What We Learned From 2013: Stanford

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8.13.14

Craig Chval ‘15

By most accounts, the 2013 Stanford was actually one of the better played games of the year for Notre Dame. Despite the result of the Rose Bowl, I think Stanford was the best team the Irish played all year, and they lost by a touchdown on the road. 

Although it was a loss, I think it was a more impressive performance than, say, the Purdue or Navy games. Especially considering the injuries Notre Dame had handled by the end of the season, it was one of 2013’s better efforts.

But still it was a loss, so what caused it? When people remember the Stanford game, I think they mostly think of the last two drives that ended in interceptions. Yes, those were rough, especially the second one, which occurred on first down.

And overall, the offensive stats weren’t great. The Irish gained only 263 yards on the night, including just 64 rushing yards.

263 yards was the lowest total for the Irish offense all year, except for the Michigan State game (220). But 20 points off only 263 yards isn’t bad, and teams rarely get more off Stanford. But before we get to the offense, let’s look at the other side of the ball, which I think was a bigger issue.

What We Learned from Stanford: Playing Physical

For most of the games in 2013, Notre Dame was a better team than its opponent. If the Irish struggled on defense, it was often because of missed assignments and tackles or maybe sluggish play.

Against Stanford, there wasn’t a large quantity of such plays. Instead, the Cardinal attacked Notre Dame’s physicality. They averaged 5.1 yards per rush, and it wasn’t because Tyler Gaffney is the next Reggie Bush.

Stanford’s linemen, tight ends, and fullbacks consistently got to the second level of the Irish defense, neutralizing linebackers and forcing safeties to make the play. When safeties repeatedly make tackles on running plays, it’s probably not a good sign for your defense.

Stanford was at their best on 3rd down, converting eight out of 13 tries. They also baffled the Irish defense by running from any down and distance. Anthony Wilkerson scored a 20-yard TD on 3rd-9 by running up the middle. They similarly converted a 3rd-12 with a 21-yard burst.

During the game Stanford had 14 runs of at least eight yards. Notre Dame had three.

Now, are these fair comparisons? After all, Stanford employs a power running offense while Notre Dame favors the spread. But if Stanford’s track record over the last few years has shown anything, it’s that they have the ability to shut down finesse offenses. Oregon especially comes to mind, averaging 17 points over the last two years despite usually being in the upper 40s.

In the Rose Bowl last year, Michigan State was able to beat them at their own game. Although the Spartans only managed an absurdly low 1.9 yards per rush, the MSU defense was lights out. Stanford’s offense could just manage 13 points, and the MSU offense took advantage of timely penalties.

It’s tough to outgun a team like Stanford, who controls the tempo of the game with their run-heavy offense and stout defense. If there’s a blueprint to beating them, it’s fielding an equally tough defense.

Over the last two years, three of Stanford’s five losses have come against top-20 defenses: 2013 MSU (3rd in scoring), 2013 USC (16th), and 2012 Notre Dame (2nd).

On the Other Side of the Ball

Notre Dame’s defense, although a drop-off from 2012, was still respectable in 2013, giving up 22.4 points per game (28th in country). So if Stanford was able to exert its physicality against our defense, what stopped our offense from doing the same?

Notre Dame runs a lot more zone blocking than Stanford, for one thing. It emphasizes quickness and athleticism over size. The Cardinal use fullbacks and pulling guards to attack holes, while the Irish try to find seams. Zone blocking isn’t necessarily better or worse than man blocking, but Stanford’s linemen get a better push off the line.

If there are too many defenders where Stanford wants to run, they’ll use extra blockers to push them out of the way. Notre Dame tries to run where the defenders aren’t. But against a defense like Stanford, there aren’t a lot of those spaces.

That’s why Notre Dame looks for opportunities for shovel passes and bubble screens to spread the field and stretch the defense. Like against Michigan State, Notre Dame can use this philosophy, along with deep balls, to find a way against stout defenses. The difference between the two games for the Irish was the play of their own defense.

Looking to 2014

Under Bob Diaco’s defense, defensive linemen engaged their counterparts at the line, often at the expense of trying to push into the backfield. Against Stanford, this prevented them from disrupting the play, and pulling guards and fullbacks often took out linebackers. On some plays, Stanford running backs weren’t touched for 10, 15, or even 20 yards.

I haven’t seen the 2014 defense in action obviously, but I think getting a bigger push off the line will make a significant difference in rebuilding a physical defense.

On offense, the Irish will always stress speed over strength, but Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston are physical, speedy, and athletic. Having a quarterback who’s dynamic with his legs will also open up the run game, even if it’s not a “run it down your throat” style.

I was encouraged this week when Coach Kelly said Tyler Luatua can be used in the backfield in red zone sets, possibly giving the Irish a legitimate fullback or H-back for the first time in a while. If that pans out, I think that has the potential to do wonders for Notre Dame’s red zone offense and physical presence.

Well, that’s it for my 2013 series. I won’t be covering the bowl game for the simple reason that I don’t have a recording of it. I hope you enjoyed the series, and stay tuned as we turn toward the 2014 season and a new edition of Notre Dame football.

Lessons from 2013

Temple

Michigan

Purdue

Michigan State

Oklahoma 

Arizona State   

USC

Air Force

Navy

Pittsburgh

BYU

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