Stanford Football: Michael Floyd

Justin Blackmon's athletic ability falls somewhere between brilliant and baffling. You know it. I know it. Stanford head coach David Shaw knows it. The Cardinal secondary knows it. Every NFL scout knows it.

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiStanford will be facing a big challenge in Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon.
So how do you stop Oklahoma State's prolific wide receiver? Ah ... a simple question with a nearly impossible answer.

That's the challenge facing the Stanford secondary when the Cowboys and Cardinal clash on Jan. 2 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Consider Blackmon's résumé this season:
  • Six times he went over 100 yards in a game.
  • Six times he had double-digit receptions in a game (113 on the year).
  • Five times he went for more than 120 yards -- including a 205-yard performance against then-No. 14 Kansas State.
  • Five times he had multi-touchdown games.
  • He scored at least one touchdown in 10 of 12 games.

Pretty daunting stuff.

Stanford's secondary gives up a lot of yards, about 241 per game. Blackmon gets a lot of yards, about 111 per game. He also finds the end zone, with 15 touchdown receptions this year. However, this is where Stanford's pass defense takes a significant turn for the better. The Cardinal have only allowed 15 passing touchdowns all year. Break that down even further and you'll see that of those 15, only eight touchdowns were caught by wide receivers.

Still, Stanford's secondary gets a bad rap for the yards it yields (the most overblown stat in football, by the way) and its lack of interceptions. Safety Michael Thomas said he and his teammates don't deserve the reputation of being the weak link in Stanford's defense.

"We're not OK with that at all," Thomas said. "At the same time, besides going out and playing, what more can you do? You can't change anybody's opinion unless you go out and play. We get one last shot going against a talented group of receivers -- especially Justin Blackmon -- and we're going to try to make a statement this game to show we can play with the best receivers out there."

If you were paying attention this season, they've already shown it. Stanford has already faced six of the top 20 statistical wide receivers in the country this year: Robert Woods (USC), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), Keenan Allen (Cal), Marquess Wilson (Washington State), Juron Criner (Arizona) and Noel Grigsby (San Jose State). Against the Cardinal, five of those six performed below their season average. Only Floyd matched (but did not exceed) his season average. Wilson and Grigsby failed to score and Woods, Floyd, Allen and Criner were held to one touchdown each.

Stanford's secondary is also yet to allow a 100-yard receiver this season. That's a major accomplishment the Cardinal defenders are hoping to complete.

"If we stop No. 81, we wouldn't have allowed a 100-yard receiver this season, and I don't know how many other secondaries can say that," Thomas said.

"What's different about him is while he plays physical, he plays bigger than his size and he plays faster than his speed. We've played some very dynamic athletes. This cat brings a whole new dimension. We feel like he plays as fast as he needs to play. There is no flaw in his game whereas other guys we could find something. This guy doesn't have any flaws. But all we can do is prepare for him like we did the rest of them."

Preparation, therein lies another problem. The Cardinal have no one on their roster who can simulate the way Blackmon plays.

"We’ve got about four guys wearing the No. 81 jersey," Shaw said. "It’s hard because we’re trying to practice at game tempo for our team, but there are not many guys in college football that can run full speed eight plays in a row, deep routes, and still come back and not even be out of breath. We’ve been rotating guys in and out because that’s so hard to emulate."

The closest offense Stanford has seen this season to Oklahoma State is Arizona. That's the game the players are going back and watching.

"That's really the only thing we can compare it to," Thomas said. "It's high-tempo, but not like Oregon. But they are like Arizona in terms of depth at the wide receiver position, one stud quarterback who can sit in the pocket and make throws. We're treating them like we did Arizona, but making some tweaks."

Just as Stanford's offense isn't all about Andrew Luck, OSU's receiving game isn't all about Blackmon. Quarterback Brandon Weeden commands the spread offense with precision and efficiency. Tracy Moore has a pair of 100-yard receiving games and four touchdowns. Josh Cooper has gone for more than 100 yards three times.

"They have a bunch of guys who can make plays," Thomas said. "And we'll have packages in place for all of them. But no matter what, you always have to keep your eye on No. 81."

Regular-season report card: Secondary

December, 9, 2011
The regular season is over, which means grades are due. Here's part nine of the ongoing regular-season report card for Stanford.


