For brevity's sake they will be referred to as Notre Dame, the Irish, Stanford, and the Cardinal the rest of the way. The series stands in Notre Dame's favor at 16-6, with the Irish having a 9-2 advantage against the Cardinal at home.
The first game between these two institutions was in the 1925 Rose Bowl with Coach Glenn "Pop" Warner for the Cardinal and Knute Rockne at the reins of the Irish. It was the last game for the Four Horsemen, featured Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers, of Stanford, and culminated an unbeaten, national championship season for Notre Dame.
Further meetings between the Irish and the Cardinal occurred intermittently over the years until 1997. Since then the Irish and the Cardinal have played yearly with the Irish winning last year's contest by breaking a 14-14 halftime tie with a fourth quarter touchdown to win 21-14. The win, the sixteenth, over Stanford for Notre Dame, allowed the Irish to break a two game losing streak against a Jim Harbaugh led team. Harbaugh, quarterbacked Michigan to consecutive wins over the Irish in 1985 and 1986. As a head coach Harbaugh is 0-1 versus Notre Dame, while Coach Weis is 3-0 against Stanford.
Stanford opened the season with a win over Oregon State. The Cardinal then went out and lost to Arizona State and Texas Christian by large margins. They have since rebounded with wins over San Jose State and Washington, who suffered an early exit of Jake Locker to an injured thumb, hence their 3-2 record.
I watched Stanford versus Oregon State as well as Stanford versus Washington. Besides the normal football related aspects I learned/reaffirmed two things. One, Jimmy Clausen should never, never, never block on a reverse, as Jake Locker broke his thumb doing so. Two, Nicole Zaloumis can replace NBC's sideline reporter, Alex Flanagan, in a New York minute. If you have to have sideline reporters at least have one that finds pertinent information and doesn't insult the viewer, the coaches, and the players with clichés and dorky questions. Ok, rant over, on to the report.
Stanford, ranked 105th offensively, runs out of the I-formation, One Back, Stacked I, and the Shotgun. Out of the Shotgun there are elements of the Spread offense running attack. The Cardinal strong suit is rushing the football and they are averaging 168 yards on the ground with the top three backs all averaging over five yards per carry. The Stanford offense may be without their best weapon this week as tailback Toby Gerhart suffered a concussion against Washington. Gerhart had 147 yards rushing against Oregon State with runs of 19, 36, and 46 yards. At 6'1" and 232 pounds, a big back with home run threat, he brought a lot to Stanford's offense. The man he beat out, former starter Anthony Kimble, is not a bad replacement as he averages 5.3 yards per carry and had an 83 yarder against Washington which showed his home run ability. Irish fans may recall it was Kimble that threw the 57 yard halfback pass for a touchdown against the Irish in 2006. Durability is the question with Kimble who has been plagued with an injury prone career. Stewart is the third back and he probably will share part of the carries should Pritchard not play.
Tavita Pritchard, the Stanford quarterback, is a 57% passer, with one touchdown pass and four interceptions going into the Washington game. Watching Pritchard against Oregon State I was immediately reminded of the old coaching axiom for quarterbacks… "We don't expect you to win the game. We just don't want you to lose the game." Against the Beavers he did just that, but apparently he had fallen in terms of Harbaugh's expectations and rumor had it that Harbaugh went into the Washington game ready to pull Pritchard and insert the backup.
Pritchard stepped up against Washington throwing three touchdown passes and kept his job coming into Notre Dame. Against the Huskies Pritchard stayed within the boundaries of the Stanford offense which is primarily a rushing, short passing, ball control offense. Pritchard also scrambles when necessary, rushing for 35 yards against the Irish last year. Pritchard saw action as a special teamer and as a receiver during his sophomore year and is a versatile athlete. This year he has one pass reception for 25 yards, so the Irish can't forget about him if he lines up wide. Nor can they forget about him after a pitch to a running back because he carries the potential of being the object of a throwback from a back running the halfback pass. He also ran the option against Washington.
Jason Forcier has moved up to the backup position on the last depth chart I've seen for Stanford, surpassing Alex Loukas, the early season backup. Trusting a school's depth chart is risky, at best. However, if Loukas, a 224 pound quarterback, is in the game Stanford may run the option. I saw him run the option against Oregon State and while the result wasn't that noteworthy the threat is there. Loukas came to Stanford as a dual threat quarterback out of high school.
