As the Cardinal approaches the midpoint of its season, it’s worthwhile to look back on some of the things that the team has accomplished so far.
Knocking off the No. 2 team in the country. Shutting down a quarterback who in all likelihood will be the first overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Coming back from a two-touchdown deficit halfway through the fourth quarter. Amassing 617 yards of total offense in a single game.
All of which are undoubtedly impressive.
But there is still one thing that has managed to elude the Cardinal: winning a game on the road.
Coming off a thrilling 54-48 overtime victory over Arizona last week, No. 17 Stanford (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12) will try to claim its first road victory when it squares off against No. 7 Notre Dame (5-0) in South Bend, Ind., tomorrow afternoon.
“This is going to be the big test,” said head coach David Shaw. “That’s our gauntlet. The gauntlet that’s thrown down in front of us is, can we play our best game on the road?”
The Cardinal has laid its hands on the Legends Trophy, annually given to the winner of the rivalry game, for the past three years. However, bringing the trophy back to the Farm for the fourth straight season will be a tall order considering that this will be the highest-ranked Notre Dame team that Stanford has faced since 1992, when the Fighting Irish went into that matchup as the No. 6 team in the nation.
South Bend has not been particularly kind to Stanford, as it has gone 3-10 at Notre Dame Stadium. And with ESPN’s College GameDay crew attending tomorrow’s game, the Cardinal will face a hostile crowd under the eyes of national viewers as it did against Washington at CenturyLink Field two weeks ago.
“We’ve gone on the road one time this year, and we did not play well,” Shaw said. “Defensively, we did a solid job against Washington, but we still allowed a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver. We’ve done that two games in a row. We need our defense to play its best game this week.”
An important task for Stanford’s defense is to limit the effectiveness of Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, a redshirt freshman who, like Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes, is coming off the best game of his rookie career. Despite not tossing any touchdowns against Miami last Saturday, Golson displayed his efficiency by completing over 77 percent of his passes, as well as gaining 51 yards on the ground.
Though inconsistent at times, Golson has thus far led the Irish to a perfect 5-0 record for the first time since 2002. Not all of those wins have come against subpar teams, either; among them is an impressive 20-3 win over then-No. 10 Michigan State and a 13-6 grind-it-out victory over then-No. 18 Michigan.
Shaw has also made sure that his defenders are prepared for backup quarterback Tommy Rees should he get into the game. While head coach Brian Kelley has made it clear that Golson is the starter, Rees has seen some playing time this year, including 11 pass attempts against the Wolverines.
The Stanford secondary, which gave up huge plays over the top that led to Arizona’s 491 passing yards last weekend, will need to clamp down against Golson. Although the Cardinal defenders in the second level have shown that they can be playmakers–safety Ed Reynolds leads the nation with 144 interception return yards–and rise to the occasion, inconsistent coverage and shoddy tackling have been two of the bigger issues so far this season.
The Irish also boast a horde of talented running backs, including Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III and Cierre Wood, who have been splitting responsibilities in the backfield and averaging over 187 rushing yards per game. On the heels of allowing 100-yard rushers in its last two games, the Cardinal front seven will face a powerful offensive line that has made great strides in its run blocking and pass protection.
“[Their offensive line] is much more downhill and much more physical than they were a season ago,” said defensive end Ben Gardner. “They look a lot like our own offensive line. They’re big bodies, but they’re well put together. We’re looking forward to that challenge because that’s our style of football at Stanford, and that’s what we signed up for when we came to play here.”
Nunes’ five-touchdown performance against Arizona was the big story last weekend, earning him Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors. The redshirt junior not only ran the ball into the end zone three times, but also executed two touchdown-scoring drives when there was absolutely no room for mistakes.
“I just go out there with the mentality that each play needs to be our best play,” Nunes said.
While taking nothing away from his breakout game last Saturday, Nunes will face a much stiffer test against a stout Notre Dame defense that has allowed less than eight points per game, which is good for second in the country.
“We have something in common with Notre Dame,” said Shaw. “And that’s playing tough, physical defense, loving our linebackers, running the ball on offense and having the quarterbacks do what they need to do to win the game.”
The heart and soul of the Irish defense is undoubtedly inside linebacker Manti Te’o. At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, the consensus preseason first-team All-American linebacker has forced his way into the Heisman conversation with 48 tackles, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two quarterback hurries that resulted in interceptions.
“You get on guys about form tackles and wrapping up,” said Shaw. “But when Manti hits people, he doesn’t have a chance to wrap them up half the time. He pops them, and they go down, he’s so physical… It’s uncanny; he’s a special player.”
Although Te’o may overshadow many of his teammates, Notre Dame has plenty of other game-changing players on defense. Among them is junior cornerback Bennett Jackson, who also has three interceptions on the season. Opponents have struggled to inflict much damage on the Irish through the air–Notre Dame has given up only three passing touchdowns while tallying eight picks and 14 sacks.
With Stanford’s top wide receiver Ty Montgomery injured, Nunes will have to find a way to get his other wideouts, like Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson, more involved, in addition to his favorite tight end targets Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.
The Irish run defense has also been lights out all season, allowing only 106 yards per game on the ground. Senior tailback Stepfan Taylor, who has been efficiently averaging 4.7 yards per carry, probably won’t have the big running holes he was presented with against the Wildcats last weekend.
But Stanford’s offensive line isn’t backing down.
“We have big guys that can play physical but also have great feet and are able to go up to a safety if need be,” said redshirt junior guard Khalil Wilkes.
The Stanford players respect the firmly rooted traditions that surround Notre Dame’s football program, but that doesn’t mean that they’re treating this game any differently.
“I love playing them, and I love going to Notre Dame Stadium because it’s a beautiful place to play, the fans are into it and you’ve got the little leprechaun running around,” said Gardner. “But in terms of most of our team, they could care less. We’re just about what we do, about playing big, physical football.”
The Cardinal and the Irish clash in a top-20 showdown tomorrow at Notre Dame Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. PDT, with national television coverage on NBC.