Who, and What, to Watch

A handful of pertinent situations to monitor in tonight’s regular season finale vs. Stanford in Palo Alto.

1 – Base D The Best Option?: Notre Dame’s season-long run of attrition by key defensive personnel is well-documented on these pages, but the latest blow, losing starting cornerback KeiVarae Russell to a broken tibia last week, might be, as colleague Tim Prister put it, “the tipping point.”

Russell will be missed most due to his solid perimeter tackling this week, and it seems imprudent that the Irish attempt to mask his absence with various nickel alignments.

Instead, look for the Irish to play base defense on the vast majority of snaps, with sam ‘backer Greer Martini asked to work in space on occasion, if only for the continuity of the unit. It’s the lesser of two evils vs. fielding an undersized half of the field (backup cornerback and backup nickel) against an offense more than willing to run for 7, 8, 9 yards on third and long.  

Additionally, a base defense and the fewer necessary checks that result would help keep capable Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan from moving the chains with maddening scrambles in third-and-medium situations. As Irish fans have learned in spades over the last 15 to 16 contests, a missed fit and/or missed assignment is far worse than a missed tackle.

2 – Third And Here He Comes: Remound Wright is coming at you, Notre Dame, and to date, only one time in 25 previous opportunities has anyone done anything to stop the Cardinal short-yardage runner. Wright is a key cog in the nation’s No. 1 time of possession offense, converting an astounding 24 of 25 times on runs of 3rd-and-3 yards to gain or fewer.

In short, he moves the chains while Christian McCaffery (better than 1,500 yards rushing) does the heavy lifting, otherwise.

If Notre Dame can stop Wright just once, and perhaps Stanford twice, in this oft-visited game situation (Stanford’s offense has encountered 57 third-and-short tries vs. Notre Dame’s 39), it will be a major advantage for the Irish over a 12 to 14 possession game. (Click here for a detailed look at both teams on third-and-short: http://www.scout.com/college/notre-dame/story/1616773-the-turning-point )

3 – Gotta Be “Good,” Too: Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted Tuesday that his best players – Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Will Fuller, and Ronnie Stanley – must rise to the occasion. That’s doubtless true, but it’s also likely Saturday’s contest will favor the Irish if reliable bit players such as the aforementioned Greer Martini (setting the defense edge against the run), Matthias Farley (occasional scrimmage time/special teams) and senior safety Elijah Shumate (run support/quality coverage in the flat) come up big defensively.

On the other side of scrimmage, Chris Brown, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Amir Carlisle continue to answer the bell, but a big play from freshman phenom Aliz’e Jones would be of great benefit after more than a month of near misses when targeting the 6’5” gazelle.

4 – Gotta (Occasionally) Gash ‘Em: It’s been tough sledding of late for Notre Dame’s rushing attack, a boom-or-bust unit all season that has struggled to run consistently in three of its last four outings. Saturday is likely to be no different against a Stanford front that has limited seven of 11 foes – and four of its last five – below 120 yards rushing.  

Notre Dame’s bottom-line rushing totals over the last month were buoyed by a 79-yard keeper by DeShone Kizer at Temple (otherwise the team produced just 89 yards on 30 carries) and a record-setting 98-yard jaunt by Josh Adams vs. Wake Forest (73 yards on 29 carries).

For the Irish to win Saturday, Adams will need to hit the Cardinal for chunk runs of 10 and 20-plus on three, perhaps four occasions. He’s proven capable with seven gains in excess of 20 yards and seven more between 10-19 among his 84 carries this season.

The Irish rushing attack is explosive, but it’s not consistent or reliable in obvious run situations. A few gashes to the Cardinal defense courtesy Adams will open the door for bigger things downfield in the passing game, because in the end, it’ll be up to quarterback DeShone Kizer and a dialed-in Fuller to create big plays if he Irish are to prevail. Adams and the rushing attack must merely keep Stanford on its toes.

 5 – Protect It At All Costs: If Notre Dame’s offense in any way resembles the group that coughed up the rock all over Fenway Park last Saturday it has no chance of winning this weekend. In fact, if the Irish turn it over twice today, they’re likely in trouble, this despite Kelly’s solid 9-6 mark as Irish head coach under such circumstances.

This is not a full-strength Irish team operating at peak efficiency. They’re down their top two running backs and lack meaningful tight end production – both in the passing game and as run blockers. They’re famously without their nickel, their dime, their starting left cornerback, their starting Sam ‘backer, and their senior starting nose tackle.

Mistakes will doom the current iteration of the Irish against a solid Stanford squad. But if Notre Dame can get out of dodge incurring just one turnover (Kelly is 20-2 in South Bend with one such error; 18-0 when turnover free) it’s a good bet the Irish will travel back to South Bend at 11-1 with only conference championship weekend remaining prior to learning their playoff fate.

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