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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

Notre Dame returns home to host 16th-ranked Stanford Saturday. The Irish enter the contest on the heels of two close, last-minute losses and in desperate need of a win. Fortunately, recent history is on their side—since 1997 Notre Dame has won nine of the last 13 (0.692) in the series, including six straight at home. Unfortunately, this isn’t your typical Cardinal squad.

Stanford enters the weekend 3-0, having beaten their opponents (Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest) by an average margin of 38 points. Despite losing running back Toby Gerhart, who led the country in rushing yards (1,913) and touchdowns (28) in 2009, the Cardinal offense hasn’t lost a beat. And the porous Stanford defense that ranked in the bottom half of the country in virtually every meaningful metric last season appears dramatically improved.

In other words, stopping the current two-game losing streak won’t be an easy task.

Stanford, Version 2010

Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh is hardly an Irish fan favorite, but what he has done in Palo Alto is certainly impressive. From 2002 to 2006 Stanford posted a 16-40 record (0.286) including a 1-11 season the year before Harbaugh arrived. Under Harbaugh’s tutelage the win percentage has increased nearly 75 percent.

His 20-20 overall record may not appear impressive at first glance, but Harbaugh has improved Stanford’s win total in each of his first three seasons and doesn’t appear to be slowing down this year. Equally impressive is the type of team he has created—a hard-working unit that plays smart, physical football—and this year’s squad is no exception.

Offense

Harbaugh and offensive coordinator David Shaw employ an offensive philosophy predicated on three things—ball control, wearing opponents down, and minimizing the exposure of the defense. These goals are accomplished via a run-first scheme (27th in rush attempts per game) that features plenty of physical, downhill blocking, and play-calling aimed at staying ahead of the chains (10th in third down efficiency). The natural byproduct is an efficient passing offense that thrives off play-action and open down (1st and 10, 2nd and medium, 3rd and short) throws.

So far in 2010, the philosophy is paying dividends. Stanford is +5 in turnover margin (5th ranking), possesses the ball for more than 32:30 a game (20), and the defense has only faced 61.3 plays per outing (27). Additionally, the productive rushing attack (14th in yards per game, 16th in yards per attempt) and efficient passing offense (14th in yards per attempt and pass efficiency) have combined to form a unit that averages 7.1 yards per play (11) and 51.7 points (3) and 475.3 yards (16) per game.

Despite the penchant for running the ball, the centerpiece of the Cardinal offense is quarterback Andrew Luck. The redshirt sophomore boasts plenty of mobility to go with a powerful arm, and may be the most physically gifted signal caller the Irish face in 2010.

Luck enjoyed a solid 2009 campaign, but has looked even better this season. Despite fairly limited action in the first three games, he has posted impressive numbers—45 of 70 passing (64.3 percent), 674 yards, 10 touchdowns, and a passer efficiency of 192.3. The production isn’t mind-blowing because of the limited playing time and run-first offense, but the efficiency mark is third in the country.

On the receiving end of Luck’s throws are several capable receivers. His primary targets in 2009 were wideouts Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu (combined for 94 receptions, 1,608 yards, and nine touchdowns), and both are back this year (although Whalen likely won’t play Saturday). Whalen is a steady, possession receiver while Owusu is a bona fide deep threat (18.4 yards per reception last season).

Wide receiver Doug Baldwin has also emerged after a down year in 2009.The junior wideout leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, and is tied with Whalen for the team-lead in receptions. Baldwin is athletic enough to double as a return specialist and, like Owusu, is a threat to go downfield.

Luck also has the luxury of throwing to tight ends Coby Fleener and Konrad Reuland. Fleener was the third leading receiver last year and Reuland, who transferred from Notre Dame, holds the same honor this year. In addition to being receiving options, both tight ends are also strong blockers.

The Cardinal backfield features a pair of sophomore running backs in Stepfan Taylor and former Irish recruit Tyler Gaffney. Both have looked good in the early going combining for 294 yards and four touchdowns on only 54 rush attempts (5.4 yards per carry).

Protecting Luck and opening running lanes for Taylor and Gaffney is a tough, agile and experienced offensive line (over 70 combined starts). Tackle Jonathan Martin, guards Andrew Phillips and David DeCastro, and center Chase Beeler all return after starting at least 11 games last season when they paved the way for 2,837 rushing yards and 39 rushing touchdowns while allowing only seven sacks. If there is a most valuable position unit on the Cardinal roster, the offensive line is it.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Cardinal offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Stanford’s 2010 opponents excluding Sacramento State).

