Notre Dame, IN (Sports Network) - Continuing a gauntlet of top-notch competition, the seventh-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish play host to the 17th-ranked Stanford Cardinal this weekend.
Brian Kelly's Irish have been one of the real surprises this season, jumping out to a 5-0 start, including impressive victories over Big Ten powers Michigan State and Michigan. The team added Miami-Florida to the list last weekend in Chicago, dispatching the Hurricanes, 41-3. Even more impressive than the wins, is the fact that each of those teams failed to score a touchdown against Notre Dame, which last allowed an opponent in the end zone on Sept. 8 (Purdue).
It was supposed to be all doom-and-gloom in the post Andrew Luck era, but David Shaw's Cardinal have not folded up. Instead, the team has won four of its first five games, including knocking off then top-ranked USC in mid- September (21-14). Stanford suffered a loss next time out at Washington (17-13), but was able to get back in the win column with a 54-48 overtime thriller against Arizona last time out.
This marks the 27th all-time meeting in this series. The Fighting Irish hold a 17-9 series advantage and are 10-3 all-time against the Cardinal in Notre Dame Stadium, although Stanford has won each of the last three meetings.
Despite humbling losses the last two years to Stanford, Kelly thinks the Irish are much more capable in 2012.
"I think we're stronger physically across the board, said Kelly at his weekly press conference. "We're a mature football team. We have veterans on defense. From an offensive line standpoint we feel like we can handle ourselves much better. We had a ton of negative plays last year. We had 50 plus running plays and we had one negative play against Miami. Whereas last year we had 20 negative plays, we had penalties. We're a more disciplined team, so much further along as it relates to taking care of the football and turnovers, and as you know, last year, it was a turnover mistake, negative play every other seemed like every other play, so I think we're so much further along."
The Cardinal have been fueled by a suffocating defense, but it was the offense that led the way in the win over Arizona, with the team posting 617 yards, the most for the program since 1999.
Quarterback Josh Nunes had the unenviable task of replacing Luck under center, but he definitely came through against the Wildcats, leading the team back from a 14-point deficit with less than 10 minutes remaining in regulation to force overtime.
Despite the strong finish, Nunes has been up and down this season, completing just 54.1 percent of his passes, for 1,150 yards, with 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. His favorite target has been tight end Zach Ertz (21 receptions, 316 yards, 2 touchdowns).
The best offensive weapon for Stanford though is found in the backfield in the form of veteran tailback Stepfan Taylor, who is averaging 112.0 yards per game, amassing 560 yards and 5 TDs, adding a sixth score via the pass.
The Stanford defense has neutralized some top offensive programs this season, although the Cardinal were taken to task by Arizona last time out. Overall, the unit has been strong against the run (77.2 ypg), but weak against the pass (302.4 ypg).
The linebacking corps highlights the defensive play, thanks to seniors Chase Thomas (31 tackles, 6.0 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception) and Shayne Skov (26 tackles).
The ground attack is starting to find its groove for Notre Dame, as the team amassed 376 yards rushing against Miami last week, the most by the Irish since 2000. It isn't a workhorse back generating all the yards, but rather a trio of talented rushers in George Atkinson III (9.3 ypc, 3 TDs), Theo Riddick (3.9 ypc, 3 TDs) and Cierre Wood (6.1 ypc, 2 TDs).
Kelly has two capable quarterbacks in Everett Golson and Tommy Rees, but it is Golson who is making this team his. The sophomore has completed 60.4 percent of his throws, for 827 yards and 3 touchdowns.
While the offense is peaking midway through the season, the Irish defense has been running on all cylinders all season long. Notre Dame ranks second nationally in scoring defense (7.8 ppg) and 13th in total defense (290.0 ypg).
The heart-and-soul of the unit is two-time All-American Manti Te'o. The senior middle linebacker is a favorite for the Butkus Award this season and has been dominant, with a team-high 48 tackles, with 3 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries.
A stout defensive line featuring a trio of 300-pounders helps keep Te'o free to make plays. Headlining the group up front is sophomore end Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 303), who leads the team in TFLs (6.0) and sacks (6.0).
The secondary is led by senior safety Zeke Motta (28 tackles) and junior cornerback Bennett Jackson (23 tackles, 3 interceptions).
Kelly has his team keeping its fast start in perspective.
"We don't talk from that level from 30,000 feet because it doesn't do us any good," said Kelly. "All we can focus on is what we can control on a day to day basis. When I do press conferences or talk to the media, sometimes I let our team know, listen, I'll talk in those terms. But among us, it's about today and what we do today."