Whether Stanford’s offense and quarterback Josh Nunes have progressed as far as their showing against Arizona would suggest will be tested when the No. 17 Cardinal (4-1) plays No. 7 Notre Dame (5-0) on the road on Oct. 13.
Rolling up 617 yards and 54 points at home against Arizona’s mediocre, injury-plagued defense was one thing, but moving the ball successfully and scoring against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., is an entirely different challenge.
The Irish rank second in the country in scoring defense, and they have not allowed a single touchdown in their past three games, all against quality opponents: then-No. 10 Michigan State, then-No. 18 Michigan and Miami, which was 4-1 entering the Oct. 6 game against Notre Dame. None of those three scored more than six points against the Irish, who not only stop opposing offenses but create a lot of turnovers, having recorded 13 takeaways this season. Plus, Notre Dame may have the best defensive player in the country in linebacker Manti Te’o.
Nunes was outstanding in the 54-48 overtime victory against Arizona on Oct. 6, particularly in the fourth quarter, when he engineered a comeback from a 14-point deficit in the final nine minutes. But the Wildcats have one of the worst defenses in the country now that so many of their defenders are sidelined by injuries.
Plus, in his only previous road game, Nunes struggled mightily against Washington, as the Cardinal failed to score an offensive touchdown against the Huskies. And the Washington defense is not nearly as good as Notre Dame’s.
On the other hand, Notre Dame does not present as many offensive problems for Stanford as Arizona did when the Wildcats torched the previously impenetrable Stanford defense for 617 yards and 48 points.
Neither of the two Notre Dame quarterbacks who have seen considerable playing time this season — starter Everett Golson or Tommy Rees — is the passing threat that Arizona’s Matt Scott was out of Arizona’s spread-option offense, although Golson is coming off the best game of his career.
This game may more closely resemble the Cardinal’s first four games, which were close, low-scoring affairs in which a few pivotal plays determined the outcome.
At least Stanford is hoping that’s the way the game plays out because that is probably the only way Stanford has a chance.
–The fact that so many current Stanford players experienced success the previous two seasons has to be a factor now, as coach David Shaw suggested when he said, “We’re not a great team right now, but we’re getting better. And the one thing we have is guys who have won a lot of games. You can’t discount that experience.”
–Notre Dame is the only team in the country that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. It has yielded just 7.8 points a game, second only to Alabama, which yields 7.0. The 39 points Notre Dame has given up this season are the fewest the Irish have yielded through five games since the 1976 team gave up just 37 in five games.
–Notre Dame is 2-0 in games in South Bend this season, and the Irish have won four in a row and six of their past seven games at home. Stanford lost its only road game this season, and played by far its worst offensive game in that 17-13 loss to Washington in Seattle.
–Kickoff for the Oct. 20 Big Game at Cal has been set for noon. The rivalry game was scheduled for the middle of the season instead of its traditional spot at or near the end of the season as a result of television considerations by the Pac-12 conference.
–RB Stepfan Taylor is averaging 112 rushing yards per game, which ranks 15th in the country and third in the Pac-12. Last season he averaged 102.3 yards per game, but his per-carry average was better last season — 5.1 compared with 4.7 this year. He has 3,330 career rushing yards, which leaves him 192 yards behind Toby Gerhart for second place on Stanford’s career rushing list. Taylor is 703 yards behind all-time school leader Darrin Nelson.
