Notre Dame Football: Jonathan Martin

We overlooked previewing Notre Dame’s Week 6 opponent, Stanford, last month. Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Robert from San Diego for pointing it out. Now, without further adieu …

Week 6: Oct. 13 vs. Stanford (at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.)

Time/TV: 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC

Series: Notre Dame leads all-time, 17-9

2011 record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12; second place, North Division)

Head coach: David Shaw (11-2, one year)

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

RB Stepfan Taylor, FB Ryan Hewitt, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, C Sam Schwartzstein, OG David Yankey, OT Cameron Fleming, OLB Chase Thomas, LB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner

Key losses

QB Andrew Luck, WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleener, OL David DeCastro, OL Jonathan Martin, S Delano Howell, DE Matt Masifilo, S Michael Thomas

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Stepfan Taylor* (1,330 yards)

Passing: Andrew Luck (3,517 yards)

Receiving: Griff Whalen (749 yards)

Tackles: Jarek Lancaster* (70)

Sacks: Chase Thomas* (8.5)

Interceptions: Michael Thomas (3)

Three questions for ... Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell:

Despite the talent around Andrew Luck, there are many non-believers about Stanford. Who will be his replacement, and how will the Cardinal fare in Year 1 after Luck?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, that seems to be the million-dollar question. There are a couple of guys fighting to replace Luck -- Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham. Those two emerged from the pack of five in the spring and will continue the competition into fall camp. As for how they will fare? Well, I think we can certainly expect some drop-off. But it might not be as significant as people think. Luck was a once-in-a-generation quarterback, but they still return three talented offensive linemen (two were freshmen All-Americans) and a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher in Stepfan Taylor. Luck is gone, but the team's identity isn't. They are a run-first, power football team that will grind away on opponents.

And, by the way, they return six of the starting front seven on defense and they get Shayne Skov -- one of the top middle linebackers in the country -- back after he missed the bulk of last season with a knee injury suffered in Week 3.

One point head coach David Shaw has been making is that whoever does replace Luck shouldn't try to be Luck. That's the easiest way for them not to win the job.

Aside from the QB position, what will the offense look like now without Colby Fleener? Stanford's three-tight end sets proved to be frustrating for defenses, but will they be as effective without a high NFL draft pick looming as one of the big threats? Will it even matter, given the depth the Cardinal have in the backfield?

KG: I'd expect they'll still run a lot of multiple tight end sets. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- two of the three tight ends -- are back, and they do some things better than Fleener did. What made them such a talented group all together is they complemented each other very well.

The backfield depth did take a hit when Tyler Gaffney opted to pursue a professional baseball career rather than returning to Stanford. But Anthony Wilkerson will likely start as Taylor's immediate change-of-pace back and Ricky Seale emerged in the spring.

Also, fullback Ryan Hewitt returns as possibly the most versatile player in college football. He's great on short yardage, is an outstanding run-blocker and can line up as a tight end to give the Cardinal three-tight end looks. With the personnel they have, the Cardinal can still be very multiple.

Will the secondary be a liability? Who's most likely to step up and make plays there for Stanford?

KG: I'd expect the secondary to make some big strides this year -- mainly because of highly-touted cornerback Wayne Lyons. He missed most of his true freshman season with a foot injury, but he's that lockdown corner that the Cardinal were missing last year. They also add a very talented player in Alex Carter from this year's recruiting class. He could make an immediate impact as well. But losing safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas will take its toll leadership wise. They need youngsters Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards to build off of the experience they got last season and really take charge of the secondary.
This is the test we have all been waiting to see: how Notre Dame measures up with a truly elite team.

The Irish have faced three ranked teams so far this season, beating current No. 14 Michigan State while losing to No. 15 Michigan and USC, which is ranked 10th by the Associated Press but is ineligible for the BCS standings.

Stanford, currently sixth in the BCS standings, is truly an elite team, a notch above anything the Irish have seen all season. The Cardinal won a triple-overtime thriller at USC — the best team Notre Dame has faced this season. They are coming off a 12-1, Orange Bowl-winning season and are currently 10-1, in position to notch another BCS-bowl berth.

They boast the likely top NFL draft pick in quarterback Andrew Luck, who is a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy as well. But, perhaps even more imposing, they boast an even better rushing attack, powered by a pair of likely first-round draft picks in left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro.

Here is where the Irish will really be tested, particularly if they are without versatile defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, whose status is up in the air after missing last week with an illness. Stanford has the nation's No. 22 rushing attack and the No. 24 passing attack, which equals the 10th-ranked total offense and fourth-ranked scoring offense, averaging 45 points per game.

During its current four-game winning streak, Notre Dame has held three of its opponents below 20 points, with Maryland scoring a late touchdown to finish with 21. The Irish have surrendered just more than 20 points per game this season. The defense has been stout for most of the season, ranking in the top 30 in both total and scoring defense and putting the team on its back in victories over Pitt, Wake Forest and Boston College — when the offense was average, at best.

Most of all, it knows what it is getting against Stanford, a no-nonsense, smash-mouth team that prides itself on punching you in the face early and often. The Cardinal offensive line averages just 1 more pound collectively (305) than the starting line the Irish defense faces every day in practice (304).

In his two seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has spoken about building toughness and winning in the trenches. This, of course, is coming from a coach who is 6-0 in November games at Notre Dame and has won 16 such games in a row dating back to 2007 (including December regular-season contests).

But the Irish are young on the defensive line, even if Lynch doesn't play. With senior Kapron Lewis-Moore sidelined for the season, senior Ethan Johnson and junior Sean Cwynar are the only veterans who see meaningful snaps. Starting nose guard Louis Nix is a sophomore in his first year playing, starting end Aaron Lynch is a freshman and another freshman, Chase Hounshell, has slowly worked his way into the rotation as well.

The line has matured at a quicker-than-expected rate through 11 games this season, but nothing can prepare it for the test it is about to face Saturday, one that will ultimately decide this game.

Prediction: Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20


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