Gameday Preview: Stanford at Notre Dame

Stanford's halfway to bowl eligibility. What must the visiting underdogs do against Notre Dame to move one win closer to a bowl berth, their No. 1 goal heading into 2008? The Bootleg previews Stanford's sixth game of the season, predicting ground and air yardage for each team and a final score. We were pretty accurate the last two weeks running, and this week we think... (Read on!)

Gameday Breakdown:
Stanford (3-2, 2-1 Pac-10) at Notre Dame (3-1)
Sat. Sept. 27, 11:30 a.m. PT

Last year: Notre Dame 21, Stanford 14. Both teams had game to forget, combining for six turnovers, five missed field goals and nine personal fouls. The visiting Irish, 4.5-point underdogs, were outgained on the afternoon and finished -2 in turnovers, but came away with the victory that, truthfully, neither team deserved.

The rivalry: Notre Dame finding a way to beat Stanford, regardless of the final stats, is nothing new in this rivalry. The Irish have won six straight in the series, with Stanford last winning in South Bend, Ind. in 1992. The Cardinal came close in 2005 (leading in the fourth quarter, but losing 38-31 to allow Notre Dame to advance to a BCS bowl) and 2004 (23-15), but perhaps the result Stanford fans most remember comes in 2003, when the Ty Willingham-led Irish ran up the score for a 57-7 final.

It's no Stanford-Cal, and, especially after last year, it's not Stanford-USC either, but Notre Dame is, without question, Stanford's most-hated opponent after the Bears and Trojans. Chris Marinelli certainly felt that way and was not shy in an interview with cardinalreport.com. He said, among other things:

- "I hate that school."
- "We are going out there to mash them up, and that's all there is it to it."
- and ''I hate it, playing up there. 'The field, excuse my language, the field sucks. The stadium sucks. I think the area sucks."

Everyone's reactions have been entirely predictable. The mainstream media jumped on the story (think NBC might mention it once or twice on Saturday?), Jim Harbaugh couldn't be quick enough to issue an apology through his Media Relations Department, and the ever passive-aggressive Charlie Weis outdid himself, managing to get a dig in even while pretending to magnanimously move past Marinelli's words.

"I think that there's just a way of that we believe in doing things the way we believe in doing things here," said Weis. "That's from me, my assistant coaches, our players, we'd like to try to do things a certain way. I use it as much as anything else as a teaching lesson about being respectful..."

Many Stanford fans embrace the rivalry with the Irish and would have welcomed Marinelli's words -- if they didn't come from a Stanford football player the week before the Notre Dame game. Surely, Weis will try to leverage the bulletin-board material as much as he can, and it is feasible that in a close game, the extra inspiration Marinelli gave the Irish could make the difference.

Stanford this year: The Card are 3-2, and started their season by squeaking past Oregon State (38-26), then being blown out at Arizona State (17-41) and TCU (14-31), and then holding down San Jose State (23-10).

Last week, the Card grabbed their first road victory of the season, 35-28 over winless Washington. However, despite the two-game winning streak, this week's outlook is decidedly mixed, as injuries have afflicted Stanford's two most important offensive players.

Receiver Richard Sherman was the Card's No. 1 wideout in 2007, and is by far the most athletic receiver on the roster. However, after an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee, he is out until at least Nov. 1. Meanwhile, tailback Toby Gerhart is on pace for an 1,000-yard season, with 421 yards and five touchdowns, but a concussion that knocked him out of the Washington game had fans worrying that his 2008 would be a repeat of his injury-shortened 2007. However, after passing a battery of tests earlier in the week, he has been cleared to play against the Irish. 

Notre Dame this year: It's been a Rorschach test of a season for the 3-1 Irish: you can look at their results and draw nearly any conclusion you would like. The Irish beat San Diego State 21-13 and Michigan 35-17 in its first two contests, but was outgained 345-342 by San Diego State and 388-260 by Michigan. The Wolverines committed six turnovers in their loss. So, your call, is Notre Dame good or lucky?

The last two weeks are similarly open to interpretation, with the Irish splitting a pair against middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams, losing 23-7 at Michigan State before beating visiting Purdue 38-21 last week. Behind 201 yards from Javon Ringer, a bruising halfback in the Toby Gerhart mold, Michigan State outgained the Irish 346-258, and Purdue came within 14 yards of Notre Dame in their 17-point loss. So the yardage totals, especially offensively, have been less than inspiring for Notre Dame. Their defense, however, is allowing only 18.5 points per game, far better than Stanford's 27.6.

