Manti Te'o and the Notre Dame linebackers must be outstanding if the Irish are going to have a chance against the Stanford Cardinal.
Stanford’s offense begins with the running game. Even with the all-everything Andrew Luck at quarterback, establishing Stepfan Taylor is the top priority for the Cardinal. Once the defense starts to creep up to stuff the run, Luck takes advantage with play-action passing. Stanford's athletic tight ends give Luck the ability to stretch the field from power running formations.
So far this season, Luck has connected with his top three tight ends (Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo) for a total of 1,165 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Against the Irish, expect the Cardinal to follow the same pattern.
In order to defend against Luck and his tight ends, Notre Dame’s linebackers will be asked to play a multi-faceted game. Te’o and his comrades must balance between defending against the Stanford rushing attack and covering receivers down the field. It's a lot to ask, but if the Irish linebackers play with discipline, they should be up to the challenge.
Notre Dame's linebackers must keep their focus on the tight ends, rather than trying to read the offensive line. Stanford's skill in the play-action passing game comes from the line's commitment to selling the fake. The Irish linebackers can't completely trust the actions of the offensive linemen when trying to read a play. Just because a guard pulls or the line begins to drive block, doesn't mean that the play is necessarily a run. Notre Dame's linebackers must be patient and fully diagnose the play before reacting.
When Stanford does go to the air, the Irish linebackers have to maintain contact with the tight ends. The short crossing routes that have burned Notre Dame so often this year may not be as much of a factor; the Cardinal love to run their tight ends deep down the seams. Notre Dame's linebackers won't have to cover as much open space, but they will have to do a better job of finding the football in the air. The Irish will have to force some turnovers if they're going to get a win, and Te'o will certainly have a few opportunities to make a play on the ball.
To counter Stanford's tight ends, look for Bob Diaco to use Jamoris Slaughter in a hybrid linebacker/safety role. Slaughter is a good enough tackler to hang in against the run, and he gives Notre Dame another skilled cover man to run with tight ends. Even against jumbo sets, bringing in an extra safety will give the Irish an advantage that just might lead to a win.