Not since 1993 has Notre Dame had a defense play at Stanford as the one it will put on the field Saturday. The No. 16 Fighting Irish (9-2) will look to dominate a Cardinal (4-7) offense that has struggled all season long.
But this is a rivalry game, and Stanford won’t be playing in a bowl game, which means Notre Dame should expect to get the best the Cardinal have to offer. Notre Dame will need to bring an A effort and execute to not only win, but win the way a top team should against a struggling squad.
Here are the keys to the Irish defense dominating on Saturday:
1. Pressure The Quarterback Early And Often — In Stanford’s four wins its quarterbacks have completed 69.1-percent of their passes and averaged 273.3 yards while throwing nine touchdowns against no interceptions. In its seven losses the Stanford passers have completed just 59-percent of their passes, averaged 253.1 yards and threw just seven interceptions against eight interceptions.
A theme in the wins is that Stanford’s line allowed just five total sacks in those four games. In the seven losses the Cardinal quarterbacks were sacked more than three times per game. None of Stanford’s quarterbacks are overly mobile, so when they get pressured they don’t play well. When they get a clean pocket they have shown they can pick teams apart.
The best part of Stanford’s offense is its pass catchers, and the best way to avoid them impacting the game is to make sure quarterback Davis Mills never gets comfortable in the pocket. Getting after him early and often will prevent Mills from getting into rhythm. If he starts hot it will be much more difficult to keep Stanford off the scoreboard.
2. Strong Linebacker Player — Stanford has a brutal running game, and Notre Dame cannot allow the Cardinal offense to get anything going on the ground. I expect the Irish line to control the action, but the linebackers will need to play sound football and tackle well in order to shut down the Stanford ground attack, which will make the Cardinal offense one dimensional.
Stanford’s best player is tight end Colby Parkinson, and having to defend the run and guard Parkinson will put the backers in a serious bind. They will also be tasked with handling Stanford’s diverse screen game and will have to tackle well in space against the backs and slot receivers.
If the Irish linebackers have a big day the Stanford offense will have a very hard time putting points on the board.
3. Tackle Well, Limit Big Plays — I’ve mentioned it twice already, but tackling well is vitally important in this game, so will playing smart football. Notre Dame cannot afford to allow Stanford to rip off big plays. This Stanford offense is simply not good enough to consistently move the ball up and down the field against the Irish defense.
The only chance it has is to generate big plays, and head coach David Shaw knows that. He’s going to design ways to take shots down the field, he’ll work hard to get his skill players the ball in space and he’ll try to create indecision for the Irish defenders. If Notre Dame plays smart football and tackles well the defense will dominate this game and the Irish will blow Stanford out.