Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Stanford Cardinal Complete Game Preview

Keith Arnold@@KeithArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterSeptember 29, 2014

Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Stanford Cardinal Complete Game Preview

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    As the calendar turns to October, Notre Dame faces the most important stretch of its 2014 season. After playing its most uneven game of the season in an ugly 31-15 victory over Syracuse, the Irish now face their stiffest challenge of the young season as No. 14 Stanford comes to South Bend. 

    The Cardinal have gotten the better of Brian Kelly's teams, winning three of the last four. But returning to Notre Dame for the first time since their overtime defeat in 2012, David Shaw's squad needs a victory after already dropping a tight game to USC. 

    The Cardinal boast the nation's best defense, leading the country in both scoring and yardage allowed. They'll present Everett Golson with his toughest challenge of the season, as the Irish offense will need to clean up after an error-filled performance that erased an otherwise productive Saturday. 

    In a rivalry that grows with intensity each year, let's get you ready for Notre Dame and Stanford. 

    Date: Saturday, October 4

    Time: 3:30 p.m. ET

    Place: Notre Dame Stadium in Notre Dame, Indiana

    TV: NBC

    Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM Channel 129

    Spread: Even, according to Odds Shark.

Video Preview

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    Last week, B/R's Michael Felder and Adam Kramer took a look at the Notre Dame-Stanford game. They had some interesting thoughts on the state of the Irish offensive line, the battle between both teams' secondaries and how important Everett Golson will be on Saturday. 

Notre Dame Keys to Victory

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Play Mistake-Free Football on Offense

    Notre Dame's offense shouldn't expect to move the football easily against Stanford. It only gained 334 yards in its 20-13 win in 2012. It only managed 263 total yards in its 27-20 loss last season. But the Irish can win a low-scoring, tough-moving game if they don't turn the football over. 

    The Irish proved to be very good at that through three weeks. But their five turnovers against Syracuse is a blip in the radar that needs immediate addressing, something Brian Kelly talked about after the Irish's 31-15 win.

    "You could tell in the locker room there was not the normal chatter and excitement," Kelly said. "They knew they did not play the kind of football necessary to win each and every week. This game will get you beat week in and week out."

    That onus falls onto the shoulders of Everett Golson. While the college football world was eager to throw him into the way-too-premature Heisman Trophy discussion, Golson's error-filled evening took away from a near NCAA-record-setting night, where the senior quarterback connected on 25 straight passes, one shy of the record. 

    That accuracy streak wasn't enough to erase his mistakes, with two interceptions and two lost fumbles ruining Golson's night. 

    "Honestly, I wish we didn’t have games like this," Golson said after the win. "I want to come out and perform to the best to of my ability. Definitely I think just handling adversity is good from that standpoint. But you can’t keep having too many games like this."

    Another Big Challenge for Brian VanGorder's Defense

    Notre Dame's young defense has gotten out to an impressive start. Brian VanGorder's unit has given up just 40 points on the season (the Irish offense is responsible for six of the points the Orange scored), good for the No. 4 scoring defense in college football. 

    After controlling the line of scrimmage against Syracuse's rushing attack, the young front seven is in for another challenge against Stanford and an offensive line that earned a lot of preseason praise. After facing offenses that try to utilize spread principles, expect David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren to challenge the Irish with power formations and jumbo personnel. 

    That's not to say that the Cardinal have been overly impressive this season. Stanford's running for just 165.5 yards a game, failing to crack 200 yards in a game, even against opponents UC Davis and Army.

    But the Cardinal's offensive DNA demands a physical approach and a run-first philosophy. And against a set of Notre Dame linebackers who aren't the biggest, expect Stanford to try to set the tone early.  

Stanford Keys to Victory

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Convert in the Red Zone

    The only reason Stanford isn't ranked inside the Top 10 and undefeated is the Cardinal's struggles in the red zone. Stanford is a putrid 121st in the country converting red-zone appearances into points, scoring on just 12 of 19 appearances. 

    In no game did that hurt more than against USC. The Cardinal easily outgained the Trojans but were done in by a woeful red-zone performance, converting just two of five appearances for points and scoring just one touchdown. 

    For as well respected as David Shaw is among college football coaches, his stubbornness in the red zone has started to become part of his reputation. We saw that at play against Notre Dame in 2012 during the Irish's legendary (and controversial) goal-line stand, and it could come into play again Saturday afternoon. 

    Win the Battle Between Skill Players

    Personnel-wise, few programs match up favorably to Notre Dame's. But Stanford can make that claim, with a strong set of skill players on both sides of the football. For the Cardinal to win a coin-flip game, their playmakers are going to have to make a bigger impact than the Irish's. 

