Notre Dame Football: Levine Toilolo

Muench: Stanford-ND was TE bonanza

October, 16, 2012
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Saturday figured to be a tight end showcase inside Notre Dame Stadium, and the Stanford-Notre Dame game did little to separate three of the nation's best at the position.

The Cardinal's Zach Ertz caught four passes for 55 yards and the Irish's Tyler Eifert caught four for 57, including the game-tying touchdown grab in the fourth quarter. Stanford's Levine Toilolo had no catches but had far tougher blocking assignments than the other two.

Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench evaluated each through the prism of that game Insider, and he loves Eifert's ability to snag 50-50 balls, which was never on display more than in his 24-yard score that helped knot the game at 10. The blocking can get better, Muench said, but the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Eifert matches up favorably with recent Irish draft pick Kyle Rudolph.

The story is on Insider, so you'll have to be a member to read it. But right now Ertz grades out the best among the three, with a mark of 83. Eifert is 80 and Toilolo is 79.
No. 17 Stanford comes to town to take on No. 7 Notre Dame. Is this the year the Irish stop their three-game losing streak to the Cardinal?

When Stanford has the ball: Josh Nunes is a bit of a wild card under center, but he has a pair of big weapons in his tight ends: 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo and 6-6 Zach Ertz. He also has an outstanding running back behind him in Stepfan Taylor, though he is likely without top wideout Ty Montgomery. The Cardinal offense has been in many ways like Notre Dame's, as it did not put up a lot of points before breaking out for 54 in an overtime win last weekend against Arizona. Stanford is similar to Michigan State offensively -- as Manti Te'o said this week -- but having a pair of big, pass-catching tight ends adds another dimension.

When Notre Dame has the ball: Everett Golson had the kind of breakout performance last weekend that everyone was waiting for. But Miami's defense, simply, is not Stanford's. The Cardinal lead, Notre Dame players and coaches said, by intimidation, as they are sound and disciplined. They forced Tommy Rees out of the game in last year's meeting, and will make Golson feel it if he takes off running. They have, however, allowed a 100-yard rusher in each of their past two games. They will certainly have a chip on their shoulder after surrendering 48 points to Arizona last week after entering the game giving up only 15.25 points per game.

Intangible: Block out the noise, as Brian Kelly would say. All eyes are on the Irish now that they are 5-0. College GameDay is in town, NBC is filming its studio show on-site as well, and the team is a win away from getting to the halfway point of its season unblemished. Turnovers and mental lapses will be costly against a team like Stanford, so the Irish need to be focused Saturday.

Prediction: Notre Dame 17, Stanford 9
Nunes-Teo Getty ImagesHow will Josh Nunes and the Cardinal fare against Manti Te'o and Notre Dame's shut-down defense?
"College GameDay" will be in South Bend this week, bringing more hype to an already highly anticipated matchup between No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 17 Stanford. Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna and Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell got together to throw out some early thoughts on the game.

Kevin Gemmell: Well Matt, I'd imagine this is going to be a much different blogger discussion than the one we did to close out the 2011 season, when Andrew Luck was gunning for a Heisman, Stanford was looking for a BCS bowl berth and Notre Dame was playing quarterback roulette.

Lots of changes from both teams since the end of last November.

Kick it off and give those of us on the Left Coast a feel for what's happening with the Irish right now. I know they are a spread team. But it's different from the spread Stanford saw last week against Arizona and the one they will see later this year at Oregon. What's the skinny?

Matt Fortuna: Kevin, the Irish offense is still very much in the developmental stages, largely because its quarterback, Everett Golson, is a redshirt freshman who has played only five games. They let him loose a bit against Miami, as he showed some running ability that the Irish haven't seen at the position in recent years, but he was not exactly facing Stanford's defense, either.

Notre Dame has a big, physical offensive line that allows the team to run the ball effectively and take much of the pressure off Golson. Tyler Eifert may be the best tight end in America, but he has been the focus of every defense so far and has not put up the numbers he did last season. The Irish have a number of reliable upperclassmen receivers, but no real game-breaker who has stepped up to be that go-to guy yet.

Conversely, what in the world do we make of this Stanford defense? I thought we'd be looking at two similar teams slugging it out in a 10-7 battle, but then I saw this past Saturday, when Arizona put up 48 points on the Cardinal.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson had one of his best games of the season against Miami on Saturday.
Matt Cashore/US PresswireEverett Golson had one of his best games of the season against Miami on Saturday.
Kevin Gemmell: First off, bold statement to make about Eifert with the tight end duo of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo coming to town. Toilolo caught five balls for 141 yards and a score against Arizona and Ertz had six catches for 64 yards and a score. The Cardinal are 10-1 when Ertz catches a touchdown ... just sayin'.