Notre Dame also has had its share of off-the-field moments, with Charlie Weis tearing his ACL after colliding with a gunner in the Michigan game, and the Irish staff getting caught with a laptop in the coaches' box, which they denied was used for spying.

When Stanford has the ball:

In the air:

There's a lot of storylines, but onto actual football. As always, the analysis leans heavily on the preseason previews of Notre Dame's offense and Notre Dame's defense , which delve into individual matchups and personnel strengths and weaknesses in more detail than we can in this gameday preview.

Defensively, the two teams are very similar, allowing within ten yards of each other through the air (ND: 251, Stanford: 259) and on the ground (Stanford: 128, Notre Dame: 134). Offensively, Notre Dame has a slight edge in total yards, but more striking is how comparatively heavily the Irish lean on the pass (Notre Dame: 225 pass yards per game, Stanford 143), while the Card are decidedly run-first (Stanford: 168 rush yards per game, ND 109).

The reason I'm leading with this is because the numbers show two things. First, Notre Dame could well have a 300-yard passing day; they're going to move the ball against Stanford's secondary. Secondly, Notre Dame's pass defense is its biggest weakness -- but so is Stanford's pass attack. Can the Cardinal keep up with the Irish through the air?

Tavita Pritchard's no Jimmy Clausen and the task is only harder with Sherman out, but Stanford is going to have to approach 250 passing yards if they want to win this one. Pritchard did crack the 200-yard mark against Washington, but I think Notre Dame's D is stouter than that. I'll call for 180 Stanford passing yards.

On the ground:

Strength meets strength here, as I think the Irish front is the best Stanford's faced all season. The Card ran for 71 yards against TCU, which has the nation's best rush defense statistically, so that's an absolute worst-case scenario.

The absolute best-case scenario would be a repeat of Ringer's 201-yard performance. However, Ringer has ran for 897 yards and is on pace to crack 2,100, it took him 39 carries to reach 200 on Notre Dame, and Gerhart's health is a question. I think 110 Stanford rushing yards is fair. The key for the Cardinal on the ground won't be to gain chunks and chunks of yardage, but to convert key third downs, and continue to finish in goal line situations, as the Card's red zone efficiency has been outstanding. As a road underdog, Stanford cannot afford to have drives stall inside the 20 and be settling for field goals.


When Notre Dame has the ball:

On the ground:

Those are darn good running backs in James Aldridge, Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, though they haven't been given that many touches this season. The Irish's line is far better than last year's, and the backs are good enough that they will singlehandedly keep a drive or two alive Saturday by spinning through a would-be tackle or powering forward for a key extra yard. Notre Dame runs for only 109 per game while Stanford allows only 128, so we'll split the difference and call for 120 Irish rushing yards . Like with Stanford's ground attack, however, the key for Notre Dame will be to convert in short-yardage and goal line situations -- and so Stanford's front seven must rise to the occasion on those obvious run plays to try to spring the upset.

In the air:

This is where Notre Dame figures to win the contest. Jimmy Clausen has made the sophomore-year leap, and has passed for 900 yards with a superb 128.5 quarterback rating through four games. Two receivers have more than double the yards of any of their teammates: Golden Tate (367 yards, three touchdowns) and Michael Floyd (218 yards, two touchdowns). Tate, in particular, is a home-run threat off to a spectacular start (think of a more consistent Richard Sherman) and Stanford's secondary is going to have a fight on their hands to try to stay in front of him.

I think Notre Dame breaks one big play and the Irish finish with 280 passing yards. The keys for Stanford are two-fold: first, continue to do a good job of forcing turnovers (Clausen does have six interceptions through four games) and drive-ending sacks. Second, if Notre Dame is going to pass for nearly 300 yards, make the Irish earn them, and don't break down in coverage and allow any big plays. 

Vegas Prediction:

Notre Dame 27, Stanford 20. (Irish -6.5, Over/under: 47.5)


My Prediction:

Notre Dame 30, Stanford 20

There are so many unanswered questions that I'm reluctant to waver too far from the Vegas line. How healthy will Gerhart be? Notre Dame's 1-3 on yardage but 3-1 on schedule, what's more reflective?

I see four reasons to give Notre Dame the edge here. First, they have more talent, second, they are at home and third, Marinelli made sure that Notre Dame will be as up for Stanford (their, say, seventh-biggest rival) as Stanford is for Notre Dame.

Finally, and most important in my mind, given that both team's defenses are stronger against the run, the edge would go to the team with a pass-first attack. I think Jimmy Clausen has a better matchup against Stanford's secondary than Gerhart does against the Irish's front seven, and so the pick is Notre Dame.


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