Identify Irish Offensive Tendencies Early
Stanford's defense has earned a reputation as a unit that cannot be beaten with a standard offensive attack. Over the past few weeks, opposing teams have reached far into their bag of tricks to score early points against the Cardinal. Their goal has been to shock the unit and rack up as many points as possible before coordinator Derek Mason can make airtight adjustments. This trend started at Utah, when Kyle Whittingham's club broke from its usual tendencies to debut a perimeter passing game that flummoxed the Cardinal for the first half of the game. It continued through Stanford's games against USC and Cal, in which both the Trojans and Bears introduced previously unused offensive strategies to begin their games against the Cardinal.
Both opponents saw early success, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that Stanford's players simply hadn't seen their strategies on film in the weeks leading up to both games.
"Cal came out and did the opposite of everything that their tendencies had shown," Trent Murphy explained. "They hadn't run with any tight end-attached formations, and they had been trying to run mostly inside [on film]. All of sudden, they came out with two tight ends on the ball, and they started running toss and counter-O and a couple different things."
The Bears essentially shocked the Cardinal into a six-play, 80-yard opening touchdown drive. But they only scored six points the rest of the way.
"After the first series, we adjusted, but we have to expect that moving forward," Murphy said. "Teams are going to give us their best shots, and they're going to go away from their tendencies."
Stanford's defense has already seen the kitchen sink of early surprises, so perhaps Notre Dame may be out of tricks since they're playing the Cardinal so late in the season. Regardless, it should be the Farm Boys' goal to snuff out any early game nonsense this time around. With the Pac-12 championship game looming, it would behoove Stanford to seal Saturday's game as quickly as possible. Shutting the Irish down early is the best ticket toward earning starters some early rest before next week's decisive test.
Establish the Run: Bruise a Thin Front
Our scouting report of Notre Dame indicates that the Irish are bruised and thin on the defensive front just a year after being six-deep along that line. Stalwart Louis Nix, the centerpiece of this defense at the beginning of the season, will not play against the Cardinal. Brian Kelly's boys are not in a good position to handle Stanford's powerful grinders up front. Just last week, in fact, BYU churned out 247 yards on 47 carries (5.3 yards per rush) against Notre Dame in South Bend. The Cardinal also have the ability to pound the Golden Domers in the trenches, and that's exactly what they should do -- unless Notre Dame commits suicide by stacking the box as aggressively as Cal did. In that case, the focus will shift to Ty Montgomery, Michael Rector, and the rest of the receiving crew. That unit made the Bears pay for creeping too far up last week. It may have another opportunity to do that Saturday.
Expose The Back-Up Center
Starting Notre Dame center Nick Martin tore his MCL last week, so the Irish must turn to Matt Hegarty (who's less than a year removed from heart surgery) at this crucial position in the middle of the offensive line. The last time the Cardinal faced a reserve center, USC's Cyrus Hobbi became a turnstile and the Farm Boys turned Matt Barkley into a rag doll. David Shaw's club upset the Trojans 21-14.
Inexperienced starter Conor Hanratty and true freshman Steve Elmer also have key roles for the Irish up front. Stanford has already abused one injury-riddled, inexperienced offensive line this season (UCLA). The last time they played Notre Dame at home, they also terrorized a back-up center (Mike Golic, Jr.). Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror, but Saturday's game will present yet another opportunity for the Cardinal's elite front seven to feast.
Rage in the Red Zone
This 2013 Stanford team has proven capable in every single statistical category except red zone touchdown percentage. This inadequacy has tormented the Cardinal in both of their losses this season, and I closely documented it last week. After enjoying three-for-three red zone success against Cal's pathetic unit, the Cardinal has improved to 86th nationally in red zone touchdown efficiency (up from 100th). That's still an inexcusably poor figure, especially considering the fact that the team was ranked fourth nationally in this category just two years ago. The Cardinal must score touchdowns in the red zone Saturday. They may be able to win without them against Notre Dame, but they'll meet a fiery end in the desert if they can't convert the following week. Now is the time for tangible improvement.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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