Now, about that defense. Yikes, indeed. The Wildcats had 617 total yards. But the most disturbing part about it -- according to Stanford head coach David Shaw -- was that Arizona got some big plays over the top of the secondary. The Cardinal are happy to give up the short passes, so long as they make tackles at the point of the catch. But getting beat over the top is a no-no. Shaw said that's just a technique issue and can be corrected in the film room. We'll see.

But we can't dump on the defense too much. Because when they absolutely needed a stop -- or a couple of them -- they got it. They clutched up in the fourth quarter, got the ball back for the offense and the Cardinal scored twice in the fourth to overcome a 14-point deficit. And Chase Thomas had the interception in overtime that led to Stanford's win.

Tell me about the Notre Dame defense. No touchdowns in the past three games and the state of Michigan is 0-for-end zone against the Irish. Are they as advertised?

Matt Fortuna: Miami didn't score a touchdown, either, making it three straight games that this defense has held an opponent out of the end zone. The simple answer so far is yes. The Irish are giving up 7.8 points per game, second-lowest in the country. They have forced 13 turnovers and recorded 14 sacks. The front seven has looked as good as any in the country, and Manti Te'o may just be the best defensive player in the country.

The secondary has had two starters go down since camp -- and was entering this campaign with no returning starts at cornerback to begin with -- but has more than held its own through five games, surviving a couple of early drops against Miami and not letting any Canes receivers get over the top after the game's opening drive.

Does Josh Nunes have the ability to make life difficult for the defensive backs this week?

Kevin Gemmell: And therein lies the $1 million question. Nunes was adequate the first two games, solid in the second half against USC, terrible at Washington and then he blew up last week against Arizona, throwing a pair of touchdowns and running for three more. So far, he has done his best work at home and his worst performance was in their only game away from Stanford Stadium.

So this will be a huge test for him to see if he can get it done outside of Palo Alto. A lot of people were calling for his ouster after the Washington debacle, so credit Nunes for pushing out the noise and refocusing with a possible season-saving performance against the Wildcats. He's still not where Shaw and the Cardinal need him to be from a consistency standpoint. But I don't think anyone is going to question his toughness, determination or character after last week.

As for whether he can make it tough -- a lot of that falls on the Stanford receivers. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery needs to play better. Jamal-Rashad Patterson came through with a big catch and, of course, the tight ends will play a major role. If the Cardinal can run the ball effectively (no promises against a good Notre Dame front), then it will force those safeties down and create some matchup problems with the tight ends. Nunes has to consistently get them the ball as he did against Arizona. Because if he falters on the road as he did against Washington, it will be another touchdown-free performance for the Irish.

So closing it out, it seems as though Stanford's tight ends will be the biggest X factor for the Notre Dame defense. Can they hang with the 6-foot-6 Ertz and 6-8 Toilolo?

Matt Fortuna: I still have images of Stanford's tight ends dragging Irish corners during last year's contest. Those were a pair of seniors with multiple starting seasons under their belts. This is a pair of first-year starters who came to Notre Dame as offensive players.

I still think a big part of it comes down to the pressure Notre Dame gets up front. It didn't have any sacks against Miami, but it took the pocket away from Stephen Morris and threw off timing. That has been the Irish's defensive formula so far, and I expect them to try it again Saturday, even against an offensive line as good as the Cardinal's.

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.

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame

November, 28, 2011
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It's time to take one more look back at Notre Dame's regular-season ending 28-14 loss at Stanford.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Hendrix
Kyle Terada/US PresswireQuarterback Andrew Hendrix saw extensive playing time in Notre Dame's loss against Stanford.
The Good: Better late than never, right? Andrew Hendrix saw his first extended action since Oct. 22 against USC, playing the entire second half. The sophomore completed 11 of 24 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown, and added 20 rushing yards and another touchdown on 12 carries.

The Bad: Whatever BCS-bowl hopes Notre Dame hung onto went up in flames with a convincing road loss against a likely BCS bowl team. The Irish were out-gained 287-75 in a first half that ended with them trailing 21-0.