Grade: C+

Summary: This was the toughest of all the grades to assign – and therefore deserves the most analysis and scrutiny.

On the surface, when you look at just receiving yards against, the Cardinal secondary was not very good. In passing defense, the Cardinal ranked 78th nationally, allowing 241 yards per game in the air. If that’s your only criteria for grading, then a "D" is justified.

Maybe you look at the interception total – just six. Only 10 teams out of 120 had fewer interceptions than the Cardinal. If that’s your main criteria, than a "D-, F" is justified.

But you have to look deeper. I don’t put much stock in the total receiving yards stat. I think it’s one of the most overblown numbers because it doesn’t take into account the flow of the game – or the fact that most teams were playing catch-up against Stanford and were more likely to throw the ball.

So let’s really break it down. Teams passed for an average of 48.8 yards in the first quarter, 83 yards in the second quarter, 41.9 in the third and 63.3 in the fourth. Most teams fell behind early in the first quarter, so they went airborne in the second quarter. They tried to re-establish the running game in the third, then went back to the air in the fourth – so it stands to reason that the Cardinal gave up the bulk of the yards in the air in the second and fourth quarters.

Stanford faced six of the top 20 statistical wide receivers in the country this season: Robert Woods (USC), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), Keenan Allen (Cal), Marquess Wilson (Washington State), Juron Criner (Arizona) and Noel Grigsby (San Jose State). Five of those six performed below their season average against Stanford. Only Floyd matched (but did not exceed) his season average. Wilson and Grigsby were kept out of the end zone and Woods, Floyd, Allen and Criner were held to one touchdown each.

The Cardinal did not allow an individual 100-yard receiving game this year, and they had one of the best third-down conversion defenses in the country – traditionally a passing down.

Of the 15 passing touchdowns they yielded (that’s top 30 nationally, by the way), only eight went to wide receivers. The remaining seven went to tight ends (5) and running backs (2) which can fall on either the safeties or the linebackers.

A good friend and colleague suggested looking at the total quarterback numbers as a way to gauge the secondary: 249-of-409 (60 percent completion percentage), 2893 yards, 15 touchdowns, six interceptions. If your quarterback put up those numbers, you’d consider that sub-par production.

That’s a lot of information to digest. So what do we make of all of this?

Essentially, they bent, but didn’t break. The tackling in the secondary was suspect all year – and it got worse when safety Delano Howell missed some time with a hand injury. It was clear Stanford was a better secondary when he’s healthy.

Safety Michael Thomas was the glue that held the secondary together. He accounted for half of the team’s interceptions and provided stability and leadership.

Johnson Bademosi is a very good athlete and the best tackler of the cornerbacks. He also led the team with seven pass breakups. But he was flagged quite a bit for pass interference. Corey Gatewood and Terrence Brown rounded out the rotation at cornerback by the end of the season. Gatewood, who moved over from wide receiver, added some much needed depth and athleticism.

In summation, the secondary didn’t win any beauty contests or show much flash or panache. But, for the most part, the defensive backs made the plays when it counted most – in the red zone, on third down and against the toughest wide receivers in the country. They get knocked for the missed tackles and lack of turnovers. But when you really break down their performance, it’s better than most people probably give them credit for.

Backups: Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards both have very bright futures at the safety position. But it was clear they were a downgrade from Howell. That’s not a knock on them, but rather a compliment to how good Howell is. The playing experience they had (Richards appeared in all 12, Carrington in 11) will pay off immensely when they move into more prominent roles next season. The return of Wayne Lyons from a foot injury will also help with depth next season.

Fiesta Bowl has makings of a classic

December, 5, 2011
First thoughts ...

The 2012 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, aka the January NFL Combine, could have as many as five first-round draft picks on the field when the Stanford Cardinal and Oklahoma State Cowboys meet on Jan. 2.

Four of them come from Stanford: quarterback Andrew Luck, offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro and possibly tight end Coby Fleener.

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
Richard Rowe/US Presswire"That guy wearing No. 81 is something special," Stanford coach David Shaw said of Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon.
Oklahoma State boasts – hands down -- the nation's best wide receiver in Justin Blackmon. He has 113 catches, 1,336 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Cardinal have seen Blackmon-esque wide receivers this season -- Juron Criner, Michael Floyd, Robert Woods, etc. Big, fast, physical wide receivers who can use their bodies to create separation. But seeing players like Blackmon isn't the same as seeing Blackmon.

