It has begun (and, in Notre Dame's case, ended) up front each of the last three times Stanford and the Irish have played. Toby Gerhart owned the night by nuking Gary Gray behind the Tunnel Workers' Union in 2009, Owen Marecic stole the show with his consecutive offensive and defensive touchdowns in 2010, and Chase Thomas partied in Notre Dame's backfield - 2011 style.
All was made possible by repeated Stanford manhandling on both lines of scrimmage so overwhelming that it drove Brian Kelly to prioritize physicality in South Bend. This season, the Irish are eager to prove that they've made significant progress up front after only rushing for 101 total yards in the last two years against the Cardinal. Last week's 376-yard Irish ground attack was the program's biggest output in 12 years, but it came against Miami's unquestionably poor rushing D. A measly 52-yard effort against Purdue has sullied Notre Dame's 2012 reputation, but a veteran front led by center Braxston Cave (6-3, 304) seems motivated to finally prove itself against Stanford.
The Cardinal's hogs are showing signs of coming into their own. Khalil Wilkes has shown marked improvement at left guard. His overtime block sprung Stepfan Taylor to the winning 21-yard touchdown scamper against Arizona. Wilkes' progression has allowed David Yankey to remain at left tackle and spearhead Stanford's one offensive consistency: solid pass protection. Now, the Cardinal look to further develop their line in the face of heavy resistance. Seeing freshmen Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy clash with Notre Dame's trio of 300 pounders in jumbo situations will certainly be fun.
Advantage: Stanford (small). While younger, the Cardinal are simply deeper on the offensive front. The Irish need to prove that they can block Thomas and Shayne Skov before they can boast about big-time improvement.
Josh Nunes and Everett Golson have experienced similar stories - with the exception of the fact that Notre Dame's man was temporarily benched in favor of Tommy Rees earlier this season. The two quarterbacks elevated their play to career-high levels against overmatched defenses last week, but it's entirely possible that the tables will be turned right back against both of them with a pair of imposing defenses now in the way.
Golson's speed makes him dangerous for Stanford, but his lack of height (6 feet tall) also makes him especially prone to batted balls at the line of scrimmage by the Cardinal's tall defensive linemen. Quarterback play seems to be this game's biggest wild card, especially considering the fact that all other match-ups seem relatively even. The two biggest questions: can Golson break the pocket containment of Stanford's outside linebackers, and can Nunes deliver a serviceable performance on the road against a good defense this time around?
Much of the discussion here this week has been centered on the fact that Notre Dame and Stanford look like twin brothers. The running back position is just one spot of similarity. Both teams feature their own stable of backfield talent - although the South Bend version is cut from a different kind of cloth than its Bay Area counterpart.
George Atkinson III (9.3/carry), Theo Riddick (team-leading 68 carries), and Cierre Wood (6.1/carry) all bring explosive speed to a balanced Irish ground attack. And although everyone knows that Stanford counters with Stepfan Taylor, the Cardinal's ability to change the pace with Kelsey Young, Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, and maybe even Anthony Wilkerson (possibly returning from injury) will be a vital factor in the outcome of this game.
Stanford's most significant advantage here is the fullback position, where Ryan Hewitt has caught only two passes out of the backfield so far this year. Expect that to change this weekend; the Cardinal must find a way to involve the Braveheart warrior out of the backfield to keep the Irish D honest.
Advantage: Stanford (small). Hewitt at fullback makes the difference.
Despite the fact that Ty Montgomery has struggled so far in 2012, the sophomore's loss is a major concern because of his field-stretching speed and his excellent blocking ability. Montgomery, in fact, was catching Young on the sophomore's blazing fast 55-yard touchdown sweep against Arizona. It'll be up to track star Jamal-Rashad Patterson to cash in on his chance to start. Against a questionable Notre Dame secondary, Drew Terrell must also consistently appear. He'll be reinforced by some relative newcomers, including true freshman Kodi Whitfield and Jordan Pratt.
The true stars for Stanford downfield, of course, are gigantic tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. The Notre Dame secondary has been overmatched by the Cardinal trees as of late. Remember, Coby Fleener caught three touchdowns against the Irish the past two years. All of them, including last season's famous 10-yard piggyback ride into the end zone, came on opportunities that were created by size and strength mismatches.
