Stanford football is currently ranked seventh in the country coming off of an unbelievable comeback victory in Eugene, Oregon. The Cardinal now face the tall task of heading to South Bend, Indiana to face off against the undefeated, eighth-ranked Notre Dame in what could be the team’s most important game in the last decade. The Daily’s Bobby Pragada, King Jemison and Gregory Block discuss dealing with the Fighting Irish’s new quarterback, the future direction of the Stanford offense and the sleeper student to break out in this game.
Stanford allowed Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert to complete 25 out of 27 total passes during the regulation period of their game last Saturday. Ian Book, the new starting QB for the Irish, burst onto the scene last weekend as an explosive burst of energy for a struggling Notre Dame offense. He rushed for three touchdowns and threw for two, completing 25 of 34 passes. What will be the difference for the Cardinal defense in preventing a QB rampage this weekend?
Gregory Block (GB): While Herbert is a three-year starter for the Ducks and has plenty of big-game experience, Saturday’s primetime matchup will be Book’s first true test of this magnitude. His general lack of experience could be a difference-maker if the Cardinal secondary can force some key turnovers and start to make the young quarterback uncomfortable. Junior safety Malik Antoine might be the guy to rattle Book — he had a quiet game against the Ducks but is a ballhawk that plays deep in the Cardinal secondary.
King Jemison (KJ): I agree with Gregory that Ian Book is inexperienced, and that could be an advantage for the Cardinal, but the opposite is true as well. Book brings an entirely new dimension to the Notre Dame offense that Brandon Wimbush never could, and it’s hard to say what the Irish will look like with Book under center. Wimbush’s passing limitations have been well-documented. Ian Book has no such limitations. Like Wimbush, he’s an excellent athlete, but he can also really throw the ball. The Notre Dame offense was a weakness with Wimbush at quarterback, but the Irish might be pretty explosive with Book. The good news is the Cardinal secondary has been awesome. Paulson Adebo leads the country in pass break-ups, Malik Antoine had two interceptions against USC, and Alijah Holder and Alameen Murphy ended the Oregon game with their break-up and subsequent interception of Justin Herbert’s pass to the end zone. Still, Herbert had way too much time to throw and that allowed him to carve up the Cardinal defense despite their playmakers in the secondary. So, the difference in stopping Ian Book will be whether or not the Stanford front seven can consistently get pressure on the inexperienced QB.
Bobby Pragada (BP): If this game against Notre Dame follows the same game script that the Oregon game took, the Cardinal are absolutely doomed. There’s no way the team can pull off a miraculous comeback twice in a row if the opposing quarterback is completing 90% of their passes. I’ll have to agree with King, the biggest improvement here needs to come from the defensive line and linebackers, specifically in the pass rush. The Cardinal can not allow the inexperienced Ian Book an eternity in the pocket; it gives him too much comfort in a situation where his inexperience should be a hindering factor. You can have the greatest set of cornerbacks in college football (which Stanford just might have), and eventually the coverage will break down if the Cardinal can’t collapse the pocket. And Notre Dame’s line is no joke either. Their coaching staff is top notch, producing two first-round offensive linemen to the NFL last season. Stanford may have registered four sacks last week, but pass rush isn’t just about sacks, it’s about putting consistent pressure on the fresh-faced Ian Book and giving him less time to make decisions. The biggest improvement I’m looking for this week is seeing how effectively Dylan Jackson can collapse the middle of the line.
Junior quarterback KJ Costello has been nothing short of incredible this season, boasting a 64 percent completion percentage and a 10/3 touchdown-interception ratio, throwing for 263 yards per game. Senior running back Bryce Love has been more subdued with only 59 carries on the year, averaging 84.67 yards per game. However, the Irish have let up 145 rushing yards per game this year, ranking 64th in the FBS. Will Stanford revert to its run-first identity, or will Shaw let KJ’s arm loose from the get-go?
