When the #17 Stanford Cardinal takes on #7 Notre Dame this afternoon, it’ll be a match-up of two top-20 teams, pitting two first-year starting quarterbacks, both coming off career games, against two tenacious defenses.
The atmosphere will be electric at Notre Dame Stadium, with ESPN’s College Gameday in town for the first time since the infamous 2005 “Bush Push” game against USC.
The big-game atmosphere will be a big test for the first-year quarterbacks on both teams who are still getting their footing as starters.
Stanford’s Josh Nunes has the game of his short career last week against Arizona, when he threw for 360 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for three more in the Cardinal’s 54-48 overtime win. The week before that, though, he had his worst game of the year against Washington. It was Stanford’s only loss on the season, and it was also the team’s only road game, so it’ll be interesting to see how Nunes fares against the Irish.
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson faced similar questions about his readiness for the starting job. In certain situations, Coach Brian Kelly has brought in former starter Tommy Rees, but Golson’s performance in the 41-3 win over Miami last week, when he completed 77.3% of his passes and had 51 rushing yards, showed a national audience how good the redshirt freshman can be.
Whether he can be that good against Stanford’s defense is another story. The Cardinal’s pass defense, statistically, hasn’t been great. It’s currently 113th in the nation – thanks in part to Arizona QB Matt Scott‘s record-setting performance against Stanford last week – but held firm enough against USC to threw a serious wrench in the Trojans’ national title hopes.
Stanford’s rushing defense has been the key to the team’s success: the Cardinal is sixth nationally and is allowing just 77.2 yards per game and 2.66 yards per carry.
Notre Dame has three talented running backs capable of 100+ yard rushing games, and the team’s success against Stanford could depend on whether they can establish the run. Sophomore George Atkinson III, who also runs track for the Irish, leads the team with 269 yards and is averaging 9.3 yards per carry. Senior Theo Riddick is just behind him, with 263 yards and three touchdowns, and Cierre Wood, who rushed for 1,186 yards last season, broke out against Miami last week with a 118-yard game.
While the Irish have a stable of running backs, Stanford has one go-to guy: senior Stepfan Taylor, who has 555 yards and five touchdowns on the season. Taylor rushed for more than 100 yards in every other game this season; if that pattern holds, it means Taylor’s in for a subpar game, which wouldn’t be unusual against Notre Dame’s defense.
The team hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season and the defense has proved its strength against some of the nation’s best runners: Michigan‘s Denard Robinson and Michigan State‘s Le’Veon Bell. Against Notre Dame, Robinson rushed for just 90 yards; against all other opponents, he’s averaged 146.5 yards and 9.2 yards per carry. Bell has averaged 139.8 yards a game, but the Irish held him to 77 rush yards.
If the strong rushing defenses hold, the onus will be on the quarterbacks and their receivers to put points on the board. Notre Dame’s linebacking corps, highlighted by seniors Manti Te’o and Dan Fox, is rock solid, but the secondary lacks experience. Nunes’ go-to receivers are both tight ends; the Cardinal doesn’t have a big deep threat, especially with receiver Ty Montgomery unlikely to play due to injury.
Pass rush could end up being the key to the game. The teams are tied at 20th in the nation in sacks, and whichever team is more successful today could come away with the win.