Notre Dame travels 2,000 miles west for its final game of the regular season.
An eighth-ranked Stanford squad awaits.
Tom FitzGerald, Stanford sports writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, took the time during the holiday week to talk about quarterback Kevin Hogan, Stanford’s way of winning close games and the Cardinal’s improved defense.
Question: Stanford doesn’t really blow anyone out (excluding Washington State and Cal). Even the Army game was relatively close. Is that just a product of the grinding way Stanford plays the game or is it something else, like offensive deficiencies?
Tom FitzGerald: It’s due to a couple of things. Stanford does play ball-control offense. It attempts fewer passes than any team in the Pac-12, and it likes to hog the time of possession. The other important element is that Stanford played four ranked teams: No. 2 (at the time of the game) Oregon, No. 9 UCLA, No. 15 Washington and No. 23 ASU. According to the Sagarin ratings, the Cardinal’s schedule was the fifth toughest in the country. The four tougher ones were all played by Pac-12 teams. It’s hard to blow out really good teams.
Q: Last year’s game against Notre Dame was the last Stanford played before Kevin Hogan took the reins at quarterback. What does he bring to the table and how does he utilize Tyler Gaffney and Ty Montgomery?
FitzGerald: Hogan brings a lot: passing accuracy (61 percent), an improving touch on deep balls (18 TDs against 7 picks), a running threat (team’s second leading rusher for the second straight year) and leadership. Gaffney has been a real workhorse, rushing for nearly 1,300 yards with three games to go. And Montgomery, if you’ll excuse his occasional drops, is a dangerous threat every time he touches the ball, the kind of threat Stanford hasn’t had in years.
Q: On Tuesday, Brian Kelly spent significant time talking about Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Jordan Richards and the defense in general. Is this still as dominating of a unit as it was last year or did the loss of Chase Thomas weaken the Cardinal ‘D’?
FitzGerald: I’d say this defense is even better than last year’s even though it doesn’t lead the nation in sacks, as it did last year. It has made up for the loss of Thomas by having a year’s more experience across the board. Trent Murphy should be an All-American at outside linebacker, and Shayne Skov at inside backer is having a much better year than he had in 2012, when he was coming off major knee surgery. The one game the defense hasn’t been good enough to win was Utah. Stanford would have beaten USC if it hadn’t thrown two interceptions in the fourth quarter and had a field goal blocked.
Q: What are the weaknesses of this team? Kelly said there wasn’t really an Achilles heel exposed in the tape against Utah or USC, just a matter of Stanford not making plays. What are your thoughts?
FitzGerald: It is certainly capable of periods of offensive inconsistency. It has gotten next to nothing out of its tight ends, a position that for the previous few years was the strength of the offense. As Utah and USC showed, Stanford can be vulnerable to speed on the periphery.
Q: Stanford is a two-touchdown favorite on Saturday. Do you really see the game this lopsided? How do you see things playing out in Palo Alto?
FitzGerald: I haven’t seen enough of Notre Dame to judge them well. They look like they’re capable of grinding out yardage with (Tarean) Folston and (Cam) McDaniel, and TJ Jones looks like he might be hard for the Cardinal cornerbacks to handle. But I think Stanford will score some points — not having Louis Nix in this game is a big deal against Tyler Gaffney’s running.
I wasn’t impressed with Notre Dame’s kickoff coverage against BYU, especially since they’ll face the second-best return man in the country in Ty Montgomery. Everett Golson gave Stanford some fits with his running, but Rees isn’t that kind of a QB. I think the Cardinal pass rush will put a lot of pressure on him. So my guess is that Stanford will beat the spread.