Is it really the last game of the regular season? Notre Dame travels to the west coast this weekend to take on the Stanford Cardinal in the final game until bowl season begins. Notre Dame is fresh off its victory over BYU in the South Bend last week, while the Cardinal defeated the Cal Bears handily. This will easily be the toughest opponent the Irish has faced all season, as Stanford is ranked 8th in the most recent BCS polls and will be playing against another Irish opponent, Arizona State, in the PAC-12 Championship game. While the Irish are out of BCS bowl game contention, there is still a lot to play for against Stanford. With a win the Irish will secure a 9 win season while also allowing for a possible 10th win. The Irish played one of the more complete games last week against BYU last weekend, and the Irish are going to need to do it again to have a chance against Stanford.
Stanford’s offense is reliant on one thing. The running game. The Cardinal run the ball a lot and the run the ball well. What even more impressive is that Stanford’s opponents know they are going to run the ball and they still have trouble stopping it. The Cardinal rank 32nd in the nation in rushing offense averaging over 203 yards per game. The Stanford running attacked is led by Tyler Gaffney who has already rushed for 1296 yards this season, placing him 10th in the nation in rushing yards. Stanford relies on a physical brand of football where their offensive line and tight ends dominate the line of scrimmage to allow the rushing game to flourish.
This is defiantly going to be the matchup that will ultimately decide the outcome of this game. Notre Dame is allowing 167.5 yards on the ground per game ranking 68th in the country. If the Irish can man up and keep the Stanford rushing attack in check the Cardinal will be forced to put the ball in the air, something that they have not done particularly well. Stanford is only averaging 199.4 yards passing per game which ranks 90th nationally. The Irish are only giving up 205 yards through the air per game this year and have been doing a much better job getting pressure on the quarterback the last few games.
Usually this is the part of the preview where I talk about how Notre Dame needs to establish a running game to take pressure off the quarterback and allow the offense to develop the balance it needs to be effective. However this week is the exact opposite. The Irish need to take advantage of a Cardinal passing defense that is allowing an astounding 259 yards through the air per game and is ranked 101 nationally. On the other hand Notre Dame is averaging 254 yards per game, ranking 40th nationally. This is the matchup that favors the Irish in this game and they need to take advantage of it. The offensive line has been doing a very good job of protecting Tommy Rees and they will need to continue this success against a very physical defensive front. For as bad as the passing defense for Stanford has been, their rushing defense is one of the best in the nation. Stanford is only allowing 89.5 yards on the ground per game, making them the 3rd best rushing defense in the country. Simply put, running the ball straight at this Stanford defense is just not going to work. As much as fans may dread hearing this, it will be up to Tommy Rees and the passing offense to help the Irish move the ball against the Cardinal defense.
The “X factor” in this game is going to be special teams. And for Notre Dame that is not a good thing. Notre Dame is allowing over 9 yards per punt return and over 25 yards per kickoff return. Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery is as dangerous a return man that the Irish will face this season. Montgomery has already ran two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season and have been close to breaking out a few more. Its not a secret that the Irish special teams unit has had its struggles this season and it will be interesting to see if the special teams unit can finally put together a good game against a very dangerous return unit.
Overall this is not a very good matchup for Notre Dame. While the passing attack does seem to have an advantage against the Stanford, the rushing game is going to have its fair share of struggles. This means that the Irish will have to look to the air more than they would like and that means a more predictable offense. Without the threat of a mobile quarterback, it will be key that the offensive line give Rees time to make good throws as well as good decisions. The defense is going to have to play just as good if not better than they did last week against BYU to be able to stop the Stanford running game. Consistency has been a huge problem for Notre Dame this year and how this game plays out will depend on which Notre Dame team shows up to play. Will we see the Irish team that played well against BYU and stood tall against USC, or will the team that lost to Pitt make Saturday night one to forget. Notre Dame is a 14 point underdog on the road against Stanford. I do think Notre Dame keeps this game close and plays well. However I have not seen the consistency from the Irish this season to pick them to win against a top 10 team on the road. Notre Dame should cover the spread but I do not foresee a victory against the Cardinal.
Players to Watch
Offense- As much as people hate it, the offense is going to live or die based on the play of Tommy Rees in this game. Minus the interception he threw last week, Rees actually played a pretty good game and throw more than he is used to as the running game is going to have a very very tough time against a stout Cardinal defense
Defense- Jarron Jones played very well last week, making his first start in place of the injured Louis Nix. He is going to need to repeat that performance as the defense faces the tough task in stopping the Cardinal rushing attack
Stanford 31 Notre Dame 21
Other games around the country
1 Alabama at 4 Auburn- Auburn has been one of the surprising stories of this football season. In Gus Malzhan’s first season as head coach, the Auburn offense looks similar to the one that won the National Championship a few years ago. Auburn however got very lucky against a depleted UGA team to pull out a victory with a remarkable hail mary pass. They are going to need more than luck to beat Alabama. Auburns offense is a run heavy system and that does not bode well for the Tigers as Alabama is one of the best rushing defenses in the country. My wife might kill me but I just don’t see Auburn pulling out the victory. Alabama 34 Auburn 21
3 Ohio State at Michigan- This may be one of the best rivalries in college football but the matchup this year is not even close. Ohio State is looking to play in the National Championship, while Michigan is having a disappointing season under Brady Hoke. Michigan is just a flat out bad team and how Notre Dame lost to the Skunkbears still puzzles me. Ohio State rolls en route to the Big 10 Title game. Ohio State 35 Michigan 17
21 Texas A&M at 5 Missouri- Missouri is one game away from the SEC championship game and with a little help, a chance at a National Championship appearance. Johnny Field goal comes to town after an abysmal performance last week against LSU. The Aggies offense will most likely play better this week but their defense is just bad. Missouri 38 Texas A&M 31