Notre Dame answers with balance. Riddick (a receiver for two years; back to running back now) has caught 17 throws out of the backfield, while T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, John Goodman, and Robby Toma are all talented playmakers with more than 10 grabs on the year. Six-foot-six tight end Tyler Eifert, considered one of America's finest at the position, has drawn most defensive double teams that have come the Golden Domers' way. It should be noted that the Cardinal have done an excellent job limiting the tight end position this season. Remember that Washington bruiser Austin Seferian-Jenkins was held to only 10 yards on two catches against Stanford two weeks after safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds bruised USC big men Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.
Advantage: Notre Dame (small). The loss of Montgomery means that the Stanford corp is unproven and may have to rely on heavily covered tight ends.
This is where Notre Dame's sheer size will make things very interesting. The Irish are massive across the defensive front. Kapron Lewis-Moore (306), Louis Nix III (326), and Stephon Tuitt (303) represent what is, by far, the most massive front Stanford has faced all season long. David Shaw expressed concern about the double team-commanding ability of Nix this week, but it's Tuitt (6 sacks) who's having the huge year statistically.
Between Ben Gardner, Terrence Stephens, David Parry, Henry Anderson, and Josh Mauro, the Cardinal are not as heavy as Notre Dame on the line, but last week's deflections of Matt Scott showed that they are certainly tall enough to disrupt undersized Everett Golson's passing lanes. Throw in the fact that Stanford's defensive line has absolutely worked the Irish front for the past two seasons, and it's clear that Randy Hart's crew won't lack confidence.
Freshman Aziz Shittu, by the way, has entered the rotation. He saw his first career action providing fresh legs against Arizona's spread attack last week.
Advantage: Stanford (small). Despite its size advantage, the Notre Dame front needs to tangibly prove that it can disrupt the Cardinal up front. That hasn't happened in four years.
Manti Te'o is a Heisman Trophy candidate for Notre Dame, and his play shares a lot in common with Stanford stalwart Shayne Skov, who Shaw said is close to 100 percent explosiveness following rehabilitation after his severe knee injury. Te'o, who is about 10 pounds heavier than Skov, hits most guys so hard that he doesn't even have to wrap them up to record a tackle. Ever since his grandmother and girlfriend died within hours of each other (cancer) last month, the Hawaiian has raised the level of his play to an absurd level. His 48 tackles give him 20 more than anyone else on the team.
It's been over a month since an opponent last reached the end zone against Notre Dame. The Irish front seven also hasn't surrendered a rushing touchdown all season. In short, if there is a front on Stanford's schedule that can hold a candle to the Cardinal's, this is it.
Don't underestimate the Farm Boys' crew, though. After last week's substandard performance, there was palpable anger fueling Derek Mason's defense this week. And there is historical precedent suggesting Stanford success. Skov and Thomas were simply spectacular in their 2010 visit to Notre Dame Stadium, slicing through the Irish protection with lethal precision. Perhaps Skov's magnificently-timed explosion through the line of scrimmage and subsequent sack was what encouraged quarterback Dayne Crist to transfer to Kansas.
This is Notre Dame's potential point of vulnerability. Cornerback Keivarae Russell is a true freshman. He plays opposite Bennett Jackson, another first-year starer and offensive convert. Although senior safety Zeke Motta has garnered acclaim with his play, touted safety Jamoris Slaughter tore his ACL earlier this year, leaving the Irish thin in support of their new men on the edges. However, no team has enjoyed the personnel to truly exploit Notre Dame downfield - yet. It'll be up to Josh Nunes to change that in a hostile environment.
Though last week's 491-yard torching at the hands of Arizona was troubling, there's certainly an indication that it was a fluky mismatch lapse for Stanford's unit. Terrence Brown's concussion, coupled with minor dings to Usua Amanam and Barry Browning, equaled doom in the face of a crisp spread passing attack. Notre Dame doesn't have the quarterback or the system to abuse a now-healthy Cardinal secondary in the same way, but Golson does have the mobility to create headaches.
Advantage: Stanford (small). It remains to be seen if Nunes can exploit this advantage.
There's a good chance this game will turn into a field goal kicking contest (remember, Nate Whitaker nailed five at Notre Dame Stadium in 2010). Stanford's Jordan Williamson has regained his early-season mojo after missing four in a row, while first year Irish kicker Kyle Brindza has nailed eight of his ten tries. The Domers have an excellent punter: senior Ben Turk (son of former NFL great Matt Turk) consistently gets great hang time on his boots. A big Terrell return could be just what Stanford needs in this game.
Advantage: Notre Dame (small). It feels that punting will be significant in this game.
Advantage: Notre Dame (significant). Nunes is on the road, where he has failed miserably in his only try. This is a major opportunity for him to prove himself, but until he does, Stanford must hold its breath.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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