- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
It's No. 25 Notre Dame at No. 8 Stanford in the regular-season finale (7 ET, Fox). Here are five things to watch when both take the Stanford Stadium field.
Kevin Hogan. Hogan was a bystander during last year's overtime thriller in South Bend, Ind., and he did not take over as the Cardinal's starting quarterback until four games later, against Oregon State. Stanford went on to win all five games with Hogan under center, including the Rose Bowl, and is now 14-2 with Hogan at the helm. The redshirt sophomore has plenty of Notre Dame ties in his family. More importantly, he is completing better than 60 percent of his passes for 2,052 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hogan is the third different Stanford signal-caller the Irish will face in as many years, and while he is not exactly Andrew Luck, he presents a different kind of challenge this time around from Josh Nunes last year.
Notre Dame's offensive line. It has been a wild 12 months for Matt Hegarty, whose playing career was in question after suffering a ministroke last November. He has since recovered, and with Nick Martin tearing the MCL in his left knee in the first quarter last week against BYU, Hegarty is now the Irish's man in the middle. The southpaw will be tasked with calling out blitzes and communicating with Tommy Rees and the rest of the line as they ready for a Stanford defense that is tied for sixth nationally with 34 sacks. Notre Dame has not been too shabby in protecting Rees, who has been sacked just seven times this season, tied for No. 2 nationally.
Jarron Jones. Kona Schwenke tried to give it a go last week against the Cougars but was sidelined soon enough because of a high-ankle sprain. That led to increased playing time at nose guard for Jones, who stepped up to the plate and doubled his season tackle total (seven to 14) and blocked a field goal. Can he do it again? Schwenke's status remains up in the air. And Tyler Gaffney, the nation's 10th-leading rusher, will be tough to stop, as he has had only 23 carries for zero or negative yards (second-best nationally among backs with 175 or more carries, per ESPN Stats & Info).
Irish running backs. Notre Dame eclipsed the 200-yard rushing mark against BYU for just the third time this season. As Irish Illustrated mentioned earlier this week, the Irish have won 20 in a row when attempting 30 or more rushes. The biggest development against the Cougars might have been seeing two different backs break out for big games, as Cam McDaniel had a career-best 117 yards and freshman Tarean Folston rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown. If they can keep it going against the nation's No. 3 rushing defense (89.5 yards per game), that will take lots of pressure off Rees as well.
Special teams. Jones' blocked kick last week, his second of the season, was huge. And the Irish will need more huge special teams plays in this contest to pull out the win. Stanford leads the nation in kick returns. Notre Dame, as we know, is not very good at defending kick returns (116th), so preventing big plays in that department is a must. But TJ Jones looks closer and closer each week to breaking free for a big punt return -- he might have been on his way last week if he did not get tripped up by the playing surface -- and Kyle Brindza has proven to be a clutch kicker. Both could be difference-makers if the Irish protect the ball on offense.