SERIES HISTORY: Notre Dame leads 17-9 (last meeting, 2011, 28-14 Stanford).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Cardinal offense had by far its best game against Arizona, when it rolled up 617 yards and 54 points. It was also the best game by QB Josh Nunes. However, that was against a mediocre, banged-up Arizona defense, and it remains to be seen whether the Cardinal can continue to move the ball against quality defenses, such as Notre Dame’s. Nunes is completing just 54.1 percent of his passes, which needs to improve, and the pass protection has been more than adequate. Nunes has been effective throwing the long ball, although the Cardinal has few deep threats among its receivers. TEs Zach Ertz, who is 6-6, and Levine Toilolo, who is 6-8, continue to be the team’s chief receiving threats, ranking first and second on the team, respectively, in receiving yards. Opposing defenses are starting to double-team those tight ends whenever possible, but the Cardinal continues to throw to them with success. The running game has not been as successful as expected. TB Stepfan Taylor is averaging 112 rushing yards per game, but he is the team’s only running threat, unlike the recent past, when several Cardinal running backs had success.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Cardinal defense had been outstanding until it was torn apart by Arizona’s spread option offense, which demonstrated the Cardinal defense is vulnerable when it is spread out, especially against the pass. The Cardinal ranks 113th of 120 FBS teams in passing yardage allowed, but that is somewhat misleading because opponents pass so much, seldom trying to run against the Cal’s strong run defense. Stanford ranks 31st in the nation in pass-efficiency defense, which is somewhat more reflective of its ability. Stanford relies on its strong pass rush to negate a passing attack, but when it fails to apply pressure, it is vulnerable. Stanford’s front seven is its strength, particularly the depth and talent it has at all four linebacker spots. DE Ben Gardner and OLBs Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas have been the standouts on a team in which 16 players have a tackle for loss.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “You could say they are similar to us. They have a big, physical defense and a running game they want to stick to no matter who they play.” — Stanford coach David Shaw, comparing Notre Dame’s style to Stanford’s.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK’S GAME: Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 13 — Stanford is 4-1 after its 54-48 overtime victory over Arizona, and Notre Dame is 5-0 after its 41-3 victory over Miami. Stanford has won three straight against Notre Dame, but the Irish had won seven in a row before that. Stanford’s 37-14 victory in 2010 ended the Cardinal’s seven-game losing streak in games played at Notre Dame. Stanford lost its only road game this season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford must avoid turnovers that would give the Notre Dame offense easy scoring opportunities. First-down plays will be particularly important for the Cardinal offense. The Irish run defense is pretty good, but the Cardinal is capable of having success running the ball against Notre Dame. If Stepfan Taylor consistently runs for five yards or more on first down, it will make things a lot easier for QB Josh Nunes and the Cardinal offense in general. As usual, TEs Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz will be vital components of the Cardinal passing game, and if Nunes can find them, Stanford should be able to move the ball. The Cardinal must prevent Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o from dominating the game. Stanford’s defense should be able to control Notre Dame’s offense if it does not have to deal with short fields. Both teams will try to use a ball-control offense while relying on their defenses to maintain field position. The team that controls the ball better should win.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
OLBs Chase Thomas/Trent Murphy — Thomas and Murphy have combined for 11.5 tackles for losses and 4.5 sacks, and each has an interception. They need to come up with some big plays against Notre Dame.
TEs Levin Toilolo/Zach Ertz — They have combined for 36 receptions, 594 receiving yards and four touchdowns. They have been the Cardinal’s most reliable receivers, especially on third down. Toilolo had a career-high 141 receiving yards against Arizona.
TB Stepfan Taylor — Taylor has averaged 112 rushing yards per game, and he has handled a larger percentage of the ball-carrying chores than he has in the past. He also has 15 receptions and is a good pass blocker.
QB Josh Nunes — He is the key to Stanford’s success. When he played well against USC and Arizona, the Cardinal had success. When he struggled against Washington, the Cardinal lost. He has completed 54.1 percent of his passes, which is not particularly good in today’s game.
–WR Ty Montgomery is questionable for the Notre Dame game with a knee injury.
–CB Terrence Brown is questionable after getting kicked in the chin against Arizona.
–TB Anthony Wilkerson is questionable for the Notre Dame game because of a lower leg injury.
–QB Josh Nunes was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for his play in the 54-48 victory over Arizona. Nunes was 21-for-34 for 360 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and rushed for 33 yards as well. He led the Cardinal back from a 14-point deficit with 9:03 left in the fourth quarter.
–FB Geoff Meinken is unlikely to play against the Irish with a knee injury.
–S Ed Reynolds is expected to play against Notre Dame despite a shoulder injury.