“The first time I saw him getting ready for Arizona, I put on the Oklahoma State game,” Stanford head coach David Shaw explained. “I’m trying to watch Arizona’s defense but I kept watching Justin. I had to go back to the sheet that had all of the heights and weight on it. Is he really that big? Can he be that big and that fast and that quick? A guy that will catch a 50-yard post and then come back again on the next play and it doesn't look like he's out of breath. He's a phenomenal athlete and an outstanding football player.”

The Cardinal have seen Weeden-esque quarterbacks before -- Nick Foles, Matt Barkley, etc.; quarterbacks with arms who can deliver with pinpoint accuracy. But seeing quarterbacks like Brandon Weeden isn't the same as seeing Weeden.

Oh yeah … did I mention they have Blackmon?

“That guy wearing No. 81 is something special,” Shaw said. “And the combination of those two guys is formidable. It has been. They have other guys. They have good running backs and other wide receivers that make big plays also. But Justin Blackmon I think is a special, special player. Being who I am, that's where my eye gravitates towards when I watch a team like this. I studied receivers for so long in the NFL. This guy is ideal. He's what you're looking for.”

We have a month to pore over statistics, scrutinize every position and every individual battle. But my first thought is that this is an incredibly even matchup.
  • Both teams have marquee quarterbacks.
  • Both teams have strong passing games – a clear edge to Oklahoma State’s receivers and a clear edge to Stanford’s tight ends.
  • Both teams have strong running games, though the Cardinal are a little more balanced and methodical.
  • Both have defenses that have taken their share of criticism, but ultimately make plays when they need to.

Of all of the BCS bowl games, this is the headliner. It might not be for the national championship -- both teams had a shot at it, though Oklahoma State has the bigger gripe -- but at first glance this looks to be the most entertaining game on the docket. If my DVR has space for only one of the BCS bowl games, this is the one I'd record.

“I think this game is going to be great for college football,” Shaw said. “I think it's going to be exciting. It has a lot of what you're looking for ... You've got one of the best teams in the nation, won their conference. Have an outstanding quarterback, outstanding receiver and an outstanding system; an opportunistic defense that gets turnovers and plays at a fast tempo with a lot of speed.

“Then you have this little team from the West Coast that runs the football with a prototypical quarterback with a balanced offensive attack and attacking style defense. I think it's going to be exciting. I think it's going to be one of the best bowl games this year.”

Question from reporter: Do you think it will be better than the national championship?

Shaw, with a laugh: “I didn't say that.”

Question from reporter: Will it be higher scoring?

Shaw, with a bigger laugh: “I didn't say that, either.”

Shaw doesn’t have to say it. We’re all thinking it.

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.

Final: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14

November, 26, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- The Stanford Cardinal overcame a sluggish second half to top Notre Dame 28-14 in the regular season finale for both teams at Stanford Stadium.

The Cardinal now await the outcome of games next week before finding out their postseason destination -- which more than likely will include an at-large bid to a BCS game.

Quarterback Andrew Luck threw four touchdown passes -- three in the first half and then a 55-yarder to tight end Coby Fleener late in the fourth to seal the victory.

Luck and Fleener also hooked up for a 28-yard touchdown in the first half.

Senior Night quickly turned into Andrew Luck night as the Heisman Trophy candidate set the Stanford record for most career touchdown passes (80) and the single-season mark (35). Luck finished the game 20-of-30 for 233 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.

Notre Dame turned the ball over three times and never really found a rhythm on offense, switching between quarterback Tommy Rees in the first half to Andrew Hendrix in the second half. Hendrix and Michael Floyd hooked up for a 6-yard touchdown strike in the third quarter.

The Cardinal’s relentless pass rush sacked Notre Dame’s quarterbacks five times -- it was the fourth time this season Stanford has had five or more sacks in a game.

Michael Floyd sets receiving record

November, 26, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- Andrew Luck isn't the only one setting school records.

Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd caught his 94th ball of the season in the fourth quarter -- breaking Golden Tate's single-season reception mark of 93 set in 2009.

Floyd has seven catches for 86 yards and a touchdown.

Earlier in the night, Luck set the Stanford single-season and career passing touchdown records.

