After Stanford flogged Notre Dame 37-16 in South Bend back in 2010, Irish coach Brian Kelly expressed his admiration for the Cardinal's muscle.
"If you look at the physicality that Stanford played with; their body types, they were lean, athletic," he said, almost longingly. "That's the model I've built my programs on. We're moving in that direction."
Two years later, Kelly's Notre Dame squad very much mirrors Stanford physically. For the first time in several years, both clubs seem equally burly, bruising, and intimidating. But even though the advantage at the line of scrimmage may be gone, the Cardinal must not abandon their smashmouth identity in the face of a newly intimidating Notre Dame front seven.
All 326 pounds of nose guard Louis Nix III and all 255 Heisman candidate pounds of linebacker Manti Te'o might be intimidating, but they cannot be a deterrent to the Cardinal's power running game. The entire Stanford offense - namely tight end playaction and creative outside running - is dependent on a physical presence at the point of attack. To establish this, the Cardinal must assert themselves in the teeth of the dragon. They can't allow Notre Dame's front seven, which hasn't surrendered a rushing touchdown all season, to push them into a wishy-washy shell.
KZSU's Sam Fisher painted the best analogy during The Bootleg Radio preview show, making a rare apt comparison between this game's strategy and Stanford women's basketball. When Tara VanDerveer's squad lost to Baylor in last year's Final 4, they allowed the presence of Brittney Griner to intimidate them from even trying to attack the basket with Nneka Ogwumike. Late in the game, when the Cardinal's fate was already sealed, it became apparent that Stanford could actually have success attacking Griner with Ogwumike, who - though smaller - was far more athletic. But the damage had been done at that point: because of the intimidation factor, the Cardinal had abandoned their biggest asset when it mattered before even given giving it a test.
David Shaw's squad must not suffer the same fate. The Farm Boys must physically assert themselves in Nix's and Te'o's domain. They cannot give Notre Dame the impression that the Irish have caught up to them from a physical standpoint. Stanford's blue collar mentality must remain. If that backbone stays in place, an inexperienced and injury-riddled Irish secondary will be one step further out of place defending playaction, and a speedy playmaker like Kelsey Young will get that extra breathing room to turn the corner when the Cardinal mix it up on the outside.
A heavy dose of Stepfan Taylor sets up the rest of Stanford's playbook, but a lack of running creativity will allow Notre Dame's large front seven to suffocate the middle of the field in the same way that Washington's smaller unit did. As important as power runs are to setting up the entire Cardinal playbook, both defenses in this game are massive up front, and both prefer defending a smashmouth, straightforward approach.
Enter Young, who may be the fastest man on the field Saturday with Ty Montgomery out. The dual threat running back/receiver swept 55 yards for a touchdown last week immediately after Remound Wright cut up the middle for a healthy 15 yard pickup. It was a simple yet beautifully called two-play sequence: sucker the defense into the middle, blast them with lightning-fast speed to the edge.
Stanford must continue to build on this successful creativity. Young has the potential to be a change-of-pace thorn in Notre Dame's side. Shaw said that he plans to further integrate the sophomore into the offensive gameplan, and there's no better time than this week.
Keep Everett Golson in the pocket
Just like Notre Dame's front seven, the Stanford defense is also more vulnerable laterally then it is against a straightforward up-and-down approach. That's why the play of quarterback Everett Golson is the Irish offensive X-factor in this game. The sophomore is fast, and he'll frequently try to bolt from the pocket.
It's up to the entire Cardinal defense - particularly outside linebackers Chase Thomas, Trent Murphy, and Alex Debniak - to make Golson stay put where he is. Why? Because he's only six feet tall, and that pales in comparison to Stanford linemen Henry Anderson (6-6), Josh Mauro (6-6), and Ben Gardner (6-4), all of whom have demonstrated excellent pass deflection capabilities. Last week, Gardner batted away a crucial throw as the Cardinal were working to force overtime. One possession later, Anderson knocked Matt Scott's game-defining interception into the air at the line of scrimmage.
If Golson must consistently throw from a standard pocket, the Stanford front seven has to like its odds of disrupting his passes. Plus, if the quarterback's view is obstructed, interception probability also increases. The Cardinal have already racked up eight of those this year, and the secondary will obviously be hungry to redeem itself after bleeding 491 Arizona passing yards last week.
Notre Dame hasn't allowed a touchdown in over a month. They're the country's second-best scoring defense behind Alabama (7.8 points per game). Talent-wise, Stanford is right there defensively with the Irish, and it's reasonable to expect an angry bounce-back performance from them, especially considering the fact that they match up so much better against Notre Dame than Arizona's spread passing attack.
It's not hard envisioning this game becoming an SEC-like field goal fest. Considering that, Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson must be ready to boot away. Perhaps he can channel his inner Nate Whitaker (a Notre Dame transfer), who connected on five field goals to punish his former team the last time Stanford visited South Bend.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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