As spring practices commence around the nation, I’ll be looking at each of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in the 2012 season and addressing some key questions and potential breakout players.
The final installment features the Stanford Cardinal, whose 23 wins over the past two seasons are fifth-most in the nation, trailing only Boise State, LSU, Oregon and TCU. They are currently in the midst of practices, with their spring game coming on April 14.
For previews of other Irish opponents, click on the links below.
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Date: Oct. 13
Location: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14 (2011)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Stanford 37, Notre Dame 14 (2010)
Current Streak: Stanford, 3 games
Record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Bowl: Fiesta Bowl (lost to Oklahoma State 41-38 in OT)
Leading Passer: Andrew Luck (Jr.) – 288-for-404, 3,517 yards, 37 TD, 10 INT
Leading Rusher: Stepfan Taylor (Jr.) – 242 rushes, 1,330 yards, 10 TD
Leading Receiver: Griff Whalen (Sr.) – 56 catches, 749 yards, 4 TD
Andrew Luck closed his brilliant career in Palo Alto last season with a second consecutive trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He was particularly successful in three starts against Notre Dame, going 3-0 and averaging over 36 points per game.
Redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham will likely be given the unenviable task of filling Luck’s— figuratively speaking—massive shoes.
Nottingham was highly recruited in the 2010 class, ranking ahead of Oklahoma’s Blake Bell and Tennessee’s Tyler Bray by most recruiting services.
Nottingham threw only eight passes last season, one for a touchdown against San Jose State. His 6’4” frame makes him an ideal pro-style quarterback for David Shaw, but he’s not as mobile or physical as Luck. The job will not be handed to him, however, as he’ll have to beat out juniors Robbie Picazo and Josh Nunes for the starting role.
Despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the country, the Cardinal’s rushing offense ranked higher than its passing offense, finishing 18th in the nation.
Much of the credit for that goes to Stepfan Taylor, who followed up an 1,100-yard sophomore campaign in 2010 with over 1,300 yards as a junior last season.
The Texas native, who was heavily recruited by Charlie Weis’ Notre Dame staff, is effective both in space and between the tackles. He’s yet to find the end zone in three games against the Irish, but has topped 100 yards in each of the past two meetings.
Junior Anthony Wilkerson and senior Tyler Gaffney return as Taylor’s primary backups. The duo combined for over 700 yards and 10 touchdowns last year.
Fullback Ryan Hewitt is a weapon in the red zone, with five touchdowns last season. With the Cardinal needing to rely more on the running game with the loss of Luck, this unit appears well-equipped for the challenge.
Luck was able to mask some deficiencies on the outside last season, including Chris Owusu being sidelined for much of the season due to a concussion.
Senior Griff Whalen led the team with 749 yards, after catching only 18 passes in his first three seasons. Both Whalen and star tight end Coby Fleener depart this spring.
Injuries were not limited to just the wideouts last season, as tight end Zach Ertz missed four games last season, including key contests with USC and Oregon.
The terrific trio of Ertz, Fleener, and Levine Toilolo at end is now just a dynamic duo with the loss of Fleener. The Cardinal will again utilize multiple tight-end sets this season.
On the outside, much of the burden will fall on sophomore Ty Montgomery.
A Texas native like Luck and Taylor, Montgomery emerged late in the season with touchdowns against Notre Dame and Oklahoma State. Seniors Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson will likely vie for a starting spot after combining for only 10 catches last season, with true freshmen likely to push for playing time as well.
Jim Harbaugh brought a new identity to Stanford, and it was more evident in the offensive line than any other position. He established a physical, nasty offensive line that helped take Stanford from the Pac-12 basement to consecutive BCS bowls. However, two of the key cogs, tackle Jonathan "Moose" Martin and guard David DeCastro, left early for the NFL.
Despite two All-Pac 12 performers departing, the Cardinal will return their other three starters, led by center Sam Schwartzstein. Left guard David Yankey and right tackle Cameron Fleming also return, but Yankey could be an option to move to back to tackle.
Stanford received a signing-day coup by landing three elite offensive tackles: Kyle Murphy, Andrus Peat and Josh Garnett.
