By Sam Fisher
Another week, another stressful Stanford football game. I would say sorry for sounding like a broken record this season, but it’s not my fault almost every game has been eerily similar.
Stanford again showed that it was a better team than its opponent (this time Notre Dame) and again almost let that opponent come away with a victory. Watching Saturday’s game, I honestly believe Stanford is at least 17 points better than Notre Dame at Stanford Stadium, yet that margin didn’t materialize.
With the exception of Cal, no game on the Cardinal’s schedule since the start of October was easy. Yes, some of that is a credit to the depth of the Pac-12, but it is also due to Stanford’s remarkable inability to finish teams off.
It’s amazing to me how often the Cardinal defense can come up with enough stops for Stanford to win those close games. This time, the unlikely hero was junior cornerback Wayne Lyons, who came up with two clutch interceptions. The athleticism Lyons showed on one of his interceptions to avoid committing pass interference was impressive and served as a reminder why Lyons was such a highly touted recruit out of high school.
On the other side of the ball, I’m not sure how much Stanford can take from the game. Stanford again showed the ability to run the ball with senior Tyler Gaffney in a dominant fashion, yet still was unable to turn that into a comfortable victory. Running well against Notre Dame’s front is moderately impressive, but the Irish weren’t at full strength. It’ll be a much tougher challenge for Gaffney and the rest of the Cardinal rushing attack at ASU Saturday.
Given Arizona State’s likely strategy of trying to stop Gaffney, I’m not sure how much confidence Kevin Hogan’s performance against Notre Dame really instilled. Again, Hogan looked very good at times but struggled as well. After erring on the side of the underthrow against Cal to great success, Hogan overthrew receivers in a few critical spots (and almost overthrew junior wide receiver Devon Cajuste on a touchdown), leading to two interceptions.
The fact that those interceptions came on overthrows is very concerning to me. After watching the Big Game, I really thought Hogan had moved past his overthrow problem. Now, I’m worried his performance against Cal was simply an anomaly. Hogan will have another chance to prove me wrong — as I expect Arizona State’s aggressiveness on defense will leave some holes in the secondary — and he will have to do a lot better than he did against the Irish.
The final takeaway from Notre Dame to watch as Stanford heads into the Pac-12 Championship Game is the question mark of the Cardinal kicking game. In warm-ups, senior kicker Jordan Williamson definitely still looked hobbled by his nagging leg injury. Sophomore kicker Conrad Ukropina has done a nice job filling in on kickoffs, but Williamson’s injury could be a factor in a close game. If Stanford needs a game-tying or game-winning field goal at the end of Saturday’s game, how close will Hogan have to lead the offense before Shaw can feel comfortable going for the kick? I don’t know the answer, and with all the uncertainty, I certainly hope that I won’t have to find out that answer.
Sam Fisher’s vocal chords are listed as probable for ASU after being pushed to the limit against Notre Dame. Be sure to check-in on him before his date with the Tempe press box at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu, and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.