Stanford Football: Notre Dame Irish

JonesMatt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsLast season's loss could serve as motivation for Stanford.

Stanford and Notre Dame probably looked at this game in the preseason and wondered if there would be BCS implications. Well, there aren’t. But both teams still have plenty to play for. Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna breaks down the Irish side of things while Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell lays out the pros for Stanford.

Matt Fortuna: If last week's game against BYU is any indication, Notre Dame is not taking this, or any contest, lightly.

Sure, the preseason goal of a return trip to the national title game was off the board by the end of a September. And further BCS hopes went up in flames with a flop at Pitt earlier this month. But with a long two weeks to decide whether to blow the rest of this season off or make something out of nothing -- while absorbing the potentially devastating news that Louis Nix's season, and likely Irish career, is over, too -- the Irish responded by putting together their most complete performance of the season against the Cougars.

BYU will not be mistaken for Stanford, but the Cardinal give the Irish plenty more to aim for than they had last week in the lead-up to Senior Day.

They are rivals, for one. The ties between the schools stretch from the field to the sideline to the administration. And they go after many of the same kids, too.

To add to that, Notre Dame has already beaten Arizona State and USC, two wins that look better and better by the week. A win in Palo Alto, Calif., would give the Irish a clean sweep this season of the Pac-12, no small accomplishment given how powerful that league has been this fall.

Plus, a win over No. 8 Stanford would give No. 25 Notre Dame its fourth win over a team that is currently -- and in the case of the Cardinal, will still be -- ranked in the BCS standings. (The Irish also handed No. 11 Michigan State its only loss.)

The only other schools with three wins over currently ranked teams? Stanford and ASU.

A win over Stanford would be make it two in a row for the Irish in the series, no small feat considering how badly the Cardinal had manhandled them in the previous three contests. It would also keep alive the possibility of a second straight 10-win season, another rarity, as the program had not accomplished such a feat since the 1991-93 campaigns, under Lou Holtz.

A date in the Pinstripe Bowl seems to be waiting for the Irish no matter how they play Saturday. But as Cam McDaniel told me in a passionate exchange following his career-best performance last week, to say Notre Dame has nothing left to play for this season is an "ignorant" statement.

Kevin Gemmell: First off, the fact that both of these teams agree to annually play a tough nonconference game is awesome. Who knows what the strength-of-schedule factor will be when the new playoff format rolls around? But here’s a couple of teams that don’t dodge the big games.

As Matt noted, this is a huge game for recruiting purposes because there aren’t many programs in the country that truly recruit nationally. These teams do.

Pending the outcome of the Territorial Cup (that’s Arizona State vs. Arizona for all the Notre Dame folks) the Cardinal could either host the Pac-12 championship game for the second year in a row or could end up in Tempe next week. The outcome of this game has zero bearing on that. But either way, Stanford doesn’t want to be heading into that game with a loss.

The Cardinal have a couple of streaks they’d like to keep alive, as well. For starters, Stanford is riding a 15-game home winning streak, the second-longest in the country behind South Carolina. The Cardinal are 12-1 at home against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2009 and are 36-3 at home since the final game of 2007. A win could also lock up a fourth-straight 10-win season for Stanford.

That’s all well and good. But the name of the game is momentum -- and Stanford needs to keep it going heading into the Pac-12 championship game, regardless of the venue.

A loss to the Irish stunts the momentum of last week’s 63-13 thrashing of rival Cal. Further, should they fall in the Pac-12 title game, they’d plummet down the bowl game pecking order.

Finally, the national perception of the league is at stake. Matt notes Notre Dame’s previous wins this season -- which includes wins over South Division champ ASU and USC -- but it goes back to last year as well. The Irish are currently riding a four-game winning streak over the Pac-12 following last year’s wins over Stanford and USC. Should Notre Dame win, Brian Kelly gets my vote as Pac-12 coach of the year.

Stanford coach David Shaw and his players have reiterated several times this week that this year’s game isn’t about revenge. Stanford is a different team, Notre Dame is a different team. Makes sense. But somewhere deep down there has to be a little bit of bitterness for how things played out in last year's rainy, overtime game.

