Each of the last three Notre Dame-Stanford games have been decided by seven points or fewer. That trend very well may continue on Saturday in Palo Alto, with one difference: a much higher final score than the 20-13, 27-20 and 17-14 ones of 2012-2014.
On the surface, this is an awfully even matchup between teams that feature high-scoring offenses and shaky defenses. Stanford’s offense is averaging 36.8 points per game (21st in FBS) while Notre Dame is averaging 34.6 (31st); defensively, Stanford is giving up an average of 22 points per game (36th) while Notre Dame is allowing 21 points per game (28th).
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A deeper dive beneath those general scoring numbers reveals a mercilessly efficient Stanford offense that’s prone to some defensive miscues.
Sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey is the engine driving Stanford’s offense, beginning with his elite ability on kick returns. Stanford’s average starting field position is the 33.3-yard line (the fourth-best average among FBS teams) this year thanks to McCaffrey’s consistent ability to carve up yards on kick returns, and he’s taken one back for a touchdown, too.
When the Cardinal offense does get on the field, it’s not explosive, but it ranks as college football’s third most efficient group by Bill Connelly’s S&P+ metrics. McCaffrey is almost unstoppable in short-yardage situations — Stanford’s power success rate, which tracks an offense’s ability to pick up two or fewer yards on third/fourth down and goal-to-goal situations, is 86 percent, fourth among FBS teams. Only 15 percent of Stanford’s running plays have been stuffed for no gain or a loss, the ninth-lowest rate in FBS.
Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan has been solid as well, leading the nation’s 13th-best passing attack by S&P+. He’s at his best when he can play off McCaffrey’s running ability, who’s also an accomplished receiver (his father, Ed, caught 565 passes over 13 seasons in the NFL with the Broncos, Giants and 49ers) with a team-leading 34 receptions. Hogan is completing 67 percent of his passes with 2,231 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions while distributing the ball to McCaffrey and a group of athletic receivers.
But Hogan and Stanford’s passing offense are far less effective when facing obvious passing situations — second-and-long, third/fourth-and-five-or-more — ranking 51st in passing downs S&P+. The problem is, given McCaffrey rarely gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage, so Stanford doesn’t find itself in many of those situations.
Solving Stanford’s defense, though, looks like a much easier task for Notre Dame’s offense from a statistical viewpoint.
Stanford’s defense ranks 75th in explosiveness and 60th in efficiency. Opposing offenses are averaging 4.4 points per trip inside the 40-yard line, ranking 48th in FBS. It’s a wholly mediocre defense, one that ranks 44th in rushing S&P+ and 68th in passing S&P+.
This defense doesn’t generate turnovers, either: The 10 they’ve gained rank 120th in FBS. That’s probably good news for a Notre Dame offense that turned the ball over five times against Boston College.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, ranks third in rushing S&P+ and seventh in passing S&P+. Even without C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame’s offense should probably have some success against Stanford.
Where Stanford’s defense is able to generate success is with its strong kickoff team, which is limiting opposing teams to an average starting field position of the 25.5-yard line, fourth nationally. By creating long fields for opponents, Stanford’s defense has been able to have some limited success.
This game, though, projects as being completely even. Connelly’s numbers project the final score to be 34.4-34.2 in favor of Stanford, with each team’s win probability at 50 percent. It’s a toss-up, and will probably come down to which defense is able to make the most plays to muffle the outstanding offenses both teams possess.