Notre Dame Football: Tyler Gaffney

Five things: Notre Dame-Stanford

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
7:00
AM ET
It's No. 25 Notre Dame at No. 8 Stanford in the regular-season finale (7 ET, Fox). Here are five things to watch when both take the Stanford Stadium field.

Kevin Hogan. Hogan was a bystander during last year's overtime thriller in South Bend, Ind., and he did not take over as the Cardinal's starting quarterback until four games later, against Oregon State. Stanford went on to win all five games with Hogan under center, including the Rose Bowl, and is now 14-2 with Hogan at the helm. The redshirt sophomore has plenty of Notre Dame ties in his family. More importantly, he is completing better than 60 percent of his passes for 2,052 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hogan is the third different Stanford signal-caller the Irish will face in as many years, and while he is not exactly Andrew Luck, he presents a different kind of challenge this time around from Josh Nunes last year.

Notre Dame's offensive line. It has been a wild 12 months for Matt Hegarty, whose playing career was in question after suffering a ministroke last November. He has since recovered, and with Nick Martin tearing the MCL in his left knee in the first quarter last week against BYU, Hegarty is now the Irish's man in the middle. The southpaw will be tasked with calling out blitzes and communicating with Tommy Rees and the rest of the line as they ready for a Stanford defense that is tied for sixth nationally with 34 sacks. Notre Dame has not been too shabby in protecting Rees, who has been sacked just seven times this season, tied for No. 2 nationally.

Jarron Jones. Kona Schwenke tried to give it a go last week against the Cougars but was sidelined soon enough because of a high-ankle sprain. That led to increased playing time at nose guard for Jones, who stepped up to the plate and doubled his season tackle total (seven to 14) and blocked a field goal. Can he do it again? Schwenke's status remains up in the air. And Tyler Gaffney, the nation's 10th-leading rusher, will be tough to stop, as he has had only 23 carries for zero or negative yards (second-best nationally among backs with 175 or more carries, per ESPN Stats & Info).

Irish running backs. Notre Dame eclipsed the 200-yard rushing mark against BYU for just the third time this season. As Irish Illustrated mentioned earlier this week, the Irish have won 20 in a row when attempting 30 or more rushes. The biggest development against the Cougars might have been seeing two different backs break out for big games, as Cam McDaniel had a career-best 117 yards and freshman Tarean Folston rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown. If they can keep it going against the nation's No. 3 rushing defense (89.5 yards per game), that will take lots of pressure off Rees as well.

Special teams. Jones' blocked kick last week, his second of the season, was huge. And the Irish will need more huge special teams plays in this contest to pull out the win. Stanford leads the nation in kick returns. Notre Dame, as we know, is not very good at defending kick returns (116th), so preventing big plays in that department is a must. But TJ Jones looks closer and closer each week to breaking free for a big punt return -- he might have been on his way last week if he did not get tripped up by the playing surface -- and Kyle Brindza has proven to be a clutch kicker. Both could be difference-makers if the Irish protect the ball on offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford: Did you know?

