You could pick any of about 10 moments that defined Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season in 2012. Perhaps none, however, had the impact of the Irish’s controversial goal-line stand to seal a win over Stanford in overtime.
At the time, the Cardinal looked like a one-dimensional team headed for an 8-5 season. Josh Nunes was struggling at quarterback, and Stanford had dropped two of three games since its upset of USC on Sept. 15.
Twelve weeks later, Stanford finished a 12-2 season with a win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Its eight straight wins to close the season included: Oregon State, at No. 2 Oregon, UCLA (twice in six days) and the Big Ten champion Badgers.
When analyzing Notre Dame’s 2013 schedule (which I rank the 16th-toughest in the nation) and determining who its toughest foe will be, I came back to Stanford, which hosts the Irish in Palo Alto on Nov. 30.
There are many potential losses on the schedule, which includes trips to Michigan and Pittsburgh and home dates with Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC. However, no program on Notre Dame’s 12-game slate is built better to take down the Irish than David Shaw’s Cardinal.
There are some holes for the defending Pac-12 champions to fill. Leading rusher Stepfan Taylor departs, as do tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Star linebacker Chase Thomas and top cornerback Terrence Brown are gone from the defense. A coaching turnover also affected Stanford, as offensive coordinator (sorry, Andrew Luck Director of Offense) Pep Hamilton bolted to rejoin Luck in Indianapolis.
Despite the losses, Stanford still has its identity that goes back to the Jim Harbaugh era: a disciplined, physical and smart football team. It also has a weapon that Notre Dame avoided last season in rising sophomore dual-threat quarterback Kevin Hogan, who was not elevated to the starting role until November. The Irish won’t be so fortunate this time around.
Hogan may not have Taylor and two of his top targets, but he’ll be working behind one of the best offensive lines in college football. Center Sam Schwartzstein is the only loss up front. The trio of Josh Garnett, Kyle Murphy and Andrus Peat are heralded by many as the best offensive line class in 2012, and they will figure into the mix as second-year players.
The battle up front between the Cardinal offensive line and the Irish defensive line—the same two units that were on the field when last year’s game was decided—will again be strength on strength. All-American candidates Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt both return for Notre Dame.
After holding Notre Dame to just 13 points in regulation, albeit on a rainy October afternoon in northern Indiana, Stanford will bring back eight starters on defense for another season of “parties in the backfield.” The Irish’s 4.63 yards per play average against Stanford was their second lowest of the entire season (4.54 vs. Michigan State).
What will be Notre Dame's toughest game in 2013?
There is also the fact that Notre Dame’s last regular season loss came in Stanford Stadium in 2011, a 28-14 defeat, the last of three straight victories for the Cardinal after an 0-7 spell from 2002-2008. Stanford has won 19 of 20 home games over the past three years, falling only to Oregon in 2011.
There’s no doubt that Michigan will desperately want to knock off the Irish in their final visit to Michigan Stadium before the series temporarily ends. Oklahoma and USC are also certain to come to South Bend looking to pay back Notre Dame after home losses to the Irish in 2012.
However, Notre Dame’s biggest challenge of 2013 will be their last one. While there are some signs of the Cardinal eventually slowing down (their 2013 recruiting class currently ranks No. 60 in the nation according to 247Sports), the short-term future remains bright on The Farm. The combination of physicality, revenge and home-field advantage make Stanford the Irish’s toughest opponent in 2013.