The first five games of Stanford’s season have been a miraculously windy road. We’ve seen pretty much every type of game, and though Stanford could easily be 1-4, the team has survived three of four close games to keep the season alive.
Technically, this week’s result at Notre Dame does not affect Stanford’s goal of a Pac-12 championship, but it does have tremendous implications for potential bowl placement. As everything stands right now, Stanford still has a chance to get an at-large berth in the Rose Bowl with a loss at Oregon, if Oregon goes to the national championship game. If Stanford loses another game besides the one at Oregon though, those hopes will be all but dashed.
The toughest test remaining on that list is Saturday at undefeated No. 7 Notre Dame. Unlike last week’s opponent, Arizona, for which I went away from my usual matchup format, Notre Dame certainly has the talent to warrant an in-depth column. The Irish are effectively Stanford’s twin brother on the field. Both teams have a vaunted front seven, questions in the secondary, great running games and inconsistent quarterback play. Here are the matchups that will determine the winner in this closely matched rivalry game.
Stanford’s running game vs. Notre Dame’s big defensive line
Stanford’s offense revolves around being able to run the football, and specifically power running efficiently. Notre Dame’s defensive line presents by far the biggest challenge of the season for this running attack. Most of the defensive lines Stanford has seen so far have defensive ends that weigh around 250 to 275 pounds.
All three of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen weigh at least 300 pounds, averaging 312 pounds apiece. They’re not just big; they’re athletic and very talented football players with 43 starts between them. For Stanford to have a chance on offense in this game, the offensive line must be able to block these three linemen, leaving either a pulling guard or a fullback to try to take on star inside linebacker Manti Te’o.
Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o vs. Stanford’s entire offense
Speaking of Te’o, you can’t put the burden of limiting one of the best defenders in the entire country on just one Stanford player. Every single player on the field must be aware of where Te’o is at all times, or he will make Stanford pay. Te’o leads Notre Dame in tackles by 20, so containing Te’o goes a long way toward moving the ball against the Irish. He’s big, he hits hard and he flows to the football with tremendous instincts. In other words, he’s pretty much a carbon copy of Shayne Skov at the end of 2010. Te’o is just as capable of taking over a game, so beware.
Notre Dame’s running backs vs. Stanford’s perimeter defense
Moving to the other side of the ball, Notre Dame has some offensive weapons to keep Stanford up all night, and it all starts with the running backs. Converted slot receiver Theo Riddick leads the way.
Though only averaging a bit less than four yards per carry, Riddick provides another threat out of the backfield, leading his team in receptions. Riddick is quick, a shifty back who will make the first defender miss more often than not, so gang-tackling is a must. The other two backs, George Atkinson, who is averaging 9.3 yards per carry, and Cierre Wood, are stupid fast, making good pursuit angles vital. Atkinson’s 10.36 100-meter dash at the Big East Championships was the second fastest time in Notre Dame track history, so don’t let him get to the perimeter if you want to keep the game close.
Stanford’s pass rush vs. Everett Golson’s elusiveness
Golson presents a very similar problem to Washington’s Keith Price with his mobility. Fortunately for the Card, who actually contained Price very well, Golson has not shown the same passing ability as Price over his young career thus far. Still, Stanford must be diligent staying in its lanes when pass-rushing Golson, or he will take off up the field to avoid pressure and pick up big yardage. Stanford stopped Keith Price with consistent pressure and big hits, and more of the same needs to come in South Bend for Stanford to have a chance.
Josh Nunes vs. Everett Golson
It’s not a traditional matchup, as the two quarterbacks will not match up against each other all game, unless one of the coaches has a huge trick up his sleeve. However, in a game of such evenly matched teams, the quarterback who comes up bigger will almost certainly win this game. Both quarterbacks will get knocked down and both will probably make mistakes, but someone is going to need to lead his team on a drive to pick up a season-changing victory. The only question is, which will it be…
Sam Fisher is arriving in South Bend as we speak, having meticulously planned out his one chance to live out his dream and be the next Rudy Ruettiger. To suggest how he can convince Brian Kelly or David Shaw to let him suit up on Saturday, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.