By King Jemison
The Daily’s football writer King Jemison shares the three keys the Cardinal football team should adhere to this weekend if they hope to take down the Fighting Irish.
No. 7 Stanford just got over one massive hurdle on their path to the College Football Playoff by defeating No. 19 Oregon on the road. If they want to stay on that path, they have to go on the road and beat a ranked team yet again. This time, the opponent is No. 8 Notre Dame, under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium. With Touchdown Jesus hovering over one end zone, this football shrine is where National Championship dreams go to die – just ask the 2012 Stanford team, whose OT loss in South Bend likely cost them a spot in the BCS Championship game. Or ask #14 Michigan, whose 24-17 loss to the Fighting Irish is their only blemish so far. This may be the hardest game on Stanford’s schedule, and it comes on the second week of a tough road trip after an incredibly emotional victory. Coming out of South Bend with a win seems like a tall task, but the theme for the Cardinal this season is believe. With that in mind, here’s three keys for Stanford in this huge Top 10 battle against Notre Dame.
1) Get the offensive line back to the Stanford Standard.
A key moment in the Oregon game that’s easy to forget in victory-tainted hindsight was the failed fourth-and-one early in the fourth quarter, where Stanford could have taken the lead for the first time. The offensive line got absolutely obliterated by the Ducks’ defense, despite bringing on about 25 big Cardinal bodies. Going back to that 2012 Stanford team, one yard would have felt like a guarantee. The offensive line was the dominant centerpiece of the Stanford identity for much of the Harbaugh and Shaw eras. Of course, third-and-20 would have seemed like an impossible proposition to the 2012 team, and junior quarterback KJ Costello and crew convert those with regularity. The Stanford identity has changed to a much more pass-happy, skill-position-driven approach. But you still need solid offensive line play.
The Cardinal O-Line has struggled this year, averaging only 3.7 yards per attempt on the ground. Senior running back Bryce Love has struggled to find running room behind a unit that’s been plagued by injury and lineup shuffling. Against a talented front seven like Notre Dame, Stanford must generate a rushing attack or else the Irish edge rushers will just pin their ears back and come after Costello. The Stanford offensive line doesn’t have to carry the offense anymore. But against a tough defense on the road, they can’t be holding it back either.
2) Create a consistent pass rush.
Oregon QB Justin Herbert is really, really good. Like, “Number One NFL Draft Pick” good. But he picked apart an elite Stanford secondary with ease because he had way too much time in the pocket. Sophomore Paulson Adebo and fifth year Alijah Holder make up one of the best cornerback duos in the country. Adebo leads the country in pass breakups and the Cardinal secondary has come up with five interceptions. Still, those guys need some help from the front seven, since they can’t cover receivers for an eternity. Stanford is 10th in the country with 13 sacks, but that number is deceiving; a lot of those have been coverage sacks where the QB just has no options and so eventually the pass rush gets home. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson completely changed the Oregon game when he started bringing pressure to disrupt Herbert. He’ll need to dial up the the blitz early and often against Notre Dame.
In his first start of the year last week, Irish QB Ian Book had 325 yards on 74 percent passing. He brings a dynamic throwing ability to the offense that former starter Brandon Wimbush never could. But Book is still inexperienced, and consistent Cardinal pressure could confuse him. If the pass rush can recreate that Party in the Backfield mentality, then the Stanford defense should be just fine against Notre Dame.
3) No slow start this time, please.
Stanford nearly lost the game against Oregon by halftime. They were completely overwhelmed by the freakishly fast Oregon offense and surprisingly stout Ducks defense. If not for some good fortune with Jaylon Redd hitting the pylon before the ball crossed the plane, the game would have been effectively over early in the third quarter. The Cardinal must start better in this next road test because the Irish have a history of building up big early leads. Notre Dame jumped out to a 21-3 lead against Michigan and effectively cruised in the second half. They got off to a 16-0 start against Vanderbilt and had a 28-13 first half lead against Wake Forest. The Irish like to strike early and then watch their opponents helplessly try to crawl back into the game. In what will surely be a raucous road environment, Stanford can’t fall into another big hole because KJ Costello only has so many resurrections left in him. On the other hand, if the Cardinal can grab an early lead, then the defense can turn up the pressure cooker just like they did against USC, in another example of David Shaw’s signature slow-roasting victory recipe.
Stanford hasn’t played a complete game up to its potential yet. Frankly, neither has Notre Dame, but both teams are undefeated and ranked in the Top 10, making this perhaps the most significant battle in the storied rivalry between these academic powerhouses. And since they both have much easier schedules after this game, Stanford-Notre Dame 2018 might be one of the most impactful games on the entire college football calendar. Whichever team plays closer to its true potential will likely win and move into great position for the College Football Playoff. Sorry to the SEC and Penn State-Ohio State, but Stanford’s massive matchup with Notre Dame just means the most. Saturday’s game kicks off at 4:30 p.m. PT and will be televised by NBC.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.