    Offensively, that means getting big plays from Indiana native Remound Wright and Barry Sanders Jr. It also means a big game from All-American candidate Ty Montgomery. And while Kevin Hogan's stats look impressive—he's connecting on 71 percent of his throws and has an 8-2 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions—only one of those touchdown passes (and one interception) came against USC or Washington. 

    On the defensive side of the ball, the Cardinal have an experienced secondary that's going to test Notre Dame's young receiving corps. Cornerbacks Wayne Lyons and Alex Carter are one of the strongest duos in the Pac-12. Senior captain Jordan Richards leads the unit, with Zach Hoffpauir starting at free safety. 

    It may sound cliche, but in a game like this one, the team that makes the most big plays will likely win. If the Cardinal can get more from their skill talent than Notre Dame, they'll leave South Bend victorious. 

Notre Dame Players to Watch

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Everett Golson

    The last time Golson took on Stanford, the young quarterback didn't finish the game. Golson had completed just 12 of 24 throws for 141 yards before a big hit knocked him from the game in 2012, with Tommy Rees finishing the game with an overtime touchdown pass to TJ Jones for the win. 

    The quarterback Stanford saw the last time it faced Golson is hardly the one that it'll see on Saturday. But if the Irish are going to win, they'll likely utilize some of the game plan they had in 2012, where Golson led the Irish in rushing attempts with 15 official carries. 

    Of course, turnovers will once again be key. Golson fumbled four times against Stanford in 2012, losing three of them, including one in the Irish end zone that produced Stanford's only touchdown of the afternoon. A week after a four-turnover game brought back some ugly memories, Golson needs to show great discipline with the football while also serving as the engine of the offense. 

    Joe Schmidt

    Notre Dame's unlikely middle linebacker, Schmidt trails only Jaylon Smith for the team lead in tackles. After four very productive games steering the Irish defense, Schmidt will face his biggest test against a physical Stanford team that'll likely try to overpower the undersized linebacking corps. 

    With Jarrett Grace still slowly recovering from a broken leg suffered last season and freshman Nyles Morgan still not ready for major reps, this is Schmidt's defense, for better or worse. The 235-pounder may lack the heft and height (he's listed at 6'0.5") for the trenches, but he's been incredibly productive so far this season. 

    Schmidt will play a key role as the Irish front seven needs to go toe-to-toe with the Cardinal's offensive line. 

Stanford Players to Watch

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Kevin Hogan

    Stanford's starting quarterback wanted very badly to go to Notre Dame. But the Irish offered too late, and Hogan had already committed to Jim Harbaugh and then-offensive coordinator David Shaw. 

    Hogan has only faced the Irish once. In 2012, he had yet to win the starting job, with Josh Nunes playing poorly against Notre Dame's defense. But Hogan didn't fare much better in 2013, completing 12 of 18 throws for 158 yards and throwing two interceptions in the Cardinal's 27-20 win. 

    Facing Brian VanGorder's aggressive scheme, there'll be plenty of pressure coming after Hogan. That makes for a long week of preparation for the Cardinal quarterback, especially with limited game tape of Notre Dame's defensive coordinator. 

    Against power-five opponents, Stanford has yet to score more than 20 points. It'll need more than that to beat Notre Dame. 

    Peter Kalambayi

    The sophomore outside linebacker had a monster game against Washington, wreaking havoc with three sacks against the Huskies. Against Notre Dame's reshuffled offensive line, keeping Kalambayi out of the backfield will be critical. 

    Stanford's defensive system has long featured dynamic edge players. But Kalambayi brings more speed and athleticism to the field, giving first-year defensive coordinator Lance Anderson a variety of options with his reserve linebacker, named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts in Stanford's 20-13 win. 

Prediction

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    USA TODAY Sports

    In many ways, Notre Dame's season hinges on Saturday's battle with Stanford. Get by the Cardinal, and even a loss to Florida State doesn't derail the Irish's postseason hopes. 

    Of course, a loss to Stanford could have the opposite effect. Get exposed by the Cardinal, and a trip to Tallahassee two weeks later all of a sudden could spell impending doom. 

    Brian Kelly and David Shaw have a lot of respect for each other's programs. And as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was forced to reshuffle their schedule with the Irish's ACC affiliation knocking several long-standing Big Ten opponents off the slate, the Cardinal have remained an annual opponent. 

    With both defenses playing stout football, points will be at a premium. But ultimately Everett Golson is the better playmaker at quarterback, and in front of a strong home-field advantage, the Irish pull off an impressive victory. 

    Final Score: Notre Dame 27, Stanford 17

    *Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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