The Ugly: In falling to 1-3 against ranked opponents this season, Notre Dame surrendered five sacks, missed a 20-yard field goal and committed 10 penalties for 68 yards. Not the recipe for beating a top-10 team on the road.

Turning point: After Darius Fleming picked off Andrew Luck in the second quarter and returned the ball -- with the help of a horse-collar penalty -- to the Stanford 11, David Ruffer missed a 20-yard field goal. Luck and the Cardinal then marched 80 yards in 10 plays, ending with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Coby Fleener that made it 14-0 and swung the momentum.

Call of the day: Hard to point to just one call, but Stanford did a tremendous job of taking advantage of its massive tight ends against the Irish's small cornerbacks. Luck hit 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo for a three-yard touchdown pass on a first-quarter fade route when Toilolo was matched up against the 5-11 Gary Gray. For his second touchdown pass, Luck hit the 6-6, 244-pound Fleener near the 14-yard line when he was covered by the 6-1 Robert Blanton. Fleener essentially dragged Blanton the rest of the way into the end zone, resulting in a 28-yard touchdown pass and 14-0 Stanford lead in the second quarter.

Next up: Despite its 3-0 ACC record (4-0 if you include soon-to-be ACC school Pittsburgh), Notre Dame will not be playing in this Saturday's ACC title game. That contest will feature Clemson and Virginia Tech. The Irish might get Clemson in the Champs Sports Bowl if the Tigers fall Saturday, but the Irish's bowl and opponent is, at the moment, not yet officially determined.


STANFORD, Calif. -- On the volume meter, Stanford head coach David Shaw usually speaks at a three. On Tuesday, he spoke at an 11 (cue the “This is Spinal Tap” reference).

Shaw called for the national spotlight -- on his team, on his quarterback and on the entire Bowl Championship Series -- and, for better or worse, he got it.

The question, however, is whether a 28-14 win over Notre Dame on Saturday night at Stanford Stadium was enough to change anyone’s mind -- either the BCS pollsters or the Heisman voters.

“I wasn’t trying to change minds,” Shaw said. “I wasn’t bashing the BCS. I wasn’t bashing any other teams. Just the explanations that I kept getting didn’t make sense to me and I’m a common-sense person and I just don’t understand the whys of where we were.”

Andrew Luck
Kyle Terada/US Presswire"I've seen a lot of the other guys and there are a lot of really, really good football players," Stanford coach David Shaw said of quarterback Andrew Luck. "There's nobody like this guy."
As for the Heisman -- as expected -- Andrew Luck said he doesn’t care. You’d sooner get Condoleezza Rice to spill state secrets than to get Luck to talk about Heisman aspirations.

“I don’t worry about what kind of impression I make on anybody,” Luck said.

That’s when tight end Coby Fleener interjected.

“Andrew Luck has my vote,” Fleener said, raising his hand.

“Mine too,” said safety Michael Thomas, raising his hand. “I think he’s the best player in college football.”

“Me too,” said linebacker Chase Thomas, raising his hand.

Luck laughed off the moment, even though it encompassed everything that matters to the quarterback: the respect of his coaches and teammates.

“I don’t have a vote,” Shaw said. “We’ll see what happens. I just know that he’s one of a kind. He’s one of a kind. It’s apples and oranges in my opinion between him and everybody else and I’ve seen a lot of the other guys and there are a lot of really, really good football players. There’s nobody like this guy.”

Luck threw four touchdowns against the Irish -- three in the first half to help the Cardinal build a 21-0 lead at the break -- before closing out with a 55-yard touchdown to Fleener. The tight end finished with four catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns.

All three of Luck’s touchdowns came against Notre Dame blitzes* and both of Fleener’s scores came off of play-action. Against the blitz, Luck was 7-of-8 with three touchdowns, no interceptions and an average of 15.4 yards per completion. He finished the game 20-of-30 for 233 yards and an interception.

“I think, one loss, that’s great,” Luck said. “We’ve done a lot of good things. Someone just mentioned that we’ve been on a 23-2 run. I think that’s very impressive. We put ourselves in position to be in a good bowl game and that’s something we wanted to do.”

Which bowl game remains to be seen. The Cardinal (11-1) needed this win to stay in the conversation for a BCS at-large bid. Stanford could climb into the top 4, assuring it a BCS berth.

“All we can do is play our butts off and prepare and let the voters or whoever else makes the stuff up choose,” Fleener said. “All I know is you gotta win. That’s all I understand. They want to see 12-0 and win out and that’s how you go to the national championship. Other than that, I don’t know how everyone else falls in the pecking order.”

