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Stanford battles Notre Dame: 3 Keys to a Cardinal Victory on Saturday in South Bend

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What are the important matchups to watch as the Cardinal and Irish square off with more than just bragging rights on the line?

Steve Dykes

Stanford faces its biggest test of the season so far this weekend - and perhaps its most important with Oregon falling on Thursday night - as the Cardinal travels to South Bend to play the undefeated Fighting Irish.

The last time the Cardinal played at Notre Dame, Stanford lost on a controversial play in overtime (Stepfan Taylor was in), as the Irish went on to an undefeated regular season and a national championship appearance against Alabama.

Now, Notre Dame looks for its first signature win after beating up on subpar competition to start the season, and Stanford looks to bounce back into national contender talk following their week 2 loss against USC. With Vegas giving the Cardinal a slim edge, this game looks as though it should live up to the hype.

Here are Stanford's three keys to a victory:

1. Limit the Passing Attack

Last week, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson set a school record with 25 straight completions against the Syracuse Orange. Golson finished the day 32-39 on pass attempts, improving his season completion percentage to 69.6, good for 11th-best in the country. Golson also tossed four touchdown passes, placing him 6th in the country with 15 total scores.

However, despite Golson's flashy stats, which have established him in the Heisman conversation, he has struggled with turnovers. Syracuse nabbed their only two interceptions of the year last Saturday, as Golson fumbled twice and threw two picks. Here's a clip of Golson's first quarter interception by Brandon Reddish.

The Orange blitz Golson, causing an overthrow into coverage that results in the interception. Syracuse's pass rush is probably on par with Stanford's, with 13 sacks against Stanford's 11. However, Stanford's pass defense is far superior, ranking first in the country in pass yards allowed, with just 6.58 yards allowed per completion.

Stanford will have its hands full with Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller, who ranks 7th in the country with 5 receiving touchdowns and has 344 reception yards, the most by any receiver the Cardinal have faced so far. However, if Stanford generates any rush against Golson, the Cardinal defense could come away with some timely turnovers.

2. Rely on Ty

On paper, Notre Dame's defense measures up to Stanford's. Like the Cardinal, the Irish have not allowed more than 17 points to an opponent in a game, and rank 4th in the country in scoring defense.

Look deeper into the numbers, though, and its apparent that Notre Dame just hasn't faced the same level of competition. Notre Dame's four opponents thus far - Rice, Michigan, Purdue, and Syracuse - are a combined 7-11 on the season, and have been outscored 354 - 471 against FBS opponents. Stanford's competition (except for FCS UC Davis), however, has gone 8-5 and outscored their FBS opponents 318-237.

Although Notre Dame's defense appears to be one of the best units in the country, they haven't really been tested the same way the Cardinal has. When your best win is either a five turnover outing against Syracuse or a drubbing of a walking-dead Michigan team, your stats are somewhat unreliable.

Thus, although Notre Dame hasn't allowed an opponent player to amass more yards than Michigan's Devin Funchess with 107, Ty Montgomery should have a strong performance.

Ty Montgomery's worst game of the season came this last weekend, in which he picked up a season low 67 offensive yards. However, this came in matchups against Washington's Marcus Peters, one of the top five cornerbacks in college football. While Notre Dame's number one corner, Cody Riggs, is no slouch, he's only 5-foot 9. The 6-foot Peters matched up much better against the 6-2 Montgomery, who figures to favor nicely in this matchup. So far this season, Montgomery has performed well against smaller corners, such as against UC Davis' 5-10 senior Dre Allen, a matchup in which he picked up 85 yards without playing the second half.

So far this season, Montgomery has amassed 154.25 all-purpose yards per game, good for 17th in the country and 4th among FBS wide receivers. Montgomery's 337 offensive yards have accounted for just over 20 percent of the team's total output. As Montgomery goes, so goes the Cardinal. Montgomery will have to go far if Stanford wants to come out of South Bend with a W for the first time since 2010.

3. Take the Points

Stanford's red zone numbers this year are downright ugly. The team has only scored on 63.2 percent of their chances inside the opponent 20, ranking 118th out of 125 in the FBS.

The Cardinal's red zone offense has been steadily declining since 2011, when they ranked first in the country and scored on 67 of 69 drives (53 being touchdowns). While a lot of that success can be attributed to Andrew Luck, That year Stanford also had a feature back in Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 10 touchdowns on his own.

Fast forward a few years, and the 2013 squad replaced Taylor's production and then some with Tyler Gaffney, whose 22 touchdowns led the conference. Yet, without the tight-end presence the Cardinal had with Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo, and Coby Fleener, Stanford's red zone offense fell to 29th in the country. The Cardinal still managed to score touchdowns on a respectable 44 of 51 opportunities, but their touchdown percentage fell from 79 to 70.

This year, Stanford can't seem to score at all in the red zone. Stanford has not been able to replace Gaffney with another feature back, and Austin Hooper is still learning the ropes at tight end (although his 15 receptions have already more than doubled last year's output at the position). In 19 opportunities, the Cardinal have 8 touchdowns, good for just 42 percent. Furthermore, while 27 of last year's 49 touchdowns came from the running back position, no Stanford back has scored yet this year.

Against Notre Dame, which boasts a top 10 red zone defense, someone will have to step up. It may not be a running back, as just one of the Irish's four red zone touchdowns allowed has come from the position. Look for Stanford to rely on the likes of Hooper, Montgomery, and Devon Cajuste when they're deep in opponent territory, and hope that the Cardinal can return to their stellar red zone nature of two years ago.