3Q: Notre Dame has some momentum

November, 26, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- Notre Dame finally got on the board midway through the third quarter when quarterback Andrew Hendrix – who appears to have replaced Tommy Rees permanently for the second half – connected with Michael Floyd on a 6-yard scoring strike.

Heading into the locker room at the half, ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox asked Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly if he was going to change quarterbacks at the break.

“Just trying to do anything to get some consistent play at the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “... We're not getting enough production right now.”

Looks like he’s getting the production he wanted from Hendrix – who orchestrated the 7-play, 77-yard scoring drive.

Notre Dame has been solid in the third quarter, outscoring opponents 84-13. The Irish have only allowed one offensive touchdown in the quarter this season.

The Cardinal lead 21-7.

Pregame: Stanford-Notre Dame

November, 26, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- We're about an hour away from kickoff. The Nike Pro Combat uniforms look pretty cool (at least the warm-ups).

A few things to keep an eye on this game:
  1. Michael Floyd, difference-maker: Notre Dame wants to get him the ball, Stanford wants to stop it. He's coming off a 10-catch performance against Boston College. The return of Stanford safety Delano Howell last week was a huge boost to the secondary and seemed to re-inject some confidence into the defensive backfield.
  2. Tight targets: Stanford tight ends Zach Ertz (knee) and Levine Toilolo (shoulder) were both called questionable midweek by Stanford head coach David Shaw. Though both were on the field during the first round of warmups. Ertz hasn't played since the opening kickoff of the USC game. His return would be a big boost to Andrew Luck in his final game at Stanford Stadium. Ertz seems to think he's going to play. He tweeted around 4 p.m.: "It's been too long! It's gametime and #imback."
  3. National spotlight: Lots of attention on Luck and the Cardinal. Shaw made a lot of noise this week about Luck and the BCS. People will be watching, for better or worse.

Did you know: Stanford vs. Notre Dame

November, 25, 2011
Some fun facts heading into tomorrow's matchup between Stanford and Notre Dame.
  • This is the 15th straight year that these teams have met. Stanford has won the past two meetings, which is the Cardinal’s longest streak in the series. Last year’s 37-14 win was also Stanford’s largest ever victory margin in the series.
  • Notre Dame still has an outside shot at a BCS bowl bid this season, but history is not on the side of the Irish. Notre Dame needs to upset Stanford and then finish in the top 14 of the final BCS Standings. Currently Notre Dame is 22nd. Since the BCS Standings began ranking 25 teams in 2003, only four times has a team made a jump of at least eight spots in a week, and each of those jumps came within the first three weeks of the standings.
  • Notre Dame has won four straight, but the competition hasn’t been stellar. The combined records of Notre Dame’s past four opponents is 15-29 (Navy, Wake Forest, Maryland, Boston College).
  • Notre Dame started this season 0-2. If the Irish can win one of their final two games (including bowl), they will have nine wins in a season in which they started 0-2 for just the second time in school history. In 1978, they were 0-2 before winning nine of their final 10 games to finish 9-3, including a thrilling Cotton Bowl win against Houston.
  • While this game has no bearing on the Pac-12 standings, it’s still possible for Stanford to clinch the Pac-12 North if Oregon loses to Oregon State on Saturday.
  • Stanford is looking for its second straight season of at least 11 wins (won 12 last season). Prior to 2010, Stanford had never won 11 games in a season.
  • Could this be the last regular season game for Stanford’s Andrew Luck? Possible, unless Oregon State can knock off Oregon on Saturday. Luck has thrown at least two touchdown passes in 14 straight games dating to last season.
  • Luck has 76 career touchdown passes and continues to move up the school charts. He’s currently one behind John Elway’s record. Luck also needs one touchdown pass to tie the single-season record he set last season.
  • Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd is seven catches shy of breaking Golden Tate’s school record of 93 in a season. Floyd has 87, including 10 last week against Boston College.
  • Stanford's offense has had just 10 three-and-out drives this season.
  • The Cardinal have outscored their past 23 opponents 510-193 in the first half. Stanford has led or been tied at the half in 24 of the past 25 games.
  • Stanford has scored 30 or more points in 14 consecutive games dating to last season and has scored 40 or more in nine of its past 14.
  • Stanford is 22-3 in its past 25 home games dating to the final home game of the 2007 season, with losses coming to USC (2008), Cal (2009) and Oregon (2011).
  • Stanford has been in the AP top 10 for a school best 20 straight weeks.
  • The Cardinal were 4-for-5 in the red zone against Cal, their first red zone miss of the season. Stanford has come away with points on 61-of-62 trips in side the opposition 20 (48 touchdowns, 13 field goals).
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 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.