GB: It seems like teams are developing better game plans to stop Love, who had a solid game against Oregon but still lacked the explosiveness he displayed last season. That being said, this might be the week for Love to break through, as the Notre Dame run defense was porous against Wake Forest on Saturday, giving up 259 yards on the ground. It’s likely that coach David Shaw will favor the run at the outset, but he’s smart enough to read the game, and he definitely has confidence in Costello to air it out and lead the Cardinal to a second straight road victory against a ranked team.
KJ: As Gregory said, teams are absolutely committed to stopping Bryce Love at all costs. They’re willing to let the Cardinal pass-catchers get one-on-one matchups on the outside because they know that, if given the chance, Love is one of the only players in college football that can beat you by himself. But David Shaw is always committed to establishing the run and for good reason. As Shaw said after the Oregon game, Love has been a shoestring tackle away from a long touchdown run on multiple occasions this season. Even if the Irish are consistently stopping Love for a short gain, all it takes is one crease, and he’s going to score. So expect Stanford to stay committed to the run game. If so, maybe this will be Bryce’s breakout game.
BP: While I know David Shaw will not take my advice, if I were in his position, I would let KJ start taking deep shots almost immediately during this game. Let the gunslinger do his thing. He’s got the arm and the accuracy to march down the field, and he’s proven himself consistent enough at this point to merit that level of trust. You also have absurdly talented downfield threats with JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Osiris St. Brown. This very anti-Shaw tactic could accomplish two things: first of all, it could catch Notre Dame completely by surprise and result in some early chunk plays and a free touchdown or two while Notre Dame waits for Bryce Love at the line of scrimmage. Second of all, once KJ makes them respect his deep ball capabilities, the line of scrimmage starts to look a little lighter for Bryce Love. Maybe the safety finally leaves the box, allowing him to find greater success in his rushes. It’s not like KJ is a liability. If anything he looks more and more like the team’s greatest strength.
Who is one player who has had a relatively quiet season for the Cardinal that you expect to have a breakout performance in this critical matchup with Notre Dame?
GB: Costello has a lot of offensive weapons at his disposal, but I’m still waiting for sophomore wide receiver Osiris St. Brown to have a monster game. He’s a freak athlete and caught one nice deep ball from Costello against Oregon, but he still doesn’t have a game with more than two receptions this season. There may be a time on Saturday where the Cardinal have to rely on their passing game, and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will have his team prepared to stop other receiving threats like Colby Parkinson and JJ Arcega-Whiteside. It might be a great time for St. Brown to make some noise and add another receiving threat to the Cardinal offense.
KJ: That’s a great answer for the offensive side of the ball, so I’ll go with defense. I’m looking for Frank Buncom to have a big game this Saturday. The senior safety had three interceptions last year, including two against TCU in the Alamo Bowl. So far this year, he’s got no takeaways and a fairly pedestrian 15 tackles. He’s not the greatest tackler, but Buncom is a big-time athlete with great ball skills. Maybe he can nab an interception off Ian Book that changes the game for the Cardinal. Any takeaways will be huge in a road game where points will likely be at a premium.
BP: I don’t think that Bryce’s season has been bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s been fairly pedestrian when you compare it to last year’s absolutely incredible season where he averaged like eight yards per carry. He’s missed a game due to injury and has only broken 100 yards rushing in one of the three contests he played in. That isn’t the Bryce Love that I know and love, and I believe with a little help from his quarterback in setting the Cardinal up to pound the ball on the ground, Bryce will easily double his touchdown count this year and possibly his yardage count as well. That may sound ridiculous, but Bryce only has 254 rushing yards this year. He beat that number TWICE last year, once against UCLA and again against Arizona State where he went for 301 yards (school record!). I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but there’s always a chance!
Contact Gregory Block at gblock “at” stanford.edu, King Jemison at kingj “at” stanford.edu, and Bobby Pragada at bpragada “at” stanford.edu