In an effort to better understand Stanford's strengths and weaknesses ahead of the Rose Bowl, we quizzed the fans of some teams who had success against the Cardinal this season. Northwestern famously beat Stanford in the season opener this year, so we wanted to get the insight from Inside NU on how that happened. And in the regular season finale Notre Dame was seconds away from beating Stanford themselves, so we hit up One Foot Down to get the lowdown on how they came so close. Here's what they had to say.
1) What went so right for Northwestern in their 16-6 win over Stanford?
IAN: Well, first and foremost, Northwestern essentially played a mistake free football game. They won the turnover battle, which was huge, but more importantly they didn't commit any turnovers themselves. They forced Stanford to go the length of the field on the defense, something they weren't able to do until the end of the game when Kevin Hogan was ultimately intercepted in the endzone. Then Northwestern got the one big play they needed on offense, Clayton Thorson's 42 yard rushing touchdown, and they were able to play with a lead, something they excel at. Basically all the things that went right against Stanford are all the same things that went wrong against Iowa.
2) What did the Northwestern defense do that was so effective against Stanford's offense?
IAN: Stanford was wildly unprepared for this game, David Shaw didn't even know who Northwestern's starting quarterback was going to be until an InsideNU reporter asked him about it. However, Northwestern's defense came ready to play and hit an unprepared Stanford team in the mouth. You can talk about body clocks all you want, but Northwestern dominated that game at the line of scrimmage and that's what made the difference. They had pressure on quarterback Kevin Hogan all game and the secondary was able to shut down Stanford's receivers. This is definitely a game plan Iowa is capable of recreating with a strong front and Desmond King lurking in the secondary.
3) In particular, how did Northwestern bottle up Christian McCaffrey (12 carries, 66 yards) so well in that game?
IAN: The funniest thing about this game for Christian McCaffrey is that Northwestern didn't really bottle him up all that well, he still averaged 5.5 yards per carry. But for whatever reason Stanford only gave him the ball 12 times. As for how they managed to slow him down, it was all about the athleticism of the linebackers, particularly Anthony Walker. Walker was flying all over the field and meeting McCaffrey and the other Stanford running backs at the point of attack. Getting some push from the defensive line didn't hurt either.
4) Northwestern had success with their own running game (54 carries, 225 yards, 1 TD) against Stanford. What did they do in that aspect of the game that worked so well?
IAN: This one was a 2015 Northwestern staple, just continuously run the ball down the other team's throat, even when it isn't really working. They only completed 12 passes in this game but ran the ball 54 times with 28 of those going to running back Justin Jackson. They got the one break they were looking for on the 42 yard Thorson touchdown and were able to just run the ball and play defense. Eventually they were able to wear down Stanford's defense enough and Jackson broke off a 21 yard run that led to a field goal in the fourth quarter. Really it just came down to being too stubborn to stop running the ball.
5) Finally, is this all moot unless we can figure out how to mess with Stanford's body clocks?
IAN: I mean to be perfectly honest probably, that two hour time difference was just too much of a challenge to overcome for the poor sleep deprived Stanford players. Not sure how their body clocks were feeling when they lost at home to Oregon, but maybe they were up too late the night before studying or something. Anyway it's pretty clear that Coach Ferentz is going to have to sneak into the Stanford hotel and mess with their alarms if he wants to win.
One Foot Down
1) Notre Dame scored 36 points and racked up over 500 yards of offense against Stanford -- what was particularly effective in terms of attacking the Stanford defense?
ERIC: In short, everything. That was clearly the least effective, and maybe least talented, Stanford defense we've seen in many years with nearly all the stats suggesting the same. Our true freshman running back who was vaulted to the starting spot due to injuries looked like he was losing some steam over the couple games prior to facing Stanford. Yet, our line pushed around their small front and he broke the Notre Dame record for most rushing yards in a single game by a freshman.
We were able to hit our spots in the passing game, too. Just about the only thing that went wrong was our red zone offense which basically cost us the game. We got bogged down, made some poor decisions, and I think Stanford played well stiffening that deep in their territory.
2) On the other hand, Notre Dame did struggle to slow down Stanford's offense (38 points, over 400 yards of offense) -- what was particularly problematic in terms of the Cardinal's offensive attack?
ERIC: We dared Kevin Hogan to beat us--and he beat us. Our safeties have played poorly against the pass all season, we were missing our top corner due to injury, and we employ a supposed complex defensive scheme that the players (particularly our weaker ones, funny how that happens) have a hard time understanding. This has left us susceptible to big plays and relatively ineffective defending against a veteran quarterback.
It was a back and forth game with Hogan playing almost perfectly. He hit a handful of big passes in key moments and didn't make any big mistakes that really hurt Stanford.
Also, in describing the differences in our red zone offenses it worked out where most of Stanford's opportunities came right down near our goal line after big plays whereas Notre Dame's big plays had us starting at the 16-yard line or so on average. While we both had red zone opportunities theirs were more true goal line opportunities whereas we were still needing first downs to move the chains--and sometimes going for the kill shot pass from 10+ yards out.
3) Notre Dame was effective in slowing down Christian McCaffrey (27 carries, 94 yards; 3 catches, 19 yards) -- how were they able to limit him so much?
ERIC: It's been a weird season for the Irish defense, particularly the run defense. In general, we match up well with more pro-style offenses who try to push us around and run the ball down our throat. All season we've done really well bottling up opponents running backs, but were susceptible to giving up an odd big play and struggling to contain scrambling mobile quarterbacks.
For example, both UMass and Boston College had 80+ yard touchdown runs against us. We were the type of defense that played really well in the run game for a couple series and then gave up a huge run--completely destroying our stats. And while we were pretty good at limiting the Run Success Rate of certain teams (like Stanford) we weren't dominant enough in that category to overcome the big plays allowed.
Plus, McCaffrey really isn't the type of back to rip off a bunch of long runs so in that sense he wasn't a major threat to us in that regard. We were more worried about being gummed to death by a bunch of 4 and 5-yard runs. I still think they did a decent enough job moving the chains against us, even if we did limit McCaffrey, and with Hogan playing one of the best games of his career they really didn't need to force feed their Heisman candidate the ball anymore than they did.
* * *