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
10:00
AM ET
As always, thanks to ESPN Stats & Info and sports information departments for these nuggets.
  • Stanford QB Kevin Hogan is completing 50 percent of his passes thrown 25 yards or longer this season, an increase of 20 percentage points from last season. His 11 touchdowns on such passes lead the Pac-12 and ranks third among AQ quarterbacks behind Bryce Petty (13) and Tajh Boyd (12).
  • Since the start of last season, Stanford has an FBS-high 91 sacks, including 67 when they send four or fewer pass rushers. Last season against Notre Dame, Stanford had three sacks when sending four or fewer pass rushers.
  • Last season, Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor was stopped on two consecutive rushes from the Notre Dame 1-yard line in overtime, resulting in Notre Dame’s 20-13 victory. In the last 10 seasons, teams scored a touchdown on 85 percent of their drives that reached the opponent’s 1-yard line.
  • Notre Dame gave up an FBS-low four yards on goal-to-go situations last season, including just three yards in a goal-line stand against Stanford in overtime. This season, in such situations, Notre Dame ranks 10th in yards allowed (37) and tied for 10th in touchdowns allowed (9).
  • Hogan has targeted tight ends on just 6 percent of his pass attempts this season, down 42 percentage points from last season. That means that his wide receivers are getting more targets; Hogan has thrown 76 percent of his passes and 17 of his 18 touchdowns to wide receivers this season.
  • Tommy Rees is completing 65.6 percent of his passes and averaging 11 yards per attempt when targeting TJ Jones. When targeting any other wide receiver, Rees is completing 47.9 percent of his passes and averaging 7.7 yards per attempt.
  • Stanford is looking for its fourth straight 10-win season. Prior to that stretch, the Cardinal had only three 10-win seasons ever.
  • Notre Dame enters with three losses, but has had some impressive wins. Notre Dame is the last team to beat Arizona State, Michigan State and USC, three of the hottest teams in FBS. Those three teams are a combined 18-0 since losing to Notre Dame.
  • Stanford has won 15 straight home games, tied for the second-longest active streak in the nation with Ohio State (South Carolina has won 17 straight at home).
  • Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney has proven a workhorse for the Cardinal. Of all rushers with at least 175 carries this season, he’s had only 23 rushes for zero/negative yards. That’s the second-fewest in FBS behind Auburn’s Tre Mason (20).
  • The Cardinal have nine wins this season, but haven’t been too opportunistic. Of the 24 teams with at least nine wins this season, only Stanford (0) and Cincinnati (-5) have turnover margins of zero or worse. But the Irish haven’t been effective in that category either. Notre Dame is -3 in turnover margin this season, including -5 over the last three games.
We overlooked previewing Notre Dame’s Week 6 opponent, Stanford, last month. Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Robert from San Diego for pointing it out. Now, without further adieu …

Week 6: Oct. 13 vs. Stanford (at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.)

Time/TV: 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC

Series: Notre Dame leads all-time, 17-9

2011 record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12; second place, North Division)

Head coach: David Shaw (11-2, one year)

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

RB Stepfan Taylor, FB Ryan Hewitt, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, C Sam Schwartzstein, OG David Yankey, OT Cameron Fleming, OLB Chase Thomas, LB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner

Key losses

QB Andrew Luck, WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleener, OL David DeCastro, OL Jonathan Martin, S Delano Howell, DE Matt Masifilo, S Michael Thomas

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Stepfan Taylor* (1,330 yards)

Passing: Andrew Luck (3,517 yards)

Receiving: Griff Whalen (749 yards)

Tackles: Jarek Lancaster* (70)

Sacks: Chase Thomas* (8.5)

Interceptions: Michael Thomas (3)

Three questions for ... Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell:

Despite the talent around Andrew Luck, there are many non-believers about Stanford. Who will be his replacement, and how will the Cardinal fare in Year 1 after Luck?



Kevin Gemmell: Well, that seems to be the million-dollar question. There are a couple of guys fighting to replace Luck -- Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham. Those two emerged from the pack of five in the spring and will continue the competition into fall camp. As for how they will fare? Well, I think we can certainly expect some drop-off. But it might not be as significant as people think. Luck was a once-in-a-generation quarterback, but they still return three talented offensive linemen (two were freshmen All-Americans) and a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher in Stepfan Taylor. Luck is gone, but the team's identity isn't. They are a run-first, power football team that will grind away on opponents.

And, by the way, they return six of the starting front seven on defense and they get Shayne Skov -- one of the top middle linebackers in the country -- back after he missed the bulk of last season with a knee injury suffered in Week 3.

One point head coach David Shaw has been making is that whoever does replace Luck shouldn't try to be Luck. That's the easiest way for them not to win the job.

Aside from the QB position, what will the offense look like now without Colby Fleener? Stanford's three-tight end sets proved to be frustrating for defenses, but will they be as effective without a high NFL draft pick looming as one of the big threats? Will it even matter, given the depth the Cardinal have in the backfield?

KG: I'd expect they'll still run a lot of multiple tight end sets. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- two of the three tight ends -- are back, and they do some things better than Fleener did. What made them such a talented group all together is they complemented each other very well.