Speaking of pecking -- the defense spent most of the game pecking away at Notre Dame’s quarterbacks. Chase Thomas led a relentless pass rush that sacked Notre Dame’s quarterbacks five times. Thomas accounted for two while forcing a fumble and Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro and A.J. Tarpley all added one. In all, the Cardinal had eight tackles for a loss, holding Notre Dame to 57 yards on the ground. Michael Thomas and Corey Gatewood also logged interceptions.

“We went out and tried to play our game,” Tarpley said. “Maybe [the voters] liked it. Maybe they didn’t. You never really know what to think the way those things are. We played a good game. We could have played better. But we got the win. That’s all that’s important.”

Stepfan Taylor turned in his steady-as-always performance, rushing for 118 yards on 20 carries as the Cardinal accumulated 429 yards of offense.

Notre Dame mounted a minor second-half comeback -- cutting the score to 21-7 after getting a 6-yard touchdown strike from Andrew Hendrix to Michael Floyd. Notre Dame’s big-game receiver had eight catches for 92 yards and the score.

Luck’s first touchdown came on a 3-yard jump ball to 6-foot-8 tight end Levine Toilolo. The second was a 28-yarder to Fleener -- who pulled his defender into the end zone with him, and Ty Montgomery added an 11-yard touchdown reception with 10 seconds left in the first half.

Shaw’s comments last week caused a national stir. The timing certainly seemed calculated. Whether his players’ actions backed up the coach’s words will linger until the BCS bowl games are announced.

“I’m behind coach Shaw 100 percent,” offensive guard David DeCastro said. “He knows what he’s doing. That’s for sure. We don’t care what anyone else thinks. We got the win. That’s all we care about.”

But was the win enough for the team and/or Luck? To be continued ...

*Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.

Halftime: Stanford 21, Notre Dame 0

November, 26, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Quick thoughts from the first half of Stanford-Notre Dame.

Best player: Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas has been all over the field in the first 30 minutes. He has four tackles, including a sack and two tackles for a loss.

Best player, Take 2: Tough not to include Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck (14-of-21, 155 yards) in the conversation — he has three first-half touchdowns to three different players.

Worst play: Normally we reserve this space for the “best play,” but worst play goes to the pooch punt by Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees. On fourth-and-4 at the Stanford 45 early in the second quarter, Rees lined up under center, then checked out into a deep shotgun, took the snap and tried a quick kick, but it was partially tipped by Ben Gardner. It wasn’t his first punt attempt of the season, but it was definitely his worst, going for all of 5 yards.

Turning point(s): A couple of them – all following the pooch punt. On the ensuing drive, Luck was drilled by Harrison Smith as he threw. Notre Dame’s Darius Fleming picked off the wayward throw and returned it 35 yards. It’s the fifth consecutive game that Luck has thrown an interception. Coby Fleener saved the touchdown by bringing down Fleming, but it was a horse-collar, adding 15 yards to the end of the play. The Irish couldn’t punch it in despite starting the drive at the Stanford 10. And then David Ruffer missed a 20-yard field goal.

What Stanford needs to do: Exactly what it has been doing in the first half – lean on running back Stepfan Taylor (75 yards, 8.3 per carry) and then utilize the mismatches with the tight ends. The Irish have no answers for Levine Toilolo or Fleener.

What Notre Dame needs to do: Buy Rees some more time. The Cardinal pass rush has been fierce. Thomas and Gardner both have sacks and even when Rees does get rid of the ball, he’s usually on the ground after the throw.

Andrew Luck sets two school records

November, 26, 2011
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STANFORD Calif. -- With one pass, Andrew Luck broke two Stanford records.

He connected with tight end Coby Fleener on a 28-yard touchdown strike, giving him 78 touchdown passes for his career, passing John Elway. Luck tied the record earlier in the game with a touchdown to Levine Toilolo.

The touchdown also set the mark for single-season touchdown passes at 33. The previous high of 32 was set by Luck last season.

The Cardinal lead Notre Dame 14-0 with two minutes left in the first half.

1Q: Stanford 7, Notre Dame 0

November, 26, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck matched John Elway for most career touchdowns in Stanford history, with 77, when he connected with tight end Levine Toilolo on a 3-yard jump ball to the 6-foot-8 tight end, giving the Cardinal a 7-0 lead.

