The time to mend probably is the best thing that could happen to this Cardinal team. It's almost been comical how many of their players have been hurt recently or are out for the season. Stanford has slowly been getting some of these key players back, and they've shown earlier in the season that they can play with anyone if they put their minds to it.
For the Irish to win on Saturday, I believe they'll have to win this battle first and foremost. Stanford has been poor against the run most of the season and are allowing 180 yards rushing per game. The Irish have been poor rushing the football most of the season as well, but the last three games, when they've played similar defenses to the Cardinal, they've shown they can pound the football inside to the tune of 171 yards rushing per game.
It's vital that Notre Dame run the football effectively early because Stanford can get after the quarterback. The Cardinal have 31 sacks on the season and average three per game. The Irish don't want to find themselves behind in this game because Stanford can make it a long day for Jimmy Clausen and Notre Dame if all they have to do is rush the quarterback.
Despite the solid sack numbers, Stanford does give up a lot of yardage through the air—274 yards per game. They've also surrendered 17 touchdowns through the air, so you can throw on this defense as well. The Stanford defense also only has eight interceptions on the season, so they don't make a lot of plays on the football in the air.
But Irish head coach Charlie Weis loves the play-action passing game, so he'll need to establish the run early to open up the play-action game. If Notre Dame has success early running the football, they should win the game on Saturday.
After two lackluster games against the option offense, the Notre Dame defense bounced back with one of their better performances of the year against Duke last week. Duke had some playmakers on offense, but the Irish did a nice job to stopping all their playmakers and limiting them to very little yardage and big plays.
Stanford also has a few playmakers, but I don't think they have the playmakers to hurt the Irish where they're vulnerable—the outside. Stanford has had a merry-go-round situation at running back, and none have to speed to really hurt Notre Dame on the outside rush where teams have really hurt the Irish all season. The Cardinal have averaged just 2.3 yards per rush in the past three games, and the Irish should be able to hold them to similar numbers with a good effort.
Two people really worry me in this game and that is Mark Bradford and Evan Moore. Bradford was recruited very heavily by the previous Notre Dame coaching staff and has had some big games against the Irish since. It seems Mr. Bradford always has his best game of the season against Notre Dame, and I doubt this year will be any different. Bradford usually makes big plays against the Irish, but the Irish have done a solid job of stopping big plays all season. My guess is the Irish pay close attention to Mr. Bradford all day.
Evan Moore also concerns me in a match-up situation if Harbaugh wants to use it. His 6-foot-7, 235-pound frame could be a nightmare for the Irish linebackers if Harbaugh so chooses to put him in that position, and for Irish defensive backs. But if I'm Harbaugh, I work that big frame on underneath routes with Irish linebackers chasing him.
Quarterback Tavita Pritchard has just been mediocre thus far this season completing 50 percent of his passes, but we could also see T.C. Ostrander in this game, who has completed just 55 percent of his passes and was the starter before suffering a seizure that has slowed his return.
The good news is Stanford has had a lot of problems protecting their quarterback, just like the Irish. They've surrendered 42 sacks on the season, so Notre Dame should be able to create some pressure on whoever is playing under center.
When you look at special teams you don't see any glaring weakness with the Cardinal. No. 62 in kickoff return, No. 91 in punt returns. No. 43 in punt return defense, and No. 35 in kickoff return defense. They're pretty solid and haven't given up many big plays in special teams all year.
They also have a 0.00 turnover margin, which means they turn it over the same amount as they get turnovers.
The "X" factor will be a very big key in this game. Stanford is coming off three straight losses, and sometimes it's hard to find that winning mentality again. The Irish have had a miserable season, but did win their last game rather handily. Which team will want this game more?
I was so pleased to find out this wasn't a night game. If it had been, I think the advantage would've gone to Stanford…..it may still be. Stanford usually plays Notre Dame tough when playing at home. The Irish almost blew a BCS game there two years ago, and you can bet many Cardinal players remember that game. Most of the Irish players playing in that game have now graduated and moved on.
Mike Frank Prediction: The Irish gained some much needed confidence this past week, but I'm still not sure they know how to win a tight game.
Still, I saw some new life in the Irish last week and a "changing of the guard" with a lot of youth stepping up and taking over.
This should be one of the more entertaining games of the year. I think you'll see both teams slugging it out until the end. I think the Irish win because they'll have the better running game on Saturday.
Notre Dame: 28 Stanford: 17