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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, September 29, 2018 6:40 pm

Pregame: No. 8 Notre Dame (4-0) vs. No. 7 Stanford (4-0)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Tonight's game between Notre Dame and Stanford will answer a lot of questions. On paper, it's a Top 10 matchup, but it's unclear whether either of these teams will be among the elite teams at the end of the season. They each enter the matchup for the Legends Trophy with unblemished records, but neither has been overly impressive.

The winner of tonight's game will have the inside track on a berth in the College Football Playoff, though of course it's very early to begin thinking about that. With neither team facing a particularly difficult schedule from here on out (though that's subject to change for the Irish if USC and Syracuse continue to improve, and Blacksburg is never an easy place to win), so the loser of this game will have a difficult road to the Final Four. It's difficult to call any Week 5 game a must-win, but this is about as close as it gets for the Irish and Cardinal.

There is plenty of history between these teams, which first met in 1925 and have played annually since 1997. The Irish dominated the 2000s, but Stanford has had the upper hand in the 2010s, winning three in a row and six of the last eight. These teams being ranked is nothing new: in the last eight years, they've both been ranked seven times, making it one of the best year-to-year rivalries in the country. Both of them being ranked in the Top 10 is much more rare. Notre Dame Stadium today plays host to a Top 10 matchup for the first time since 2005 when the Irish played No. 1 USC, the infamous "Bush Push" game. In other words, this is the most important home game in Brian Kelly's tenure with the Notre Dame. Based on the parking lot tailgate scene I walked through to get to the stadium, the fans know it.

On the field, this will likely be a battle between an elite offense (Stanford) and an elite defense (Notre Dame). Linebacker Drue Tranquill said Thursday that the Cardinal possess the most balanced offense the Irish are likely to face this year, with running back Bryce Love the 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up and quarterback K.J. Costello possessing a huge arm and a bevy of talented pass-catchers to whom he can zip the ball. This is not your older brother's Stanford team. The Cardinal can score quickly, as they did in their huge comeback against Oregon last week on the road, and they can throw the ball when they need to. Julian Love, Troy Pride, Alohi Gilman, et al, will have to play their best game to slow down the Stanford attack, even if Tranquill and Te'von Coney can bottle up Love, who has run for at least 125 yards two straight years against the Irish.

On defense, however, Stanford is somewhat weaker than usual up front. Oregon's offensive line pushed the Cardinal around last week and Notre Dame's should be able to do the same. If it can, look for a big night from Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong. An advantage in the trenches should also give Ian Book (or Brandon Wimbush if he sees the field) some extra time to throw. Notre Dame did a great job designing a gameplan around Book's strengths last week, so expect more quick drops, short passes and play-action this week.

As I type this, it's dark and overcast and the threat of rain hangs over the stadium. It will be chilly under the lights, the first Notre Dame game that features "football weather" this year. It's going to be a raucous crowd and a tremendous atmosphere for a matchup between two teams with the highest aspirations.