One season after the Irish pulled off a thrilling overtime victory against the Cardinal, No. 8 Stanford welcomes No. 25 Notre Dame to The Farm on Saturday night with payback in mind.
As the regular season closes, a rivalry that's taken on added importance to both schools will write another chapter for the 24th time in the last 26 seasons.
The postseason fate of both teams has already been decided. The Cardinal will take on Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship while the Irish wait for the dust to settle before sliding into a bowl game. But each team could nonetheless benefit from a victory on Saturday.
A win for Stanford would put it over 10 wins for a fourth straight year. A win for Notre Dame would mark 21 victories for the Irish in the past two seasons, matching their best two-season total since 1992-93.
On a weekend filled with rivalries, can Stanford's nerds get revenge? Here's everything you need to know before the Irish and Cardinal kick it off.
When: Saturday, 7:05 p.m. ET
Place: Stanford Stadium, Stanford, Calif.
Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM Ch. 129
Spread: Stanford -14
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
Play Efficiently on Offense
If the Irish are going to beat Stanford, they're going to need to play one of their most efficient games of the season on offense. That means finding balance in their attack, holding onto the football and cashing in their drives in the red zone.
Kelly talked on Tuesday about some of the trends that have emerged for his offense this season:
There are really clear benchmarks for us that you can all see and that have really unfolded this year that if Notre Dame does this, they are going to win the football game, or they have got a great chance to win the football game. One or less, in terms of turnovers, that's been a win. So one turnover or less, that's got to happen. Number two, there's got to be a running game, an effective running game as part of it.
Last week, the Irish showed that ability against BYU, running for an impressive 235 yards while surviving Tommy Rees' goal-line interception. Last season, the Irish survived three Everett Golson fumbles, including one in the end zone that turned into a Stanford defensive touchdown. Notre Dame won't have that wiggle room this season.
Shut down the Stanford running game and limit big plays
A season after being historically stingy, the Irish defense has given up too many big plays. The unit's inconsistencies have been a big reason why its play has taken a step backwards. Kelly addressed his defense's role in beating a team like Stanford.
"From a defensive standpoint, eliminate big plays, he said. "If we eliminate big plays, we can give up, you know, eight or nine or 10, but eliminate big-play touchdowns.
"If we eliminate big play touchdowns and keep the points down. And our margin for keeping the points down is keeping it in the teens. Then we've got a great chance of winning."
Only USC has managed to keep the Cardinal under 20 points, so the Irish defense will need to be at their best, cleaning up some sloppy tackling that's plagued the team this season. They'll also need to hold up at the point of attack, with their injury-filled defensive line going against one of the best offensive fronts in football.
Run the Ball with Authority
If there's a weakness for Notre Dame, it's the damage that's been done to the Irish front seven. With Kona Schwenke still limited from a high ankle sprain and Louis Nix out, that means it's Jarron Jones taking most of the snaps at nose tackle. Jones played well against BYU, but he will be up for a bigger challenge on Saturday.
Against Oregon, Stanford came out in jumbo packages, bringing unbalanced sets and extra linemen at the point of attack. With Tyler Gaffney among the more talented backs the Irish will see this season, expect Stanford coach David Shaw to try and wear down the Irish defense by running the ball right at them.
Make the Irish Offense One-Dimensional
Last year, Notre Dame was able to run for 150 yards to keep the Stanford defense honest. The Irish will need to manufacture a running game again on Saturday or else have the Cardinal sit back and cover while they let loose their pass-rushers.
If Stanford is able to win at the line of scrimmage in its base defense, it's going to be a long day for the Irish. None of the running backs on the Notre Dame roster touched the football against the Cardinal last season. The trio of Tarean Folston, George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel will need to take advantage of their opportunities in the ground game.
Last season against Stanford, Everett Golson coughed up three fumbles, including one in his own end zone, while being limited to just 141 yards on 12 of 24 passing attempts. But after he was knocked out of the game with a concussion on a heavy hit, Tommy Rees came in and changed the momentum of the game.
"We knocked the starting quarterback out and Tommy Rees came in and threw some lasers," Stanford's David Shaw said in his Tuesday press conference. "He came in and he was on fire."
Rees completed all four of his passes against Stanford last season, none bigger than a clutch 3rd-and-8 conversion in overtime to Theo Riddick followed by the winning touchdown pass to TJ Jones.
Rees will need to be sound with the football and steer clear of any bad decisions if Notre Dame is going to pull this one off.