And let’s not forget the greatest motivation of all. Whether it's Week 1 or Week 14, losing always stinks.
Stanford coach David Shaw often points to last year’s Notre Dame game as a turning point for his program.

You might recall the rainy, overtime ending steeped in controversy that fueled the Cardinal’s us-versus-the-world mentality following the 20-13 loss. It was the kick in the bark that propelled Stanford to eight straight wins and a Rose Bowl victory to close out the year.

And when the Irish roll into Palo Alto this weekend for the regular-season finale for both teams, Shaw knows this much: Last year’s game has absolutely nothing to do with this year’s.

“The replay official said we didn’t cross the line so the game was over. It’s on Stanford’s football team from last year for not getting it done and Notre Dame for getting it done. That’s what happened last year.

[+] EnlargeTrent Murphy
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Trent Murphy says Stanford isn't dwelling on last year's controversial loss at Notre Dame.
“ … A football season has highs and lows and the good teams bounce back because you can’t have a season of all highs. When things don’t go your way you regroup and you retool and you go back after it again. That’s what we did last year after the Notre Dame game. That’s what we did this year after the USC game. This is going to be a great game that’s not going to hinge at all on what happened last year.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by his players.

“That was a long time ago,” Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy said. “I think last year’s game doesn’t really have any carryover into this season. It’s a new team and a new year … [but] there is always something to learn from.”

Added quarterback Kevin Hogan: “We can’t treat this like a revenge game. It’s over. We have a new team, they have a completely new team.”

Saturday’s game has zero bearing on the outcome of the Pac-12 standings. The Cardinal have already locked up the Pac-12 North Division and will be playing in the championship game for the second straight year. Home field advantage isn’t even an issue for the title game, because it all hinges on what happens between Arizona and Arizona State. If the Sun Devils win, they’ll host the title game in Tempe. If not, it will be in Palo Alto again.

But that’s not to say the Cardinal still don’t have plenty of motivation. They are riding a 15-game home winning streak, second longest in the nation behind South Carolina, and since 2009 they are 12-1 against teams ranked in either the AP or coaches poll. Notre Dame is 25th in the BCS and AP polls.

To say nothing of the roller coaster that has been the 2013 Stanford season. Touted early on as a national champion contender, the Cardinal lost on the road to Utah, but bounced back strong with their second-straight win over Oregon. Then a loss to USC essentially wrapped up the conference crown for the Ducks. But Arizona had different thoughts.

Now, the Cardinal are back in the championship game. According to Shaw, that wackiness is just par for the course in the Pac-12.

“It’s college football,” Shaw said. “And I remind people that we don’t go through all the ups and downs that maybe the media and even the fans go through because we’ve got more games to play. If we win a big game they don’t cancel the next week and if we lose a game they don’t cancel the next week. During the week when people are lamenting and calling me names and the sky is falling when we lose and when people are exalting us and telling us how wonderful we are when we win, those things can’t ever affect the football team or the coaches because we move on and play the next week.”

And this week’s opportunity offers the Cardinal a chance to snap Notre Dame’s 2013 stranglehold on the Pac-12. The Irish have already knocked off ASU, the South Division champs, and USC. So there is plenty of reason from a national perspective for the Cardinal not to look over the horizon to Arizona State in next week’s title game.

“One of our team goals is going 1-0 every week and that’s what we’ve been trying to do,” Murphy said. “We got into Cal week and we had to go 1-0, keep the Axe and it was a big game for us. Now we’re facing Notre Dame and it’s the biggest game for us and we need this victory.”

Nonconference primer: Stanford

June, 27, 2013
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We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.

