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Football roundtable: Can Stanford mentally and physically recover against the Fighting Irish?
Christian McCaffrey's absence means sophomore running back Bryce Love needs to step up and perform as the Cardinal look to bounce back against a mismanaged Fighting Irish defense. (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Football roundtable: Can Stanford mentally and physically recover against the Fighting Irish?

Stanford leaves the Farm after this week’s disappointing loss against another Washington school and tries to recapture its form against a hostile Notre Dame crowd in South Bend, Indiana. Desk editors Kit Ramgopal and Lorenzo Rosas and senior staff writer Do-Hyoung Park discuss how the Cardinal can adapt against the Fighting Irish and how Stanford can adjust to the absence of Christian McCaffrey.

 

There’s a good chance Christian McCaffrey won’t play against Notre Dame on Saturday. On Tuesday, Shaw revealed that the McCaffrey suffered an undisclosed injury but said no decision will be made until Friday or Saturday. What does a limited (or absent) McCaffrey mean for the Stanford offense and what kind of play adjustments can we expect to see on Saturday?

Lorenzo Rosas (LR): Stanford’s great running threat of the year has been all but Heisman-caliber, and much of Stanford’s success early on didn’t rely on 300-all-purpose-yard performances from number 5. However, without McCaffrey, Stanford’s stalling offense will obviously have to be even more creative in an attempt to break through the Fighting Irish and reverse its fortunes as of late. More and more pressure will fall on Stanford’s quarterback duo, senior Ryan Burns and junior Keller Chryst, which could ultimately backfire on Shaw and his offense, especially if Shaw continues to force a two-quarterback system and further handicap his offense. However, Stanford still possesses talent all around, such as speedy running back sophomore Bryce Love, who can provide a statement performance this upcoming week. Furthermore, if the offensive line can recover its form somehow, the Cardinal can definitely execute against a weak Notre Dame running defense.

Furthermore, following McCaffrey’s injury, Shaw will need to trust in a single quarterback to lead this Stanford offense. In the first few games of the season, the Heisman runner-up has not only served to captivate opponents’ attention but also provided leadership to a relatively newer offense. If the offense stalls early in South Bend, a quarterback, whether Burns or Chryst, will ultimately need to adjust and become the playmaker this team needs for victory.

Kit Ramgopal (KR): While McCaffrey remains the cornerstone talent of the Stanford offense, his contribution to the 2016 season has realistically not been as pivotal to success as last year. Most Pac-12 defensive coordinators are still nursing stings from McCaffrey’s yardage impact last season, and they know to organize defensive play so as to contain McCaffrey’s damage as best they can. Thanks to struggles with blocking, the Cardinal are nearly unrecognizable in national rushing statistics, currently standing 100th nationally with just 140.8 yards per game.

However, a limited Christian McCaffrey is the last thing Stanford needs right now. Apart from averaging 5.8 yards per touch in spite of intense defensive attention, he is inarguably one of the nation’s best playmakers and his leadership is integral to team identity. Given the circumstances, Shaw needs to re-inspire the offense by reshuffling to make the most of his healthy skill set. This means more pressure on Saturday’s quarterback. That means increased O-line protection for Bryce Love. Expect also to see more of sophomore wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who has scored a touchdown in each of the past three games — a pretty incredible statistic, seeing as he only debuted three games ago. Couple young talent in the receiving corps with the potential return of receiver Francis Owusu, and you’ve got a whole new offensive outlook — assuming Ryan Burns can step up to the challenge.

Do-Hyoung Park (DHP): Honestly, not very much is going to change regardless of whether or not McCaffrey can play. No matter what his personnel look like, David Shaw is going to try to run the ball efficiently with whatever running back he’s got in order to set up a reasonable number of throws for his quarterback. If the offensive line plays well, Bryce Love will get yards, just like McCaffrey would in such a situation. If the offensive line doesn’t play well, then Love won’t get yards — just like McCaffrey. Nothing changes in terms of the offense that Shaw is going to put on the field.

Love has a very similar skill set to McCaffrey. He runs well in space, is deceptively physical and has great field vision — the only difference might be that Love is slightly less patient and hits his gaps faster. They can both line up out wide in the slot, and though Love isn’t as accomplished of a route-runner as McCaffrey (no running back in the nation is at any level), Stanford has still tried to get the sophomore involved in its passing game like it’s done with McCaffrey, and that’s not going to change, either. If anything, we haven’t really seen McCaffrey and Love being used at the same time on too many plays, which is the one area that might suffer if McCaffrey can’t play.

 

Notre Dame is 2-4 on the season, despite being ranked in the top 10 in preseason polling. What are Notre Dame’s recent weaknesses, and how can Stanford exploit them on Saturday?

LR: Well, other than Brian Kelly debatably being overrated in yet another preseason poll, Notre Dame really just hasn’t performed to expectations this season. While the Fighting Irish have been victim to some tossup games, such as the instant Week 1 classic against the Longhorns or a close game against then-No. 12 Michigan State University, Kelly’s squad never seemed to do enough to ultimately win its contests thus far. Against an unranked Duke, the Fighting Irish scored 35 points and jumped to an early 14-point lead, only to have their defense allow the Blue Devils to win on a last-second field goal. Notre Dame’s offense seems to be doing well on the season, except for its hurricane game against NC State this past weekend, yet its defense habitually fails to provide any momentum, leading to a horrific 2-4 start from the Fighting Irish.

