Stanford visits South Bend this weekend after surviving an overtime shootout with the Arizona Wildcats. Redshirt junior quarterback Josh Nunes had his best performance of the season, going 21 of 34 for 340 yards and two touchdowns. Not surprisingly, his two favorite targets were his tight ends, 6-8 Levine Toilolo and 6-6 Zach Ertz. Toilolo tallied five receptions for 141 yards and a score, while Ertz added six receptions for 64 yards and another score.
Notre Dame may be referred to as Tight End U, but Stanford's tight ends have actually posted better numbers than their Irish counterparts this season. Toilolo and Ertz have combined for 34 receptions, 594 yards and four touchdowns. That's over half of Stanford's receiving yards and half of the team's receiving touchdowns. On the other hand, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have combined for just 16 receptions, 283 yards and one touchdown.
Why are Stanford's tight ends so productive?
As I have previously discussed, Stanford's tight ends create mismatches that are difficult to counter with changes in personnel or formation. David Shaw will move Toilolo and Ertz around the formation or use motion to isolate them in single coverage. Simply put, linebackers are generally too slow to cover them, and defensive backs generally lack the physicality and size to cover them. As Brian Kelly noted in his press conference, the Irish defense will have to "look at some different key coverages" to avoid one-on-one match-ups with Toilolo and Ertz.
Below is a good illustration of the type of one-on-one match-up Kelly wants the Irish defense to avoid on Saturday.
Stanford lines up with trips to the wide side of the field. Toilolo and Ertz are split out from the line as slot receivers. Arizona counters with a 3-3-5 defense.
This play is designed to isolate Toilolo in the corner of the end zone as Ertz and the flanker occupy defenders in the middle of the field.
Nunes immediately recognizes that Toilolo is matched up against a linebacker. If the safety widens to help cover Toilolo on the corner route, the flanker should be open on the post; if the safety stays inside to help cover the post, Toilolo should have little trouble beating a linebacker in single coverage.
With Arizona rushing three against a six-man protection, Nunes has plenty of time in the pocket.
The post holds the safety inside the hash marks, and Toilolo has the linebacker beat by a couple steps.
Nunes puts the ball on the money for a touchdown. This is a safe throw because it avoids the traffic in the middle of the field. Look for Stanford to use fade routes and plays similar to this in the red zone on Saturday.
It will be interesting to see how Bob Diaco and the defensive staff gameplan for Toilolo and Ertz. If Notre Dame plays a lot of Cover Two on Saturday, it will be up to the underneath defenders to re-route the Stanford tight ends to disrupt the timing of the pass plays so the Irish front four can pressure Nunes. However, if the Irish spend too much time in a Cover Two shell, Stanford's power running attack could give the Irish fits. Regardless of the defensive scheme, the Irish will have to play physical to win this game.
Go Irish! Beat the Trees!