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Undefeated showdown in South Bend

No. 7 ranked Stanford takes on No. 8 ranked Notre Dame in a battle of undefeated teams

Sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo (#11 above) leads the FBS in passes deflected with 11. He will be an instrumental part of taking down Notre Dame on Saturday. (MICHAEL SPENCER/The Stanford Daily)

No. 7 ranked Stanford (4-0) and No. 8 ranked Notre Dame (4-0) first played each other in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Since that first meeting (where Knute Rockne’s Fighting Irish took down Pop Warner’s Cardinal), the teams have met 31 times. Thirty-two matchups. Almost a century of history in the rivalry. But for the first time this Saturday, the programs will meet while both ranked in the Top 10.

Saturday’s matchup in South Bend could very well be the most important game in this rivalry’s history. Both teams are College Football Playoff contenders. Both teams are coming off impressive road victories. And both teams understand the national consequences this game could have.

Every time the Cardinal and Fighting Irish meet, the game has the makings of a classic. Each of the last three meetings in South Bend have been decided by one touchdown or less.

“The rivalry has been really good and the games have been outstanding over the years,” said head coach David Shaw. “A lot of late-game victories on both sides, a lot of great players on both sides, so no wonder this game every year has been one of the highest-rated games to watch.”

That should be no different this year, as college football fans across the country, even those who don’t dress themselves in cardinal and white or green and gold, will be watching this game closely. A win should propel either team a few spots higher in the rankings. A loss might be enough to unofficially eliminate a team from the playoff mix in a year with a number of strong – and higher-ranked – contenders.

Notre Dame has the obvious advantage of playing at home, but Stanford proved that it can be a road warrior with its epic comeback last week in Eugene. Down by 10 points with only a few minutes to go, the Cardinal miraculously tied the game, thanks in part to a clutch performance from quarterback KJ Costello and a key Oregon turnover when the Ducks were simply trying to run out the clock. The Cardinal can’t fall into a deep hole again on Saturday and expect to claw their way back out. Teams are lucky to have a comeback like that once a season – if that – and South Bend is one of the few environments in the country that is as hostile as Eugene.

“That’s a testament to our guys being resilient,” Shaw said about Saturday’s victory. “The key now is to play like that in the first quarter and not wait until we’re 17 points down. That’s the key for us to take the next step and play a very, very good team on the road and see if we can play at that level for four quarters, not a quarter-and-a-half.”

Luckily for the Cardinal, Costello is looking like a star. Against the Ducks, he threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns and was never rattled by the big deficit. It almost feels weird to be paying so much attention to the Cardinal’s passing offense, especially after years of elite rush offenses and a running back like Bryce Love on the field, but it has become clear over the first part of the season that opponents are doing a much better job gameplanning for Love and limiting his effectiveness. Love had 89 yards and a touchdown against Oregon, but he still lacks the same explosiveness he had all of last year. That being said, he’s always one broken tackle away from a game-changing run, and against a Notre Dame rush defense that gave up 259 yards on the ground last week, Love will continue to be the most important player on the field for the Cardinal.

For the Irish, junior quarterback Ian Book will look to build off an impressive performance against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, in which he threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns. Book replaced starter Brandon Wimbush prior to last week’s game and immediately added a new level of firepower to the Irish offense. With the home crowd behind him for the first time this week, expect Book to air it out. It should be a stiff test for the Cardinal secondary.

If anyone is going to step up and shut down Book and the Irish receivers, it will probably be sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo, who leads the country with 11 pass breakups. He broke up three passes against Oregon and also has 22 tackles on the season.

“We felt there was a possibility that he would be playing at this level,” said defensive backs coach Duane Akina. “He’s still learning, but he’s a talented young man. He’s got length, speed, toughness and a great worth ethic.”

While Book is a talented player, the Cardinal were able to shut down Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert in overtime last week. Herbert is one of the top quarterbacks in the country, so the Cardinal defense should have a new burst of confidence heading into Saturday.

In a game of this magnitude, it’s often the little things that prove to be most important. Special teams, penalties, officiating – so many seemingly small moments in a game could prove crucial by the final whistle. The Cardinal always seem to have a coaching advantage with Shaw on their sideline, and if he can out-coach Brian Kelly for four quarters, you have to feel good about Stanford’s chances.

Of course, this may be exactly what The Daily’s sports reporters and Stanford fans said in 1925, before Pop Warner’s team lost a heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl. While David Shaw and Brian Kelly might not carry the same historical legacies as Rockne and Warner, Saturday’s game could prove to be equally as legendary as the 1925 matchup; let’s just hope Stanford ends up on top this time.

 

Contact Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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