The Irish will do better than “Next Man In” on the defensive line tonight.
When No. 4 Notre Dame kicks off against No. 9 Stanford in a game that’s not a College Football Playoff play-in but definitely a play-out for the loser, the Irish will get 315-pound defensive tackle Daniel Cage back after a two-game absence. The sophomore missed wins against Wake Forest and Boston College due to a concussion, which hurt the Irish at two spots.
First, the Irish shifted Isaac Rochell inside to not only make up for Cage’s reps but to also offset a fading Jerry Tillery as the freshman red lines in November. While Brian Kelly would debate the rookie hitting a metaphorical wall, Tillery got just 32 defensive snaps combined against Wake Forest and Boston College. He averaged 30.1 snaps during the season’s first eight games and played 49 against USC.
Second, the Rochell move hurt the Irish at defensive end, where Andrew Trumbetti jumped into the starting lineup for the first time all season. He logged 129 defensive snaps the past couple weeks, which included that pick-six against Wake Forest, after playing a supporting role most of the year. He took a DNP against Georgia Tech and got 11 snaps at Clemson.
Now Notre Dame can get back to its best line of Rochell, Cage, Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara.
“It feels good to have a full line back,” Rochell said. “We’re excited to have Daniel back in a game like this because it’s a trench fight and he’s a big dude who plays really well against double teams and the run.”
That’s essential against Stanford’s brutish line that’s started the same lineup in all 11 games this season and includes Outland Trophy finalist Josh Garnett at guard. Basically, Garnett is the athletic equivalent of left tackle Ronnie Stanley in an interior lineman’s body.
That line has powered Stanford to No. 1 nationally in time of possession at 35:18 per game. Twice this season the Cardinal has doubled up an opponent in time of possession. It came close in two other games.
Beyond running up possession stats, Stanford has also been outstanding on 3rd-and-short scenarios, meaning three yards or less. Facing that down and distance, the Cardinal is 46-of-57 this season. Running back Remound Wright is 24-of-25 when he’s asked to move the chains.
“It always seems like they’re in the right play,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt. “I think that kind of stuff reminds me of our offensive line. Our offensive line does a good job of those things as well.
“They get after it. They’re well coached.”
Stanford ranks ninth nationally in tackles for loss allowed, which is even more impressive when compared against its pedestrian No. 40 ranking in sacks allowed. After taking out sacks, Stanford has allowed just 32 tackles for loss, less than three per game. Notre Dame has allowed 55 tackles for loss after subtracting sacks.
“I just think they don’t have any weaknesses,” Rochell said. “Generally when you play a team you might point out one or two guys that aren’t as strong. But with them their whole O-line is very solid. They’re all really strong, they all play with really good pad level and technique. There’s really no weak links on their lines.”
Notre Dame hasn’t been able to say the same about its defensive line this season, but it will get closer to that reality on Saturday night with Cage back in the middle.