizations prior to joining Harbaugh as Stanford’s offensive coordinator in 2007. Under Shaw, the Cardinal offense took off, raising their scoring average to 35.5 in year two of the Harbaugh regime before quarterback Andrew Luck took it to another level (40.3 and 43.2 in 2010-11).

Shaw has taken Stanford to a Fiesta Bowl and two Rose Bowls, including a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. He was a wide receiver for the Cardinal in the early ‘90s.


KEY PERSONNEL

• RB-Christian McCaffrey (Soph.) – Burst onto the scene in the third game of the season against USC with a 115-yard rushing performance. He’s exceeded 100 yards in every game since, including 206 against Oregon State, 243 versus UCLA and 192 against Cal last week. Also leads the team with 34 receptions. Leads the nation in all-purpose yardage with 255.2 yards per game, nearly 50 yards more than No. 2 Tyler Ervin (San Jose State). Has 813 yards in kickoff returns.
• QB-Kevin Hogan (Sr.) – Veteran signalcaller with a 33-10 record as a starter, including 13-6 vs. AP top 25 teams. Pac-12 leader in passing efficiency (161.6). Is the first Stanford quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in his career.
• LB-Blake Martinez (Sr.) – Butkus Award semi-finalist leads the Pac 12 in tackles per game at 9.9. Stanford’s leading tackler in nine out of 12 games. Paces squad in tackles with 109 after leading the Cardinal in 2014 with 102.
• DE-Aziz Shittu (Sr.) – Off the edge presence with a team-high 8.5 tackles for loss. Career-high eight tackles against Northwestern. A two-time Pac 12 all-academic selection.
• LB-Peter Kalambayi (Jr.) – Leading returning sack man from 2014 season with 6.5. Tied for second on ’15 squad with 3.5 sacks. Had a career-high 12 tackles vs. Northwestern in his first career start.


WHAT STANFORD DOES WELL

• Run the football: Same old, same old. The country’s No. 15 rushing offense at 228.2 yards per game, 5.2 yards per carry and 29 rushing touchdowns. (Only 10 teams have rushed for more TDs in 2015.) The attack is led by Christian McCaffrey, but the Cardinal also feature fifth-year senior running back Remound Wright, who has 12 rushing touchdowns to McCaffrey’s seven. The offensive line is the backbone.
• Third-down conversions: Stanford is fifth in the country on third down with 73 conversions on 147 attempts (49.6 percent). The Cardinal have converted 46-of-57 on 3rd-and-3 or less. At one point, Stanford converted 17 straight 3rd-and-shorts, and 25-of-26. Remound Wright is 24-of-25 on 3rd-and-3 or less.
• Time of possession: Stanford leads the nation in this category with an outstanding 35:18 average per game. The Cardinal have won this category by at least nine minutes in eight of 11 games.
• Stop the run: Make no mistake, this is not one of Stanford’s great rushing defenses. Opponents are averaging 4.1 yards per carry, which is a full yard more per attempt than last season. But the Cardinal still rank 28th nationally against the run, allowing 131 yards. Only 23 teams have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than the 12 surrendered by Stanford.
• Dominate the middle 30 minutes: Stanford has out-scored its opponents 235-121 in the second and third quarters combined.

WHERE STANFORD STRUGGLES

• Creating turnovers: Stanford has caused just 10 turnovers in 11 games – seven interceptions and three fumbles recovered on just six fumbles caused. The Cardinal are tied for 78th in turnover margin at minus-two.
• Sacking the quarterback: From 2012-14, Stanford had 147 sacks, or 49 per season. Through 11 games this year, the Cardinal have just 23 sacks. Stanford misses Henry Anderson (8.5 sacks in ’14) and James Vaughters (6.5).


KELLY’S CALL

“(Stanford is) a physical, ball-control offense, but creative within that physical presence. They can go no-back, they can be four wide receivers. I don’t think you can say David Shaw is this and he only does this.

“It starts with a physical running game, but (Shaw) can come out of a physical running game and be what he needs to be. If he’s got to throw it 55 times to beat you because that’s what you give him, he’ll do that. That’s the mark of a good offense and a good coach.

“David Shaw, obviously, is one of the best football coaches in America.”


ODDS AND ENDS

The Cardinal have defeated Notre Dame three straight in Stanford Stadium – 27-20 in 2013, 28-14 in 2011, and 45-38 in 2009. The last time the Irish defeated Stanford in Palo Alto was Jim Harbaugh’s first season as head coach on The Farm when the Irish notched one of their three victories in 2007 with a 21-14 verdict…Stanford has won four of the last six games against the Irish, but Notre Dame has won two of three, including last year’s 17-14 victory in Notre Dame Stadium and the 20-13 overtime victory over Stanford in 2012, also at home, which propelled the Irish to a 12-0 regular season…Notre Dame has nine 100-yard rushing games in 2015 -- five by C.J. Prosise, three by Josh Adams and one by DeShone Kizer. That’s the most by the Irish since 1983 when they had 11…With the victory last week against Boston College, Brian Kelly became the fourth coach in Notre Dame history to have multiple 10-victory seasons with the Irish, joining Knute Rockne (3), Ara Parseghian (3) and Lou Holtz (5)…Stanford defensive line coach Randy Hart was Notre Dame’s defensive line coach in 2009…Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is the nephew of former Irish quarterback Coley O’Brien (1966-68) and tackle Ivan Brown (1973)…Notre Dame’s first bowl game and first game against Stanford was on Jan. 1, 1925 when Rockne and the Four Horsemen defeated head coach Pop Warner and star running back Ernie Nevers, 27-10, in the Rose Bowl.


