Notre Dame hosts Stanford on Saturday night in South Bend for one of the most anticipated matchups on college football’s Week 5 slate. Both teams head into this showdown at 4-0, ranked inside of the top 10 in most polls and eager to get another marquee win to bolster the resume as the midpoint for the 2018 season is just around the corner. And while it’s early to think about the CFB Playoff, whichever team wins this game will certainly add a key victory that could matter in the committee’s four-team selection in December.
Thanks to two timely turnovers by Oregon, Stanford rallied to beat the Ducks 38-31 in overtime last Saturday. The win improved the Cardinal to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in Pac-12 play this season. Coach David Shaw’s team has already picked up quality wins against San Diego State and USC, so this team is certainly battle-tested going into the matchup against Notre Dame. As usual, Stanford wants to lean on its ground game to anchor the offense. However, quarterback K.J. Costello is in the midst of a breakout season, and the defense has played better than most expected after giving up nearly six yards a play in 2017.
Notre Dame started its 2018 season with a bang. The Fighting Irish defeated Michigan 24-17 in one of the top matchups from Week 1 but delivered sluggish performances against Ball State (24-16) and Vanderbilt (22-17). Coach Brian Kelly needed a spark from his offense in Week 4 and made a switch from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book at quarterback. The move paid dividends, as Book led the Fighting Irish to a 56-27 win over the Demon Deacons.
Notre Dame holds a 19-13 series edge over Stanford. However, recent trends in this matchup have favored the Cardinal. Stanford won 38-20 last season and have claimed four out of the last five meetings against the Fighting Irish.
Stanford at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Notre Dame -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Notre Dame’s Defense Against Bryce Love
Under the direction of first-year coordinator Clark Lea, Notre Dame has been stingy against the run in 2018. The Fighting Irish feature a talented defensive front, anchored by lineman Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney. This duo leads the way for a rush defense limiting opponents to just 3.5 yards a carry and has yet to allow a run of 30 yards or more.
While Notre Dame’s defense has been tough against the run, it will get a challenge on Saturday night from Stanford’s offensive line and running back Bryce Love. Last season, Love rushed for 125 yards on 20 carries versus the Fighting Irish and has 254 yards on 59 attempts so far this year. The senior has only one run of 40 yards or more in 2018, down from 15 in ’17. Love isn’t quite replicating his previous rushing totals, but the offensive line has also struggled with injuries and could play with more overall consistency.
The battle in the trenches on Saturday night between Notre Dame’s defensive front and Stanford’s offensive line will be critical. Can the Fighting Irish keep Love in check and prevent the senior from generating a few big runs? Lea’s defense would probably live with Love getting to 100 yards but taking 25 carries to eclipse that mark. However, the Cardinal aren’t dependent solely on Love for offense. He rushed for just 29 yards against San Diego State and had just 89 versus Oregon last week.
2. Stanford QB K.J. Costello and Receiving Targets
While Love’s production is down a bit from last season, that’s hardly cause for concern from Shaw and the staff. The emergence and development of quarterback K.J. Costello has helped Stanford’s offense have more balance and prevent defenses from keying too much on Love and the ground game. The sophomore has passed for 1,056 yards and 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions through Stanford’s first four games. Additionally, Costello is completing 64 percent of his throws.
With Costello more comfortable in his second year as the starter, Stanford’s offense can take full advantage of its weapons on the outside. This group of skill players features plenty of size, including receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (6-foot-3) and tight ends Kaden Smith (6-foot-5) and Colby Parkinson (6-foot-7). That size on the outside or over the middle of the field allows Costello to take advantage of jump ball situations, especially in the red zone to Arcega-Whiteside.
Notre Dame will counter with a secondary featuring preseason All-American Julian Love at cornerback, with Navy transfer Alohi Gilman providing a boost at safety. The Fighting Irish rank 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense and have allowed just two passing touchdowns through four contests.
Will Costello pick up where he left off last week against Oregon? And if so, how will Notre Dame’s secondary counter the tall weapons on the outside in one-on-one matchups?
3. Notre Dame’s Offense With Ian Book at the Controls
After watching Notre Dame’s offense struggle against Ball State and Vanderbilt, coach Brian Kelly decided to make a switch under center. Brandon Wimbush was benched in favor of Ian Book to help jumpstart the passing attack. It’s only one game, but the early returns are positive for Kelly and coordinator Chip Long. Book torched a struggling Wake Forest defense for 325 yards and two touchdowns through the air and added 43 rushing yards and three scores on the ground.
While Book aced his first start of the 2018 season, Stanford is likely to provide more resistance on defense. The Cardinal entered the year with a few holes to fill, but this unit is limiting offenses to 5.02 yards a play. However, this unit gave up 6.4 yards a play in last week’s win over Oregon, so coordinator Lance Anderson still has some work to do on this side of the ball.
Book’s emergence as the starter has allowed Kelly and Long to utilize the entire field and prevent defenses from loading up the box to stuff the run. Notre Dame isn't hurting for talent at the skill positions, and the offensive line remains solid even with Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey off to the NFL. The Fighting Irish have four players with at least nine catches this year, including tight end Alize Mack (12) and receiver Miles Boykin (18.6 ypc). The ground game has leaned on Tony Jones and Jafar Armstrong so far, but Dexter Williams is expected to join the mix for carries after sitting out the first four games due to suspension.
Was Notre Dame’s performance last week a sign of things to come for this offense? Book’s ability to deliver through the air certainly opens up the attack for more big plays and less reliance on the ground game and defense. However, while Book posted a big performance last week, Stanford’s defense is going to be a good test for the sophomore. Can Notre Dame build off last Saturday’s performance? Or will the Cardinal find a way to slow down Book and prove the Fighting Irish’s production last week was just a one-game uptick?
Considering five out of the last six matchups have been decided by a touchdown or less, a close game should be anticipated on Saturday night. Can Stanford’s offensive line clear enough running lanes for Love to break a couple of big plays? And if not, will Costello connect on enough big passes against a stingy Notre Dame secondary? When the Fighting Irish have the ball, Ian Book’s second start and the improved passing attack are worth monitoring. Notre Dame has already earned a huge victory at home (Michigan) this season, and the guess here is Brian Kelly’s team finds a way to win this showdown on Saturday night.