Once previously in the brief life of the College Football Playoff, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish embarked on the final week of the regular season with a shot at an invitation to the national semifinals. Notre Dame concluded that 2015 regular season as it concludes every regular season, trekking to California to face an opponent from the Pac-12 Conference; in that instance, Stanford.
The Cardinal answered a late Notre Dame touchdown with a last-second field goal that propelled the home team into the Pac-12 Championship Game with positive momentum, while denying Notre Dame a shot at the national championship. The Irish return to The Farm again harboring playoff aspirations, and a win over the possible Pac-12 North divisional champion would bolster an already impressive resume that includes a blowout defeat of the Pac-12 South champion, USC.
The 2015 meeting was one in a series of classics between these two annual competitors in recent years. In 2012, Notre Dame's controversial overtime win contributed to the Irish's berth in the BCS Championship Game — a berth that may well have gone to Stanford, had the places been reversed. The Fighting Irish's seven-point win marked the first of five straight games in the series leading into Saturday decided by a touchdown or less.
Notre Dame at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Notre Dame -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. For the Love of trucking
Two of the best running backs in college football are on opposite sides in Saturday's matchup, although both are battling injuries. Notre Dame running back Josh Adams had his #Trucking33 Heisman Trophy campaign derailed in recent weeks, the result of unproductive outings while he was limited with an unspecified injury. Nevertheless, Adams comes in with 1,337 yards rushing on the season and an impressive 7.82 yards-per-carry average to pace the nation's sixth-most productive rushing offense.
Few ball carriers average more when getting the ball than Adams — but Stanford's Bryce Love (above, right) is one of them. Love leads the nation with 172.3 yards per game, which have come on a whopping 8.84 yards per carry. He missed a game last month due to an ankle injury that head coach David Shaw says that Love is still battling. That didn't stop Love from rolling up three touchdowns in the Cardinal's playoff-altering upset of Washington on Nov. 10.
2. Find a passing rhythm
Both Stanford and Notre Dame want to establish the run, first and foremost. However, both defenses are designed to slow the ground attack. Stanford will counter Notre Dame's dual-threat attack of Adams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush with Harrison Phillips on the interior of the line and a deep linebacker corps headlined by Bobby Okereke. Likewise, Notre Dame aims to slow Love with Te'von Coney, Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan.
A focus on slowing the rush will put demands on the arms of Wimbush and Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello. That's been a shaky proposition on both sides.
In the win over Washington, Costello's 16-of-27 passing performance with no interceptions buoyed the offense, working effectively enough to keep Washington honest — which, in turn, translated into opportunities for Love. In the loss to Washington State a week earlier, Costello went just 9-of-20 and averaged only 5.3 yards per attempt.
Before being sidelined at Miami on Nov. 11, Wimbush was 13-of-27 with three interceptions and averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt. The severity of his injury in the blowout loss looked worse than it was, and he returned to lead a close win over Navy, 24-17. Wimbush went just 9-of-18 against the Midshipmen, but his 9.1 yards per attempt and two touchdown passes forced Navy's defense to respect the pass.
3. Trench warfare
Fans of physical, old-school football games won or lost at the line of scrimmage should enjoy Notre Dame-Stanford. Phillips leads the always-stout Stanford defensive front against an Irish offensive line that, prior to the Miami game, was earning national praise as arguably the best unit in the nation. Quenton Nelson, an Outland Trophy finalist, leads the impressive front five.
Any game is typically predicated on the performance up front, but the mirroring physicality of both lines on both sides of the ball ensures that Saturday's outcome will be defined largely up front.
Notre Dame's face-plant the last time it hit the road for a game with Playoff implications, Nov. 11 at Miami, casts doubt on the Fighting Irish's credentials. Still, this is a team with a dominant win over USC (which dominated Stanford earlier in the season, if you're into meaningless transitive results), an imposing defeat of NC State, and a rout of a good Wake Forest bunch. That stretch preceded the blowout loss at Miami and last week's narrow escape against a Navy program that has a historic knack for taking the Fighting Irish to the wire.
Stanford head coach David Shaw took responsibility for the narrow loss Nov. 4 at Washington State — a loss that in all likelihood knocked the Cardinal out of playoff contention. Their defeat of Washington on Nov. 10 showed the full potential of this team when it's clicking on all cylinders. Finding that rhythm from week to week has proven vexing for the Cardinal, however.
Expect another classic, decided by a single score in the final minutes. Notre Dame's prowess on the offensive line should make the difference, as the Fighting Irish capitalize on one of the less effective Stanford run defenses of the last few years.