The Stanford Cardinal looked like they were sunk last Saturday. Arizona's offense could not be stopped by Stanford's mondo front seven, and there was a sense the season was ready to fall apart. But after an impressive fourth quarter comeback, it's starting to look like the Cardinal might have just found a bad matchup, and that better foes await.
Better foes like seventh-ranked Notre Dame? Maybe.
Actually, Notre Dame seems like the perfect matchup for Stanford. Their offense does have elements of spread, but it is far more suited to being held up by the Cardinal defense. Notre Dame is built to running the football, Stanford is built toward stopping it. Notre Dame's passing game is a bit more uneven, particularly along the edges, and so is Stanford's passing defense.
The Irish have yet to be forced to work hard offensively though, as the other side of the football has dominated every game. Notre Dame's defense has dominated their contests against Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Miami. The offense has only had to score a touchdown to really feel like they were in control. Stanford is clearly going to have to show they can move the football through the air.
Stanford's offense won't intimidate anyone even after putting 50+ on Arizona. Stepfan Taylor is a good runner, but he's been stifled so far this year, which puts a lot of pressure on the pass attack. Josh Nunes had a game for the ages and had some impressive late-game heroics, but he still has to prove he can put it together on the road. A few mistakes and the crowd could pile on him, and it's hard to see how well Nunes adapts to that. More importantly, Notre Dame may be best-equipped with the personnel to handle Stanford's two unstoppable tight ends. It might neutralize the rush a bit to have linebackers out rushing Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz, but it could force Nunes to make reads and adapt through the play. It's unclear
Stanford really can't afford mistakes against Notre Dame's defense; their offense isn't elite enough to march down the field against Notre Dame and Manti Te'o. If anything, the Stanford defense might have to be opportunistic and force the issue on the other side.
It figures to be a game similar to the Washington and USC games for Stanford. Low-scoring, lots of punts and some turnovers, with maybe one or two plays determining the ultimate outcome. If you're a fan of smash mouth, this could be your game.
A lot gets decided on Saturday with regards to the BCS picture. Notre Dame could get one step closer toward a potential BCS berth and subsequently fouling up the hopes of the Pac-12 at an at-large berth. If the Cardinal continue to show improvement in their victory, Stanford stays on track to emerge as a challenger to Oregon down the road, and suddenly the rest of their schedule looks quite winnable.
Much on the line in South Bend for both teams, just like the old times.
SB Nation Snippets
Eric Murtagh of Notre Dame's One Foot Down breaks it down:
Third---and this is closely related to my second point---if there's a team on the Irish schedule that is capable of standing up to Notre Dame with their offensive line and front seven, it's the Stanford Cardinal. Winning the line of scrimmage is stressed more than anything else by Irish coaches and it's largely the reason why the defense has been playing at such a high level and why the offense, while struggling at times, has been able to come through in the clutch on the way to a 5-0 start.
Notre Dame presents a very difficult challenge with its defensive line, and if Te'o and the Irish linebackers are allowed to run free like the Washington linebackers were, it could be a long day for the Cardinal.
With Stepfan Taylor and the rest of the run game likely to be held in check, the pressure will once again shift to Josh Nunes and his ability to find success in the passing game. With Ty Montgomery out for Saturday's game in South Bend, the Cardinal will need production from its tight ends (as usual) and some other playmakers (perhaps Kelsey Young or Jamal-Rashad Patterson) if it wants to pull out the win in this one.