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Notre Dame vs. Stanford: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. Stanford: Keys to an Irish Win

The 2009 regular season finale for the Fighting Irish will take place in Palo Alto Saturday. Notre Dame faces a much-improved Stanford team and is trying to avoid a four-game losing streak to close out the season. Doing so will be no small task.

This game once looked to be the final hurdle to an Irish BCS berth, now it appears to be an extremely daunting challenge. Both teams started the season strong, but Stanford has played tough, determined football throughout the year while the Irish have regressed over the last six games.

Stanford Version 2009

Head coach Jim Harbaugh is in year three of his rebuilding effort and has transformed the Cardinal from an inept squad to a determined, tough unit that owes much of its success to physical play.

Stanford enters Saturday with the 33rd best AV Ranking and a 7-4 record against the 74th best strength of schedule. The four Cardinal losses have come against California, Arizona, Oregon State and Wake Forest while the wins include decisive victories over USC and Oregon.

And when they win, they do it in the first half. Stanford has a 108-point advantage in the first two quarters compared to only a five-point advantage in the final two.

Due to a run-heavy approach on offense (see below), Stanford ranks 14th in time of possession, averaging just over 32 minutes per game. The Cardinal also have decent discipline averaging only 47.1 yards of penalties per game (34th ranked).

Offensively, Harbaugh’s squad has only 14 turnovers on the year (10 fumbles, four interceptions), but the defense has only notched 14 takeaways of their own (seven fumbles, seven interceptions). The result is a zero turnover margin that ranks 60th in the country.

Offense

It is no secret that Stanford wants to run the ball and their success depends directly on the effectiveness of their rushing attack. While quarterback Andrew Luck has led an efficient and moderately effective passing offense, it is the production on the ground that determines the outcome of the game.

The offense ranks 29th in rush attempts, has called a run on more than 62 percent of plays, and has won every game when they have rushed for more than 150 yards. Conversely, Stanford has lost every contest in which 30 or more passes were attempted.

Like several other Irish opponents, the strong running game translates to excellent third down offense and touchdowns in the red zone, outperforming their defensive competition in both categories.

The Cardinal offense converts 47 percent of their third down tries (18), largely due to favorable down and distances generated from good rushing gains on first and second down. The offense scores touchdowns on 68 percent of their red zone appearances, good for 26th in the country. Similar to Connecticut, the overall red zone efficiency numbers are not overwhelming due to poor field goal kicking (11 of 17 on the year).

Most teams that run the ball as frequently as Stanford do not rank highly in total offense. The Cardinal are the exception and rank 20th or better in every major total offense category including 35.4 points per game (13), 6.7 yards per play (9), and 436.5 yards per game (19). The high yards per play value is indicative of a very strong rushing attack and extremely efficient passing offense.

The rushing offense ranks 13th or better in every major category including an average of 5.4 yards per carry (8), 219.3 rushing yards per game (13), and 32 rushing touchdowns (5).

Running back Toby Gerhart leads the charge averaging 25.6 carries, 139.2 yards, and better than two touchdowns per game. Gerhart is a workhorse that gets better as the game progresses, but also averages a healthy 5.4 yards per carry.

Despite the focus on the run, but largely due to the rushing production, Luck has had good success through the air. Stanford averages a modest 217.2 passing yards per game (60), but ranks 10th or better in yards per attempt and completion, as well as protecting the quarterback.

Through 11 games the passing offense has generated 8.8 yards per attempt (9), a gaudy 15.8 yards per completion (5), and ranks second in both sacks (6) and pass attempts per sack (45.5). The pass efficiency is also strong at 141.6 (28). Luck rarely forces a throw notching only four interceptions on the year (5). Virtually all of the success through the air can be attributed to smart quarterback play and the ability to throw the ball downfield off play-action.

Luck’s favorite targets are sophomore wide receivers Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu. The former averages 4.4 receptions and 71.5 yards per game while the latter averages 3.1 receptions and 57.8 yards per outing. Both receivers average 16.4 yards or better per reception and have combined for eight receiving touchdowns.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Cardinal offense.

Stanford Offensive Efficiency
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency46.91838.255
Red Zone Efficiency807382.165
Red Zone TD Efficiency682657.661
Stanford Total Offense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game35.4132661
Yards480120398255
Yards/Play6.795.664
TDs51113455
Yards/Game436.519374.962
Stanford Rushing Offense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards241213162357
Yards/Carry5.484.365
TDs3251761
Yards/Game219.313153.260
Stanford Passing Offense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt8.89759
Yards/ Completion15.8511.960
Completion %55.39058.758
Interceptions451064
TDs13801552
Sacks622257
Attempts/ Sack45.5216.960
Pass Efficiency141.628126.157
Yards/Game217.260221.762

Defense

There is little that Stanford does well on the defensive side of the ball where they rank in the bottom half of the country and have performance ratios less than zero in virtually every meaningful statistical category.

Third down and red zone efficiency are both poor, and the production (or lack thereof) has come against teams that hardly excel in any of the three efficiency categories.

The Cardinal defense allows 391.9 yards per game (81) at a rate of 5.9 yards per play (94). The result is 25.1 points per outing (63) that has mostly come on touchdowns.

Depending on the opponent, teams have run and passed with great success.

