“Use what you have learned! Save you it can!”
-University of Dagobah’s All-Time Winningest Coach
The moment is here. As soon as the 2015 schedule came out, I circled November 28, and most every Stanford said to themselves that in the best case scenario the Cardinal would be in a de facto college football playoff elimination that night when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish came calling. That scenario is here. Now it’s time to talk about how Stanford’s going to win this game. The team has lost a little bit of focus, but the answers are already out there.
When I talk about a loss of focus, I’m talking about Stanford’s November. It hasn’t been bad, and by bad I mean Evanston bad, by any stretch. But it hasn’t been October, either. Stanford on the year is averaging 41 points per game, a number that has fallen to 37.7 and includes the beatdown of Colorado. Stanford’s yards per play has fallen from 6.70 overall in conference to 6.26 in November. Finally, Kevin Hogan’s yards per attempt have dropped from 9.3 yards per attempt overall to 7.9 overall.
Admittedly, these are not statistical craters we are talking about. However, this is the best defense Stanford will have faced all month if not all year, and the Cardinal’s “B+” or “B” game isn’t gonna cut it. Defensively, Notre Dame is the 31st rated defense in America in points per drive. Colorado, Oregon, and California rank 93, 91, and 92nd in the nation by this metric. Again, Stanford’s not playing poorly by any stretch on offense, but they’ve been slippin’ just a bit.
The good news is that what Stanford needs to do to win this game is all over the Cardinal’s film from this year.
“You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force.” Stanford’s offense has been a balanced attack all year long, led by its offensive line, who has produced the third fewest sacks allowed as well as the second best rush average in conference play. It’s been highlighted by Christian McCaffrey and Kevin Hogan. Last Saturday, Stanford ran it 30 times and Hogan threw it 12. That’s not going to work against Notre Dame.
We know some things about Coach Shaw. We know because he tells us, and he shows us. We know that if Stanford has success running the ball, that’s just about all the opponent’s gonna see. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We also know that with a multiple possession lead, Stanford should be running the ball, as they did against Cal.
That being said, Notre Dame is going to commit to stopping Chrisitan McCaffrey, and they have the personnel at the line of scrimmage to do it. They aren’t gonna totally shut him down, but Stanford can’t be staring at 2nd and 8 all night long and win the game. Obviously they will use McCaffrey, but let’s don’t forget the other key member of the backfield. The passing game needs to be more than a last resort Saturday night. Balance is key.
#LetHoganBeHogan…..but don’t overdo it. Hogan’s averaging 5.82 carries per game as a rusher overall this year. That number goes up to 7.33 in November, and it was 11 in the loss to Oregon. We know who Kevin Hogan is, and we love him for it. He doesn’t slide. He runs over people, and it activates him in games without question. But 11 carries is a lot to ask of a guy who doesn’t slide. The Great John Papadakis suggested to me that Hogan fumbling snaps at the end of a game may have been related to the shots he took. Oregon hit him hard.
And yes, Hogan carried 14 times against Washington State, but those runs were nowhere near as punishing. Stanford needs Hogan on point as a passer, and teams are prepared for his role in the running game. Papdakis is also one of many who advocated getting Hogan in space and running him in the first place. Again, it’s all about balance. A defense that hits as hard as Notre Dame should not get 11 chances to blast Hogan.
“Remember Pasadena.” Stanford’s offense finished 2014 as a nice teaser to the offensive fireworks we’ve enjoyed in 2015. One of the things Stanford started to do successfully was break from formation and personnel tendencies, and one of the shrewdest things they started doing was running spread formations with base personnel, meaning, two backs, a tight end, and two receivers. That led to things in Pasadena like Myles Jack covering Devon Cajuste in the slot. That led to fun things like this:
Stanford has a lot of talented personnel, and they have personnel that fits all formations, but veiling intent with non-skewed formations has been a strength of the team all year long. Think of Dalton Schultz’s TD catch out of the Ogre at Boulder as the prettiest and cleanest example. The Cardinal needs to put the Irish in as many moments of pre-snap hesitation as possible.
Put Your Most Lethal Weapon in the Most Lethal Spot. As talented a running back and kick returner as Christian McCaffrey is, I’ve maintained all along that he’s even better as a receiver. Especially in the slot, where he’s essentially uncoverable. What do the numbers say? McCaffrey is Stanford’s third most targeted receiver (16.7 %) but among the top five targets he is clearly the most effective. His 81% catch rate is almost 10% better than the second most reliable receiver (Francis Owusu), and his 9.9 yards per target is the best on the team.
Stanford certainly got plenty of bang for the one pass it threw Christian the Lion against Cal, but it would be well served to utilize him as a receiver on Saturday and to utilize him at receiver as well.
So there you have it. If Stanford grants my wish list above, it will beat Notre Dame. My expectations are not very high for the Cardinal defense, who did regain its Red Zone Resilience against the Golden Bears, but I will be pleasantly surprised if they hold down the Golden Domers. The pass rush has reached “10 Mississippi” status and Stanford’s linebackers and safeties have been exposed as soft targets in space. I think Notre Dame gets to 28 or more in this game.
And if Stanford heeds Yoda, it gets to 35 or more, and that’s how they can survive and advance.