Four downs with Chase Thomas

November, 23, 2011
Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas talks about the team keeping its composure with all of the distractions heading into Saturday's game against Notre Dame.

First down: This is the third straight emotional game for you guys. How is the team holding up?

Thomas: We're good. We just can't be distracted by everything. The Senior Day, the pro combat jerseys. We just have to go out and focus on the getting the W and closing out the season.

Second down: Is Senior Day a distraction?

Thomas: Sort of. You get caught up on where your parents are at, all of the things that go along with that. But I think we have a mature enough team to handle all of that stuff.

Third down: Notre Dame lost one of its emotional leaders in Jonas Gray. You guys know something about that. How much will that impact this game?

Thomas: They still have a great running back in Cierre Wood, so they will be OK in the running game. But when you lose someone -- we lost an emotional leader in Shayne Skov -- you have to be able rebound and other guys have to step up and I think that's what we were able to do for the most part. They should be fine.

Fourth down: What are some of the other challenges Notre Dame presents on offense?

Thomas: They have a great wide receiver (Michael Floyd). They move him around a lot at the line of scrimmage and find ways to get him open. And like the teams we've played the last couple of weeks, they have a big, physical offensive line that is going to be a real challenge for us.

What to watch: Stanford vs. Notre Dame

November, 23, 2011
Some thing to keep an eye on in Saturday's matchup between Stanford and Notre Dame.
  • National spotlight: David Shaw's comments Tuesday about the BCS system reveals what we've known all along, but no one would say it -- the Cardinal are are ticked off. This is Stanford's last chance to make an argument for a BCS at-large berth -- or, with some crazy happenings over the next week and a half, maybe a national championship berth. Shaw knows what he's doing. A lot of voters who might have casually tuned in to the Notre Dame game will now be watching Stanford with a sharp eye. Shaw invited national scrutiny with his comments Tuesday, and he's going to get it. Question is, what does he do with it?
  • Stay positive: While Stanford is one of the best teams in the country at avoiding negative plays, the past two weeks they've lost 25 yards rushing against Oregon and 27 yards against Cal — by far their worst totals of the season. Plus, quarterback Andrew Luck has been sacked five times in the past two games after going down only four times in the previous nine. Negative plays and sacks are drive killers and the Cardinal don't want to give Notre Dame's defense any extra help.
  • Attack mode: Notre Dame is one of the best in the country in not allowing sacks. The Irish rank seventh nationally, allowing an average of .73 per game — which means they are good at picking up blitzes and getting rid of the ball quickly. Stanford has only been held without a sack once (against USC) and limited to only one sack once (against UCLA). The Cardinal have at least two sacks in every other game. That puts the pressure on Stanford's secondary. If the Cardinal hope to get to the quarterback, it will likely have to come through coverage sacks. Which leads us to...
  • ... Stopping Michael Floyd: This isn't the first elite wide receiver the Cardinal have faced this season. They also know how to stop them -- after they've gone through the lineup one time around. Consider: Last week, Cal's Keenan Allen caught six balls for 97 yards -- all in the first quarter. No catches after that. Arizona's Juron Criner did most of his damage in the first half. USC's Robert Woods was kept out of the end zone until overtime. Stanford's secondary has a pretty good track record at keeping elite wide receivers at bay.
  • Heisman push: This is Luck's last chance to win over (or win back) voters who might have strayed following the Oregon game. This is the perfect scenario for him to clinch. National game. Storied opponent. He doesn't need to put up mega-numbers. That hasn't been his game all year. He just needs to do what he does well -- which is clean, efficient football. He still has a second chance to make a first impression on a lot of voters. I don't see him squandering it.


Stanford Lands No. 4 QB-PP K.J. Costello
Recruiting reporter Erik McKinney breaks down the commitment of K.J. Costello, ranked No. 40 overall in the ESPN Junior 300, to the Cardinals' 2016 recruiting class.