In recent years Stanford had been thought of as little more than "a high-academic school", but the football program is on the rise under the Jim Harbaugh regime. If other teams didn't know what to expect when stepping onto the field against the Cardinal, running back Tyler Gaffney might have summed it up best.
"We want to play with class and we want to play with cruelty," he said.
Wake Forest found that out the hard way last Saturday during the 68-24 throttling. The final score could have been 84-7 had Harbaugh not pulled the starters with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
To a man, you will never hear a Stanford player take credit for something he accomplished. They always divert the attention to teammates or coaches. These kids are as humble and as classy as they come but make no mistake; they want to dominate every play from start to finish.
"We look at every drive as if it were 0-0," Gaffney said. "If we don't score that drive, then it seems like an unsuccessful effort."
Scoring on Notre Dame this weekend might not be as easy as it was last season. The Cardinal amassed 496 yards of offense in the thrilling 45-38, come-from-behind victory.
The Irish return nine starters on the defensive side of the ball and have switched back to a 3-4 scheme under new head coach Brian Kelly. When discussing the defense, Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh and players repeatedly used the phrase "stout up front."
"This will be the best defense we've played this year," Harbaugh said. "They return a lot of experienced guys who've gotten stronger and better from a year ago. Tackles that are playing ends and ends that are athletic outside linebackers."
Notre Dame's front seven has registered eight sacks this season while the Cardinal offensive line has only surrendered one. Andrew Luck mentioned that linebacker Darius Fleming is someone they will have to limit in order to find success Saturday.
"There are a very disciplined defense, they're not going to be caught out of position or sleeping on a play," said Luck. "As an offense we really have to be on our screws this week. Their D-line is really the strength of their defense."
When examining the Irish offense you will find that the pro-style attack of predecessor Charlie Weis is gone as Kelly has implemented the system that was so successful for him during his years at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
"This is a true spread, 'throw the football' offense," Harbaugh said. "They have an outstanding quarterback and extremely good playmakers on the outside. It's going to be a great challenge for our football team."
We will finally get a gauge of how good, or bad, this Cardinal secondary really is. This will also be the first true test for the outside linebackers in man-to-man receiver coverage. The Irish offense torched Stanford through the air last year to the tune of 340 yards and five touchdowns. The Irish attack ranks eighth in the country in passing so far this season, posting more than 315 yards per game.
"They are definitely talented and have skill players that we haven't seen the caliber of yet," linebacker Shayne Skov said.
Notre Dame still has the ever-dangerous Michael Floyd, who had six catches for 85 yards and two scores last year. But perhaps the biggest mismatch of the game will come with Kyle Rudolph. The 6-6, 265-point tight end leads the team in receptions (21) and receiving yards (287) and resembles former Oregon Duck Ed Dickson, except that he's bigger.
"First of all, you have to be athletic enough to cover him and most of the guys who are athletic enough to do that aren't 6-6, 255 pounds," Harbaugh said of the challenge to match up against Rudolph. "If it's an undersized, athletic guy he's able to bounce them around like a ping-pong ball and if you put a big, physical matchup against him, then they don't have the athleticism to cover him."
Playing against the Irish for the last few years as well as recruiting some of the players on the team, the Cardinal coaching staff does have some insight on what to expect. But this year they hold an even deeper insider's edge. Randy Hart and Brian Polian both served on Notre Dame's coaching staff last season and know the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of most of the Irish personnel. Harbaugh said that they would definitely tap into that knowledge while preparing.
History hasn't been kind to Stanford at South Bend in recent years. The Cardinal have dropped seven straight decisions at Notre Dame, but an opportunity to end that streak could serve as some extra motivation for the visitors Saturday.
"We don't necessarily pay too much attention to things we had no control over, but it does motivate us a little," Luck said. "We'd love to be the team to buck the trend but in the end it's just going to be a football game."
The Cardinal are ranked 16th in the AP poll this week, moving up three spots after the Wake Forest trouncing. The boys out in Vegas positioned Stanford as 2.5-point favorites on the opening line but that spread has been hammered up to a current number of 5. Many expect a shoot-out like last year and the game total is being offered at 58.5.
About the Author: Bootleg Senior Writer Scott Cooley has worked in the sports media industry throughout his professional career, including serving as a writer for an ESPN production house and a professional football franchise. His work has been published in multiple print and online platforms including ESPN.com. He currently writes for yours truly, The Bootleg, as well as Covers.com and Bookmaker.com. Cooley specializes in football, baseball and basketball with an emphasis on sports betting. Cooley and his wife reside in California, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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