Notre Dame was stringing together a nice answer drive, moving 36 yards in eight plays until quarterback Tommy Rees fumbled and the Cardinal recovered at their own 30.

Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas has been Rees' worst nightmare in the first 15 minutes of the game. Thomas knocked Rees out for a play, coming up the middle and driving the quarterback into the ground.

Rees would return on the next series, only to see Thomas sack him and strip the ball in the process -- his fifth forced fumble of the season.

Not a very clean start for the Irish either, who have three false-start penalties in the first quarter.

Kickoff: Stanford-Notre Dame

November, 26, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Very cool to see Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu on the field for the pregame warmups. He's not expected to play, but he dressed out and took part in the pregame activities.

Owusu has been out of action since suffering a concussion at Oregon State -- his third in the last 13 months.

As part of the Senior Day celebrations there was a very cool video montage with a highlight of each of the fourth- and fifth-year seniors. Each was introduced and ran out on the field individually. Naturally, quarterback Andrew Luck drew the loudest ovation -- though it was nice to hear the crowd react to Owusu in uniform.

Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo participated in the full-dress pregame warmup and look like they will play for the Cardinal.

Kickoff: Stanford-Notre Dame

November, 26, 2011
11/26/11
8:16
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Very cool to see Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu on the field for the pregame warmups. He's not expected to play, but he dressed out and took part in the pregame activities.

Owusu has been out of action since suffering a concussion at Oregon State -- his third in the last 13 months.

As part of the Senior Day celebrations there was a very cool video montage with a highlight of each of the fourth- and fifth-year seniors. Each was introduced and ran out on the field individually. Naturally, quarterback Andrew Luck drew the loudest ovation -- though it was nice to hear the crowd react to Owusu in uniform.

Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo participated in the full-dress pregame warmup and look like they will play for the Cardinal.
Andrew Luck, Michael FloydGetty Images, US PresswireQuarterback Andrew Luck, left, leads Stanford; Notre Dame leans heavily on receiver Michael Floyd.

Stanford and Notre Dame are both moving on to bowl games -- but first they square off in the regular season finale for both teams. Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna and Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell do their best to shake off turkey hangovers and bring insight into Saturday's matchup.

Kevin Gemmell: Happy post-Thanksgiving to you and yours, Matt. Seeing as Stanford and Notre Dame cross paths this week, it would stand to reason that the Stanford and Notre Dame blogs also come together the day before the game.

There are major bowl implications in this game for Stanford. What's the most important thing the Cardinal need to be on the lookout for when scouting the Irish?

Matt Fortuna: Kevin, same to you and your family as well. I think I'm still in a turkey coma from last night. Obviously, this is the biggest test Notre Dame will have faced all season long. Looking at the numbers throughout this season, I think the Irish's best bet for success is to move the ball through the air and take full advantage of Michael Floyd.

Jonas Gray's knee injury severely hampers Notre Dame's ground attack. The cast is largely unproven behind the smaller Cierre Wood, and Stanford's rushing defense is good enough to have seriously challenged the Irish backfield even if Gray took the field. The Cardinal's weakness, if they have any, would appear to be its pass defense. Tommy Rees will have to improve on his sub-par performance from last week and look more like the Rees from the Maryland game two weeks ago, when he completed 30 of 38 passes and sped up the tempo of the Notre Dame offense. If he can establish a rhythm early, I think we can brace ourselves for a pretty competitive contest.

I'd be remiss to not ask the Stanford blogger about Andrew Luck, so here we go: Should everyone in the Midwest believe the hype? I currently have him atop my ESPN.com Heisman ballot, but I'm wondering if things look as crisp up-close as they do from other parts of the country. What will Notre Dame's secondary need to do to contain Luck?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, if each player on the secondary can add four or five inches, that would be a good start. Luck is going to seek out his tight ends -- Coby Fleener (6-foot-6), Levine Toilolo (6-8) and possibly Zach Ertz (6-6) who hasn't played since the USC game because of a knee injury. Luck doesn't have the receiving corps to stretch the field, but he exploits his mismatches and if one of the Notre Dame defensive backs has one-on-one coverage with a tight end, look out, because Luck will find it.

As for believing the hype? Stanford head coach David Shaw believes it. He went on a pro-Luck tirade Tuesday, saying Luck is doing things no other college player has ever done. In that regard, then yes, believe the hype. Luck is the most intelligent and evolved college quarterback I have ever seen. He sets the formations and then calls the play. And he's good at it. The Cardinal are almost always running the optimal play against the optimal defense because Luck is calling it on the spot. It's pretty amazing to watch him orchestrate the offense.

