Notre Dame vs. Stanford: 5 keys to a Fighting Irish win

Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini (48) and cornerback Shaun Crawford (20) celebrate stopping Navy on fourth down late in the second half of a recent game in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)
Stanford running back Bryce Love runs for a touchdown against California during the second half of a recent game in Stanford, Calif. (By The Associated Press)

There is no pretense involved in any football game matching Notre Dame and Stanford. Both teams like to play physical football featuring a strong running attack, with just enough passing to keep the other honest.

“Stanford is kind of my favorite opponent to play,” Notre Dame graduate student offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said earlier this week. “It’s one of those classic football games, especially because they’re a program and a team that is had so much success over the last probably decade or so.”

“They’re a team that takes a lot of pride in what they do. They’re very strong. They’re very tough and they are just as good as it gets in terms of programs.”

The No. 8-ranked Fighting Irish (9-2) will visit No. 21-ranked Stanford (8-3) tonight at 8 p.m. (ABC).

Here are five keys to the Fighting Irish getting a victory in Palo Alto for the first time in five games out on the West Coast.

NO LOVE SHOWN

There really is no secret to the success of the Cardinal program this year. Stanford has the nation’s most productive runner (junior Bryce Love) and it uses him to key its offensive attack.

“He’s obviously an incredible player,” Fighting Irish linebacker Drue Tranquill said of Love. “He gets a lot of attention and it is well-deserved.”

Love currently leads the nation (among Power 5 backs) in rushing yards (1,723), as well as 11 other statistical categories.

He is averaging an astonishing 8.8 yards per carry – and that is WITH every opposing defense keying on him.

“He is dynamic,” Tranquill said. “He’s got great vision and brings a lot to the table in terms of what he can do at the running back position.”

“We have to contain him and be aware of him.”

The ability to “contain him” will be vital, because Love doesn’t go down easily, he fights through tackles, which is a big reason why he leads the nation in 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-, and 60-yard runs.

“To me,” veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of his strategy against Love, “it’s his ability to break that first tackle. And then, ultimately, he’s got incredible speed. You have to tackle this guy. That is what makes him a special player.”

PRESSURE APPLIED

Cardinal sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello has only started four games this season, though he has played in eight. However, despite his somewhat limited experience, he has shown ability.

He is completing over 60 percent of his throws and only has been picked off twice.

A key to today’s game will be Notre Dame’s ability to put Stanford in passing situations (by stopping Love on first and second downs) and then bringing pressure.

Which won’t be easy at all.

The Cardinal offensive line has allowed just four sacks over the last eight games and ranks ninth nationally in protecting its quarterback.

“Their offensive line is one of the best ones we’ll see,” Kelly said. “I think their physicality is who they are and what they are about.”

The Irish defense has been solid at pressuring the opposition this season, in fact, much better than a year ago. However, it hasn’t been of late.

In the past four games, Notre Dame has registered just two sacks, which has to be improved upon tonight.

“I’m a guy that has 100 percent faith and trust in teammates,” McGlinchey said of the Irish defensive front this year, “and those guys brought it every single day from January on. It wasn’t anything that they did that was – it wasn’t brain surgery. They just went to work and trusted their coaching. You can’t be prouder of that group.”

One of the Irish defenders that has enjoyed a “breakout year,” according to Kelly, is sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem.

The youngster has registered 5 ½ tackles for a loss this season to go with his 18 total tackles and is tied for the team lead with three sacks.

“He was physical,” Kelly said of Kareem’s play this season. “This year has been a breakout year for him in that sense, that he’s gained a lot of confidence, and he’s made so much progress in the weight room. So from a physical standpoint, he can go in there and battle with anybody.”

RELATED STORY:Notre Dame vs. Stanford: 5 things Brian Kelly said

TIME TO SHINE

Notre Dame’s second-leading pass-catcher, junior Equanimeous St. Brown, is questionable today following his getting hit in the head last week and having to go through concussion protocol this week.

Kelly said that if he can not go, redshirt sophomore Miles Boykin will have to elevate his level of play.

“Boykin will have to go in and do a great job,” Kelly said. “We’ll just plug and play him.”

Boykin has seen action in 10 games this season, but has only caught eight passes. But Kelly expressed confidence in him despite his lack of production this season.

“He filled in very nicely,” Kelly said of Boykin replacing the injured St. Brown last week against Navy. “He caught a couple of passes and did a nice job blocking on the perimeter.”

“I think you just take (St. Brown) out and you put Miles Boykin in there and we keep rolling.”

Sophomore Chase Claypool leads the Irish with 28 receptions, while classmate Kevin Stepherson has been very productive over the last five games.

During that stretch, Stepherson has caught 15 passes.

“He tracks the ball very well,” Kelly said of Stepherson. “I would say probably more than anything else, he just has natural ball skills and the ability to get over the top of a defense.”

HISTORY SHOWS THIS WON’T BE GOOD

The Notre Dame 2017 squad certainly shouldn’t be held accountable for the transgressions of previous Irish teams, however, the numbers in this series, at least of late, are overwhelmingly against Notre Dame flying home in a good mood tonight.

Kelly has never won a game in Palo Alto and the Irish haven’t done so since 2007.

“Clearly,” Kelly said, “you’re going against a team that stresses you from a tactical standpoint, and they are a physical football team.”

The Irish are the much higher-rated program currently, but history also shows that is irrelevant.

Stanford has beaten five consecutive top 10 programs on its home field, in fact, veteran Stanford coach David Shaw has never lost a non-Pac 12 game at home in 12 outings.

“The proof is in the success that he’s had,” Kelly said of Shaw. “He’s done an incredible job. He’s been consistent. They are who they are. They don’t pretend to be anybody else.”

RIPE FOR THE PICKING

If you disregard the Miami (Fla.) game, Notre Dame redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush hasn’t thrown an interception in seven games. However, that very well may change tonight.

The Stanford defense has forced a turnover in eight straight games and the Cardinal defenders have picked off 14 passes this season.

As a team Stanford ranks 14th nationally in turnover margin.

“They’re a physical defense,” Wimbush said. “I think that they are pretty well coached. Obviously, they are smart guys, so they are not going to make any mistakes and let guys come free, so they are a disciplined team.”

“We have to execute how we’ve been executing.”

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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