|Stanford TE Zach Ertz scored on a two-point conversation in the Cardinal's 37-14 win over Notre Dame in 2010. Stanford owns a three-game winning streak heading into Saturday's matchup. (US Presswire)|
Kickoff: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Spread: Notre Dame by 8
Watchability: High. Saturday’s game will be Notre Dame’s third of four games against top 25 opponents in a brutal six-game stretch. Irish coach Brian Kelly will be pleased to face a Staford team minus Andrew Luck. The Cardinal have averaged 36.6 points per game against Notre Dame during a three-game winning streak over the last three seasons. Since Kelly arrived in South Bend, he said there hasn’t been an opponent that has provided a more physical challenge.
Shining stars: Notre Dame: LB Manti Te’o. Although the Butkus and Lombardi Award nominee has been relentless in all five Irish games in 2012, Kelly indicated that Te'o sets the bar higher for himself with each passing week. In last Saturday’s 41-3 win over Miami (Fla.), the senior made a team-high 10 tackles and helped stifle a Hurricanes offense that had averaged 43 points in its two previous games. The strength of the Stanford offensive attack is at running back and tight end, which might provide Te’o with his greatest challenge to date. Stanford: RB Stepfan Taylor. The Cardinal senior will be seeking his third straight 100-yard rushing game against the Irish. In Kelly's weekly press conference, he described Taylor as the heart of Stanford’s team. Taylor is a workhorse back who doesn’t mind taking a pounding. In three of the Cardinal five games this season, Taylor has received at least 26 carries. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco may be closely analyzing film on Stanford’s loss to Washington over the next few days. In a Week 5 defeat to their Pac-12 rivals, Taylor was held to 75 yards on 21 carries. Diaco runs many of the same concepts in his 3-4 defense that are used in Huskies’ defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s scheme.
Who could steal the show: Notre Dame: RB Cierre Wood. It took a couple games for the senior running back to gain traction after a two-game suspension to open the season, but Wood easily had his best game of the season last week at Soldier Field. Wood followed his blockers so precisely on a 37-yard, third-quarter run that he nearly stepped on one of his guard’s feet, according to Kelly. The 6-1, 215 senior hit the creases decisively and made sharp cut-backs when needed. He’ll face a premier corps of Cardinal linebackers led by seniors Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas. Stanford ranks sixth in FBS against the run (77.20 per game). If the Irish three-headed running attack of Wood, George Atkinson III and Theo Riddick can find the second-level, it could force the Cardinal to bring an extra safety into the box and open up the passing game. Stanford: QB Josh Nunes. The redshirt junior might not be as expert at diagnosing coverages as Luck, but five games into his reign as the starter he has steadily developed. Nunes is coming off a spectacular performance against Arizona when he threw for 360 yards and two touchdowns in the 54-48 overtime win. In the process, he rallied the Cardinal from a 14-point deficit. If the Irish's stout defensive linemen find a way to collapse the pocket on Nunes, they must be aware of his ability to take off. Nunes ran for three touchdowns against the Wildcats.
You going? Ranking the road trip: The game against Stanford might be the most anticipated in South Bend over the last several seasons. ESPN Gameday will make its first appearance on the Notre Dame campus for a football game since 2005, when the Irish lost 34-31 to top-ranked USC in the final seconds on the infamous “Bush Push” play.
Magic number for Notre Dame: 5. The Irish running backs were tackled five times behind the line of scrimmage last season in Palo Alto, four on runs by Wood. On 51 carries last week against Miami, however, the Irish had just one run for negative yards. Stanford ranks fourth in FBS in TFLs per game with 8.60.
Magic number for Stanford: 5. The Cardinal registered five sacks in last year’s win over the Irish and held Notre Dame to just 57 rushing yards. If Thomas and junior linebacker Trent Murphy can cause pressure off the edge, it could be a long afternoon for Irish quarterback Everett Golson.
The game comes down to: Defending the tight end. Both teams have surefire NFL prospects. Notre Dame senior TE Tyler Eifert flashed his athleticism last week on a leaping 23-yard catch on a back shoulder fade along the left sideline. When the Hurricanes rolled their coverage against Eifert in the second half, the Irish pounded the ball on the ground and gained 270 rushing yards after halftime. The Cardinal, meanwhile, possesses a lethal two-tight end package in juniors Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Both tight ends are 6-6 or taller and have combined for 34 receptions for 594 yards this season. Expect the Irish to try to press both at the line to prevent them from gaining separation on corner routes.
Eye on College Football's take: We all know Stanford can run the ball, but in order to beat Notre Dame it's going to have to find more success passing. If Josh Nunes can make the necessary throws, Stanford could hand Notre Dame its first loss of 2012. --Tom Fornelli
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Stanford 24
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