"College GameDay" will be in South Bend this week, bringing more hype to an already highly anticipated matchup between No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 17 Stanford. Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna and Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell got together to throw out some early thoughts on the game.
Kevin Gemmell: Well Matt, I'd imagine this is going to be a much different blogger discussion than the one we did to close out the 2011 season, when Andrew Luck was gunning for a Heisman, Stanford was looking for a BCS bowl berth and Notre Dame was playing quarterback roulette.
Lots of changes from both teams since the end of last November.
Kick it off and give those of us on the Left Coast a feel for what's happening with the Irish right now. I know they are a spread team. But it's different from the spread Stanford saw last week against Arizona and the one they will see later this year at Oregon. What's the skinny?
Matt Fortuna: Kevin, the Irish offense is still very much in the developmental stages, largely because its quarterback, Everett Golson, is a redshirt freshman who has played only five games. They let him loose a bit against Miami, as he showed some running ability that the Irish haven't seen at the position in recent years, but he was not exactly facing Stanford's defense, either.
Notre Dame has a big, physical offensive line that allows the team to run the ball effectively and take much of the pressure off Golson. Tyler Eifert may be the best tight end in America, but he has been the focus of every defense so far and has not put up the numbers he did last season. The Irish have a number of reliable upperclassmen receivers, but no real game-breaker who has stepped up to be that go-to guy yet.
Conversely, what in the world do we make of this Stanford defense? I thought we'd be looking at two similar teams slugging it out in a 10-7 battle, but then I saw this past Saturday, when Arizona put up 48 points on the Cardinal.
Kevin Gemmell: First off, bold statement to make about Eifert with the tight end duo of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo coming to town. Toilolo caught five balls for 141 yards and a score against Arizona and Ertz had six catches for 64 yards and a score. The Cardinal are 10-1 when Ertz catches a touchdown ... just sayin'.
Now, about that defense. Yikes, indeed. The Wildcats had 617 total yards. But the most disturbing part about it -- according to Stanford head coach David Shaw -- was that Arizona got some big plays over the top of the secondary. The Cardinal are happy to give up the short passes, so long as they make tackles at the point of the catch. But getting beat over the top is a no-no. Shaw said that's just a technique issue and can be corrected in the film room. We'll see.
But we can't dump on the defense too much. Because when they absolutely needed a stop -- or a couple of them -- they got it. They clutched up in the fourth quarter, got the ball back for the offense and the Cardinal scored twice in the fourth to overcome a 14-point deficit. And Chase Thomas had the interception in overtime that led to Stanford's win.
Tell me about the Notre Dame defense. No touchdowns in the past three games and the state of Michigan is 0-for-end zone against the Irish. Are they as advertised?
Matt Fortuna: Miami didn't score a touchdown, either, making it three straight games that this defense has held an opponent out of the end zone. The simple answer so far is yes. The Irish are giving up 7.8 points per game, second-lowest in the country. They have forced 13 turnovers and recorded 14 sacks. The front seven has looked as good as any in the country, and Manti Te'o may just be the best defensive player in the country.
The secondary has had two starters go down since camp -- and was entering this campaign with no returning starts at cornerback to begin with -- but has more than held its own through five games, surviving a couple of early drops against Miami and not letting any Canes receivers get over the top after the game's opening drive.
Does Josh Nunes have the ability to make life difficult for the defensive backs this week?
Kevin Gemmell: And therein lies the $1 million question. Nunes was adequate the first two games, solid in the second half against USC, terrible at Washington and then he blew up last week against Arizona, throwing a pair of touchdowns and running for three more. So far, he has done his best work at home and his worst performance was in their only game away from Stanford Stadium.
So this will be a huge test for him to see if he can get it done outside of Palo Alto. A lot of people were calling for his ouster after the Washington debacle, so credit Nunes for pushing out the noise and refocusing with a possible season-saving performance against the Wildcats. He's still not where Shaw and the Cardinal need him to be from a consistency standpoint. But I don't think anyone is going to question his toughness, determination or character after last week.
As for whether he can make it tough -- a lot of that falls on the Stanford receivers. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery needs to play better. Jamal-Rashad Patterson came through with a big catch and, of course, the tight ends will play a major role. If the Cardinal can run the ball effectively (no promises against a good Notre Dame front), then it will force those safeties down and create some matchup problems with the tight ends. Nunes has to consistently get them the ball as he did against Arizona. Because if he falters on the road as he did against Washington, it will be another touchdown-free performance for the Irish.
So closing it out, it seems as though Stanford's tight ends will be the biggest X factor for the Notre Dame defense. Can they hang with the 6-foot-6 Ertz and 6-8 Toilolo?
Matt Fortuna: I still have images of Stanford's tight ends dragging Irish corners during last year's contest. Those were a pair of seniors with multiple starting seasons under their belts. This is a pair of first-year starters who came to Notre Dame as offensive players.
I still think a big part of it comes down to the pressure Notre Dame gets up front. It didn't have any sacks against Miami, but it took the pocket away from Stephen Morris and threw off timing. That has been the Irish's defensive formula so far, and I expect them to try it again Saturday, even against an offensive line as good as the Cardinal's.