No.9 Notre Dame has been one of the most impressive teams in the 2014 college football season, going 4-0 and outscoring its opponents by 94 points. On Saturday, the Fighting Irish will face its first real test of the season when No.14 Stanford makes the visit to Notre Dame.
Brian Kelly’s team has made its way into the top 10 without having much trouble, winning each game by at least two touchdowns. However, Notre Dame’s road to a 4-0 start hasn’t come against the most difficult opponents.
A shutout of Michigan seemed impressive at the time, but the Wolverines have proven to be the most disappointing team in the country. The Fighting Irish also beat Purdue, who sits at just 2-3, and Syracuse, who is no guarantee to play in a bowl game.
Notre Dame certainly hasn’t faced a defense that comes close to that of Stanford. The Cardinal sport the best defense in college football, allowing just 6.5 points per game.
Stanford hasn't allowed a single point to its opponents from smaller conferences, shutting out both UC Davis and Army. In a loss to USC, the Cardinal allowed just 13 points to a team that’s averaging nearly 33 points per game. Last week, Stanford beat Washington, 20-13, after the Huskies scored over 165 points in four games.
Despite the unit’s success, the Stanford defense won’t have an easy time stopping Notre Dame’s offense, which is off to one of the best starts in school history. The Fighting Irish have scored at least 30 points in each of the first four games of the season for the first time since 1943.
After missing all of last season, Everett Golson has come back to play as well as Notre Dame could have hoped. He’s combined to run and pass for 15 scores, while throwing just two interceptions. The quarterback threw his first picks of the season in Notre Dame’s win over Syracuse last week, but Golson still managed to complete a season-high 82.1 percent of his passes.
Golson will have to do a better job of taking care of the ball if Notre Dame wants to beat Stanford. Against Syracuse, the Fighting Irish committed five turnovers in the 16-point win. Teams from power conferences have gone just 1-28 in the last two years when finishing at minus-4 in the turnover battle.
The Stanford offense will have a challenge of its own, facing the No.4 scoring defense in college football. The unit hasn’t been consistent in 2014, totaling 33 points against USC and Washington. Quarterback Kevin Hogan had his worst game of the year in the team’s most recent win, but he says the Cardinal aren’t far from improving.
"I think it's just honing in on the details and the little things," Hogan said. "We're putting together good drives — good, long drives — and it's just one or two plays once we get further down. So it's just keeping those long drives going and not relaxing and not allowing those mistakes to happen.”
Notre Dame opened as the favorites, but the betting odds at Las Vegas casinos have the Fighting Irish as two-point underdogs. The two teams allow a combined 18.5 points per game, but the over/under has been set at 44.5 points.
Prediction: Stanford’s offense has sputtered against teams from power conferences, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t continue to do so at Notre Dame. Golson shouldn’t commit as many mistakes against the Cardinal, who only have three interceptions on the year. Notre Dame should come away with its first marquee victory of 2014.
Predicted Score: Notre Dame 23, Stanford 17