Stanford

San Jose State, Sept. 7
  • Coach: Ron Caragher, first year
  • 2012 record: 11-2, 5-1 WAC
  • Returning starters: seven offense, six defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback David Fales returns as the FBS's most accurate quarterback from 2012. Last year he completed 72.5 percent of his throws while tossing 33 touchdowns and 4,193 yards.
  • Defensive headliner: Defensive tackle Travis Raciti returns after earning All-WAC honors last season. He posted 13 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks.
  • The skinny: Mike MacIntyre revitalized the struggling program and in three years had them at double-digit wins. Now Caragher shepherds them into the Mountain West Conference. Stanford has dominated the Bill Walsh Legacy Game -- though the Spartans gave them quite the scare last season. The Fales-to-Noel Grigsby connection could end up being one of the most dangerous in the country and should not be taken lightly.
at Army, Sept. 14
  • Coach: Rich Ellerson (17-32) fifth season
  • 2012 record: 2-10, Independent
  • Returning starters: seven offense, eight defense
  • Offensive headliner: Running back Raymond Maples is just the third Army player in school history to post consecutive 1,000 yard seasons after rushing for 1,215 yards and two touchdowns last year, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
  • Defensive headliner: Defensive back Geoffrey Bacon returns after leading Army with 136 tackles last year -- which was fifth nationally in tackles per game at 11.3. This year he's moving from linebacker to the secondary.
  • The skinny: Despite the record, Army still had the No. 1 rushing attack in the country last year, averaging almost 370 yards on the ground per game. Match that against a Stanford front seven that was fifth nationally against the run and second in tackles for a loss and there should be plenty of helmet paint being traded.
Notre Dame, Nov. 30
  • Coach: Brian Kelly, (28-10), fourth year
  • Returning starters: six offense, eight defense
  • 2012 record: 12-1, Independent
  • Offensive headliner: We talked about left tackle Zack Martin in the ASU nonconference primer. He'll be clearing the way for George Atkinson III, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry last year and scored five touchdowns on 361 rushing yards.
  • Defensive headliner: We mentioned Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix in the ASU article. Nix is phenomenal at stopping the run, which is worth noting again, given what the Cardinal will want to do on offense.
  • The skinny: Stanford head coach David Shaw pointed to the Notre Dame game last year -- and its highly-controversial ending -- as a turning point for the Cardinal's run to the Rose Bowl. This one is the season finale for both teams so it's possible that it could have national-championship implications for both squads.
Thoughts: A fairly challenging nonconference slate. Remember after the season opener last year, we were all wondering what was wrong with Stanford? Turns out San Jose State was pretty darn good. Shaw told us, we didn't listen. Considering who the Spartans have coming back, chances are they'll be good again. Interestingly enough, Caragher replaced Jim Harbaugh and Shaw at USD after the duo left for Stanford, so there's your Kevin Bacon moment for this game. Army doesn't pose much of a threat on the field and, of course, the Notre Dame game was one of the most controversial matchups in all of college football last season. The Cardinal are legitimate BCS championship contenders. Should they top San Jose State -- which should be considered a quality win, or at least, not a cupcake win -- it points them in the right direction heading into a difficult Pac-12 slate. Should they escape that unscathed, a home date with the Irish could determine Stanford's postseason placement. And for a team looking to add a fourth-straight BCS game, nay the BCS game, only 3-0 will do.
Last week we gave you our thoughts on the teams we thought had the toughest schedule. There are a couple different schools of thought. There is the straight-forward raw data -- which goes off of the combined records/winning percentage of last season's opponents. If you want to use that methodology, here's how the schedules shape up in terms of difficulty.
  • California: 93-60 (.588)
  • Colorado: 90-63 (.588)
  • Utah: 90-64 (.584)
  • Stanford: 88-65 (.575)
  • Arizona State: .87-67 (.564)
  • Oregon State: 81-72 (.529)
  • Washington State: 80-71 (.529)
  • UCLA: 81-73 (.525)
  • USC: 86-79 (.521)
  • Washington: 73-73 (.519)
  • Arizona: 73-77 (.486)
  • Oregon: 67-83 (.446)

This makes for a good jumping off point, but it's hardly definitive since teams change so much from year to year in terms of personality and personnel. Oregon State was a prime example last season -- going from 3-9 in 2011 to 9-4 in 2012.

