How the Fighting Irish can shut down Stanford's offense
One of the bigger matchups in the college landscape this upcoming week sees Notre Dame traveling west to take on Stanford. The Irish snuck past Boston College this weekend and their playoff hopes remain alive. Stanford represents a very real challenge, especially given the travel involved.
The Cardinals are 9-2 and have blown two games they could and perhaps should have won, but while their shot at the playoffs may be long gone, they remain a formidable outfit and will present interesting problems for Notre Dame to deal with.
Since C.J. Prosise picked up an injury against BC and is doubtful to play against the Cardinals, let’s instead look at the other side of the ball, and what the Irish need to do to shut down Stanford’s offense.
As successful as it has been, Stanford actually runs a pretty simple offense. Christian McCaffrey is their workhorse runner and they run predominantly power-blocking schemes up front to open up the holes. That allows their big linemen to get a hat on a hat and just use their strength to move defenders and create a crease, often with linemen arriving at the hole with a head of steam from a pull block.
Take this example from the game against Oregon. Stanford pulls both their RG and C around the TE to kick out the force defenders and open a big crease for McCaffrey to the inside.
There may not be a better runner in the nation at setting up his blocks and reading where to cut to when they develop in front of him, so this relatively simple scheme has been consistently successful and very difficult to stop.
Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day is going to be pivotal in deciding this part of the matchup. He is a disruptive force for the Irish, consistently generating pressure and penetrating into the backfield to blow up plays. While the power-blocking scheme Stanford likes to run is a big plus if you have confidence in your linemen, it does mean that any one of them that can’t execute their assignment can become a big problem in a hurry. Inside, the Cardinals have a trio of powerful run blockers in the form of Joshua Garnett at LG, Graham Shuler at C and Johnny Caspers at RG. Garnett is a legitimate NFL prospect and the best of the three, but for as good as the other two have been overall, they do get beaten badly on some plays, and could struggle to match up to Day.
Even Garnett had his one bad outing of the year against the best player he has faced: Oregon’s DeForest Buckner. Sheldon Day may not be Buckner but he isn’t far behind, as he’s PFF’s second-ranked interior defender (behind Buckner) this season. He has the ability to be a handful for any member of that offensive line and single-handedly cause issues in the blocking assignments.
With pull blocks like Stanford often employs, one player losing can draw a second man to clean it up, which starts dominos falling that results in an unblocked player in the hole that was supposed to be cleared for the runner.
Take this play against Boston College as an example. Day beats his man to the inside quickly enough that the TE pulling across the formation feels the need to help the block and seal it before Day can get into the backfield and take down the running back. He does that successfully, but that means the runner is met by an unblocked player that should have been accounted for by the tight end whose assignment got derailed earlier in the play.
Day has the kind of ability to do this consistently and affect the Stanford running game by blowing up just one block in the play.
The other player with the ability to have a major impact against McCaffrey and the Stanford offense is Jaylon Smith, one of the best linebackers in the country. Smith has huge athleticism and the rare ability to live with McCaffrey in the open field.
We’re talking about a guy who can leap clean over running backs attempting to block him:
Smith isn’t just raw athleticism though — he has the skills and technique to be a force in all areas of the game, which he will need to be to deal with a player like Christian McCaffrey, who has the same thing in his arsenal on the other side of the ball. Smith has the speed and instincts to mirror the runner and find him through traffic, but also the ability to deal with linemen at the second level and still navigate his way to the big hit, like this:
Smith’s speed and athleticism will also be important should Stanford deploy the QB keeper on their option looks and let Kevin Hogan carry the ball out of the backside of the formation. They have done this with great success this season in the same way the Seattle Seahawks have with Russell Wilson for the past few seasons – not as a primary option, but when teams get too aggressive on the running back and don’t respect the other option.
Smith against Hogan is an interesting matchup and one that Notre Dame might win, but if Hogan — or McCaffrey — ends up facing Joe Schmidt one-on-one instead then that is a far more likely Stanford win. Schmidt alone has 19 missed tackles on the season and doesn’t have the same athleticism as Smith.
This run game matchup is not all that will happen in this game — Stanford can also strike deep off play action, and the other side of the ball will have its say in who emerges victorious in this game — but the biggest matchups are the ones we just highlighted. Does Notre Dame have enough up front to affect and disrupt the Stanford rushing attack, or will the Cardinal just have too much power across the board?