Former walk on Ryan Whalen is a wide receiver that exemplifies over achiever, heart, or whatever you want to call the attitude he brings to the field. He's fearless over the middle. He came right back after a big time hit by a 247 pound linebacker on the very next play to make a tough catch. Tight end, Coby Fleener, is a surprisingly deep ball threat even though most passes to the Stanford tight ends are the shorter variety. The major home run threat is Doug Baldwin, who also can be a threat on reverses. Baldwin took a fifteen yard crossing pattern and ran away from the Huskies for a sixty-yard touchdown.
The offensive line of the Cardinal is not massive as all starters are less than three hundred pounds. They are quick off the ball, they are athletic, and they all pull well. An example of that athletic ability and pulling capability was exhibited by Chase Beeler who pulled to lead up into the hole, one arm blocks a blitzing or scraping 247 pound linebacker out of the way, continues into the hole, and turns around to get a good block on the defensive pursuit. He may not be the best offensive lineman, but that was the best offensive lineman play I've seen all year.
The most impressive aspect of Stanford's offense is their success in the Red Zone. The Cardinal has journeyed into the Red Zone thirteen times and they have nine touchdowns and three field goals. That's a 93 % success rate and it dwarfs Notre Dame's Red Zone average of 47%.
Stanford Special Teams
Stanford's special teams reflect the first part of Harbaugh's three pronged philosophy of compete, win, build. Stanford competes hard and well on special teams.
Kicker Aaron Zagory is 6 of 7 in field goals with a long of fifty-two yards and the one miss was at 49 yards in the first game against Oregon State. Besides the field goals he is 15 of 15 on extra points.
Punter David green is averaging 40 yards per punt, has a long punt of 52 yards, 8 punts inside the twenty yard line, and 7 fair catches. Green and the Cardinal punt coverage team are limiting their opposition to six yards per return on six returns against twenty-three punts. You don't have to see this Cardinal unit to know they are disciplined and a major factor in the field position battle of that "hidden yardage."
Kick offs by Travis Golia diminished from coming down at the five to coming down at the fifteen against Washington and there was no wind. They were high and the Cardinal got down their quickly to cover. Perhaps it was intentional because Golia has no touchbacks. At any rate, Stanford had been allowing an average of 21 yards per return. Their technique against Washington caused the Huskies to average fifteen yards per return.
Kick returners Jeremy Stewart and Corey Gatewood average 23 and 18 yards per return respectfully. Freshman Delano Howell has been getting into the rotation and may have taken it over by averaging nearly 29 yards against Washington. He's a threat to go for six.
Punt returners Doug Baldwin and Mark Mueller average 7 and 29 yards respectfully. Mueller's return average is deceptive as he has only one return.
Harbaugh lured NFL veteran Ron Lynn out of retirement to help run Stanford's defense. Lynn, a veteran of thirty-eight years of coaching, has stops in San Diego, Cincinnati, and Washington as the defensive coordinator. His work as a secondary coach includes San Francisco, Oakland and New England. Lynn is a respected defensive coach. He brings multiple fronts, a multitude of coverages, and a sophisticated blitz package to the Cardinal defense.
Of note is the number of sacks that Stanford has, 14, or 2.8 per game, with 9 sacks against San Jose State. San Jose has allowed 20 sacks in five games, but no matter how good San Jose is or isn't, nearly half of their total was given up in one game to Stanford. Also of note is ten different Stanford players combined for those sacks for Stanford, with five coming from the defensive line men, one from a linebacker, and four from defensive backs. That means that the Cardinal will come from any direction, with any personnel, to pressure the QB. Stanford also has 22 tackles for loses.
The Stanford defensive linemen and linebackers are solid football players and they play hard, in my opinion they play harder than Purdue's front. Oregon State only gained 86 yards against Stanford. If Notre Dame runs the ball against Stanford like they did against Purdue then that means the Irish have elevated their running game, because Stanford is tougher to run against and more physical than Purdue.
Stanford's major weakness defensively is the pass. The Cardinal defense gives up 260 yards per game, allowing a 65% completion rate, and the average per completion is 10.6 yards per catch. They can be tough against a short passing game, but can be hurt on the long pass.
One member of the Stanford secondary is senior cornerback Wopamo Osaisai, the Pac Ten 100 meter champion, and Most Improved Defensive Player during spring practice. He is touted as Stanford's best defensive back. Strong safety Bo McNally, a good tackler, a good hitter, gets a lot of ink, but he's no Kyle McCarthy.
Against Washington the Cardinal opened with a lot of press coverage. Washington went deep down the sidelines five times in the first quarter and a half and didn't complete one of those attempts. However, in every one of those five deep routes the receiver was behind the corner, mostly Osaisai. If Jake Locker had the touch of Jimmy Clausen then the game could have been a rout for Washington. That ended the press coverage except for a few looks where Stanford would show press, but drop back well before the snap. Still, Washington consistently got behind the Cardinal secondary.