SportsNation

Which Pac-12 team has the toughest schedule in 2013?

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    22%
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    33%
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    12%
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    13%
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    20%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,869)

You could also examine the schedule by the way it plays out (home vs. road games/timing of bye weeks) coupled with the expectations of each team. This is what the bloggers did -- with me taking Oregon State and their brutal second-half slate, and Ted going with Stanford's power-packed lineup.

Was that the right approach? What are your thoughts? Which Pac-12 team has the toughest schedule in 2013?

Arizona State: An early stretch of four straight games against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame will tell us an awful lot about the Sun Devils and whether their preseason hype is deserved. No bye weeks separating these, either. Going to be an interesting month in Sun Devil country.

Cal: It might be a tough first year for new head coach Sonny Dykes. The Bears face six teams that won at least nine games last season -- and they have three national championship contenders with Ohio State, Oregon and Stanford on the docket.

Oregon State: The Beavers go from a pretty non-threatening first half to a mettle-testing final five. For a team hoping to make a splash on the national stage, it'll have to buckle down after what should be -- at the very least -- a 6-1 start.

Stanford: Tough games early and rivalry games late. And as Ted notes, for a team that hopes to play for a national championship, there is no room for error.

Other: Colorado and Utah -- statistically speaking -- have very difficult lineups. Eight of the 11 FBS teams Colorado faces this year went to a bowl game last season, and nine of the 11 that Utah faces were in the postseason in 2012.

It was wet and often times ugly with No. 17 Stanford at No. 7 Notre Dame. As expected, it was physical and the weather made for some sloppy play on Saturday. Sixty minutes wasn't enough. The Irish clutched up and won 20-13 in overtime. Here's how it all went down:

It was over when: After Notre Dame went ahead in overtime on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Rees (in for the injured Everett Golson) to TJ Jones, the Irish defense stopped Stepfan Taylor from the 1-yard line on third and fourth down. The final play even went to review to determine when Taylor's forward progress was stopped. The call on the field was upheld. It was high drama until the very end.

Game ball goes to: The Notre Dame front seven. They clutched up when it mattered in overtime with two huge stops. It was ugly, it was messy and it was a heck of a football game.

Unsung hero: Though he's part of that front seven, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was huge, leading all players with 11 tackles. A fantastic performance from one of college football's marquee players.

Unsung hero II: Fans were screaming for Rees, but they didn't get him until Golson was injured. He came in off the bench and was 4-for-4 for 43 yards and the touchdown in overtime.

Unsung hero III: Give some credit to the Cardinal defense as well. It provided Stanford with its only touchdown of the game when Ben Gardner sacked Golson in the end zone and forced a fumble that Chase Thomas recovered for a touchdown in the second quarter.

What it means for Notre Dame: The Irish remain undefeated, showed they can win ugly, and now have three wins over teams ranked in the Top 20. Expect a nice slot for them when the BCS rankings come out Sunday.

What it means for Stanford: It was the second straight week the Cardinal have gone to overtime, though the outcome was different last week. Stanford needs to figure out how to score on the road. The Cardinal have two touchdowns in two road games this year and both came from the defense. They are on the road again next week at Cal.
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.

Cardiac Cardinal head to Notre Dame

October, 8, 2012
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Fans love a good shootout, and Saturday afternoon Stanford and Arizona gave fans a game they'll be talking about for a longtime. Coaches, however, aren't as keen on the high-scoring nail biters.

"Awful, awful, awful," said Stanford coach David Shaw when prompted to describe his emotions during the Cardinal's 54-48 overtime victory. "Same for coaches' wives. But I told the team, this was the kind of game we needed. We needed a fight. We needed a battle. We needed to be into the fourth quarter and be down and fight back to test our character. We believe we have that kind of character to be able to fight back to the end, even when we are down. But it's great when you are tested and you respond to that challenge and we did that [Saturday]."