2010 Stanford Offensive Efficiency
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency54.51045.792
4th down efficiency100178.582
Red zone appearances/game6.344.287
Red zone efficiency10019697
Red zone TD efficiency84.2971.177
2010 Stanford Total Offense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game51.7334.798
Touchdowns/game734.592
Plays/game675571.285
Yards/game475.316413.892
1st downs/game23202184
Yards/play7.1115.886
2010 Stanford Rushing Offense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game41.7273974
Yards/game242.31418992
Yards/attempt5.8164.993
Fumbles233257
Attempts/fumble62.53898.280
TFL allowed/game5.7617.527
1st downs/game12.7139.583
Touchdowns/game3.310284
2010 Stanford Passing Offense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game25.39332.270
Completions/game168219.773
Yards/game23347224.869
Yards/attempt9.2146.866
Yards/completion14.61211.252
Interceptions01340
Attempts/interceptionN/AN/A3464
Sacks allowed/game0.32257
Attempts/sack allowed7691764
1st downs/game104510.274
Touchdowns/game3.322.388
Completion %63.14260.675
Pass efficiency183.814134.866

Defense

To say that the 2009 Cardinal defense didn’t live up to expectations would be a gross understatement. Stanford ranked in the bottom half of the FBS in 27 of the 32 defensive metrics in the tables below including a ranking of 80th or worse in 19 categories. The pass defense was particularly bad—ranking 60th or worse in all 13 metrics, 80th or worse in 11, and below 100 in six.

The result was a wholesale change of the defensive staff. Harbaugh brought in 27-year NFL veteran Vic Fangio who implemented the 3-4 in hopes of restoring respectability. The results so far have been extremely positive.

In the early going the Cardinal defense has performed well on third down (26th ranking), allowed only 13.7 points (15) and 227.7 yards (6) per game, and surrendered only 3.7 yards per snap (4). Perhaps most impressive, Stanford has forced seven turnovers (23) and only allowed two red zone appearances (1). This performance has come against admittedly weak competition, but the numbers are still impressive even in context.

From a personnel perspective, the defense is built around nose tackle Sione Fua and the linebackers. Fua is the linchpin of the defensive line, and has the ability to occupy double-teams on the interior. Alongside Fua are ends Matt Masifilo and Brian Bulcke who leads defensive linemen in tackles with nine.

Behind the front is a veteran linebacker corps. Outside linebackers Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser and inside linebackers Owen Marecic, Shayne Skov, Max Bergen, and Chike Amajoyi are the foundation of Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, and only Skov is an underclassmen.

Keiser and Thomas combined for 71 tackles, 22 tackles for a loss, and 13 sacks in 2009, with Keiser leading defensive linemen in the first category and the team in the last two. The change from the 4-3 to the 3-4 prompted a move to the outside for both players, but they have the athleticism needed to man the position. While Keiser and Thomas are steady contributors on the outside, the interior operates with a four-man rotation—Skov and Marecic are technically the starters, but Bergen and Amajoyi have combined for more tackles.

The secondary returns three starters from last year in safety Delano Howell and corners Johnson Bademosi and Richard Sherman, and has hardly felt the loss of leading tackler Bo McNally. His replacement, Michael Thomas, leads the team in tackles. To date this group has played very well.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Cardinal defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Stanford’s 2010 opponents excluding Sacramento State).

2010 Stanford Defensive Efficiency
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency30263581
4th down efficiency62.5737524
Red zone appearances/game0.71382
Red zone efficiency5047971
Red zone TD efficiency503562.551
2010 Stanford Total Defense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game13.71530.759
Touchdowns/game1.715454
Plays/game61.32768.257
Yards/game227.76367.266
1st downs/game163520.354
Yards/play3.745.372
2010 Stanford Rushing Defense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game38.78046.218
Yards/game137.754243.719
Yards/attempt3.6465.329
Fumbles414472
Attempts/fumble31.33051.167
TFL/game6.353667
1st downs/game9.78813.812
Touchdowns/game1.3552.830
2010 Stanford Passing Defense
StatisticStanfordStanford RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game22.71522104
Completions/game11.31010113
Yards/game901123.5112
Yards/attempt425.6101
Yards/completion7.9212.357
Interceptions337483
Attempts/interception22.73217.7104
Sacks/game3.76264
Attempts/sack6.2411.488
1st downs/game4.315111
Touchdowns/game010.889
Completion %501445.4117
Pass efficiency74.5392.4111

Summarizing the Cardinal

Offensively, Stanford thrives on the run. Luck is a polished passer, but his job is made much easier by an offense that averages 5.8 yards per carry. The offense isn’t stocked with great athletes, but Harbaugh’s scheme and play-calling approach yields consistent execution and very few errors.

