Notre Dame Football: Key Defensive Matchups vs Stanford

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 28: JJ Arcega-Whiteside
SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 28: JJ Arcega-Whiteside /

Notre Dame football is 4-0 heading into a highly-anticipated showdown against Stanford this Saturday. With both teams ranked inside top-10 of the latest AP Poll, this primetime game is sure to have huge College Football Playoff implications.

Two undefeated rivals are scheduled to go to battle under the lights in South Bend this Saturday. Notre Dame football is looking to improve to a 5-0 record for the first time since the 2014 season. Stanford is looking to do the same for the first time since the 2013 season.

Given how the first four weeks of the season played out, it feels like Notre Dame will need to run the table in order to solidify a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Irish are expected to be favored in each of their remaining games, so an undefeated season is possible. However, there will be plenty of challenges along the way.

The first of those challenges will arrive this Saturday night when the Cardinal roll into town. David Shaw has had Brian Kelly’s number in his seven years as Stanford’s head coach. During that time, Stanford has defeated Notre Dame five times in seven games including the last three in-a-row.

If Notre Dame wants to snap the streak this Saturday, their defense needs to dominate. Here are some key matchups to watch when the Irish defense is on the field.

Stanford Tight Ends vs. Notre Dame Linebackers and Safeties

One thing you can almost always expect from a Stanford offense is quality tight ends. They typically like to use formations with multiple tight ends to establish the run and set up the play action pass. When used in the passing game, those tight ends create mismatches for opposing defenders.

Stanford has been more pass-heavy then usual this season, but that has not diminished the production of their tight ends. Through four games, two of their top four receivers, Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson,  are tight ends. The pair have combined for 26 catches for 361 yards and three touchdowns.

As you might have guessed, these guys have a significant size advantage over most of the defensive backs they face. Smith stands at 6-5 and 252 lbs, and Parkinson is 6-7 and 240 lbs. It is not hard to see why Stanford features these big targets in their offense – especially in the red zone.

The Irish linebackers and safeties will have their hands full. They have shown us that they are more than capable of effectively covering opposing tight ends at times, but we have also seen some vulnerability.

In week three, the Notre Dame defense gave up seven catches for 130 yards and a touchdown to Vanderbilt’s tight ends. In the other three weeks, however, the defense has held all opposing tight ends to just nine catches for 45 yards and one touchdown. The Irish linebackers and safeties cannot afford to have a lackluster performance against Stanford’s tight ends. If they do, Smith and Parkinson will make them pay.

K.J. Costello vs. Notre Dame Secondary

Costello is what you would imagine if someone asked you to think of a stereotypical Stanford quarterback. I do not mean this as a slight. Stanford has produced some talented quarterbacks over the years. However, it is easy to spot some common characteristics. Costello, like most of those Stanford quarterbacks, is a tall pocket-passer that is not much of a threat to run.

The reason why most Stanford quarterbacks fit this mold is because the offense is typically run-oriented with a significant portion of the passing plays coming off of play action. The 2018 Stanford offense, however, is creating a new identity with K.J. Costello at the helm.

Through four games this season, Costello has thrown for 1056 yards and 10 touchdowns. That has meant that 71.7 percent of Stanford’s total offensive yardage and 76.9 percent of their offensive touchdowns have come from the passing attack. Keep in mind that this is an offense with a running back that was a Heisman runner-up last season.

Costello has plenty of weapons on this offense, and he does a great job distributing the ball to them. He has two big tight ends that are 6-5 or taller and a star receiver in JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Those big targets certainly make Costello’s job easier and are part of the reason why the Stanford red zone offense has featured a healthy dosage of fade routes and jump balls.

The Notre Dame front seven will need to pressure Costello throughout the game. Creating pressure will not be easy against a good Stanford offensive line. That is why the key matchup here involves the Irish secondary. If the secondary can force Costello to hold on to the ball for a second or two longer, Notre Dame’s front seven should be able to get to the quarterback.

Bryce Love vs. Notre Dame Linebackers

Love is a player that needs no introduction at this point of his college career. The senior running back tallied 2,188 yards and 19 touchdowns on 263 carries last season. He was also a runner-up in the Heisman voting. Suffice it to say, this dude can tote the rock.

Love’s statistics this season have not kept the same pace that carried him to the Heisman trophy ceremony a year ago. He has played in three of Stanford’s first four games, and rushed for 254 yards and two touchdowns. It is possible that Love’s slightly reduced workload could be an effort to preserve his health. Standing at 5-10 and just over 200 lbs, Love is a smaller back and susceptible to wear down over the course of a season.

The Notre Dame defense has not fared well against Love recently. In their last two matchups, Love has rushed for a total of 254 yards and a touchdown on 43 carries. Given what we have seen from Stanford’s offense so far this season, it is fair to expect Love to be less productive on Saturday than he has been in previous games against Notre Dame.

Although the Stanford offense has become more pass-oriented, Notre Dame’s run defense will be put to the test. The Irish are currently ranked 34th in opponents’ rushing yards per attempt. Bryce Love is the most talented back this defense will have faced through five weeks – maybe all season.

Love is a patient runner with elite explosiveness and speed. He forces defense to play disciplined, and he will make you pay for missed assignments and poor angles. The Notre Dame defensive line should hold up well at the point of attack. It will be up to the linebackers and safeties to fly down hill in run support.

JJ Arcega-Whiteside vs. Notre Dame Secondary

I could just summarize this whole section by saying, “This dude is a nightmare for opposing defenses.” Show me a defensive coordinator who feels confident about his defensive backs heading into a matchup against JJ Arcega-Whiteside and I will show you a liar.

Arcega-Whiteside is 6-3 and 225 lbs, but at times it seems as if he is seven feet tall – especially to opposing defensive backs. After four games this season, Arcega-Whiteside already has 17 catches for 408 yards and seven (yes, seven) touchdowns. He ranks 13th in the country in receiving yards (behind two Hawaii receivers who have played an extra game) and second in receiving touchdowns (again, behind a Hawaii receiver).

It would be difficult for Arcega-Whiteside to continue this pace throughout the season, but he has certainly built a strong connection with quarterback K.J. Costello. With the trust of his quarterback and the ability to win jump balls in the endzone, the sky is the limit for Arcega-Whiteside.

So, how will the Notre Dame defense approach this matchup? We will have to wait and see. If the front seven can neutralize Stanford’s running game, Clark Lea could afford to provide Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. with safety help over the top more frequently. In large part, it will come down to Love and Pride Jr. winning enough one-on-one matchups to limit Arcega-Whiteside because they will not be able to take him out of the game entirely.