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
George Nkitin/AP PhotoStepfan Taylor and Stanford can perhaps clear the national title picture a bit by toppling undefeated Notre Dame.
Shaw & Co. might have to get used to the tight ones. Unlike last year, when the Cardinal enjoyed -- on average -- a 32-point margin of victory, this year's squad seems more prone to white knuckles. Three of Stanford's four victories have come by a touchdown or less and their only loss was by four points.

Cardiac Cardinal. Has a nice, if not disconcerting, ring to it.

The stakes are raised Saturday when the No. 17 Cardinal travel to South Bend to face No. 7 Notre Dame. This is the second-straight year that both teams meet ranked in the top 25 and just the third time in the history of the nonconference rivalry that each team is ranked at kickoff. Last year, No. 4 Stanford beat No. 22 Notre Dame 28-14 in Palo Alto. And in 1992, No. 19 Stanford topped the No. 7 Irish in South Bend 33-16. The Cardinal have won the last three matchups.

The Irish, meanwhile, are off to their best start since 2002, having already taken down a pair of ranked teams from the state of Michigan.

Looking forward, Saturday's win was both a blessing and an omen for the Cardinal. On one hand, they showed some offensive grit with a fourth-quarter comeback to force overtime and the win. It was exactly the type of explosion Shaw needed to see after a bad offensive outing the previous week in Seattle.

But in the process, the defense looked leaky, allowing the Wildcats 617 yards. The good news, though, is that when a stop was needed, a stop was made.

"It's huge [for our confidence]," said Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas, who had the critical interception in overtime that stopped Arizona's march and led to Stanford's game-winner. "It shows that we can face adversity and overcome it and have that 16-round knockout fight. It really shows we're a high-character team with a never-give-up, never-quit mentality. Not many teams can say that."

Saturday's win may have altered the entire trajectory of Stanford's season. A 4-1 record, naturally, looks and feels better than 3-2. But with this week's game at Notre Dame and then The Big Game on Oct. 20 against a down-but-not-out Cal team, a loss would have been seen as a significant step backwards for a program that still hopes to contend for the Pac-12 North.

Quarterback Josh Nunes and running back Stepfan Taylor also got back on track after rough games against Washington. Taylor rushed for 142 yards and two scores while Nunes accounted for five touchdowns, three on the ground and two in the air, on 21 of 34 passing for 360 yards and no interceptions.

"It's not what we learned [about Nunes], I think other people learned," Shaw said. "He's a tough kid. He bounces back. He doesn't listen to the noise. He's steady."
I wanted to follow up on the Most Important Game series Ted and I have been doing in the Pac-12 blog. Yesterday Ted gave you his thoughts on Stanford's most important game -- and he understandably picked The Big Game against Cal on Oct. 20.

Hard to argue with that. But for kicks and giggles, I'd like to offer a contrarian perspective. I wholeheartedly agree Cal is the biggest game of the year for Stanford. It is every year. No debating that. But is it the most important? I think a strong argument can be made that Sept. 27 at Washington is more important for the trajectory of the season.

Consider:

I don't think anyone anticipates the Cardinal dropping the first two games to San Jose State or Duke. Those will essentially be learning-curve games for the new quarterback, his new offensive linemen and it will basically be live 11-on-11 work for the new-look secondary. Because we all know what awaits them in Week 3.

I'll have plenty to say about the Stanford-USC game in tomorrow's Take 2 in the Pac-12 blog. But win or lose against the Trojans, what happens the following week is crucial for the remainder of the season.

If Stanford tops USC at home, the team will have a ton of confidence heading to Seattle. But if the Cardinal fall to USC -- and you have to figure they'll be considerable home dogs -- it will be the first dent in the new quarterback's confidence. Then he's got a bye week to get his head on straight before starting his first college football game on the road -- against another Heisman hopeful quarterback in Keith Price and a completely revamped Huskies defense.

The first goal for the Cardinal is to win the Pac-12 North. Winning your division should be the top goal for every team -- because a lot of doors close without that division title. And we all know the road to the North crown goes through Oregon. But Washington and Stanford are both jockeying to be the team to challenge Oregon. The winner takes a huge step forward.