I get tired of hearing the "We should win because we have superior talent." line. How many times does a team with "superior talent" lose to an underdog during the course of the season in college football? I have always believed that all things being equal that talent will win. Those aspects of football that may not be equal are desire, emotion, execution, game planning, and respect for the opponent. Superior talent, if it doesn't bring those aspects to the game, can lose.
Alabama coach, Nick Saban, citing the nine underdog wins against top twenty-five teams this week, said it best by stating something to the effect that if you don't bring your "A" game you can get beat by anyone. Along those lines the Irish had better not take Stanford likely. The Cardinal play hard, have bought into the schemes of their coaching staff, exemplify Harbaugh's attitude, and I get the feeling that they hate Notre Dame.
Earlier this year I saw Stanford against Oregon State in their first game of the year, a Stanford 36-28 victory. Stanford won despite 82 yards in penalties and only 301 yards total offense against Oregon State's 490 yards of total offense. The Cardinal had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and one that stopped a Beavers' drive. Stanford also recovered one fumble of the Beaver's five fumbles, held the beavers to a field goal after a first and goal on two separate occasions, took over another Beaver drive on downs inside the twenty-five, and the game ended with Oregon State on the Stanford sixteen yard line. Also germane to all of this was Oregon State's 100 yards in penalties.
Conclusion? Stanford may be an over achieving team, but they play tough football, are opportunistic, and they can hang in there and produce an upset.
The Stanford party line on Pritchard only having a mild concussion is suspect to me. On the play he was hurt he took a direct helmet to helmet frontal shot on contact, and that was followed by the back of his helmet slamming into the artificial turf at Washington. Should he play I'd be amazed, but he is a tough kid. However, Kimble and Stewart are more than capable of picking up the slack. Notre Dame must stop the run. Surprise, surprise! Notre Dame needs to do so because it's the strength of the Cardinal offense and by doing so the pressure is put on Pritchard to "win the game."
Pritchard is accurate on short to intermediate routes, the bulk of Stanford's passing offense, but does not have the touch on the deep ball that Jimmy Clausen has. Never the less, Stanford will go deep to score, to open up the intermediate routes, to open the short routes, and open up their backs out of the backfield. Pritchard is accurate enough to cause problems for the Irish. Defensively the Irish need to bring pressure on Pritchard. Washington hasn't had a sack all year but they were effective in pressuring Pritchard, particularly in the second half. The Huskies just couldn't sustain the pressure. I believe the Irish capable of sustained pressure. They must also rush Pritchard staying within the confines of their rush lanes as he can scramble. Ideally, the pressure should be heavy enough to keep the Stanford backs in to block as Stanford likes sending the backs out quickly as a part of their offense.
Alex Loukas, the early season backup at quarterback, is a 224 pound quarterback/athlete. As a sophomore he was in games as a wide receiver and on special teams. If in the game it signals Stanford may run the option. I saw him run the option against Oregon State and while the result wasn't that noteworthy the threat is there. If he's in there for any reason, sans an injury to Pritchard, I'd suspect option or some sort of trick play.
Another possibility of a trick play is the direct snap to number three, Michael Thomas, a freshman cornerback in the shotgun at the quarterback position. Pritchard lines up at wide receiver in this alignment. Although Thomas ran, the specter of a trick play looms here as well. Again, the Irish should not forget the passing of Kimble should he line up in the same formation.
Against Washington Doug Baldwin was open deep and often. Although Pritchard failed to get him the ball deep the potential is there as he wasn't off by that much, and there's the crossing route that turned into a sixty-one yard jaunt. Baldwin also needs to be watched on the reverse as well as he has two this year, one for 38 yards.
Defensively I see Stanford mixing up their blitz packages and also rushing three while dropping eight. With the odd front of three down defensive linemen they still will bring four, if not more unless in a prevent defense which may be dropping eight or even nine.. One of their more effective blitzes is overloading to one side of the offense, aligning the defensive end outside the tackle, a defensive tackle on the guard, and a safety outside the defensive end. The defensive end engages the tackle, the defensive tackle engages the guard, the safety comes on a blitz from the outside, and the linebacker, usually Pat Mayor, splits the gap between the tackle and guard. It's very effective and potentially a physical risk to any quarterback.
One interesting defensive stat were the nine sacks that Stanford collected against San Jose State whose quarterback that was 23 of 26 for the game. I have no idea what it means, but it's the weirdest combination of football stats I can ever remember, and I get paid by the word.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31 Stanford 21.
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