The numbers aren’t in alignment with what fans or pundits projected heading into the 2016 college football season, one that purportedly would feature a top tier Irish rushing attack led by a stout offensive front, and a Cardinal defense poised to build upon its solid 36.3 percent allowance rate on third down in 2015.
- Third Down Offense: Notre Dame 111th (27-for-81, 33.3%)
- Third Down Defense: Stanford 118th nationally, 33 for-69 (47.8%)
Saturday, when Notre Dame possesses the pigskin, something has to give.
Conversely (and admittedly due in part to a hurricane) Notre Dame’s third-down defense has thrived of late, stopping 24 of 29 attempts over the last two contests since former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired. Previously the Irish defense had struggled in that regard yielding a first down on an aggregate 23 of 50 third down opportunities vs. the three Power Conference Foes it faced.
- Third Down Defense: Notre Dame 38th nationally, allowing just 31-of-91 opportunities (34.1%)
- Third Down Offense: Stanford 27-of-65 (41.5%)
It’s notable that Stanford ranked sixth in terms of third down offense last season, converting a remarkable 50 percent of its chances over the full 14-game slate. (The Irish were solid at 39th, better than 42 percent.)
“In the past they’ve always had a strong O-Line,” said Irish senior cornerback Cole Luke, making his third start against the Cardinal Saturday. “I don’t think this is their best year, technically, not taking any shots or anything.”
Clearly it’s not, but if Cardinal head coach David Shaw is to leave South Bend with a victory for the first time in his three visits, moving the chains on third down will be key to that end.
Just as it has been in each of the six meetings between the teams during the Brian Kelly Era.
-- 2010: Stanford converts on 11 of 16 (Notre Dame 4 of 13) in a 37-14 Cardinal win.
-- 2011: Stanford converts on 8 of 15 (Notre Dame just 5 for 15) in a 28-14 Cardinal win.
-- 2012: Notre Dame makes good on 7 of 17 chances (Stanford 6 of 17 and famously 0-1 on fourth down) in a 20-13 Irish overtime victory.
-- 2013: Stanford finishes 8 for 13 on third down (Notre Dame 5 for 12) in a 27-20 Stanford win.
-- 2014: Both teams struggle but the Irish are a combined 7 for 20 (including a 4th-down game-winner) while Stanford is just 5 for 17 in a 17-14 Irish victory.
-- 2015: Stanford is a remarkable 8 for 12 (Notre Dame just 3 for 9) in a 38-36 Stanford win.
THIRD COMES FIRST
Among the myriad oddities of Notre Dame’s first six games in 2016 was the apparent approach it took to practice and the carryover effects on game days. Since the aforementioned firing of VanGorder, Brian Kelly has revealed:
- Practices were more staid that spirited
- The defense wasn’t employing a deep enough rotation despite the fact that it’s the head coach’s preference
- Defensive alignment generally wasn’t in lockstep with Kelly’s preferred plan
- Paralysis by analysis persisted
And now there’s “E.” – the lack of game-week attention to third-down situations, defensively.
“That’s something we’ve been trying to stress as a whole unit,” said Luke of the stark improvement of late. “Before we looked at third down as secondary, but really it’s a collaborative effort. When we go into a scouting report, we’re watching third down plays and meeting as a unit a lot more. I think that’s reflecting on the field.”
Secondary in terms of practice approach? Surely not on game days?
“Both,” Luke said when asked to clarify. “(In) practice and the game. Before we looked at it as more of a secondary thing. When you hear third down you think, ‘Oh, a pass.’ But that’s not the case. It’s a collaborative effort.”
Luke’s efforts will be in both the Nickel package on third down when he shifts to cover slot receivers and in the base defense on the edge. A familiar face will greet him for the latter.
“(Michael) Rector is a guy on the edge with first class speed, having played against him the last few years that’s definitely shown,” said Luke of the Cardinal graduate student that posted a 14-yard touchdown on the Irish with 0:48 remaining in the first half last season.
“And they have some height on the edges of the field. I think it’s the same Stanford except their O-Line is a little different this year. That’s about it.”
Irish fans hope that’s all it takes.