The Cardinal defense relies on discipline, effort and intensity. The personnel is well-suited for Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, but, like the offense, there aren’t many playmakers. So far this unit has played well against the run and the pass, and could make or break Harbaugh’s string of seasons with increased win totals.

But not much can be gleaned from three games against relatively weak competition. The offense appears to be every bit as good as last season while the defense looks substantially improved. The reality is that the production on both sides of the ball has likely been amplified by below average opponents that have played from behind the entire game. In many ways, the Irish will be Stanford’s first true test of the season.

Keys to Winning

Offense

  1. Use the run to open up the pass. It may not be head coach Brian Kelly’s style to employ run-heavy play-calling, but this game calls for it. While Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State all had weak secondaries, Stanford’s (relative) defensive strength is defending against the pass and rushing the passer. The Cardinal defense has yet to allow a passing touchdown, has only surrendered one big play through the air, and is 6th in sacks per game. Opponents have, however, had success running the ball as UCLA and Wake Forest combined for seven explosive running plays including three that went for scores. The run must be used to keep a disciplined defense off-balance, extend drives, and keep the ball away from the opposing offense.
  2. Be patient going downfield. Through 68 attempts the Cardinal defense has allowed only one pass play of more than 20 yards. Irish quarterback Dayne Crist was patient in his last outing, and needs to continue the trend this week in addition to improving his accuracy on ball control throws. Sustaining drives is critical (see #3 below), and better accuracy on underneath routes is requisite to consistently move the ball.
  3. Cut out the turnovers and avoid three and out’s. Stanford’s defense has held opponents to 20.5 percent of their available yards (on meaningful possessions). Most of this success is attributed to getting off the field early in the drive and forcing turnovers. The Cardinal defense has faced 34 possessions, 16 of which have resulted in a three and out or turnover. Excluding these drives, opponents have accumulated 45.8 percent of available yardage. The Irish offense cannot afford the drive-killing errors (e.g. turnovers and self-inflicted mistakes) that have plagued them in their first three games. If Notre Dame can avoid these mistakes, they should be able to move the ball.

Defense

  1. Stop the run on first down. Harbaugh wants to stay ahead of the chains and he uses the running game to do it. So far this year Harbaugh has called a run on over 71 percent of first down snaps and averaged 4.7 yards per attempt. The result is manageable second downs and conversions early in the down series. Out of 94 play series, nearly 65 percent have moved the chains without needing a third down. Additionally, when the Cardinal offense reaches third down, it frequently faces short yardage, converting at a rate of 91 percent. Stopping the run on first down is imperative if the Irish hope to force favorable third downs and capitalize on their strong third down defense.
  2. Don’t break, but don’t bend either. Bend but don’t break simply won’t work in this contest. Through three games the Cardinal offense has performed extremely well on a possession basis. Out of 33 possessions, 20 have gone for touchdowns including six back-to-back touchdown drives. These 20 drives averaged 6.6 plays, 2.6 first downs, and 55 yards. On the other end of the spectrum, Luck and company have only produced three drives with no first downs. Once Stanford gets rolling, they are difficult to stop. The Irish must play well early in the series and prevent Luck and company from gaining momentum.
  3. Get ready for some play-action. Harbaugh doesn’t call a lot of drop back passes on open downs but he does like to use play-action. Michigan State was able to keep the Irish off-balance running and throwing the ball on open downs last week, and the defense must improve to have a chance in this contest. Stanford has the personnel to be effective in this regard, and mistake-free, assignment defense is a must to defend against it.

Prediction

For the second consecutive week, running the ball and stopping the run will be critical to the outcome of the game.

Offensively, Stanford is very similar to Michigan State. Harbaugh will try to use the run to shorten the game, control the ball, and keep his defense off the field. Unfortunately for the Irish, he has the personnel to do it. Defensively, the Cardinal are strong against the pass and feature a disciplined unit.

Kelly’s default game plan is to score early and often, put pressure on the opposing team, force them to throw, and give the Irish defense an advantage. But this strategy is only valid if the offense can string together several consecutive scoring drives early in the game. The Irish shouldn’t have any problem moving the ball—Stanford hasn’t faced an offense as wide open or explosive—but Crist and company must do their part to eliminate the drive-killing mistakes and turnovers from the first three games, and Kelly needs to aid execution by using the run and being less aggressive.

To date, the Irish haven’t consistently proven capable of the either. The best defense against Stanford is an offense that consistently sustains drives. In this game, it is as much about how the Irish score, as how often.

Notre Dame 27, Stanford 35

Furthermore

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