The 6th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-1) are ready to finish the regular season against the struggling Stanford Cardinal (3-8), who are losers of six straight games. Notre Dame needs a dominant victory to impress the College Football Playoff committee, and a key ingredient to that is the Irish defense continuing to play the dominant football it has in the month of November.
Let's break down the matchup between the Notre Dame defense and the Stanford offense.
Notre Dame Rush Defense vs Stanford Rush Offense
Advantage: Notre Dame
There was a time not that long ago that Stanford was one of the most physically imposing, and effective, rushing attacks in college football. There was a great stretch that began with Toby Gerhart and ended with one great season by Bryce Love where the Cardinal consistently produced big-time running backs. The best of the bunch was Christian McCaffrey, who rushed for 3,622 yards and hauled in 92 passes for 955 yards for a combined 29 touchdowns in 2015-16.
In 2017, Love racked up an impressive 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 8.1 yards per carry.
Stanford's rush offense has never been the same and has been downright dreadful ever since. Stanford averaged just 107.9, 105.5 and 132.8 yards per game on the ground from 2018-20, and the offense is averaging just 89.7 yards coming into the matchup against Notre Dame. Stanford has been held under 100 rushing yards in six of its last eight games.
Notre Dame had a rough game against North Carolina (224 yards allowed), but outside of that game and one long carry against Toledo the Irish defense has been quite stout against the run. Since the Florida State game (264 yards allowed), the Irish rush defense has held all but one opponent (UNC) below its season rushing average.
That includes holding Wisconsin 151 yards below their season average, Cincinnati 88 yards below their season average, Navy 64 yards below their season average, Toledo 61 yards below their season average, Virginia Tech 51 yards below their season rushing average and both Virginia and Georgia Tech at least 45 yards below their season averages.
Clearly this is a matchup Notre Dame dominates on paper and should dominate on Saturday.
Notre Dame Pass Defense vs Stanford Pass Offense
Advantage: Notre Dame
When Stanford's offense has been rolling it was due to the pass game. Stanford quarterbacks completed 69.6% of their throws for 234 yards and two scores (no picks) in a win over USC, 293 yards for three scores (no picks) against UCLA and 230 yards and three touchdowns (no picks) in the upset win over Oregon.
That hasn't been true in recent games, although the pass game is clearly better when Tanner McKee is playing quarterback. His receiving corps if as healthy as it has been since September, and that unit struggling to stay healthy has played a big role in the season-long struggles, as has the injury to McKee and the inability to protect the quarterback.
Notre Dame's pass defense has been much, much better the second half of the season despite not having All-American safety Kyle Hamilton. The pass rush, which has produced 13 sacks in the last two games, has been a driving force behind that success, but the secondary has done a much better job limiting the big plays in November.
Cornerbacks Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis and TaRiq Bracy will face a different test against Stanford, who will throw a lot of back shoulders and downfield shots that will look to take advantage of their size. If Notre Dame's cover players can limit that the pass game will have a hard time getting open. The linebackers and safeties, especially Houston Griffith, will also be tested by tight end Benjamin Yurosek, who is Stanford's best pass catcher this season.
Notre Dame Scoring Defense vs Stanford Scoring Offense
Advantage: Notre Dame
Notre Dame's defense is on fire and Stanford has been struggling for awhile. This is a complete mismatch in every way, but now it's up to the Notre Dame coaches and players to actually perform against Stanford. I expect the Irish defensive line - which is led by playmakers Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola and savvy vets Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish - to control this game.
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