Saturday, October 04, 2008

Looking through the trees | by Pat

I suppose no Stanford preview this year can start without referencing Stanford's starting right tackle, Chris Marinelli and his comments about Notre Dame.

"I hate it, playing up there," Marinelli told The Cardinal Report. "The field, excuse my language, the field sucks. The stadium sucks. I think the area sucks."...

"I grew up with a bunch of Irish and Italian Catholic people back home," Marinelli, from Boston, told The Cardinal Report. "And all the Irish Catholic people, all they talk about is Notre Dame this, Notre Dame that. And they've never even been there, ya know. So I hate those guys, I hate that school.

"We are going out there to mash them up and that's all there is to it."
Not too bad as far as unnecessary pre-game trash talk goes. If ND had any trouble getting fired up for the game, they don't now. Stanford did issue an apology for Marinelli's statements, but to some degree that makes it even worse. At least you could respect a player being honest about a team he doesn't like. This is football after all.

Moving along to the actual preview of the game, let's take a look at Stanford's results so far this season:
  • W 36-28 Oregon State (2-2)
  • L 41-17 Arizona State (2-2)
  • L 31-14 TCU (4-1)
  • W 23-10 San Jose State (3-2)
  • W 35-28 Washington (0-4)
Getting back to Marinelli for a second, he also mentioned something that does fit into a preview of today's game. He mentioned that while ND likes to blitz a lot, they only have one sack in around 200 blitzes. And, well, that's true. Currently only Washington has fewer sacks than the Fighting Irish. But Marinelli also said that as the Stanford OL sees blitzes every day in practice, they won't have trouble with the ND ones.

The problem with that statement is that after being 115th in the nation in sacks allowed last season, Stanford is still only 82nd in the nation so far this season. In other words, plenty of teams have had success getting to the Cardinal QB. ND only had 18 sacks all of last season and still managed 5 (28%) against Stanford.

So, one thing to look for is see if this is the game that the blitz-happy Irish defense can finally start bringing down the quarterback. During the Purdue game the pressure was getting to Curtis Painter and ND did knock him down or rush a pass a number of times. Ethan Johnson in particular showed why he's going to be a very, very good player at ND. But the next step is to get to the QB before he releases the ball and there is a very good opportunity today with Stanford.

But if Stanford has their way, they won't pass all that much. Jim Harbaugh has turned Stanford into a rushing team and their starter, Toby Gerhart (right), is a pretty good one. After four games against smaller, more shifty backs, ND is going to have to adapt to Gerhart, a 6'1" 235 pound bruiser who is still quick enough to get to the sideline. Gerhart did suffer a mild concussion last week against Washington and missed the second half. He's slated to start today, but might see his carries cut back some. Then again, Harbaugh didn't seem to mind putting QB Tavita Pritchard back into the game against ND last season when it was pretty clear he was suffering from a mild concussion, so who knows.

Whether it's the tough Gerhart or the straight line speed of backup Anthony Kimble, Stanford is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has topped 200 yards rushing in 3 of their first 5 games. Today will be a solid test for the slowly improving Irish run defense.

When ND has the ball, the opportunity for offensive fireworks through the air are very possible. Stanford's weakness to this point in the season is their pass defense. There should be plenty of opportunities for Floyd, Tate, Grimes, and Kamara to do some damage against the Cardinal D. However, to keep the Stanford running backs off the field, ND is going to need to replicate the rushing success from the 2nd half of the Purdue game. Stanford's linebackers are far more active and aggressive than Purdue's so it will definitely be a tougher test of the line's ability to block and the running back's ability to follow his blockers and run to daylight.

Charlie also mentioned Stanford's defense and the different looks they like to give.
"And then defensively, when they go back and forth in and out of packages from their four-man front to the three-man front. They have Odd and they have Odd Diamond. When they go back and forth between these different packages, it presents some mental pressure on our offense as well as some physical pressure to make sure you don't end up turning somebody free."
One of the ways that ND likely will try to counter this shift is by going no-huddle. The running backs were seen with the playcards on their wrists during the practice videos all week, which is a clue that ND spent a lot of time working the no huddle offense. If ND doesn't slow down to huddle when on offense, that limits Stanford's ability to substitute in and out the different players needed to go from their Odd to Odd Diamond fronts. One thing to watch for today is how effective ND's offense is in the no-huddle versus when the team takes the extra time to huddle up and allow Stanford to substitute.

Harbaugh has worked hard to remake the mentality of his Stanford team to a more physical, aggressive, and "blue collar" group of players. He is succeeding, as the Cardinal do fly all over the field to make tackles on defense. But that comes at a bit of a price: penalties. Stanford is 98th in the nation in penalty yards per game. (ND is 28th). No doubt, there will be a lot of "extracurricular activity" during the game. The ND players need to keep their cool as the guy who retaliates is usually the one who gets caught. ND is 7th in the nation in opponent penalty yards per game, which hints that the Fighting Irish so far have been successful in getting the flags to fly for the other team. I suspect a lot of that yardage has been on pass interference penalties. If Stanford is going to continue to induldge in undisciplined play, ND will need to not only not get stupid penalties of their own, but also take full advantage of the penalty yards Stanford gives up.

The reciepe for this game is a fairly simple one for ND. Work hard to establish the ground game, mixed in with some deep strikes, while limiting Stanford's defensive substitutions as much as possible. On defense, do what it takes to keep Gerhart and the Stanford rushing game in check. An early lead will force Stanford to turn more to the air and their 106th ranked passing offense.

Other random bits of info to consider: Luke Schmidt is still suffering from concussion like symptoms, so he'll likely be held out. That means more Taylor Dever and Trevor Robinson when ND goes to multiple tight end sets. Perhaps freshman Joseph Fauria will make an appearance as well. ... Speaking of tight ends, Konrad Reuland is eligble to play for Stanford, but he's down on the depth chart and won't be making the trip to South Bend this season. ... Stanford is currently 10th in the nation in sacks, which is higher than Michigan. Will ND be able to keep Clausen's jersey clean? ... 5-star recruit Cierre Wood is one of the recruits visiting ND this weekend. So far this season he's averaging 13.9 yards per carry. This really has nothing to do with the outcome of today's game. I just think that's an absurd average, especially when you consider his high school moved into a tougher league this season. ... Last night at the pep rally, Jimmy Clausen encouraged everyone at the game to stand on Stanford third downs and help make noise for the Irish defense. I figure most reading this aren't at the game, but do what you can to spread the word. The more people standing, the better.