The past week has been a trying one for some in Irish land. The release of the most recent college football playoff rankings left many with a bad taste in their mouth as the Irish dropped from 4th to 6th in the new poll. The frustrations stemmed from a variety of sources. A lot of the anger was directed towards Iowa whose pillow fight of a schedule, including their fluffy, airy, defeat of soft-landing spot Purdue propelled the Hawkeyes past the Irish in the wake of the uneven performance against Boston College. Others seemed frustrated that Oklahoma’s narrow escape versus injury devastated TCU continued the Sooner catapult up the rankings. Many Irish faithful continue to struggle with the “common opponent” defeat that Oklahoma was handed by the undermanned Texas Longhorns whom the Irish handled with ease. Then, there was Sparty and Mark D’Anotonio’s ascent. Enough said there. Let’s be honest, most were frustrated by a combination of all three of these things, but in this week of thanks, let’s take a moment to remember that with just two weeks left in the season, the Irish are still firmly in the playoff hunt.
Yeah, Notre Dame could use some help. If you’re so inclined, you might root for:
- Navy versus Houston on 11/27 at 12:00 PM on ABC
- Nebraska versus Iowa on 11/27 at 3:30 PM on ABC
- Penn State versus Michigan State on 11/28 at 3:30 PM on ESPN
- Auburn (for shits and giggles) versus Alabama on 11/28 at 3:30 PM on CBS
- Oklahoma State versus Oklahoma on 11/28 at 8:00 PM on ABC
Also be thankful that Notre Dame has a road contest against a top 10 team. There’s been something hollow about Notre Dame’s resume for most of the season. Having victories against a surprisingly good Navy and Temple is all well and good, but neither qualifies as a “signature win.” I think at least queitly Irish faithful have understood this fact. Irish nation has pointed to overall strength of schedule where the Irish still compare favorably to other teams in the playoff picture buoyed primarily by a lack of games against the worst competition. Irish fans have also pointed to common opponents and having the “best loss” of the one-loss teams in the hunt. However, not many (and wisely so) have been bold enough to say out loud “Hey, the Irish have wins against Navy and Temple.” Having a win versus a name brand, acknowledged power is what the Irish need, and fortunately, what they have left on the schedule. So, be thankful we’re in a year where Notre Dame finishes against Stanford and not USC. Be thankful that Stanford recovered from a disastrous first game on the road. Be thankful the Irish have a Murder Train to match up with the Cardinal’s Heisman hopeful. Most importantly, be thankful the Irish are playing meaningful football in the last week of November. What a difference a year makes!
The When/Where/What Time/Etc.: Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 PM at historic Stanford Stadium. The history of Stanford Stadium dates all the way back to 2006, and if tradition holds, will have more ND fans in attendance than Trees fans. Those Google internships aren’t going to apply for themselves after all. Fox has the game this week. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 PM with host Rob Stone, studio “analysts” Matt Leinhart and Dave Wannstedt, and special analyst/eye candy/guns so big they’ve been banned in 47 states: Brady Quinn. Your announcing team for the game itself will be Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt, and sideline reporter Molly McGrath.
McGrath’s inclusion is of particular note as she will continue a proud tradition of Notre Dame broadcasts including Boston College graduates. It’s practically community outreach for the Irish at this point to let so many Screaming Eagles fly so close to the sun. Additionally, McGrath has a “zeal for preparation” that just can’t be denied.
Because we’re here to be a one stop shop, your weather report for the game:
The Opposing Coach: He’s a man who needs no introduction. Even if you did introduce him, he’d find something to complain about. That man is, of course, David Shaw. Shaw’s now in his fifth season as the head coach since taking over for Jim Harbaugh following the 2010 season. In that same time, Harbaugh’s gone to the NFL, lost some playoff games, had a fallout with an organization, bought some khakis, and purchased some amazing old man bifocals.
It’s fair, easy, and in fact encouraged to make fun of Shaw, but he’s also proven to be more than capable of maintaining Stanford as a well-above average football program. Shaw’s career winning percentage sits at 78.5% which is 8th among active coaches – one spot behind Bob Stoops and two spots ahead of Nick Saban.
Shaw’s never met a loss he agreed with. Never met a puppy he found cute enough. And, apparently, up until this year even his own fan base found him to be a boring miserly guy to watch. I’ll take my purple-faced BK everyday of the week.
Stanford’s last game: The Cardinal upended rival Cal in The Big Game 35-22. All everything player Christian McCaffrey set a school record with 389 all-purpose yards which included a 49-yard touchdown reception and a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Stanford led the game 21-6 at halftime before Cal made it interesting in the 3rd quarter with 10 unanswered points to tighten the score at 21-16. However, failure to capitalize on red zone opportunities (that sounds familiar) eventually led to the Golden Bears’ demise. 3 times in the red zone Cal settled for field goal attempts, and those missed opportunities proved too much to overcome.
It was far from a dominant performance by Stanford. Cal had nearly 150 more total yards, more first downs, a better third down conversion percentage, and actually more time of possession. That Cal had more time of possession is somewhat remarkable considering Stanford leads the FBS in time of possession while Cal ranks 74th.
Stanford had a clear plan to ground and pound the Cal defense. Their 12 passing attempts was a season low. The 40 rushing attempts was tied for the second lowest attempt output as well, but it was more than effective. The Cardinal gained 260 yards on the ground (6.5 ypc) with three touchdowns. Combined with McCaffrey’s special teams contributions, it was enough to pull away from a well-below average Cal defense.
