How can Notre Dame football take down Stanford? Here are 5 keys to help the Irish prevail

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame (3-2) will try to win its fourth straight game this season against Stanford (1-3) on Saturday in South Bend. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST at Notre Dame Stadium and will be televised on NBC and Peacock. Here are five keys to keeping The Legends Trophy for Notre Dame:

1. Leaning on Michael Mayer can only take Drew Pyne so far

Drew Pyne has found himself a go-to target and it is no surprise it is the best tight end in college football.

Pyne completed half of his 22 completions to Michael Mayer in Notre Dame's 28-20 win over No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas last Saturday. Mayer finished with 118 yards and two touchdowns and had one less target (13) than the rest of his skill position teammates combined.

Oct 8, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Michael Mayer (87) runs the ball as BYU Cougars defensive backs Jakob Robinson (0) and Hayden Livingston (28) defend in the second quarter at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody will fault Notre Dame's young quarterback, making his fourth-career start this Saturday, for leaning on this past week's top-rated Pro Football Focus tight end. Eventually, Mayer will receive even more attention from defenses and Pyne will be wise to utilize more playmakers.

Notre Dame can continue to scheme Mayer open and force-feed him, or try and get other guys involved to keep defenses more honest. We saw a little of that against BYU as Jayden Thomas recorded his first-career touchdown and caught three of his four targets. He could be a guy to get more looks. Same goes for Lorenzo Styles, who caught all three of his targets last week and 19 of his 25 for the season.

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Braden Lenzy, a graduate receiver, hasn't been as involved in the offensive game plan despite his game-breaking speed potential. He has only eight catches for 78 yards thus far. This could be the game to kickstart Lenzy given Stanford allows 224 passing yards per game.

2. Offensive success can come from attacking the middle

Stanford's defense has struggled to stop just about anybody, allowing 32.8 points per game, third-most by a Power Five school. Its linebackers have been noticeably vulnerable.

The offensive line during the Notre Dame vs. Marshall NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Of its five games, a starting linebacker was rated by PFF as Stanford's worst defender four times — Levani Damuni in Week 1, Jacob Mangum-Farrar in Week 2 and 4 and Ricky Miezan in Week 5. If that is the Cardinal's true defensive weakness, Notre Dame can expose them by forcing those linebackers to defend in space.

Bring wideouts over the middle of the field. Use run-pass options to force decisions by linebackers. The Irish did that successfully in their first win against California and it should work again against another Bay Area program.

3. Hard to believe, but Notre Dame's run game can be even better

Over its last two games, Notre Dame has rushed for a combined 521 yards as it finally looks to have an offensive line gelling and an emerging three-headed monster at running back — Audric Estime, Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs.

Notre Dame running back Audric Estime (7) runs past BYU defensive back Talan Alfrey (25) for a first down during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Against BYU, right tackle Blake Fisher, rated amongst the top-five of the team's starters, per PFF. Josh Lugg, right guard, was the only other linemen in the top 10. As good as Notre Dame's offensive line and run game have been lately, it can be even better.

We should see another major jump this week. Every opponent Stanford has faced — Colgate, USC, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State — has averaged over 4 yards per carry and has finished with at least 150 yards. In the past two games, the Cardinal have allowed 543 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

4. Get to Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee early and often

When a team has an NFL-caliber quarterback, and a non-existent run game, it airs the ball out early and often. Tanner McKee's 154 passing attempts this year ranks in the top-70 in college football. The Cardinal rushes for only 138 yards per game.

Oct 8, 2022; Stanford, California, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee (18) throws a pass against the Oregon State Beavers during the second quarter at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Therefore, Notre Dame's defensive line is set up for big day. The Irish have 15 sacks as a team, led by Isaiah Foskey's three. Jack Kiser and Rylie Mills each have two.

Stanford's 17 sacks allowed this season ranks just outside the top-20 in the country. Where the Irish can best exploit that is in the middle of the Cardinal line, where starting center Drake Nugent and left guard Jake Hornibrook have struggled, allowing four combined sacks, two hits and eight hurries this season. Look for Howard Cross III, returning from injury, and Jayson Ademilola to thrive in the Cardinal backfield.

More:Notre Dame must hope TaRiq Bracy recovers in time to face Stanford

5. The matchup to watch: Michael Wilson vs. Ben Morrison/Cam Hart

How can Stanford beat Notre Dame through the air? By finding Michael Wilson.

Wilson leads the Cardinal with 352 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He's been used mostly as an out-wide receiver, but in recent games, his work in the slot has increased. The expectation is for Wilson to be McKee's downfield target, where the majority of his touchdowns have occurred.

Notre Dame defensive back Cam Hart (5) breaks up a pass intended for California wide receiver J.Michael Sturdivant (7) during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Notre Dame's defensive answer will be cornerbacks Cam Hart and Ben Morrison. Statistically, they have split time pretty even between who has lined up as the right and left cornerback. So, it most likely won't be a situation where one of the two will shadow Wilson throughout Saturday's game. Instead, it will be more of a group effort to take away Stanford's one true offensive threat.