PRISTER’S ANALYSIS

Heading into the final weekend of the 2015 regular season, Notre Dame (10-1) is one of a limited number of teams still in contention for one of the four coveted playoff spots. The Irish have put themselves in position to make college football’s version of the “Big Dance.”

That’s three times in the last four years the Irish have entered November with a chance to win the national title. Three seasons ago, Notre Dame ascended to the championship game and lost to Alabama. Last year, a rash of injuries and a November collapse did in the Irish.

The trip to Palo Alto this weekend to take on No. 9 Stanford (9-2) gives Brian Kelly and his Irish opportunity No. 3.

How the voting will shake out if the Irish defeat the Cardinal is out of their hands, largely due to a fourth-quarter defensive collapse against Boston College in Fenway Park. First things first – Notre Dame vs. Stanford.

Make no mistake, this is not the Cardinal of 2010-13 when Andrew Luck, Kevin Hogan, a relentless ground game and a suffocating defense made Stanford one of the nation’s true powers. The 2015 Cardinal defense is not the immovable object it was at the end of the Jim Harbaugh era and the launching of the David Shaw regime.

This group has half the sacks of the previous three seasons when the Cardinal averaged an incredible 49 per year. Likewise, the rush defense – which regularly held opponents to three yards or less per carry – is pedestrian (4.1) in comparison, although Notre Dame likely would be undefeated if the Irish were as stingy as the Cardinal’s current unit.

That’s where the Irish hope to make inroads after back-to-back sub-par offensive performances against Wake Forest and Boston College in which the Irish scored just 47 points. Notre Dame needs the lethal passing combination of DeShone Kizer-to-Will Fuller to reignite after both struggled against the Eagles. For the first time in 24 games, Fuller has gone back-to-back games without a touchdown.

The other question is the Irish rushing attack, particularly without big-play running back C.J. Prosise, who is doubtful this weekend after suffering a significant high ankle sprain two weeks after incurring a concussion. Freshman Josh Adams and Notre Dame’s highly-touted offensive line must make inroads against a Cardinal defense that is allowing a good but not great 131 yards rushing per game.

Per usual, Stanford wants to attack Notre Dame with a relentless rushing attack, led by running back Christian McCaffrey and another quality Cardinal offensive line. Left guard Josh Garnett and left tackle Kyle Murphy are the big names up front. Four seniors dot the offensive line that has paved the way for McCaffrey’s 1,546 yards rushing and 5.9 rushing average.

McCaffrey does most of Stanford’s damage between the 20s while power back Remound Wright handles many of the short-yardage conversions and red-zone carries with a team-leading 12 rushing touchdowns (to McCaffrey’s seven). Stanford has been virtually unstoppable in short-yardage situations.

Adding to Notre Dame’s concerns is McCaffrey’s ability to hurt defenses in the passing game when the rushing attack runs into some roadblocks. He leads the modest Stanford passing game, directed by veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan, with 34 receptions. McCaffrey added 112 yards receiving to his 109 yards rushing in a 17-point victory over Washington.

With McCaffrey and that offensive line, the Cardinal are the kings of time of possession. Stanford leads the nation in time of possession at 35:18 per game. And yet the vulnerability of the Stanford defense was displayed in the two-point loss to Oregon when the Ducks scored 38 points despite less than 18 minutes of possession time.

This game has the makings of a high-scoring affair, although Hogan threw just 12 passes in last week’s 35-22 victory over Cal. Kizer likely will throw three times that total against the Cardinal secondary that lost a ton of talent off the 2014 unit. And yet the Irish would like to run it, partly to offset Stanford’s possession of the football, in addition to the fact Oregon ran for 231 yards and 6.4 yards per carry. The Irish have to strike a balance between the run game and passing game, even if the passing game becomes the primary weapon to score. That’s the best way to offset a time of possession disparity.

The stakes don’t get much higher than the clash Saturday night in Stanford Stadium, where the Irish have fallen three times in a row. Brian Kelly’s squad has closed the season strong on the road against USC twice before and hung tough at Stanford in 2011 and 2013. From 2010-13, Kelly’s teams were 12-3 in November, and they’re 3-0 again this year.

When the Irish have a lot on the line late in the season, they generally rise to the occasion

Stanford’s short-yardage ability and slight edge defensively say advantage Cardinal. Kevin Hogan’s experience and success against top-ranked teams is a significant factor. Notre Dame can offset much of that with a quick-strike offense, which will be ready for launch with Kelly’s penchant for aggression with a lot on the line. No surprise if this game comes down to another two-point conversion for the win.

Pointspread: Stanford by 4; over-under 55
Prediction: Stanford 34, Notre Dame 32
2015 Season Record: 9-2 straight up; 2-9 vs. points; 6-5 over-under


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