Stanford The Next Test For Notre Dame's Defense
Notre Dame is preparing for Stanford under the assumption that All-American Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey will play.
McCaffrey, a junior, is dealing with an undisclosed injury and is a game-time decision according to Stanford head coach David Shaw. McCaffrey ran for just 35 yards on just eight carries last week against Washington State — the fewest carries he’s received in the past two years.
Notre Dame held McCaffrey to just 94 yards on 27 carries last season and did not let him into the end zone. A threat in the passing game, McCaffrey also only caught three passes for 19 yards.
“Just focusing on our box play and just locking down the box,” senior linebacker James Onwualu said of Notre Dame’s 2015 plan to stop McCaffrey. “Obviously, he's the guy that kind of wants to get on the edge and use his speed. So containing him in the box and playing well against that run game.
“He’s trying to get outside, stretch the field. Once he gets in open field, he's tough to take down and really contain. So whatever we can do to keep him as confined as possible.”
For a defense that’s slowly gaining confidence after a miserable start to the season, Stanford’s run-first attack is another key test for the Irish.
Notre Dame is currently tied for 78th in the country in scoring defense (29.5 points per game allowed), 84th in rushing defense (181.2 yards per game allowed), 76th in passing defense (236 ypg) and 76th in total defense (417.2 ypg).
Even in a sloppy game against NC State in which neither offense was effective, Onwualu said there’s improvement being made.
“It's a great confidence booster for them, especially in a game where it's pretty much defense versus defense, and who is going to hold up longer in that game?” Onwualu said. “It's really all field position and defense. So our guys played well, and hopefully keep it rolling in the next week.”
The Cardinal offense has been ineffective through five games. Stanford ranks 122nd in the country in total offense, averaging a minuscule 307 yards per game. In its last two games — losses to Washington and Washington State — the Cardinal have tallied just 213 and 296 yards, respectively.
“Teams have done well and we’re taking things from that,” senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said of Notre Dame’s game plan. “We’re doing what we do too. Obviously our coaches have done a good job game-planning and pulling what they need to.”
Stanford’s offense is predicated on a strong rushing game, though it’s been subpar during its 3-2 start. The Cardinal have just four rushing touchdowns this season, which is tied with Mississippi State, Buffalo and Massachusetts for second-worst in the country. Only Indiana and Miami of Ohio (2) have fewer.
“We can talk about specifics, but Stanford is Stanford,” Rochell said. “They’re going to have an O-line that’s great and plays with great technique and great pad level. When they come to a stage like Notre Dame, they’re going to play even better. We can nitpick and look at things, but we’ve got to be ready to play.
“The key’s always stop the run. Stanford is team that prides itself on running the ball and running the ball well. Ultimately it’s a technique game, and the emphasis is on stopping the run.”
The Cardinal also have a new quarterback, replacing veteran Kevin Hogan — now on the Cleveland Browns’ 53-man roster — with senior Ryan Burns.
Burns is currently 98th in the country in passing, averaging 153.6 yards per game and has five passing touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s completed 66.3 percent of his 104 attempts.
Senior cornerback Cole Luke was asked what he expects from a first-year starting quarterback in Stanford’s run-first offense.
“They’re in the game to manage the game,” Luke said of the QB. “They’re not in there to make plays, to do anything out of their way. they’re in there to manage the game. They’re going to take it slow, dink and dunk.”
Last year’s last-second 38-36 loss to Stanford still stings. Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan wants revenge.
“That was painful. That’s something that has to get changed,” Morgan said of the 2015 loss, which knocked Notre Dame from playoff contention. “We’re at home with the home crowd and we have to get a victory.”