The backfield depth did take a hit when Tyler Gaffney opted to pursue a professional baseball career rather than returning to Stanford. But Anthony Wilkerson will likely start as Taylor's immediate change-of-pace back and Ricky Seale emerged in the spring.

Also, fullback Ryan Hewitt returns as possibly the most versatile player in college football. He's great on short yardage, is an outstanding run-blocker and can line up as a tight end to give the Cardinal three-tight end looks. With the personnel they have, the Cardinal can still be very multiple.

Will the secondary be a liability? Who's most likely to step up and make plays there for Stanford?

KG: I'd expect the secondary to make some big strides this year -- mainly because of highly-touted cornerback Wayne Lyons. He missed most of his true freshman season with a foot injury, but he's that lockdown corner that the Cardinal were missing last year. They also add a very talented player in Alex Carter from this year's recruiting class. He could make an immediate impact as well. But losing safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas will take its toll leadership wise. They need youngsters Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards to build off of the experience they got last season and really take charge of the secondary.
Andrew Luck, Michael FloydGetty Images, US PresswireQuarterback Andrew Luck, left, leads Stanford; Notre Dame leans heavily on receiver Michael Floyd.

Stanford and Notre Dame are both moving on to bowl games -- but first they square off in the regular season finale for both teams. Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna and Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell do their best to shake off turkey hangovers and bring insight into Saturday's matchup.

Kevin Gemmell: Happy post-Thanksgiving to you and yours, Matt. Seeing as Stanford and Notre Dame cross paths this week, it would stand to reason that the Stanford and Notre Dame blogs also come together the day before the game.

There are major bowl implications in this game for Stanford. What's the most important thing the Cardinal need to be on the lookout for when scouting the Irish?

Matt Fortuna: Kevin, same to you and your family as well. I think I'm still in a turkey coma from last night. Obviously, this is the biggest test Notre Dame will have faced all season long. Looking at the numbers throughout this season, I think the Irish's best bet for success is to move the ball through the air and take full advantage of Michael Floyd.

Jonas Gray's knee injury severely hampers Notre Dame's ground attack. The cast is largely unproven behind the smaller Cierre Wood, and Stanford's rushing defense is good enough to have seriously challenged the Irish backfield even if Gray took the field. The Cardinal's weakness, if they have any, would appear to be its pass defense. Tommy Rees will have to improve on his sub-par performance from last week and look more like the Rees from the Maryland game two weeks ago, when he completed 30 of 38 passes and sped up the tempo of the Notre Dame offense. If he can establish a rhythm early, I think we can brace ourselves for a pretty competitive contest.

I'd be remiss to not ask the Stanford blogger about Andrew Luck, so here we go: Should everyone in the Midwest believe the hype? I currently have him atop my ESPN.com Heisman ballot, but I'm wondering if things look as crisp up-close as they do from other parts of the country. What will Notre Dame's secondary need to do to contain Luck?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, if each player on the secondary can add four or five inches, that would be a good start. Luck is going to seek out his tight ends -- Coby Fleener (6-foot-6), Levine Toilolo (6-8) and possibly Zach Ertz (6-6) who hasn't played since the USC game because of a knee injury. Luck doesn't have the receiving corps to stretch the field, but he exploits his mismatches and if one of the Notre Dame defensive backs has one-on-one coverage with a tight end, look out, because Luck will find it.

As for believing the hype? Stanford head coach David Shaw believes it. He went on a pro-Luck tirade Tuesday, saying Luck is doing things no other college player has ever done. In that regard, then yes, believe the hype. Luck is the most intelligent and evolved college quarterback I have ever seen. He sets the formations and then calls the play. And he's good at it. The Cardinal are almost always running the optimal play against the optimal defense because Luck is calling it on the spot. It's pretty amazing to watch him orchestrate the offense.

I was just going over Stanford's record against marquee wide receivers and it's pretty good. They've slowed down Keenan Allen (Cal), Robert Woods (USC) and Juron Criner (Arizona). Since we're talking secondaries, tell me about Michael Floyd and what he brings.

