IRISH LOOK TO END SEASON ON POSITIVE NOTEposted by Scott Engler
The Stanford Cardinal and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish face off in what promises to be an interesting game despite the two squads having only five wins between them this year. This will be the programs’ twenty-second match-up. Notre Dame owns a 15-6 advantage in the series.
Notre Dame’s first win against Stanford came in the 1925 Rose Bowl as Rockne’s Four Horsemen defeated Pop Warner, Ernie Nevers and the Indians (yes, politically incorrect nicknames existed even at Stanford) 27-10. The teams began meeting with some regularity in 1988, the year of ND’s last national championship.
Despite ND’s advantage in the series, it is laced with painful losses for Irish fans. In 1990 despite the Irish being in control for the first half, Stanford rallied to win 36-31 over top-ranked Notre Dame. In 1992 the highly ranked Irish jumped out on the Cardinal 16-0 only to see the Bill Walsh-led visitors score the last 33 points of the game.
Stanford’s last win in the series was a 17-13 affair in a monsoon in Palo Alto in 2001. That game also featured a Cardinal rally as Bob Davie’s squad was controlling the action and leading 13-3 before allowing future ND coach Tyrone Willingham’s team to score two late touchdowns to win 17-13. Although Davie’s coffin had long been nailed shut, that contest helped to bind it closed with a thick layer of duct tape.
Unfortunately, that game may have affected the fate of both programs negatively. That win gave Willingham a 3-2 mark over Notre Dame and was part of a 9-2 regular season campaign that did much to enhance his credibility as a candidate for the Notre Dame job. Willingham, who notched a reasonably impressive 44-36-1 mark as Stanford’s head man, had built a nice niche and probably would have continued to enjoy reasonable success had he stayed in Palo Alto. He was ill-suited for the more highly charged environment of the ND job, however, and neither program has recovered fully from his departure from Stanford.
Stanford improbably hired Buddy Teevens, then the owner of an 11-45 mark as a Division I-A head coach, and he won only 10 games in three years on the Farm. Then came Walt Harris, a much more accomplished coach, but he won only six games in two years and after apparently annoying nearly everyone in Palo Alto was let go in favor of former Michigan QB and University of San Diego coach Jim Harbaugh. Notre Dame, as is well known, released Willingham after he went just 11-12 in his last two years. Charlie Weis then led ND to BCS bowls his first two years but is suffering through a dismal third year due in significant part to Willingham’s passive recruiting that left the Irish squad nearly bereft of upperclassmen.
As for this contest, on paper the teams look fairly even. Their two opponents in common are the two southern California Pac 10 schools. Improbably, each team owns a 1-1 record. Stanford’s 24-23 win over USC will certainly go down as one of the greatest upsets in college football history. The Irish put forth a dismal effort two weeks later losing to USC 38-0. However, the same evening that Stanford pulled the shocker against the Trojans, ND defeated UCLA 20-6, a team that routed Stanford 45-17. Employing the transitive property, Stanford is 39 points better than ND if their USC performances are accounted but ND is 38 points better than Stanford if their UCLA performances are considered.
Stanford, as it always does, has a good number of highly skilled athletes. Some are familiar to those who follow ND recruiting. Fifth year senior Mark Bradford, who made the twisting catch in the end zone to defeat the Trojans, was an ND recruit. ND recruit Erik Lorig, who reportedly was lured to Stanford after being promised the lead role in the spring production of Hamlet, plays defensive end for the Cardinal.
As thin as is ND’s squad, the Stanford roster is thinner yet and has been riddled with key injuries. Senior QB TC Ostrander, who lit up the Irish secondary as Stanford nearly pulled a stunning upset in 2005, suffered a seizure and has played only sparingly since. The more mobile but less consistent and accurate Tavita Pritchard has played in his place and assured his place in Stanford lore by engineering the victory over USC in his first start.
But Stanford is a veritable MASH unit. Future NFL defensive tackle Ekom Udofia went out with a season-ending injury in the Washington game and his absence probably helped to contribute to a weak WSU team hanging 33 points and 561 yards on Stanford. Starting left tackle Allen Smith was lost for the season in the Oregon contest. Stanford has also lost a starting linebacker, tight end and fullback to season-ending injuries and has had its best cornerback and top receivers hobbled at various times. Injuries have forced Harbaugh to give four different tailbacks significant carries. The worst loss in the running department was probably Toby Gerhart who tore through San Jose State for 140 yards on just 12 carries but was lost for the season. One bright spot here for Stanford is that true frosh Tyrone McGraw has played well and Stanford may get starter Anthony Kimble back from a shoulder injury.
