Thursday, October 2, 2008

More Home Cooking: Stanford

So the Irish are sitting at 3-1 and feeling pretty good about themselves after playing their best overall game in nearly two full years, and here come the Stanford Cardinal. Make no mistake, the Irish should defeat Stanford in much the same manner as they beat Purdue.

And they will.

But only if they show up to play and take care of business.

Stanford is 3-2 on the year, with both losses coming on the road to pretty good teams (Arizona State and TCU).

You might assume that Stanford's win over San Jose State (23-10) is no big deal. But San Jose State is no slouch. The SJSU Spartans beat San Diego State (remember them?) 35-10, and also have a 20-17 road win over Hawaii to their credit. SJSU's only loss besides the Stanford game was on the road at Nebraska (12-35).

Stanford opened the year with a win against the Oregon State Beavers (36-28), who have made a little noise in the college football world lately, and they come to South Bend fresh off a road win over a somewhat hapless Washington Huskies squad.

The Irish get something of a break playing Stanford in Notre Dame Stadium, and also because Stanford is playing its second road game in as many weeks. They're likely to be just a little tired. But they won't be intimidated. Second year head coach Jim Harbaugh has made it clear that the Cardinal will not bow down to anyone. He proved it by beating USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum almost exactly one year ago (October 6th, 2007), and the Irish experienced it last year in Palo Alto when Stanford's players demonstrated a chippiness that hasn't been seen on the Farm for quite some time.

I think I speak for Notre Dame fans everywhere when I say that I hope the game we see on Saturday bears absolutely no similarities to the game in Palo Alto last season, except for the part where the Irish win and Stanford gets their heart ripped out of their chest and stomped on. Last year's game has to rank as one of the ugliest college football games of all time. The Irish lost 3 fumbles, threw 1 interception, turned the ball over on downs once, converted just 4 of 13 third-downs, and gave up 5 sacks. Stanford converted just 6 of 17 times on third down, and missed four field goal attempts. In the final 30 seconds, Stanford receivers dropped TWO touchdown passes that would have tied the game and sent it to overtime (assuming the PAT) or won the game (if they made a 2-pt conversion). The field conditions that day were an abomination, and the game officials were atrocious.

The point of the recap is that we beat Stanford last year mostly because we out-gutted and out-lasted them, not because we outplayed them. The stats from the game were pretty darn even. The Cardinal outgained ND 327-313 yards, although ND had one more first down (19-18). Notre Dame had better Average Starting Field Position (ASFP) by just two yards (35 to 33).

Much like last week's game against Purdue, the Irish and their opponent are very evenly matched. In this week's Jeff Sagarin rankings, Notre Dame is #47 while Stanford is #52 (using the "predictor" column). (By the way, the Irish are up 11 spots from #58 last week!). In a game between evenly matched opponents, the team that takes care of the little things, like the football, usually wins. Notre Dame failed to do that against Michigan State, and they succeeded against Purdue. Saturday's game will be determined by which version of the 2008 Fighting Irish show up.

The Irish have become a team that can defeat credible, mid-level BCS conference opponents if they show up prepared, if they play with energy, and if they keep the mistakes to a minimum. I think this young team likes the taste of victory in their mouths, and I expect them to show up excited to play in front of the Irish faithful again this week. But if they don't take care of the ball and finish drives, Stanford is more than capable of handing Notre Dame a devastating home loss as they prepare to play three of their next four games on the road.

I expect to be feeling as good Saturday night as I did last Saturday night. Stanford's offense, while steady, is not particularly explosive. I expect our defense to largely contain the Cardinal and force a couple of turnovers leading to quick Irish scores. On the other side of the ball, Stanford's secondary has shown some vulnerability and I see real potential for another big game for Air Clausen.

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