Stanford allows 147.9 yards per game on the ground (66) and 4.5 yards per rush attempt (90) against teams that don’t run the ball particularly well.

The story is similar against the pass where the Cardinal defense allows 244 yards per game (97) at a rate of 7.2 yards per attempt (69) and 11.5 yards per completion (40). Moreover, opposing quarterbacks have completed 62.3 percent of their passes (96) for a 132.1 pass efficiency rating (78).

Senior free safety Bo McNally and senior strong safety Delano Howell are tied for the team lead with 69 tackles while senior linebacker Clinton Snyder has notched 61. Defensive ends Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas have combined for 19 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Cardinal defense.

Stanford Defensive Efficiency
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency42.18737.970
Red Zone Efficiency8910885.342
Red Zone TD Efficiency62.18558.459
Stanford Total Defense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game25.16325.566
Yards431178391372
Yards/Play5.9945.562
TDs35643371
Yards/Game391.981367.864
Stanford Rushing Defense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards162765151972
Yards/Carry4.5904.161
TDs18721669
Yards/Game147.966142.769
Stanford Passing Defense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt7.2696.970
Yards/ Completion11.54011.773
Completion %62.39659.359
Interceptions7911052
TDs15571567
Sacks20662367
Attempts/ Sack18.78017.465
Pass Efficiency132.178125.869
Yards/Game24497225.156

Summary

Stanford’s offense is the best the Irish have faced all year. Gerhart is a bruising running back that gets better late in the game and Luck uses a potent rushing attack to stretch the field vertically off play-action. About the only thing that stops this offense is not calling a host of running plays.

The defense is another matter and head coach Charlie Weis should be able to run and pass with equally positive results. However, this season has proven that large yardage totals and big days from Clausen are seldom enough to win.

Stanford poses a significant challenge for Notre Dame, so what must the Irish do to win?

Offense

  1. Something has to change in the red zone. Simply put, Weis cannot continue to do the same thing and expect different results. Stanford is going to move the ball and score on the Irish defense. Points are critical in this contest and Notre Dame cannot afford to settle for field goals inside the 20-yard line. The Irish rank 81st in red zone touchdown efficiency (54.2 percent), largely because Weis prefers to spread the field and throw the ball. If the play-calling doesn’t change, the results will be more of the same. Using heavy (two or fewer wide receivers) personnel groupings, running the ball, and throwing off play-action would be good places to start.
  2. Control the ball. The Cardinal pass defense is very suspect but this game is not about generating big gains through the air. Weis and Clausen must resist the urge to go downfield, score quickly, and turn the ball back over to Gerhart and company. If Stanford is allowed to run the ball early and often, the Irish defense will tire and become completely ineffective late in the game. Scoring early is important. Scoring often is not.
  3. Keep it heavy. Spreading the field isn’t the answer in the red zone, but the offense can’t be bipolar. Regular and Detroit personnel groupings are preferred to Half and other spread personnel. In other words, the Irish offense needs to look a lot like they did against Nevada.

Defense

  1. It’s all over if you are forced to sell-out. It hasn’t been accomplished all year but the Irish defense must manage the Cardinal running game with the front seven. Bringing an extra defender into the box will open up holes in coverage and Luck excels going downfield off play-action. If the Irish are forced to over-commit against the run it will be USC all over again.
  2. Don’t let Gerhart get going. Gerhart is at his best when he is running full speed and downhill. He lacks great lateral motion and acceleration. The best way to defend against a back of this type is to stop him before he gets going. The Cardinal offense uses a lot of pulling offensive linemen and lead blockers to generate running lanes but this can opens gap. Penetration by the front four will go a long way in thwarting the Cardinal running game.
  3. It isn’t the big running play that concerns me. Gerhart is a bruiser, not a game-breaking running back. While he has a long gain this year of 61 yards that is the exception, not the rule. The big play focus should be on Whalen and Owusu. The athleticism and speed of the Irish corners should match up well on the outside but the Irish must be aware of the play-action threat.

Summary

The Irish offense and special teams will have to win this game.

Stanford’s offense is extremely potent and features a strong running game against the weak rush defense of Notre Dame. Additionally, the Cardinal offense thrives on first down and the Irish defense has struggled to play well in this area all year.

If co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta sells-out to stop Gerhart, Luck will have a career day throwing the ball and the game will likely play out similarly to the contest against USC earlier in the year.

If Weis decides to throw the ball early and often the Irish will continue to sputter in the red zone and leave valuable points on the field. Like every other coach in the second half of the season, Harbaugh will be more than content to let Clausen and company move the ball outside the 20-yard line.

This game is one of possession and building an early lead. Allowing Stanford to remain in their comfort zone running the football will tire the defense and make the Cardinal offense all but unstoppable late in the game (as last week’s contest against Connecticut proved). Moreover, Luck is efficient, but struggles when tasked to repeatedly throw the ball to move the chains.

If Weis can play keep away by using a mix of run and pass to sustain drives and score touchdowns in the early going, and if the Irish special teams can consistently change field position, Notre Dame has a chance to win.

This would require a dramatic departure from almost every other game plan this season and improvement in several areas where the Irish have struggled. For the second-straight week the match ups favor the opponent, and Stanford gets the win.

Notre Dame 27, Stanford 38

Furthermore

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