Thanks to burger23 of SB Nation's Notre Dame blog, One Foot Down, for dropping some knowledge about the Fighting Irish in advance of tomorrow's game.
1. Notre Dame's off to its first 5-0 start in 10 years. With a few major tests still remaining, what are the main questions you still have about this team?
I think there are two main questions: "Can the offensive line play well enough to move the ball on the ground consistently?" and "Will the patchwork secondary hold up all season?"
The Irish had monster days running the ball against Navy and Miami, but the ground game was virtually nonexistent against the trio of B1G teams on the schedule. The backs and linemen are learning a (relatively) new zone blocking scheme from offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and they struggled mightily against Purdue, MSU, and Michigan. But then the offense exploded for 376 yards rushing against Miami last weekend. Yes, Miami's defense is horrible, but that performance was gratifying for a number of reasons. First, unlike against Navy, the line was pushing around actual FBS-sized athletes. And second, the running backs showed great vision and did a nice job finding the holes. But Miami certainly doesn't remind anyone of Stanford, so we'll see if that game was a product of the Hurricane defense or a harbinger of things to come.
Meanwhile, the secondary looked to be a gaping hole in the defense coming into this season thanks to graduation and injuries, but it hasn't looked half bad so far. Freshman Keivarae Russell has played well and senior Zeke Motta has been a pleasant surprise. There's still the occasional breakdown - like sophomore safety Mathias Farley's habit of letting receivers run by him - and they haven't really been tested by a strong passing attack, but the unit has played better than expected. But who knows if they'll be able to stop the passing attacks of Oklahoma or USC.
2. Most Cardinal fans are familiar with Manti Te'o. Who are some of the other big names to watch on the stout Irish defense?
The strength of the Irish defense resides on the defensive line. Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt is probably the most physically gifted athlete on defense outside of Te'o. He's 6'6, 303 pounds, and runs like a gazelle. He took a fumble back 77 yards against Navy and outran their entire offense. He was quiet against Miami but needs to have a good game against Stanford if the Irish want to win on Saturday.
The other big name is OLB/DE Prince Shembo. He's been maybe Notre Dame's best pass rusher this season. Stanford's offensive line is a stiff test, but he'll be asked to get in Nunes's face so he can't stand in the pocket and wait for his big targets to get open down field.
3. What can we expect from Everett Golson? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
He's pretty much the opposite of Tommy Rees. He has a cannon for an arm, is fast enough to pick up yards on the ground, and shifty enough to make guys miss in the open field. He's still learning the offense, but he seems to be growing more comfortable in his starting role each week. Stanford fans know all too well the limitations Rees put on this offense, but Golson brings a new skillset that opens things up more. He has all the tools to be a great quarterback.
But he's still a redshirt freshman and he makes redshirt freshman mistakes. Despite his athleticism, Kelly has been hesitant to run him because he carries the ball loosely and has put it on the ground a few times this season. And the two interceptions he threw against Michigan were very questionable decisions that led to Kelly pulling him from the game. I think it's possible Stanford could have a lot of success disguising their coverages and blitzes in an attempt to confuse Golson. I'm not sure if he's quite there yet in that aspect of the game.
4. How do you expect the Irish to attack a Stanford defense coming off its worst performance of the season?
It's hard to tell, actually. I'm sure Kelly would love to run the ball in order to take some of the pressure off of Golson, but I don't know if that's realistic against the Stanford front seven. The Cardinal secondary has given up a lot of yards, but with a young quarterback and young receiving corps, I don't know if Notre Dame is in a position to take advantage of it.
I think we'll see Kelly test the waters in the run game in the first drive or two. If the Irish can move the ball on the ground, fantastic. If not, then I think Kelly will put the game into Golson's hands, for better or for worse. Either way, I think the Irish will try to spread the field to neutralize the Stanford linebackers a bit and maybe get them into a nickel package. Ramming the ball into that defense seems like a losing battle, but spreading the field might open things up a bit.
5. Any other predictions for the game?
I'm obliged to pick the Irish to win though I think this is the toughest team they've faced this season. After getting beaten up by the Cardinal the past three years, this game is as much a mental hurdle as it is a physical one. Notre Dame finally exorcised some demons against Michigan but the losing streak against Stanford still looms.
What I think plays into Notre Dame's favor is that I feel like the Irish defense has actually played pretty well against Stanford the last two years. I know, I know - 400+ yards and 32.5 points per game are not great numbers, but I think the defense did a pretty decent job holding the Cardinal offense in check and Luck didn't really light up the Irish. He played well and made some great throws when he needed to, but he didn't put up gaudy numbers either. I think if you take away Luck and factor in the Notre Dame rush defense - teams that try to run on Notre Dame with a fullback and tight ends have found tough sledding this season - I think the Irish can stop this offense.
Offense is another story. Stanford has been able to essentially strangle the Notre Dame offense in their two games against Kelly-led Irish teams. But with any luck, the Irish will be able to spread the field and replicate Arizona's success on offense to some degree. The key will be gaining yards on the ground. Stanford's defense is certainly not Miami's, but I would consider it a success if the Irish could do enough on the ground to force Stanford to respect the run and keep them from dropping seven or eight guys back into coverage on every play.
In the end, this is going to be a low-scoring game and the winner will emerge bruised and battered for their trouble. I'll say the Irish are victorious by a score of 20-16, with Stanford scoring the first touchdown against the Irish in over a month and the first on the ground since last November.