Finally, we have a forthcoming game that may not be a blow-out. Though the Fighting Irish are a less-than-spectacular 1-2 thus far, their two defeats have been about as narrow as defeats come. Last week, the Irish fell to Michigan State in overtime when the Spartans showed field goal and scored a touchdown on one of the best (and most important) fake field goals in years. The week before, Notre Dame fell to the University of Michigan in South Bend after Michigan sophomore quarterback and current Heisman favorite Denard Robinson took the Wolverines on his back en route to piling up a superhuman 502 yards on the afternoon (258 rushing, 244 passing). In other words, the Irish and their freakishly devoted fans are clamoring for a victory when the team returns home to Indiana to host Stanford on Saturday afternoon. Whether that victory will actually occur depends upon only two factors.
Factor 1: The Notre Dame Defense
The Irish have not been able to stop good offenses so far this year. Though the Domers limited Purdue to just 12 points, both Michigan schools moved the ball at will against Notre Dame. After the aforementioned outburst by Denard Robinson, Michigan State also attacked the Irish defense effectively. MSU racked up 477 yards last week, and they were fairly well balanced between passing (274) and rushing (203). The Spartans only turned the ball over once, and they had a nearly 10-minute edge over Notre Dame in time of possession. Michigan State had two players (freshman Le’Veon Bell and sophomore Edwin Baker) rush for 90 yards or more, and junior quarterback Kirk Cousins played what was, by nearly every metric used to assess a quarterback’s performance, his best game of the season. Cousins went 23-33 (70%) for 245 yards and two touchdowns.
Cousins is a nice quarterback, but he is still far inferior to Andrew Luck as a passer and a team leader. Stanford features a more experienced and more talented offensive line than that of Michigan State, so the Card should be better able to protect Luck than MSU protected Cousins, and Stanford should be able to run the ball effectively against a Notre Dame line that has been mostly ineffective in 2010. The Irish secondary isn’t too intimidating, either, so Luck should have lots of time to throw and lots of open receivers to throw to. The loss of #1 wideout Ryan Whalen will hurt the Cardinal in the passing game, but veteran receivers Doug Baldwin and Chris Owusu should perform well enough to light up a mediocre Notre Dame secondary. The lack of a high-quality receiving tight end for Stanford is still a concern, though. The most effective pass-catching TE, senior Konrad Reuland, has only 5 catches for 56 yards in 2010, and the team has still done nothing in the way of replacing tight end stud Levine Toilolo, who suffered a season-ended ACL tear in the Sacramento State game.
Luckily for Notre Dame, they have a stud at inside linebacker (not unlike Stanford, who plugs sophomore Shayne Skov in at ILB). Sophomore Manti Te’o is a 6′ 2″, 245-pound monster that clogs up running lanes and passing routes across the middle of the field. Te’o was one of the nation’s most prized recruits as a high schooler in 2009, and he recorded 63 tackles–the third-most ever for a Notre Dame freshman–last season. Start the following video at the 1:43 mark to see some of Te’o's most memorable plays from 2009.
Still, Te’o cannot stop the Cardinal all by himself, and he currently plays as part of a fledgling defensive squad. Stanford will score, and will score fairly easily. Though they won’t post 68 points again, half that number is not an unrealistic estimate.
Factor 2: The Stanford Defense
Yes, we could have made this a 1-factor, defense-vs-defense format, but this version is more dramatic and visually appealing. The Stanford defense has played well through 3 games. The Card are 15th in the nation in scoring defense, and allow only 13.7 points per game. The defensive secondary is the best statistical unit in the USA at the moment, as they allow only 80 passing yards per game. However, no one really believes that Stanford features the best secondary in the country. It is only a matter of time until these cornerbacks allow a string of big passing plays, and the only reason that has not yet happened is that Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest are all poor to mediocre teams. Notre Dame is by far the best offense that Vic Fangio’s defense will have faced in the first third of the season, and how well the new 3-4 scheme holds up against the Irish will tell Card fans a lot about what to really expect from a side that allowed far too many points in 2009.
Notre Dame junior quarterback Dayne Crist has played well so far. With 851 passing yards and 7 touchdowns, he statistically rivals Andrew Luck. Luck has thrown for 177 fewer yards than Crist, though Luck has the edge over Crist in accuracy, touchdowns, (fewer) interceptions, and wins. Crist’s last name also makes writing headlines and jokes extremely easy considering that Notre Dame is an intensely religious Catholic institution, though we won’t go there because that line of puns quickly gets people like us in trouble. Notre Dame almost kept President Obama from speaking at its commencement ceremonies in 2009, so Lord knows (whoops!) what they could do to a sports website like The Daily Axe.
Anyway, remember this: Notre Dame is a big test for Stanford’s defense. If Stanford holds Notre Dame to fewer than 21 points, confidence in the defense and the entire team should, and will, skyrocket.
We know that Stanford can score. We know that Notre Dame can move the ball, too. This game will hinge almost entirely on the defenses involved. Although Stanford’s offense is better than that of Notre Dame, a shutdown performance from either defense will almost certainly mean a win. However, don’t expect a spectacular showing from either D. Both teams will put some points on the board, but Stanford will put up more.
Verdict: Stanford beats Notre Dame, 42-27