Matt Fortuna: Allen had six catches for 97 yards. Woods had nine for 89. And USC's Marqise Lee added seven catches for 95 yards. I'm not sure if we have the same definition of "slowed down," Kevin. Michael Floyd is big (6-3, 224 pounds), fast and versatile. He has improved his downfield blocking this season, and he is lined up virtually anywhere on the field. Notre Dame likes to find him in the flat often and let him create. Look no further than early in the fourth quarter Saturday, when Floyd took a pass on the right side, did not get a proper block, reversed field completely and ended up with an 18-yard gain on the other end of the field. He is a first-round talent who may fall to the second round only because of his off-the-field history.

Looking at the offensive lines earlier in this week, I was surprised to see the combined weight of Stanford's starters (305 pounds) were only one pound more than Notre Dame's (304). The Cardinal obviously have a pair of first-rounders up front, but what is it about the unit that allows it to impose its will on opposing defenses?

Kevin Gemmell: Come on, Matt. You know better than to fall into the trap of looking at just final statistics. Allen had all six catches in the first quarter and then was blanked the next 45 minutes. Woods was kept out of the end zone until overtime. Pretty sure if Shaw had his choice, he'd prefer Floyd to do all of his damage in the first quarter and then be a non-factor for the rest of the game -- or to hold him without a touchdown for 60 minutes.

But I think we can both agree that getting the ball to Floyd is a priority for Notre Dame and stopping that is a priority for Stanford.

Stanford's offensive line likes to grind. They'll run the power to either side with Stepfan Taylor (who just went over 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year) and they'll rotate fresh backs in regularly -- Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson, Jeremy Stewart -- and just pound away. What makes it fun to watch is they'll run essentially the same play out of a bunch of different looks. Sometimes they'll have a jumbo package with six or seven offensive linemen. Other times they'll have two fullbacks and three tight ends. They get funky with their formations and that allows them to lean on teams over the course of the game.

Speaking of offensive lines, Notre Dame is pretty good at keeping Rees' jersey clean. The protection seems solid. Is that a product of them, Rees getting rid of the ball quickly or a little bit of both?

Matt Fortuna: Both Rees and the offensive line have made strides throughout the season. The unit gave up five sacks in the month of September, two of which resulted in Rees fumbles, but the Irish did not allow a single sack from Oct. 1 to Nov. 12, when they gave up three to Maryland. Even that seemed more like something that was bound to happen rather than a big breakdown in protection. Mike Golic Jr. has done a great job filling in for the injured Braxston Cave at center, and Rees has done a much better job of releasing the ball more quickly.

OK, Kevin, I don't know how much more talking I can do while still in this turkey-induced coma. Let's get right to it: Who do you got Saturday?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, because of the Thanksgiving week, we both posted our predictions on Wednesday, making this portion of our little chat a bit anti-climatic. And I am sure you got a laugh, as I did, that there was a (spoiler alert) one-point differential in our predictions. I have Stanford winning 31-21. I just don't see Andrew Luck losing (probably) his final home game at Stanford Stadium. I think the Cardinal are motivated to make an impression on voters -- in light of David Shaw's BCS comments on Tuesday -- and I think when you get right down to it, Stanford does a better job taking care of the ball and has more mismatches on offense. Notre Dame gets some points, but Stanford gets the win.

Before you attack the leftovers and fall back asleep, what's your take on why Stanford wins?

Matt Fortuna: Impossible to fall asleep with so many good games on today and tomorrow. The leftovers are only complementary pieces. Anyway, as you mentioned, I like Stanford as well, 31-20. I like the Cardinal for many of the reasons you do — Andrew Luck's last home game, David Shaw's edgier tone this week. But ultimately I think the Irish's young defensive line just won't have enough gas in the tank to hang with Stanford's offense for four quarters, at least not this early in most of their careers. Notre Dame's offense would have had a tough time keeping Stanford off the field as it was, but take big running back Jonas Gray out of the picture, and the situation becomes even less favorable for the road team.

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