Team talent: Like most recent Stanford vintages, they are a team solid top to bottom with enough playmakers to be an uncomfortable match-up on both sides of the ball. What is a bit of a change from previous years is that Stanford’s talent is more consolidated on the offensive side of the ball. 247 Sports Team Composite Rankings puts the Cardinal 18th in current roster talent. In raw recruiting, they have experienced fluctuations year over year in terms of what talent they can get to commit, which many ND fans can commiserate with. On the whole, they are a program that finds a way to recruit well above most programs but the blue-bloods which is no small accomplishment given their academic standards. Since 2011, the Cardinal have out-recruited Notre Dame only once according to 247 Sports’ Composite Rankings, but they are a good notch ahead of previous season opponents like Virginia, Pitt, or Georgia Tech.
Any game plan to beat the Cardinal has to start with containing Christina McCaffrey. McCaffrey, the son of former Stanford receiver Ed, leads the team in rushing yards, receptions, and is the primary kickoff return man. His 1,546 rushing yards ranks second nationally to LSU’s Leonard Fournette. He’s got nearly 600 more all purpose yards than anyone else in college football.
McCaffrey is joined by senior quarterback Kevin Hogan as the unquestioned leaders. Hogan’s averaging only slightly over 200 yards per game passing, but has shown improved decision-making. He’s on pace to set career bests in touchdown passes and interceptions since becoming the starter. His passer rating sits 7th nationally, one spot ahead of Clemson’s DeShaun Watson. Hogan’s more of a “game manager” than a “play maker,” and ND has seen first hand that he can be susceptible to throwing some pretty poor passes. The question will be how KeiVarae Russell’s absense impacts what was already a thin secondary.
The defense has less dynamic playmakers than years past. Junior linebacker Mike Tyler leads the team with just 4.5 sacks. Last season, the Cardinal defense ranked 7th nationally causing a sack on 9.33% of all quarterback drop backs. The percentage has dropped nearly in half to 5.74% which is just 67th nationally. Senior linebacker Blake Martinez is the glue for the defense. His 108 total tackles leads the Pac-12 and is 14th nationally.
The secondary’s playmaker is Ronnie Harris who is among the conference leaders in both passes defended and passes broken up. No player on the team has more than 2 interceptions.
- The winner of this game receives the Legends Trophy. Notre Dame leads the all-time series against Stanford 19-10.
- This will mark the 5th straight meeting between the Irish and the Cardinal where both teams have been ranked at the time of the match-up. No match-up has featured the Irish and Stanford combined to be ranked higher than they are this year. They have never faced off in the Brian Kelly era with neither team ranked.
- Christian McCaffrey’s received at least 15 carries in every game this season except one. That one game was Stanford’s 16-6 loss to start the season at Northwestern when he saw just 12 carries for less than 70 yards. Interestingly, McCaffrey’s season high in carries (33) came in Stanford’s other loss of the season against Oregon.
- All about them red zone attempts, y’all. Stanford’s allowed opponents to score (TD + FG) on slightly over 89% of all red zone attempts this season, which is 105th nationally. This is driven by an oddity in college football where the Trees have not gotten the benefit of #collegekickers. 43% of all red zone attempts against Stanford have resulted in a successful field goal attempt which is the 4th highest rate nationally. At the same time, the Cardinal are allowing a touchdown on red zone possessions 46% of the time which sits 18th. On the other side, Notre Dame’s offense, which should not come as much of a surprise after the BC game, is ranked 96th in red scoring percentage (78.26%). 58.7% of attempts have resulted in touchdowns which is 77th in the country. The net result is that Saturday features a movable object facing a stoppable force. As noted above, Stanford didn’t stop Cal’s offense, but they did force them to settle for field goal attempts on 3 red zone attempts. These failures doomed the Golden Bears and will likely lead to a similar fate for the Irish if they can’t improve in this area.
- Key Third Downs: The elite match-up of the game will happen between the Irish defense and the Cardinal offense on third downs. The Irish rank 8th nationally in preventing opponents from converting third downs. Season to date, the Irish have only allowed 30.57% of all third downs to be converted. This efficiency goes a long way in explaining why many of the cumulative defensive metrics like the Irish defense more than the fan base has. Stanford’s offense has been equally good at converting third downs. The Cardinal are the 5th best offense nationally at keeping the chains moving on third down (49.66%). This is a game that lacks a ball hawking defense on either side. Both Notre Dame and Stanford rank in the bottom 25 nationally in takeways per game. Stanford averages less than one takeaway per game. Recency bias aside, both sides are also okay at avoiding giveaways as well. The combination of these factors makes this game one where the “turn over battle” may not be as important as the “third down battle.” Whichever side is more effective at leveraging their strength on third downs will have a decided advantage in this contest.
- Offensive Efficiency: Both the Irish and the Cardinal rank in the Top 20 nationally in yards per play. Both have remarkably balanced offenses in production. Stanford ranks 19th in yards per play (6.3). Their 5.2 yards per carry rushing is 18th as is their 8.8 yards per pass attempt. I’ve used a lot of words to discuss McCaffrey’s value, but despite all of that, Notre Dame is even better than Stanford at rushing. The Irish offense rankings on a per play basis:
- Overall – 7th (6.8 YPP)
- Rushing – 9th (5.5 yards per carry)
- Passing – 16th (8.9 yards
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