Starting a freshman at left tackle is likely not the preference of the coaching staff, but if any team can make it work this season, it’s the Cardinal.
Like Notre Dame, Stanford lines up in a 3-4 alignment as their base defense. The 3-4 began to flourish for the Irish last season with Louis Nix at the all-important nose tackle position. The same can be said for the Cardinal with Terrence Stephens, who anchored the third best rushing defense in college football in 2011.
Stephens won’t be coming to a stat sheet near you anytime soon with only 11 tackles in 2011, but he often requires multiple blockers and frees up space for the rest of the defensive front. He’ll be aided by junior defensive end Ben Gardner, who received second team All-Pac 12 honors last year.
The Cardinal do lose their other defensive end, Matthew Masifilo, who’s been a full-time starter since late in the 2009 season. All three primary backups return, with junior Henry Anderson and senior Josh Mauro competing to replace Masifilo.
There’s not a ton of talent here, but there aren’t any glaring weaknesses either.
Unfortunately for the Cardinal, they had to play much the 2011 season without star inside linebacker Shayne Skov, who was lost for the season with a knee injury against Arizona. Skov’s status for 2012 is currently in limbo, partially due to the injury but also a DUI arrest and subsequent suspension in January.
Stanford does appear set at the outside with Chase Thomas, an all-Pac 12 member last season, and converted defensive end Trent Murphy. Thomas was the team leader in sacks with 8.5 and third on the team in tackles in 2011. Murphy’s 6’6”, 260-pound frame makes him a matchup problem for many teams. He was second on the team last year with 6.5 sacks.
Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley were both part-time starters at the beginning of last season, but Skov’s injury made them vital contributors on the inside. Lancaster went on to lead the team with 70 tackles.
Both could start if Skov is not reinstated, with Lancaster having a leg up should only one spot be available.
Delano Howell’s return to school in 2011 came as a bit of a surprise, but the Cardinal safety making the All-Pac 12 team came as no surprise. The big-hitting strong safety tied for third on the team in tackles in his final season, with a season-high six against Notre Dame.
Also moving on is free safety Michael Thomas, who had a 42-yard interception return against the Irish last season. Junior Devin Carrington and sophomore Jordan Richards are promising young players, but lack experience.
Both cornerback positions will be up for grabs as well. Barry Browning and Terrence Brown both were part-time starters last year, but neither has a starting job locked up. Redshirt freshman Wayne Lyons, a prized recruit in the 2011 class, could work his way into a starting role.
This unit is a major question mark and must show some progress this spring.
Kicker Jordan Williamson was very good for much of last season, but it will be the three misses, including a potential game-winner at the end of regulation in the Fiesta Bowl, that are the lasting image of Williamson’s season. He made 13 of 19 attempts on the season, but missed his only field goal try in the win over Notre Dame. He should hold off Eric Whitaker and retain his starting role.
Punter David Green was average at best last season, so his departure may not be a bad thing for the Cardinal. Backup Daniel Zychlinski wasn’t much better, however, barely averaging 30 yards per punt in his three attempts last season. Zychlinski should win the job, but punting will not be a strength.
The return game, on the other hand, should again be one of the better units in the Pac-12. Montgomery will be the primary kick returner again after a solid season which included a touchdown return at Washington State, while Terrell was the league’s top-ranked punt returner in 2011.
Any concern that Shaw was simply living off of Harbaugh and Luck should have been squelched by the tremendous job he and his assistants did with the 2012 recruiting class. Shaw is a great offensive mind and his staff has proven it can go toe-to-toe with the big boys on the recruiting trail.
That said, you don’t replace a player like Luck – certainly not in one year.
It took Stanford 30 years to find the next John Elway, and it will probably take 30 more to find the next Luck. The losses of Martin and DeCastro up front could be equally as damaging.
The Cardinal will win plenty of games again by controlling the line of scrimmage, but there isn’t enough skill-position talent yet for the team to get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 13 years.
Stanford is not back to being the team that lost seven straight to Notre Dame in the mid-2000s, but a third straight double-digit win over the Irish seems highly unlikely in a transition year.