1 – On First and Third: Notre Dame’s offense ranks a woeful 111th nationally in third-down conversion percentage. Somehow, Stanford’s formerly stout defense is worse, coming in at 118th – a 48 percent allowance rate when foes attempt to move the chains on the money down.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly believes the root cause of his squad’s problems on third down begin instead on first.
“Our self-scout shows that we need to be better on first down,” he said. “There is a trickle down affect into our third down manage ability, if you will. So what we have looked at since Monday is why we were in the numbers that we were in and our self-scout shows some negative plays that we've got to get out of our offense.
“It's really the negative plays, and that's got to be cleaned up for us to have a better third down efficiency.”
Will first down success equate to sustained drives for the Irish tonight?
2 – The Siren’s Song: The Irish are a middling 18-20 under Kelly’s guidance when Notre Dame’s pass total exceeds 35 attempts. But to that end, Stanford’s pass efficiency defense ranks 98th nationally (Notre Dame is 100th for the sake of reference) while the Cardinal rush D comes in at No. 26 overall, yielding just 3.7 yards per carry and 120 per contest.
Those numbers suggest a healthy dose of DeShone Kizer and the Irish receiving corps is on tap, and probably should be.
Yet past results indicate Kelly would do well to refrain from throwing it allover the field, instead mixing enough north-south running efforts – especially on first and second down as did the Duke Blue Devils in a late-September upset of Notre Dame – to keep the Cardinal honest and mitigate the damage that can be done by Stanford’s pass rush (2.8 sacks per contest).
“I think you have to have a demeanor on offense and it's one that we don't have yet, but we're working on it,” said Kelly. “There has to be a mental approach to this. It's not just about scheme. It's about exerting your will, and I think our guys are working toward that and understand it and what has to happen.”
3 – Red Zone Reversal? Stanford’s offense has made just eight trips inside its opponents’ red zone, scoring only four touchdowns. Conversely, in last season’s win against the Irish, the Cardinal scored touchdowns on five of five opportunities after breeching the Irish 20-yard line.
Notre Dame managed to hit pay dirt on just one of four trips last November in Palo Alto, and those failures proved fatal in a 38-36 defeat. This fall, Kelly’s Irish offense ranks its requisite 86th in red zone scoring percentage but that number is misleading as Kizer & Co. have scored touchdowns in 17 of 25 trips, good for a red zone touchdown percentage, of 68 percent. (No. 1 Alabama sits at 70.3 percent.)
Assuming both teams reach the red zone at least four times Saturday, it’s a safe bet that the squad that scores touchdowns instead of settling for field goals emerges victorious.
4 – Getting Gashed? Not by these Guys: Stanford’s 122nd-ranked offense has produced just 15 snaps that resulted in gains of 20 yards or more through five contests (and two of the 15 occurred with the Cardinal buried by more than a 30-point margin).
Of the 15, only five resulted in touchdowns.
To recap: Stanford’s offense doesn’t often enter the opponent’s red zone (only 8 trips) and has just five touchdowns from outside it. In other words, there aren’t many ways the Cardinal has proven capable of denting a defense. Can the revamped Irish D rise to the occasion when a win is needed most?
5 – Break on Through? Irish head coach Brian Kelly concluded “Perfect Practice Thursday” one week ago indicating his Irish had been anything but. Kelly more than once referenced the phrase “learning to practice” prior to Notre Dame’s trip to rain-soaked Raleigh.
But as the Irish concluded preparations for Stanford, the veteran head man offered a different refrain:
“Yeah, they’re ready. They just have to break through. They’re doing all the things I’m asking. They’ve just got to go win,” he said. “It’s going to happen. I would have liked it to happen a few weeks ago, and they would have as well.
“Their attitude is great. Preparation has been really good. Their energy is really good getting ready for the games. We’re going to be in close games. We’ve just got to finish them. That’s the will, the single-minded focus. I think they clearly understand that. They’re ready to win.”
Both Kelly and Stanford head coach David Shaw have constructed programs rooted in winning close games. One of the two will instead continue a dangerous downward spiral after Saturday night’s festivities in South Bend.