Several match-ups favor ND. Both teams are poor against the rush allowing 4.3 yards per carry and over 180 yards per game on the ground. But ND’s passing defense is legitimately good as the Irish hold teams to only 5.7 per passing attempt and just over 160 yards per game in the air and rank highly in pass efficiency defense. Stanford on the other hand allows 8.1 per pass and almost 275 passing yards per game and is towards the bottom in every significant pass defense category.
On offense Stanford is superior statistically, though ND’s season box score is weighed down considerably by its opening trio of games before Weis turned to more physical practices. Though hardly a juggernaut, ND has outgained three of its opponents since then. Against Duke, ND defeated and outgained an opponent by more than 100 yards since winning over Army 41-9 to close out 2006's home season.
Matching up ND’s offense against Stanford’s defense, ND should be able to move the ball both through the air and on the ground. However, one impressive defensive statistic is that Stanford has notched 30 sacks thus far. Clausen is vastly more poised and accurate since returning to action, as evidenced by his six touchdowns against zero interceptions over the last two games. It will be important to keep him off his back, however, and ND’s best chance to do this is to pound on Stanford’s depleted defensive front with its huge backs. A strong interior running game will force Stanford to commit safety help to the run and severely limit its defensive options. Freshman Robert Hughes was impressive against Duke gaining 110 yards on 17 carries and also did well in the passing game, effectively picking up the blitz and snagging a pass reception for 13 yards. He clearly has earned significant playing time in the season’s last contest.
Matching up Stanford’s offense against ND’s defense, the Cardinal will undoubtedly try to run the ball. Pritchard is dangerous on the run and Stanford’s victory over USC owes a great deal to his legs as he flummoxed the Trojan defense by several times breaking contain and rushing for first downs on plays that appeared dead. Since the USC game, teams have generally limited Pritchard’s running but it will be critical that he not be allowed to break contain and keep drives alive. With a completion a percentage hovering around 50% and only four touchdowns against seven interceptions, Pritchard probably cannot beat ND as a pocket passer.
If ND sees Ostrander instead, heavy blitz packages are indicated as he has been extremely sack prone and the Cardinal offensive front has given up 42 sacks and might yet equal ND’s horrifying total of 53 sacks allowed. Even in the two conference games that Stanford has won (one-point victories over USC and Arizona) the Cardinal has been outgained by significant margins and probably lacks the firepower to win the game without some assistance from the Irish.
Special teams are relatively even, except for place kicking where seemingly every team enjoys an advantage over ND.
The intangibles are hard to assess. Stanford is depleted and licking its wounds but probably benefited from taking last week off. Still, the Cardinal may be looking ahead to next week and a realistic opportunity to take the Axe back from a suddenly reeling California squad. ND for its part cannot take too much comfort in the Duke win. This contest has some nasty parallels to the season ender against Syracuse in 2003 where the Irish, fresh off of a 57-7 thrashing of the Cardinal, played listlessly losing the next week 38-12.
Still, Weis and company have done an admirable job of keeping the team’s focus through a dark, dark season. ND got a huge shot of confidence from physically dominating Duke and Stanford is only the second sub-.500 team that the Irish have faced. Stanford for its part removed itself from bowl contention by losing what appeared on paper to be a winnable game against WSU and may have difficulty keeping its concentration.
As difficult as this season has been, both programs are probably on the right track. Harbaugh has the look of a real coach about him and Stanford is an improved squad this year and is a realistic pick to make a bowl game next year. ND for its part has a long to-do list in the off season but clearly has the emerging talent to be a New Year’s Day bowl team next year if Weis makes the necessary coaching adjustments.
Can ND avoid a bone-headed play early on? Recent games have been marred by poor decisions or plays that have turned games against the Irish. ND barely averted a huge disaster against Duke when punter Eric Maust somehow fielded a snap that sailed over his head and got away a kick that saved 50 yards of field position.
Will Robert Hughes get 20 or more carries? Hughes clearly is ND’s hottest runner right now and has tremendous feet and vision for a big back. If Hughes gets 20 or more carries, ND will win.
Can ND’s OLB’s keep contain on Pritchard? ND had some success against Duke lining up in an even (four-man) front and may do so again against Stanford. In any event, keeping Pritchard in the pocket will be crucial.
Can ND’s receivers hold onto the ball? ND’s receivers have cold dropped at least a dozen passes in the last two games. Really only George West has caught the ball consistently as of late. Carlson, Parris, Grimes and Kamara must do much better catching the ball with their hands and controlling the pigskin.
Can ND win the net sack contest? In ND’s two victories, the Irish have won the sack battle by a total of 7-5. In ND’s nine losses, the Irish have been outsacked 48-7. Any questions?
Notre Dame 28 Stanford 21