Notre Dame has played 4 games this year and has played at a very high level. They have won games while committing costly penalties and turnovers. They have won games without scoring an offensive touchdown. They have come out on top with excellent special teams play. Sooner or later, they are going to face a team that plays a complete game and Notre Dame is going to have to play a complete game to beat them.
Luckily, I don't think Notre Dame will have to play flawless to beat Stanford. They will have to play a very good game however. They will have to hold onto the football and they will have to lean on an improving offensive line.
Stanford can beat Notre Dame but they are going to need some turnovers and a short field to do it. The best way to beat Stanford is to keep their offense off the field. The offense is the only way they can beat Notre Dame. Notre Dame will have to beat themselves to lose to Stanford. I just don't see that happening.
If Holiday is not playing, I expect Stanford to load 8 or 9 men in the box against Notre Dame. Notre Dame won't be able to run effectively if they face an 8 or 9 man front. They are going to have to complete some passes to move the football. If they can hit a deep pass or two, this will stretch the Stanford defense and they can't load 8 or 9 men in the box. If Notre Dame cannot complete passes, they are going to be in for a dogfight until the end.
Notre Dame can help a green quarterback by not putting said quarterback in difficult situations. If Pat Dillingham is playing, it will help his confidence tremendously if he isn't put into third and long situations when he has to throw. Notre Dame should continue to run the same offense they have run all year. They should throw the ball on first and second down and keep the defense on their heels.
The temptation in this game is take the first 3 or 4 offensive series and try to establish a running game. If Dillingham isn't forced to pass, the chances of him making errors is less. That temptation is going to be hard to resist and I am not sure they won't actually try to do this. It makes sense to try to establish the run and play it safe but it also plays right into the emotion of this game.
The Irish coaches believe in this defense. The temptation will be greater because they have this great defense. They will believe that if they can't move the ball early, this defense will keep them in the game as they have all year. The risk is greater than the reward I fear. Emotion and momentum are going to be so high in this game and you would like to have it at all times if possible.
This Stanford team is going to be motivated. They will want to beat Willingham and his staff more than any team they face this year. Setting the tone of the game early is always important. Momentum can be the difference in a hard fought game with a thriller ending or blowing someone out. I would not want to keep Stanford in this game for long. If they are still in the game by halftime, I expect this game to be another that goes down to the wire. You cannot continue to win every game that comes down to the wire. Sooner or later, someone from the other team is going to make the big play.
You will find out a lot about Willingham and his philosophy in this game. It might not be obvious to some but it will be to me. Does Willingham play it conservative and come out running the football? Will he come out guns a blazing and saying "we aren't afraid of anyone meet Pat Dillingham" and run the same offense he would with Holiday in the game? What is at stake here, a BCS bowl, recruiting, the magic you have developed, the fragile psyche of your team? Willingham and his staff have a very difficult decision to make if Dillingham is the quarterback. I won't blame him either way for his decision because I can see the logic on both sides of the fence here.
What we don't know is who is going to start and play this game at quarterback. If it's Dillingham, we also don't know how long Holiday will be out. If Holiday is out for a long period of time, Willingham will have to run his offense this game because Dillingham will have to be able to run it in future games. If Holiday can be back the next week, I expect them to play it conservatively and hope they can make enough plays to win the game.
What would I like to see? Two pass plays on first and second down in the first series to set the tone. What I don't want to see is 2 running plays on first and second down and then a failed 3rd and 7 pass play for the first 4 offensive series of the game. If Notre Dame does try to run, I expect this game to be tight until the end.
I expect Stanford to come after Notre Dame early. They also know that momentum is very key in this game. If they can make some big plays early, that momentum will keep them in the game. I expect them to test Notre Dame deep early with their passing game. I expect them to try to spread the defense out vertically and horizontally. If they can stretch the Irish defense, they will be able to run the ball as well.
Here is what will happen in this game. Notre Dame will play conservative. They will try to establish the run and hope they make enough plays to win the game. I don't think Stanford has anyone that can hurt you like Charles Rogers can. Notre Dame will keep the Stanford receivers in front of them. The defense will keep Stanford from scoring a lot of points. Notre Dame will struggle offensively without trying to throw the ball on first down.
The game will likely be an ugly game. It could be as ugly as the game last year in Palo Alto. I think it will come down to turnovers and points off of turnovers. Notre Dame has been fortunate this year with turnovers and I bet they get more than their share in this game. It won't be pretty but Notre Dame 24 Stanford 21.