Identify Irish Offensive Tendencies Early
In several consecutive weeks leading up to Stanford's game against Notre Dame, the Cardinal's opponents had seen early offensive success by reversing the tendencies that they had shown on film. The Irish got the ball first Saturday. Like Oregon, USC, and Cal, they moved the ball efficiently against Derek Mason's unit on their first try. With the Farm Boys geared up to stonewall Notre Dame's rushing attack, Tommy Rees picked on single coverage in Stanford's secondary early, completing third down passes of 18 and 22 yards to push the Irish into Cardinal territory.
Stanford's defense tightened the screws earlier this time than they had the previous two weeks, though. Quick adjustments against the pass yielded consecutive unsuccessful throws, and Notre Dame was forced to settle for a field goal. That allowed the Cardinal offense to establish control with two early scores. By neutralizing Brian Kelly's squad early, the defense accomplished this first goal with only a pair of minor hiccups.
Establish the Run: Bruise a Thin Front
Notre Dame's defense suffered a significant plunge in productivity after last season's memorable run. The unit came into the Stanford game precariously thin, and the Cardinal capitalized. Tyler Gaffney ("Gashney") ripped through the Irish for 190 yards on 33 carries. Anthony Wilkerson added 34 yards on five carries, while some excellent play calls also freed up Kevin Hogan for 40 yards of his own on eight carries. Most notably, the Cardinal faked the oft-used sweep to Ty Montgomery to create room for Hogan to run up the middle. Stanford physically overwhelmed Notre Dame in this game: They finished with 261 rushing yards, while the Irish only mustered 64.
Expose The Back-Up Center
Matt Hegarty was making his first career start in an unenviable position: He was the center of a patchwork offensive line pitted against Stanford's rugged front seven. At the end of the day, the Irish front held up surprisingly well in Saturday's game. It was clear that the Cardinal front was slowed by the absence of defensive end Josh Mauro, who sat out the game for precautionary reasons. Blake Lueders played well in his stead, but the Farm Boys' defensive line showed noticeable fatigue. The defense recorded only one sack, and that came from linebacker Shayne Skov on a blitz. Rees enjoyed solid protection for most of the night, so it wasn't a spectacular effort from the Cardinal's pass rush, but they did generate enough pressure to force the Notre Dame quarterback into a pair of fatal mistakes.
It must be noted, though, that the Stanford front neutralized the Irish rushing attack (64 yards, 2.7 yards per carry). That allowed the home team to control the tempo of this game throughout.
Rage in the Red Zone
Stanford's red zone struggles this season have been fully documented in these parts, so it should be noted that the Cardinal did a good job inside the 20 yard line against Notre Dame. David Shaw's offense scored touchdowns on three out of five trips there, and a very questionable holding call against Kevin Danser (only the second against a Stanford offensive lineman all season) negated a fourth score. Devon Cajuste's 16-yard touchdown reception to put the Cardinal on the board was the result of a beautiful play call that sold the quick screen pass to Montgomery well and left No. 89 wide open behind the Notre Dame defense. Shaw later demonstrated effective use of the Wildcat near the end zone: As opposed to Stanford's failure against USC, he made sure Kelsey Young moved in motion to complement the Gaffney threat. Wilkerson's 20-yard touchdown scamper came on third-and-nine. It was the result of a play call that was both unpredictable and smart, particularly given Stanford's dominance on the ground during the contest.
Pac-12 Title Game Notes
- Mauro expects to play in Saturday's championship game, while Shaw and Stanford's training staff share the same outlook. The defensive end was "kicked" during practice in the week leading up to the Notre Dame game, and he slightly aggravated the leg injury before kickoff. Shaw said that he wasn't able to establish perfect drive with the affected leg before the game, so he was ruled out of the contest. A couple days of treatment is expected to assuage the problem.
- Arizona State will likely be missing running back Marion Grice against Stanford, but the Sun Devils still opened as favorites (-3.5) for Saturday's game. Remember, the Cardinal were smoking Todd Graham's squad 39-7 in the fourth quarter of the teams' match-up at Stanford Stadium back in September. Since then, ASU looks to have played its way into shape, especially along the defensive line. Tackle Will Sutton was unimpressive against the Cardinal, but he's gradually returned to form. The Sun Devils have also been spectacular at home. Like Stanford, they've posted a 7-0 record there. "You can't put a price tag" on home field advantage, Graham said.
- If the Cardinal are to reach their second consecutive Rose Bowl, they will have to exorcise the road demons that have haunted them this year (that makes the match-up with the 'Devils' fitting, right?). Statistically, Stanford's defense has been just as good on the road as it has been at home, but the offense is struggling away from the Bay Area. The Cardinal are averaging about six fewer points per game on the road. Their third down conversion percentage plummets from 58 to 42 when they pack their bags and travel. Of course, this 2013 season's two nightmare moments have come on the road: Utah and USC.
- Stanford's defense finished the regular season at the top of the Pac-12 in points allowed (19.0 per game) and rushing yards allowed (2.9 yards per carry). Mason's crew gave up 516 fewer rushing yards on the season than the second best run-stopping team in the conference. The offense ranked near the middle of the Pac-12 in most categories, but it should be noted that they gave up the fewest negative plays and were the most efficient of all 12 teams on third down (52.3 percent). The defense, meanwhile, was the best in the conference on third down. Opponents converted just 32.6 percent of their tries against Stanford. The Farm Boys also finished the regular season leading the Pac-12 in kick returns and kick return coverage.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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