NOTRE DAME — Just like Michigan was and USC will be, today’s game against Stanford is Notre Dame’s biggest of the year.
The No. 18 Cardinal (4-1) bring a new quarterback and one of the nation’s top run defenses to South Bend. They also bring three victories over the No. 7 Irish (5-0) in the past three seasons.
On Thursday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was asked if Stanford will try to intimidate the Irish. Kelly interrupted the question.
“They don’t try, they do,” he said.
But Notre Dame is hardly helpless. The Irish haven’t given up a touchdown in three games, and the offense enjoyed a 41-point performance against Miami last week.
So how do they match up?
Josh Nunes, Andrew Luck’s successor, was having a pretty vanilla season before erupting with a 21-of-34 for 360 passing yards and two touchdowns and seven carries for 33 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns in Stanford’s overtime win against Arizona last week.
Nunes struggled in Stanford’s loss to Washington (18-37 for 170 yards, one interception and zero touchdowns) and win over USC (15-32 for 215 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions).
“This game will be our biggest challenge,” Stanford coach David Shaw said this week. “Notre Dame is big and physical. When their linebackers blitz, they hit it hard. This will be a big test for us. What helps our pass protection is our running game. Having play-action helps slow down the pass rush.”
Stanford’s receiving corps has also taken a slight hit. Last year’s lead receivers, Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen, have graduated. One of Nunes’s top targets, Ty Montgomery, is out with a lower-body injury.
Though last year’s lead tight end, Coby Fleener, is also gone, Stanford still has two monstrous tight ends in 6-foot-8 Levin Toilolo and 6-6 Zach Ertz.
Tailback Stepfan Taylor will try his luck against the stifling Irish run defense. In five games, three have produced 100-plus yard performances by Taylor. He’s scored rushing touchdowns in every contest except Stanford’s loss to Washington.
Taylor totaled 120 rushing yards (5.9 per carry) on the Irish last year, but he’ll face Notre Dame without a pair of Stanford’s best offensive linemen, David DeCastro and Johathan Martin, who now play in the NFL.
Up until last week, Stanford looked just as defensively dominant as it did last year.
Then it gave up 48 points and 617 yards total offense against Arizona.
Otherwise, Notre Dame’s offensive line have the No. 6 rushing defense, No. 4 in tackles for a loss and No. 20 in sacks to worry about. In other words, don’t expect another 376-yard rushing game from Notre Dame’s quartet of tailbacks.
In fact, Notre Dame hasn’t averaged more than 2 yards per carry against Stanford in two years. This year, Stanford is giving up only 77.2 rushing yards per game.
Cardinal linebackers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy will harass Everett Golson all day. Thomas tallied three tackles for a loss and two sacks against the Irish last year.
If there’s a weakness in the Cardinal defense, it’s at secondary, where the Stanford defensive backs are giving up nearly 300 passing yards per game (113th in the country).
Of course, when your run defense is only giving up 2.6 yards per carry, opponents are going to turn to an air attack. On top of its struggles, Stanford will be without its starting corner Terrence Brown, who will sit out after suffering a concussion last week.
Every member of the Irish offensive line said this would be a fist fight, and we have every reason to believe them.
Expect a defensive showdown, perhaps even a defensive touchdown. Don’t expect a flashy, offensive shoot out.
If Golson can play relatively mistake-free and the ground game can push for 150 yards, the Irish will win this battle.
NOTRE DAME 17, STANFORD 10