A big thanks to Frank at UHND.com, who has provided a detailed scouting report of the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame Offense
The Notre Dame offense has had its ups and downs so far this year, but last week's performance against Miami definitely qualifies as one of the ups. Notre Dame wore down the Miami defense and by the second half, the Irish simply ran the ball at will on the Hurricane defense behind a strong offensive line and a stable of capable running backs.
After a little bit of a sluggish start to the game, Notre Dame scored 28 second-half points last week with touchdowns on all four of their second half drives, all while throwing the ball just two times out of 34 plays. Had you told any Notre Dame fan that statistic just three weeks ago after the Purdue game, they wouldn't have believed you. That was indeed the case last week though, as Notre Dame amassed 376 yards on the ground with both Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III rushing for over 100 yards, while all four Notre Dame running backs - Theo Riddick and Cam McDaniel included - reached the endzone.
Notre Dame was also extremely efficient passing the football last week. First year starting quarterback Everett Golson turned in his best performance by completing 17 of 22 passes for 186 yards and not turning the ball over a single time while adding another 51 yards on the ground. The 51 rushing yards are particularly key for the Irish offense because up until this weekend, Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin had not really let their athletically gifted signal caller take off too much with designed runs. Kelly and Martin mixed in some designed runs very effectively, though, and it appeared to really help Golson settle down.
The Irish passing game, however, is still a work in progress. Several wide receivers are starting to make plays for Notre Dame - namely sophomore Davaris Daniels, senior Roby Toma, and junior TJ Jones - but no one has really stepped up and been the go to guy. Almost everyone felt that tight end Tyler Eifert would be that guy, but so far opposing defenses have done a good job of eliminating the All American tight end from the Irish aerial attack.
Look for Notre Dame to continue to run Golson and roll him out a lot where he has the option of throwing downfield or tucking and running. Golson has been at his best when he's been able to move around a little and in order for the Notre Dame passing game to effective early against Stanford, I expect that to be the case again this weekend. Even is Stanford crowds the line though, I expect to see a heavy does of Cierre Wood early on before Atkinson sees more action in the second half when his speed can be utilized.
Notre Dame Defense
It has been three full games now since Notre Dame has surrendered a touchdown. Michigan State, Michigan, and Miami have gone a combined 12 quarters without putting the ball in the end-zone against the Irish defense. In fact, the three teams have combined to score just 12 points against Notre Dame over that span helping the Irish to a 2nd place ranking in terms of scoring defense behind only Alabama.
The strength of the Irish defense lies within the front seven where Notre Dame has the most talent and depth they've had up front in years. Stephon Tuitt had a sack in every game this season before being shut out for the first time last week against Miami, but he was still a force up front and has been a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen. In the middle of the defensive line, Louis Nix has started to become a dominant force as well and has done the job of a nose tackle - occupying blockers and collapsing pockets - very well.
The star of the Notre Dame defense, however, is All American linebacker Manti Te'o. By now, everyone knows the story of Te'o losing both his grandmother and girlfriend three weeks ago. Since then, Te'o has played like a man possessed turning in some of his most impressive performances in a Notre Dame uniform and has received some Heisman hype. The hype aside, Te'o is playing at an extremely high level right now - a level worthy of all of the pre-season accolades he received this year.
Joining Te'o in the linebacking corps for Notre Dame is an underrated group of linebackers that have played very well so far this year. Prince Shembo has been excellent as an outside pass rusher so far this year. Danny Spond missed the first two games of the season, but his return against Michigan State really sparked the improved play from the Irish backers. Inside next to Te'o, both Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese have done more than a solid job this year although their ability to cover the Stanford tight ends is a big concern heading into this weekend.
The Notre Dame secondary is the most unproven unit on the team and Miami nearly exploited them a week ago. Hurricane wide receiver Phillip Dorrsett dropped two perfectly placed passed from Stephen Morris that would have been sure touchdowns had he simply held onto the ball on Miami's first drive of the game. After that the defense settled in and didn't allow Miami to get behind them the rest of the night. Still, Miami's ability to get wide open down the field early in the game highlighted a concern that has been on the back of Notre Dame fans' minds all season long given the inexperience in the secondary after the injuries to Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter.
Notre Dame played conservatively as though they were concerned with Miami's speed last week and as a result, they failed to collect a sack or turnover for the first time this year. They did, however, also fail to allow a touchdown again last week though showing that the Irish defense is capable of being effective by being aggressive as they were against Michigan or being more conservative as they were a week ago. I expect Notre Dame's defensive gameplan to be more of a mixed bag this weekend as they look to place some pressure on the Stanford passing game.
Notre Dame's kicking games have been fairly consistent so far this year with Kyle Brindza connecting on 8 of 10 kicks after taking over for Nick Tausch who was injured earlier this year. Ben Turk has had his moments as the Irish punter this year, although his lone punt against Miami was very disappointing. Prior to that shank though, Turk had been pretty effective this year.
The Notre Dame return games on the other hand have largely been a non factor so far this year. Notre Dame has some talented returnmen in George Atkinson III at kick returner and true freshman Davonte Neal at punt returner, but their blocking schemes have done neither any favors in really allowing them many opportunities.
This is likely going to be a knock down, drag out type of game - the type of game Notre Dame couldn't have won the past two years as evidenced by Stanford's wins over Brian Kelly coached Irish squads. This year, though, Notre Dame has shown it can play those tough, hard fought games thanks in large part to a defense that is playing lights out and a running attack that has been effective when it's needed to be.
A lot of Notre Dame fans are very confident that the Irish will snap Stanford's 3-game winning streak in the series. Some, myself included, would say a little too over confident. Notre Dame hasn't faced a defense like Stanford's yet this season and will need to have it's best offensive performance of the season in order to win this one.
Defensively, the Stanford tight ends ability to get open and make plays downfield scares me a little, but overall I think the Irish defense will be able to keep the Cardinal offense in check for the most part. The question will be whether or not the Irish offense can put enough points on the board to come out victorious in the end. At the end of the day, I think Notre Dame will win this one close with a big defensive stop in the final minutes. Notre Dame 24, Stanford 21.