That being said, Stanford has been debatably more atrocious with its play in the last couple weeks and needs a lot to go right this weekend to get back in the win column. The Cardinal need to return to their physical brand of football in order to snatch a victory on the road, ultimately starting in the trenches with both the offensive and defensive line. If the team can reassert its dominance off the blocks, Stanford will find numerous opportunities to strike and win this game.

KR: Stanford’s defense was a nightmare against Washington, giving up a total of 43 points and 441 yards against in the game. But by some symmetrical nightmare, Notre Dame’s defense is doing worse, at least statistically. The Fighting Irish are ranked 125th nationally in sacks, 92nd in rushing offense, 100th in tackles for loss, 84th in rushing defense and 78th in scoring defense. These sorts of statistics are exactly what Shaw needs to hear going into Saturday without McCaffrey at peak health. Notre Dame’s lethargic defensive performance could give Burns the extra seconds he needs in order to really make a difference this weekend.

Ultimately, however, Stanford and Notre Dame are in similar positions right now. Both are NCAA giants that have publicly fallen from grace in early season play despite high initial rankings. Both teams are making uncharacteristic mistakes that do not match the skill on their rosters. On some level, the key to Stanford victory is composure. If Stanford’s offense can hold it together to capitalize on the mistakes of a similarly rattled Notre Dame, Notre Dame’s decaying defensive confidence could be Stanford’s greatest asset.

DHP: Don’t let the 10-3 final score of the game against North Carolina State last week fool you one bit — Notre Dame’s offense is just fine and dandy. It’s kind of hard to score points when you’re literally playing in the middle of a hurricane on a field covered in an inch of standing water. It’s the defense that has really let the Irish down this season and, ultimately, cost defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder his job after Notre Dame allowed 38 points to Duke.

Much like USC, recruiting and talent has never been Notre Dame’s problem, and it still isn’t. That’s a roster oozing with talent at all positions, and all it’s going to take is some competent coaching and coalescence on the defense to spark that talent to the heights expected before the season. That said, I’m still not sure about Stanford’s ability to “exploit” a defense as talented as Notre Dame’s. Remember — this is a team that held McCaffrey to under 100 yards rushing last season, and, as we all know, Stanford’s offensive line play has been suspect at best in the last two weeks.

 

In the context of recent losses to Washington and Washington State, how does Stanford reverse its momentum? What edge do the Fighting Irish have on the Cardinal, and how can Stanford prevent that from handing it a third straight loss?

LR: We’ve talked so much about the injuries to Cardinal starting cornerbacks junior Alijah Holder and sophomore Quenton Meeks, but once again, their absence could provide holes in the Stanford defense. Fighting Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer owns a 62.9 completion percentage while scoring 14 passing touchdowns and six rushing touchdowns on the year. If Stanford’s secondary doesn’t show up in South Bend, the Cardinal could end up losing their third consecutive game in a row.

On the other hand, Stanford’s life in this game ultimately relies on how well its offense can keep possession and create drives in the absence of its top threat Christian McCaffrey. If the offense can create opportunities and play a physical game against this ailing Notre Dame defense, the Cardinal can alleviate some of the pressure on their defense and ultimately increase their efficiency on both sides of the ball.

KR: It feels like the Cardinal can’t catch a break with injuries — from the backfield to the receiving corps and now Christian McCaffrey. But that’s only half the story. After losing players from last season, Shaw has not been able to break in his new offensive line and his secondary to match last year’s standards.

Overall, it feels like Shaw is trying to make the 2016 roster put on clothes that don’t fit anymore. In the past two weekends, the more Stanford watches a game slip from its control, the more eager it is to play the game on comfortable footing — the game that has worked for them in the past. For Shaw, “control” means a conservative power running game behind a infamously stubborn O-line, with help from a confident quarterback. However, Shaw’s 2016 O-line is young and full of holes, and Burns is still finding his rhythm. As a result, Shaw’s desire to transform each offensive matchup into the utopia of 2015 has failed dramatically the last two weekends.

In absence of Christian McCaffrey and in context of a struggling Notre Dame defense, Shaw might be inclined to shuffle the playbook offensively. However, while Notre Dame defense is comparatively worse off than Stanford defense, the Fighting Irish have the offensive edge on Stanford, thanks the leadership of quarterback DeShone Kizer. The key for Stanford will be keeping offensive possession, both to play on Notre Dame’s weaknesses and reinvigorate a deflated sense of team ego.

DHP: “How does Stanford reverse its momentum?”

Dude, if I knew the answer to this question, I’d be making millions of dollars to coach the Stanford Cardinal right now. If David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren and the players themselves haven’t figured it out over the last two weeks, we writers and our combined zero college football experience sure aren’t going to know. What’s clear is this: Stanford is better than a 26-point loss to Washington State. The Cardinal are still the most talented and best-coached team in the conference from top to bottom. The Cardinal still have the ability to match up with any team in the country — injuries and all. It’s just about finding that spark — much like last year’s flea flicker against UCF — that lights the torch again.

Bloomgren thinks that the offensive line improved between Washington and Washington State, but even with that hole plugged, other mistakes (like drops) emerged to slow the offense. As dumb and insubstantial as it sounds, Stanford just needs to find its mojo and get over the mental block that’s holding it back. But as to how the heck, exactly, they do that, there’s nothing really that I can offer.

 

Contact Lorenzo Rosas at enzor9 ‘at’ stanford.edu, Kit Ramgopal at kramgopa ‘at’ stanford.edu and Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.