Elijah Shumate, Austin Collinsworth, Eilar Hardy, Matthias Farley
Above all, Notre Dame's safeties can do no harm. That hasn't been the case so far this year, however, as the back end of the Irish defense has been plagued by missed tackles, poor coverage and subpar play.
Notre Dame's depth chart has been adjusted with Matthias Farley taken out of the starting lineup—the final straw likely being another missed tackle that turned into a big gain for BYU. Yet Austin Collinsworth has hardly been much better, having been beaten on a goal-line slant for an easy Cougars touchdown and making a mental mistake on Jarron Jones' blocked field goal.
Elijah Shumate appears to be finally healthy after a hamstring cost him several games. Eilar Hardy has also come on and has taken advantage of his opportunities. The play of the Irish's safeties needs to be much better, including in run support to keep Stanford speedster Ty Montgomery in front of them.
As the Cardinal continue to crank out elite offensive linemen, the 6'5" 315-pound Outland Trophy semifinalist has the chance to be one of the best we've seen. Yankey anchors the interior of the Stanford line, having started at both tackle and guard the past three seasons. The returning consensus All-American has another year of eligibility remaining, but might not need to use it:
David Shaw said that he "wouldn’t be surprised either way" if David Yankey left for the NFL or returned for a fifth year. #Stanford— Andy Drukarev (@StanfordRivals) Nov. 26, 2013
Yankey might be matched up with newcomer Jarron Jones, a tough assignment for the Irish sophomore, and will also find himself blocking at the second level against inside linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox.
It's a matchup that could be one-sided.
There's no more impressive physical specimen on the Cardinal defense than Murphy, who has racked up 19 tackles-for-loss and 13 sacks already this season. At 6'6" 261 pounds, the semifinalist for both the Chuck Bednarik Award and Lombardi Award reminds Brian Kelly of one of his most imposing players for the Irish.
"Well, picture Troy Niklas, that size, that length, that's Murphy and just arriving with a really, really, really bad attitude. That's Murphy," Kelly said Tuesday. "He sets the tone of their defense because he plays so physical, and he's long, he's athletic, and he just creates."
Last season, Murphy wreaked havoc against the Irish, leading the Cardinal with 10 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
On Tuesday, Cardinal coach David Shaw was asked about some of the plays that went against Stanford in its 20-13 loss to Notre Dame last year. He didn't take the bait, instead talking about the opportunities his team missed during the difficult defeat:
You take away all the controversial plays and you look at the plays that we actually had something to do with. Leave those controversial plays the way that they were, and we make the plays that we should make and could make, it never comes down to that last drive.
Stanford used the overtime loss to Notre Dame as a rallying cry. Sparked by the insertion of quarterback Kevin Hogan into the starting lineup, the Cardinal rattled off eight straight victories, ending the season with a victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Notre Dame's Brian Kelly has talked about the template Stanford has used to build a physical, hard-nosed football team. That's the same style he wants his team to play, making for a interesting showdown on Saturday night in his mind:
Both teams want to be the smartest toughest football teams in the country. Stanford right now is ranked eighth in the country. We are ranked 25th. We get a chance to decide it on the football field and so last year we were able to get Stanford. Now we've got a chance to settle it again on Saturday. It's a great rivalry.
Stanford 19, Notre Dame 17
With Louis Nix sidelined due to knee surgery, placing Stanford as a two-touchdown favorite gives you an idea of the healthy skepticism leveled against the patchwork defensive line that Notre Dame will be trotting out. Still, Jarron Jones played some productive football against BYU while Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day are both playing at a high level, with Tuitt looking like the All-American many expected to see this year.
Nevertheless, it will be an uphill battle for the Irish defense, which will need to hold up at the point of attack and become opportunistic. The Irish rank an abysmal 117th in the country in forced turnovers, so that might be asking too much. Just keeping the football in front of them will be key. Forcing Stanford to string together drives with Kevin Hogan moving the chains is better than giving up the big play.
This isn't a terrible matchup for the Irish. They'll need to play productive and smart football on offense, controlling the football and cashing in red-zone opportunities. Expect an aggressive game plan on offense, though finding some sort of running game will be key.
Notre Dame can't afford any lapses on special teams, which will be no easy task against a kick returner like Ty Montgomery. If the Irish can hang in this football game early, Brian Kelly has a chance at pulling another November rabbit out of the hat.
Ultimately, the Irish will end up coming close, but won't quite get it done.
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