By George Chen
Facing its first ranked opponent away from home, Stanford football will enter South Bend on a rainy Saturday equipped with a mistake-prone offense that can’t score and a filthy defense that can’t be scored on. National title implications are, of course, involved.
It should, because it’s the same exact script — down to the weather conditions — that the Cardinal followed two years ago. This time around, though, No. 14 Stanford (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) looks to make sure that Saturday’s game against No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) goes off-script, which means not committing turnovers, not repeatedly going three-and-out and, most important of all, not leaving the outcome of the game in the hands of officials.
As a few Cardinal fans may just vaguely remember, the ending of the Stanford-Notre Dame contest two years ago was mired in controversy. Was the epic Irish goal-line stand an actual goal-line stand? Was running back Stepfan Taylor stuffed short of the end zone three times or did he actually score twice on three tries?
“I put that game in the same box as the tuck-rule [2001 AFC divisional playoff] game — games to where there was controversy,” said head coach David Shaw. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We did not perform against the team we were playing against.”
Tomorrow’s game is one of the biggest Cardinal-Irish games in recent memory, and certainly more anticipated than last year’s low-energy, de-facto exhibition game between the two teams at Stanford Stadium.
“This rivalry goes back a while,” Shaw said. “It’s been a good rivalry, especially in the last 10 years or so … And really in the last three or four years, you’re talking about two of the better teams in college football. So it’s had national implications and not just a good rivalry.”
A loss to the Fighting Irish on Saturday wouldn’t necessarily knock Stanford out of contention for the playoff, but it certainly would require the Cardinal to receive some help from outside the conference. Pulling out a victory in South Bend won’t be easy, though, not with quarterback Everett Golson at the helm for the Irish. After leading the Irish to a national championship berth in his sophomore year, Golson was suspended for cheating and forced to sit out the entire 2013 season. Golson wisely took advantage of the suspension time by training with highly regarded quarterback coach George Whitfield, and it’s paid dividends so far this season. Boasting a completion percentage of nearly 70 percent and passing for 1,142 yards and 11 touchdowns, the Irish signal caller has displayed more poise in the pocket along with a more accurate deep ball. Golson has also led his team to an impressive 94 percent scoring conversion rate in the red zone, which seems like an order of magnitude better than Stanford’s performance there.
“Golson was really good two years ago,” Shaw said. “He’s very athletic, he’s very accurate and hard to catch in the backfield. This year, it’s the same, but he just seems composed, whereas before he seemed a little frantic. Now, he knows he can’t be caught … He reminds you of Russell Wilson.”
“He’s a really mobile quarterback, but his arm is just as dangerous, too,” added fifth-year senior defensive end Blake Lueders. “That’s really tough, if you’ve got a true dual-threat quarterback who can beat you both ways. He’s got the legs, but he wants to throw it, so we got to get some pressure on him and get to him, but contain him and not let him get outside of the pocket.”
Protecting Golson is a veteran group of offensive linemen featuring right tackle Christian Lombard, who’s played in 36 career games and started in 23 of them. The only inexperienced Irish player in the trenches is left tackle Ronnie Stanley — he’s had the unenviable job of replacing first-round NFL draft pick Zack Martin. Notre Dame’s offensive attack has appeared very balanced so far this season, as they’ve dialed up run plays 50.5 percent of the time, so a key matchup to look for early in the game is how well Stanford’s defense can stop the run.
If the nation’s best defense can seal off the running lanes early — and there’s no reason to think that they can’t based on their jaw-dropping performances so far — Golson will be tested often by Stanford’s unrelenting pass rush. On the other side of the ball, all eyes will be on whether senior quarterback Kevin Hogan and company can punch it in if and when they get down inside the Irish 20-yard line. Shaw was understandably unhappy with the offense in the locker room after the Washington game, especially considering that on top of their infamous red-zone woes, the Cardinal have fumbled the ball 12 times through just four games. As a point of comparison, last year Stanford fumbled the ball just 20 times in the span of an entire 14-game season.
“Not getting into the end zone every time we get down to the red zone — that’s pretty frustrating,” Hogan said. “We just need to keep working at executing and not shooting ourselves in the foot, whether it’s penalties or turnovers.”
The Irish defense hasn’t missed a beat despite the loss of key starters such as Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, and is currently ranked fourth in the country in points allowed (11.5). Despite starting five sophomores on defense, Notre Dame managed to shut out Michigan and hold Purdue and Syracuse to a combined 29 points.
“[Watching film of Notre Dame’s defense] is like being in the NFL again,” Shaw said. “They show a variety of protections and fronts.”
Tomorrow’s game is scheduled for a 12:30 p.m. PST kickoff, with national television coverage on NBC.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.