Irish in Search of Swaggerposted by John Vannie
On the other side of the ball, Harbaugh has also stressed a more physical approach. His defense is still a work in progress, but the statistics indicate that Stanford is making progress. They are 2-1 in the PAC-10 and are still basking in the glow of last year’s upset of USC in Los Angeles.
The Irish are coming off an impressive offensive performance against Purdue in which they stretched the Boilermaker defense in the passing game and punished them on the ground. Coach Charlie Weis and his young charges would like to follow up with another error free showing before heading out on the road for a challenging contest at North Carolina.
Taking care of business this week will be slightly more difficult in that Stanford’s defense is better than Purdue, but the Cardinal offense is not quite as experienced or efficient. Although Notre Dame will face new challenges this week, the outcome should be similar if the Irish avoid a letdown and play inspired football.
Notre Dame’s Offense against Stanford’s Defense
Despite the efforts of a strong front seven, Stanford ranks 105th nationally in pass defense at 259 yards per game. Safety Bo McNally is a hard hitting player and senior Wopamo Osaisai is their best cover corner, but the Irish have too many weapons at wide receiver to be held in check by this group.
Notre Dame must resist the urge to shortchange the running game after last week’s breakout performance by Armando Allen. The Cardinal is stout up the middle with 300 pound tackles Ekom Udofia and Sione Fua, along with linebackers Nick Macaluso and leading tackler Pat Maynor. The Irish will need to use Allen’s speed to the outside to establish some success on the ground. Yards will not come as easily as last week – Stanford has allowed a respectable 128 yards per game against the rush while Purdue had surrendered 200 against a weaker schedule.
An area of concern for Notre Dame in the passing game is the ability of Stanford to get a strong push up the middle and flush Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen from the pocket. Handling Udofia and Fua will be a difficult task for the middle of Notre Dame’s offensive line, and double teams against them may open lanes for blitzing linebackers and safeties.
As always, Harbaugh will have his troops fired up for this battle and it will be important for the Irish to strike early. A sluggish first half could put them in danger if Stanford is able to hang around and build its confidence. Remember that Notre Dame was only a shoestring tackle away from a 14-0 deficit last week before getting untracked. A similar start this week will be more difficult to overcome.
Stanford’s Offense against Notre Dame’s Defense
The Cardinal passing attack has been relatively modest to odate, but junior quarterback Tavita Pritchard is showing signs of development under Harbaugh. At his weekly press conference, the coach said, “I'm really proud of him. I really like how he has handled the nature of the position and the pressure that goes with it. I'm thinking we have someone pretty special here. The more the pressure, the better he plays.”
Pritchard’s wide receiver corps is young, having lost veteran Richard Sherman to a knee injury. Sophomores Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin will start, and promising freshman Chris Owusu may be a threat. Tight end Austin Gunder has caught eight passes in five games but should not be ignored by the Irish.
Stanford will attempt to rely on its ground game, which has averaged 168 yards per outing, as long as possible. Although starting tailback Toby Gearhart suffered a mild concussion in the first quarter at Washington last week and is uncertain for this game, Anthony Kimble stepped in and recorded 157 yards against the hapless Huskies. This output included an 83-yard scoring burst.
Harbaugh is also quite willing to use third stringer Jeremy Stewart, who can also be productive.
Notre Dame must hold up against the run and apply pressure on Pritchard, who is not yet an accomplished passer. Pritchard is the first quarterback the Irish have faced this season that is a real threat to scramble out of the pocket, so the front seven must avoid getting caught out of position.
Aaron Zagary is a solid kicker who has converted six of seven field goal attempts including a 52-yarder. Stanford’s coverage teams have been effective this season and their best return man is Baldwin, who handles the punts. Stewart is the primary kick return man.
Allen was productive on kick returns for the Irish last week, and the coverage units continue their exemplary performance. Brandon Walker booted his first field goal last week and has displayed a strong leg. Notre Dame will need him at some point during the season to pull out a victory, and that time could be this week.
Neither team has been very successful in the first quarter this season, so it will be interesting to see who assumes control early. The Cardinal will be far less comfortable in a come from behind situation, but the Irish do not want to tempt fate by falling behind a very beatable opponent at home.
Notre Dame must run the ball enough to allow Clausen time to throw and make his play action fakes worthy of respect. Stanford has 15 sacks this year to Notre Dame’s one, and a series of third and long situations will negate the Irish advantage in the passing game.
Here are a few key questions that will determine the outcome:
Will Notre Dame be able to spring Allen to the outside for sizeable yardage?
Will Udofia and Fua control the line of scrimmage?
Which team will be able to pressure the opposing quarterback?
Will the Irish receivers take advantage of soft coverage by Stanford?
Will Stanford be able to impose its will on the Irish with a strong running game?
Which team will win the turnover battle?
Will Walker take the next step after hitting his first field goal last week?
Stanford has not played particularly well on the road this season, but they are capable of hanging around for the entire afternoon and pulling off the upset. Their running game is above average but they do not have the weapons in the passing game to burn Notre Dame’s secondary repeatedly. Meanwhile, the Irish have the speed to make plays on offense and should come away with the win if they do not hurt themselves with silly mistakes and turnovers.
Notre Dame 31 Stanford 17