SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two months ago, Saturday’s Notre Dame-Stanford game was fairly circled by national observers as a potential College Football Playoff elimination game. Now, it might be an elimination game for Notre Dame’s bowl chances while the Cardinal limp to South Bend after being bludgeoned by Washington and Washington State.
While Notre Dame is 2-4 with wins only over lowly FBS programs in Nevada and Syracuse, there are a few reasons to believe the Irish have a favorable matchup ahead of them in primetime this weekend.
Notre Dame’s defensive weakness is in its secondary, which has allowed five plays of 60 or more yards and is allowing eight yards per passing attempt (100th). But Stanford has largely struggled to move the ball through the air this year, with Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst combining to average 6.8 yards per attempt (87th) with only one more interception (four) than touchdown (five).
Washington State, even after playing Stanford, is allowing 8.1 yards per pass (105th), but held the Cardinal to 6.9 yards per attempt — right around their season average — in that 44-16 blowout win last weekend.
Stanford’s offensive line has uncharacteristically struggled, too, and has allowed an average of three sacks per game. Notre Dame has three sacks total on the season, so Saturday looks like an opportunity for this moribund pass rush to resuscitate itself (if it can’t against Stanford, it might never this season). Washington State entered last weekend with four sacks as a team and netted three against the Cardinal.
Notre Dame’s defensive efforts likely will focus on stopping running back Christian McCaffrey — assuming last year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up plays — as Washington and Washington State successfully did. In those two games, McCaffrey only gained 84 yards on 20 carries and caught six passes for 35 yards, partly due to ineffectiveness and partly because Stanford faced large deficits that forced it to throw. But the formula for muting the Cardinal offense is clear: Don’t let McCaffrey beat you.
Stanford’s defense has been torched in its last two games, too, and is allowing 7.8 yards per pass (92nd). Opponents are converting 47.8 percent of their third downs against the Cardinal, which is good news for an Irish offense that is only converting one in every three third downs this season (last week’s rain-soaked loss at North Carolina State skewed that percentage downward, though).
The Cardinal defense has only generated six turnovers — the same number as Notre Dame’s — so getting off the field isn’t a strength. While they’re one of four teams to not allow a play of 50 or more yards and are pretty good at limiting big-chunk plays, if Notre Dame’s offense — which was quite good before slogging through a hurricane at North Carolina State — takes what’s there, it shouldn’t have a problem going up and down the field in dry conditions.
This isn’t to say Notre Dame is guaranteed to win — it’s difficult to make that claim that when the Irish have losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke on their resume — but on the surface, this does look like a game in which Notre Dame can take advantage of some favorable matchups.