I was just going over Stanford's record against marquee wide receivers and it's pretty good. They've slowed down Keenan Allen (Cal), Robert Woods (USC) and Juron Criner (Arizona). Since we're talking secondaries, tell me about Michael Floyd and what he brings.

Matt Fortuna: Allen had six catches for 97 yards. Woods had nine for 89. And USC's Marqise Lee added seven catches for 95 yards. I'm not sure if we have the same definition of "slowed down," Kevin. Michael Floyd is big (6-3, 224 pounds), fast and versatile. He has improved his downfield blocking this season, and he is lined up virtually anywhere on the field. Notre Dame likes to find him in the flat often and let him create. Look no further than early in the fourth quarter Saturday, when Floyd took a pass on the right side, did not get a proper block, reversed field completely and ended up with an 18-yard gain on the other end of the field. He is a first-round talent who may fall to the second round only because of his off-the-field history.

Looking at the offensive lines earlier in this week, I was surprised to see the combined weight of Stanford's starters (305 pounds) were only one pound more than Notre Dame's (304). The Cardinal obviously have a pair of first-rounders up front, but what is it about the unit that allows it to impose its will on opposing defenses?

Kevin Gemmell: Come on, Matt. You know better than to fall into the trap of looking at just final statistics. Allen had all six catches in the first quarter and then was blanked the next 45 minutes. Woods was kept out of the end zone until overtime. Pretty sure if Shaw had his choice, he'd prefer Floyd to do all of his damage in the first quarter and then be a non-factor for the rest of the game -- or to hold him without a touchdown for 60 minutes.

But I think we can both agree that getting the ball to Floyd is a priority for Notre Dame and stopping that is a priority for Stanford.

Stanford's offensive line likes to grind. They'll run the power to either side with Stepfan Taylor (who just went over 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year) and they'll rotate fresh backs in regularly -- Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson, Jeremy Stewart -- and just pound away. What makes it fun to watch is they'll run essentially the same play out of a bunch of different looks. Sometimes they'll have a jumbo package with six or seven offensive linemen. Other times they'll have two fullbacks and three tight ends. They get funky with their formations and that allows them to lean on teams over the course of the game.

Speaking of offensive lines, Notre Dame is pretty good at keeping Rees' jersey clean. The protection seems solid. Is that a product of them, Rees getting rid of the ball quickly or a little bit of both?

Matt Fortuna: Both Rees and the offensive line have made strides throughout the season. The unit gave up five sacks in the month of September, two of which resulted in Rees fumbles, but the Irish did not allow a single sack from Oct. 1 to Nov. 12, when they gave up three to Maryland. Even that seemed more like something that was bound to happen rather than a big breakdown in protection. Mike Golic Jr. has done a great job filling in for the injured Braxston Cave at center, and Rees has done a much better job of releasing the ball more quickly.

OK, Kevin, I don't know how much more talking I can do while still in this turkey-induced coma. Let's get right to it: Who do you got Saturday?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, because of the Thanksgiving week, we both posted our predictions on Wednesday, making this portion of our little chat a bit anti-climatic. And I am sure you got a laugh, as I did, that there was a (spoiler alert) one-point differential in our predictions. I have Stanford winning 31-21. I just don't see Andrew Luck losing (probably) his final home game at Stanford Stadium. I think the Cardinal are motivated to make an impression on voters -- in light of David Shaw's BCS comments on Tuesday -- and I think when you get right down to it, Stanford does a better job taking care of the ball and has more mismatches on offense. Notre Dame gets some points, but Stanford gets the win.

Before you attack the leftovers and fall back asleep, what's your take on why Stanford wins?

Matt Fortuna: Impossible to fall asleep with so many good games on today and tomorrow. The leftovers are only complementary pieces. Anyway, as you mentioned, I like Stanford as well, 31-20. I like the Cardinal for many of the reasons you do — Andrew Luck's last home game, David Shaw's edgier tone this week. But ultimately I think the Irish's young defensive line just won't have enough gas in the tank to hang with Stanford's offense for four quarters, at least not this early in most of their careers. Notre Dame's offense would have had a tough time keeping Stanford off the field as it was, but take big running back Jonas Gray out of the picture, and the situation becomes even less favorable for the road team.

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