If Notre Dame wants to keep its dreams of an undefeated season alive it will have to end a three-game losing streak against Stanford on Saturday. Both teams are currently ranked, with the Fighting Irish at No. 7 and the Cardinal at No. 17.
The Irish are coming off a blowout victory over Miami, a terrific performance when you consider it had all the elements of a trap game. The defense continues to lead the way, ranking second nationally in points allowed at less than eight per game.
Stanford made its presence felt by stunning USC last month, but the Cardinal have been far less impressive since that game. They were upset by Washington and then needed overtime to beat Arizona. It's safe to say they've hit a lull.
Which team will win the marquee game?
All signs point toward another entertaining, intense clash between the rivals, and there's a lot on the line for both sides. Here's a look at the important viewing information followed by a preview and prediction.
Where: Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
When: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBCSports.com
Spread: Notre Dame -7.5 (Vegas Insider)
Notre Dame, which has put up at least 20 points in four of its five games, will be able to put points on the board. Whether it covers or not will come down to how successful Stanford's offense is against the stout Irish defense.
Not having wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who's doubtful, would obviously hurt, but the Cardinal offense is centered more around tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. It's not like Josh Nunes would be losing his only weapon.
Ultimately, this shapes up as a last-possession game, and therefore taking the points with Stanford is the wise choice. Even if the Irish are able to squeak out a victory, the Cardinal should be able to keep the game close throughout.
Over/Under: 44.5 (Vegas Insider)
Over is the way to go here. It should be a game where the teams basically match each other score for score most of the way. There are enough playmakers on both sides to ensure that one team doesn't get completely shut down.
Looking back, only one of the last four meetings between Notre Dame and Stanford has stayed below this week's line. That's a trend likely to continue thanks to players like George Atkinson III and Stepfan Taylor, the star running backs for each side.
The only way it doesn't go over is if Notre Dame completely shuts down Stanford like it did to Michigan and Michigan State, but the Cardinal offense should have enough balance to provide more trouble for the Irish than those teams did.
Key Injuries (via USA Today)
Stanford: Anthony Wilkerson (questionable, leg) and Ty Montgomery (doubtful, knee)
Notre Dame: Amir Carlisle (questionable, ankle) and Chase Hounshell (questionable, shoulder)
Top 25 Poll Implications
Notre Dame has positioned itself perfectly at the midpoint of the season. It's already in the top 10 and has three more games against ranked opponents, including Stanford, to show the voters they are worthy of an eventual BCS spot.
The Irish can't afford to slip up now, however. Since there are so many unbeaten and solid one-loss teams, even a single loss to a good team would likely cause their ranking to plummet. It adds a lot of pressure to the equation.
On the flip side, a victory for Stanford would basically offset the team's loss to Washington and push the Cardinal back up toward the top 10. A loss, however, might be enough to drop them out of the rankings altogether.
Keys to Stanford Win
Stanford must establish the running game right away with Taylor. Unlike many college teams, which use a committee approach in the backfield, the Cardinal rely almost exclusively on the senior, who's averaging over 100 yards per game with five touchdowns.
That will help open up the passing game for Nunes. Between Montgomery's injury and Notre Dame's defense, the Cardinal will need to be patient. Big plays aren't likely to be available, which means Nunes needs to take what the defense gives him instead of forcing throws.
On defense, Stanford's main goal should be putting pressure on Irish quarterback Everett Golson. Ben Gardner and Chase Thomas have been the team's most effective pass-rushers so far, and they will have a major impact on the result on Saturday's game.
Which unit is more important for the Irish this week?
Keys to Notre Dame Win
As has been the case all season, Notre Dame's biggest key will be its defense. The Irish have to continue getting off the field quickly with a combination of third-down stops and turnovers. They can't let Taylor run all over them like USC did.
While Manti Te'o gets most of the national attention, Stephon Tuitt has been an equally dominant force. He's already racked up six sacks, helping keep opposing quarterbacks from getting comfortable in the pocket, which is always important.
The Irish offense just has to keep grinding out points. It isn't normally pretty, and nobody will mistake the unit for Oregon, but Golson and Co. have been getting the job done. As long as they continue to limit turnovers—a major problem last year—the Irish should be in good shape.
Notre Dame 27, Stanford 24