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Notre Dame vs. Stanford preview: So, wait, are the Cardinal good?

Z.W. Martin previews Saturday's matchup between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Stanford Cardinal. He tries to answer the impossible: Is Stanford actually good?

Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Stanford Cardinal:

Things I remember about the 2011 Stanford Cardinal:

  1. Andrew Luck was really good at throwing footballs.
  2. They had a couple of talented offensive linemen. (Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro.)
  3. Oh, a tight end, too! (Coby Fleener.)
  4. Something about a receiver who may or may not have died from concussions.
  5. A super boring offense.
Well, all those guys are gone. The first four drafted, the other's -- Chris Owusu -- career almost ending because of the things you see in this video. (He's now a Buccaneer.) Other than that, I really was blown away by how little I knew about this team. So I dug into the stats. Yet, after looking at the numbers and trying to break down Standford, I still really have no idea whether or not the Cardinal are actually good.

The confusion started with their current record, 4-1, and strength of schedule rank, 33, both indicating a pretty good team, but after taking into consideration how Standford got their shiny record, things got a little murkier.


A three point win over San Jose State (at home)? A win over a non-basketball Duke team (at home)? An overtime victory against a weird Arizona team, requiring 54 points to secure victory (at home)? A loss to a good, but not great Washington squad (on the road)? None of that really breeds much confidence.

But then... there's that USC win (at home) and it's, like, WTF STANFORD? WHO ARE YOU?!?!? YOU'RE SO MYSTERIOUS!!! (It should also make us ask whether or not USC is as talented a team as expected.)

However, much like every pretend "mysterious bad boy" from the 'burbs of California, the Cardinal are actually very boring. Luck's replacement at QB, Josh Nunes, is so stunningly average -- 54.1 completion %, 8 TDs, 4 INTs and a 126.1 passer rating -- it pains me to use him in the same sentence as the current Colt. His #1 target is a tight end, the third a running back. But that's the Cardinal offense -- run until throwing (short play action passes) is mandatory -- and their strength.

Three year starting running back, Stepfan Taylor, is easily the Cardinal best weapon on offense, but is also having his worst season to date, averaging only 4.7 yards per carry, as opposed to 5.5 last season. Regardless, expect Stanford coach David Shaw to hand off until the Irish stout front seven shut it down. Then play action over the middle to Zach Ertz, the aforementioned tight end. It's boring and frustrating, but has been the recipe for success for the Cardinal.

This game plan also keeps their defense off the field. Despite the aberration last week against Arizona, the Stanford defense has not allowed an opponent to score more than 17 points. Then again, other than USC, the Cardinal also haven't stopped a good offense. For example, the Huskies haven't scored more than 21 points against a D1 team.

Again, I'm left to wonder, is the Stanford D any good or has their success just been a biproduct of lackluster opponents and an offense that emphasizes ball control?

Honestly, I'm still not sure. The Cardinal are a conundrum.

The Irish game plan is simple. Play Chicago Bears style football. On offense, don't turn the ball over and eat up some clock. On defense, shut down the ground game, keep the ball in front of their safeties in the air, let the extremely athletic front four attack, blitz occasionally and take advantage of bad passes under pressure. It's pretty simple.

Everett Golson either took a huge step forward against the Hurricanes -- 17-for-21 for 186 yards and 51 on the ground on six carries -- or showed us the potential we can expect down the road. Either way, he did his job on Saturday night and played mistake free football. He was in control; checking down, making timely, accurate throws and scrambled when plays broke down. It was the best he's looked to date.

However, the real story was the running game. Coach Brian Kelly finally relented on his dog house approach to Cierre Wood, Notre Dames' most talented back, giving him the ball 18 times, resulting in 118 yards and two scores. The Irish ended up running for 376 yards, highlighted by a 12 play, 86 yard run only TD drive.

As for the defense: 7.8 points allowed per game, second in the nation.


I've harped on how good the Irish defense is since week two, but if the Miami (FL) game taught me anything, they can be beat when they play zone coverage and the front four does not get pressure on the QB. The Cardinal play action game directly exploits this weakness and will let Stanford drive the ball. However, I do not think the Cardinal have enough playmakers* on offense to sustain more than a few long drives against the Irish defense that simply does not allow big plays and has a tendency to pick poorly executed passes by average QBs.

*UPDATE: Stanford's top WR, Ty Montgomery, is not expected to play on Saturday because of injury.

Because the Cardinal seem to have at least a good defense, I do not think the Irish will blow away Stanford, but should be able move the ball enough to outscore whatever the Notre Dame defense allows. I expect Kelly to run with his stable of backs, throwing just enough to keep the Cardinal defense honest. Kelly probably will limit passing plays to short and medium attempts, as Golsen hasn't yet earned the trust to install the full playbook.

Add that the Cardinal have only played one game on the road in 2012, resulting in their only loss, things seem much clearer to me now: Stanford's good, just not Notre Dame good.

Notre Dame 24, Stanford 17

Twitter @ZWMartin