We've been hearing since early in the season that Notre Dame is really bad this year. For weeks, some Stanford fans mentally have been putting the Notre Dame game in the "should win" category. Of course, Stanford fans, as much as anybody, know that anything can happen, and that "should win" games have a disturbing habit of turning into "how the heck did we lose" games. But given the way Notre Dame has been playing this season, some Stanford fans have been figuring that this is a game Stanford ought to win.
Perhaps that attitude was justified earlier in the season. But right now, the numbers tell a different story.
The offensive statistics for the full season favor Stanford:
|Points per game||20.1||16.0*|
|First downs per game||19.2||16.8|
|Total offense per game||323||236|
|Passing yards per game||219||164|
|Yards per pass attempt||6.1||5.1|
|Rushing yards per game||104||72|
|Rushing yards/game (excluding sacks)||137||106|
|Yards per rushing attempt||2.9||2.0|
|Yards per rushing attempt (excl. sacks)||4.3||3.4|
|Sacks allowed per game||4.2||4.8|
|* Excluding overtime, Notre Dame is scoring 14.5 points|
As these numbers show, Notre Dame's offense has been terrible this season. As a point of comparison, Notre Dame's offensive statistics this year are similar Stanford's offensive stats last year, which was Stanford's worst offensive season ever:
|Total offense per game||232||236|
|Passing yards per game||167||164|
|Yards per pass attempt||6.3||5.1|
|Rushing yards per game||65||72|
|Yards per rushing attempt||2.1||2.0|
But there's a different picture hidden beneath these full-season statistics: Notre Dame is getting better, while Stanford is going the other direction. Notre Dame's offensive performance has improved dramatically in the last three games. If we look at Notre Dame's statistics for the last three games (against Navy, Air Force, and Duke) compared to Notre Dame's statistics for its previous eight games, we can see a big difference:
|Points per game||10.0||32.0*|
|First downs per game||12.3||23.3|
|Total offense per game||188||364|
|Passing yards per game||154||193|
|Yards per pass attempt||4.8||5.9|
|Rushing yards per game||34||171|
|Rushing yards/game (excluding sacks)||70||203|
|Yards per rushing attempt||1.1||3.4|
|Yards per rushing attempt (excl. sacks)||2.7||4.4|
|Sacks allowed per game||5.2||4.0|
|* Excluding overtime, Notre Dame is scoring 26.7 points|
per game in the last 3 games.
Stanford's offense, on the other hand, has not played well during Stanford's current three-game losing streak. Stanford's offense has not been able to score more than 17 points in any of its last three games (against Oregon State, Washington, and Washington State). Stanford's offensive statistics during its three game losing streak are well below Stanford's numbers in its previous seven games:
|Points per game||24.1||10.7|
|First downs per game||20.4||16.3|
|Total offense per game||345||270|
|Passing yards per game||228||196|
|Yards per pass attempt||6.3||5.7|
|Rushing yards per game||117||74|
|Rushing yards/game (excluding sacks)||146||115|
|Yards per rushing attempt||3.1||2.3|
|Yards per rushing attempt (excl. sacks)||4.3||4.2|
|Sacks allowed per game||3.9||5.0|
Putting the two teams' statistics for the last three games side-by-side, we see a different picture than we saw when we looked at the full-season statistics. The advantage on offense moves to Notre Dame's side:
|Points per game||10.7||32.0*|
|First downs per game||16.3||23.3|
|Total offense per game||270||364|
|Passing yards per game||196||193|
|Yards per pass attempt||5.7||5.9|
|Rushing yards per game||74||171|
|Rushing yards/game (excluding sacks)||115||203|
|Yards per rushing attempt||2.3||3.4|
|Yards per rushing attempt (excl. sacks)||4.2||4.4|
|Sacks allowed per game||5.0||4.0|
|* Excluding overtime, Notre Dame is scoring 26.7 points|
per game in the last 3 games.
What we've seen in the last few weeks is that Notre Dame's offense, as ineffective as it may be, nevertheless can move the ball against weak defenses. Last week, Notre Dame gained 414 yards and scored 28 points against Duke. Duke's defense is statistically very similar to Stanford's defense. Duke's defense allows 440 yards per game (259 passing, 181 rushing), while Stanford's defense allows 455 yards per game (275 passing, 181 rushing). Notre Dame undoubtedly will look to its success against the Duke defense as a model for what it hopes to do against Stanford's defense.
As tempting as it is to assume that the Notre Dame offense will be ineffectual, that has not been the case for the last few weeks. Notre Dame's offense is good enough to beat a weak defense. And Stanford has not been playing good defense lately. Stanford's defense needs to return to the form it showed against San Jose State and at times in some of the other games.
On the defensive side, Notre Dame's overall defensive statistics this season are in the middle of the pack. Notre Dame is 44th in the NCAA in total defense and 82nd in scoring defense. Notre Dame's defense has the advantage over Stanford's defense in the majority of the statistical categories:
|Points allowed per game||30.5||30.1*|
|First downs allowed per game||21.8||21.5|
|Total yards allowed per game||455||360|
|Passing yards allowed per game||275||163|
|Yards allowed per pass attempt||8.1||5.7|
|Rushing yards allowed per game||181||197|
|Rushing yards allowed/game (excl. sacks)||204||207|
|Yards allowed per rushing attempt||4.3||4.3|
|Yards allowed/rushing attempt (excl. sacks)||5.3||4.7|
|Sacks per game||3.0||1.3|
|Tackles for loss per game||8.0||4.6|
|* Excluding overtime, Notre Dame is allowing 28.5 points|
The strength of Notre Dame's defense is its pass defense. Notre Dame ranks third in the NCAA in passing yards allowed, and 33rd in pass efficiency defense. Only three of Notre Dame's 11 opponents (Boston College, Purdue, and USC) have gained more than 200 passing yards against the Irish.
Of course, part of the reason for Notre Dame's good pass defense numbers may be that most of Notre Dame's opponents have had enough success running the ball that they didn't need to pass much. Notre Dame has allowed more than 200 rushing yards to six of its 11 opponents (Georgia Tech, Michigan, Michigan State, USC, Navy, and Air Force). In fact, Notre Dame's run defense is statistically rather similar to Stanford's run defense. It would seem that the best way to deal with the Notre Dame defense is to run the ball effectively.
However, running the ball has not been a strength for Stanford this season. The injuries on the offensive line and at the running back position have slowed Stanford's running game. Stanford has had success on the ground at times. Excluding sacks, Stanford ran for 285 yards against San Jose State, 215 yards against TCU, and 158 yards (7.9 yards/carry) against Washington. But consistency has been hard to find. Stanford has not demonstrated that it effectively can exploit the weaknesses of the Notre Dame defense.
Stanford's offense struggled in its last two games despite facing two of the worst defenses in the conference. Stanford gained only 253 yards and scored just 9 points against Washington. Stanford was able to gain 376 yards against Washington State, but scored only 17 points. Notre Dame's defense is better than either Washington's defense or Washington State's defense, allowing 360 yards per game, compared to 432 yards per game for Washington and 414 yards per game for Washington State.
Given that Notre Dame's defense is better than either Washington's defense or WSU's defense, Notre Dame's defense will be a challenge for the Stanford offense. Stanford needs to rise to the challenge by finding a way to produce enough offense to win. Stanford's offense will need to be more consistent and will need to take better advantage of its opportunities than has been the case recently.
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