And don't think Washington has forgotten about last year's tushy-whooping on The Farm. Make no mistake about it -- Washington wants revenge and wants it in grand fashion.

With the majority of Stanford's marquee games on the road this year -- at Notre Dame, at Cal, at Oregon -- getting that first road victory is going to be extremely important. Because the next road game is in South Bend, Ind., and the one after that is across the Bay at Cal.

A victory over Washington puts Stanford at 3-1, a far more advantageous psychological position than 2-2. Stanford and its new quarterback will have to learn to win on the road. And winning the first one against a quality opponent -- or losing a revenge game -- could alter the entire landscape of the 2012 season.

Stanford a recruiting overachiever

January, 25, 2012
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Let's face it, you're not going to find a bunch of underachievers at Stanford. So it makes sense that Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders dubbed the Cardinal one of five recruiting overachievers Insider over the last few years.

Fremeau looked at the last five seasons and compared teams with higher-rated recruiting classes against the rest of the field. Interestingly enough, teams with the "better" recruiting classes won 67 percent of the time. But five teams with less heralded recruits bucked that trend. Stanford being one of them.
Writes Fremeau: The Cardinal lead all teams in victories (29 wins since 2007) over the last five seasons in games in which they had a recruiting disadvantage. Of those 29 wins, 22 have come in the last three seasons with quarterback Andrew Luck at the helm. Luck was a highly touted quarterback coming out of high school (he ranked seventh among QBs nationally and 61st overall in the ESPNU 150), and he's the most significant reason for Stanford's meteoric rise over the last few years.

But former coach Jim Harbaugh also developed unheralded talent to build the program, and current head coach David Shaw kept that train rolling this past season. The recent success has helped Stanford produce several of its strongest recruiting classes in the last few seasons, but once Luck departs, will that overachieving tradition depart, too? Stanford will continue to play annual games against the Oregon Ducks, USC Trojans and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, along with several other Pac-12 foes, in which it will have a decided disadvantage in terms of recruiting ratings.

The other four teams to make Fremeau's list are Cincinnati, Boise State, Baylor and Oregon State.

But that trend might be changing. The Cardinal have a Top 20 recruiting class in the works, headlined by three players on the ESPNU 150 list. They are still in the hunt for several big-name players -- including three of the nation's top prep offensive linemen. If the Cardinal can close the deal on some of those players in the next week, it could propel them into a Top 15, maybe even Top 10 class. This year's group is already on pace to be one of the top classes in school history.

Breaking down next year's games

January, 6, 2012
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Well, apparently I rattled up quite the hornet's nest a couple of days ago in the mailbag by taking the under in a reader question wanting to know my opinion on the over/under for 8.5 for wins for Stanford next season.

Most seemed to think I was being too harsh and that nine or 10 wins were more likely than the seven or eight wins I'm forecasting. (This total doesn't include a bowl game, mind you).

OK, I'm not afraid to show my work on a way-too-early analysis of each game. Naturally, this is based off the personnel we know is available, the assumption there are no catastrophic injuries and little more than gut feelings.
  • Sept. 1 vs. San Jose State: Cardinal will be multi-touchdown favorites and will cruise behind a monster running attack. Good game for the new signal caller to get his feet wet. Win (1-0).
  • Sept. 8. vs. Duke: Offense won't be as vanilla as the week before as they start adding new elements for the first-year starting quarterback. There will be a couple of mistakes, but Geoff Meinken will stiff-arm the Cardinal to a comfortable victory. Win (2-0).
  • Sept. 15 vs. USC: I don't see this as a blowout that some seem to think it will be. The Cardinal will control the clock with the rushing attack and David Shaw has always been a very good play-caller against USC. But the Matt Barkley-led Trojans finally get a win over Stanford. Loss (2-1).
  • Sept. 22 Bye: Good time to recover from first loss of the year and prep for first road trip of the season.
  • Sept 27 at Washington: What? You mean we have to play outside of California? Tough place to play and Keith Price is only getting better. Maybe the Huskies will have some defense to speak of? No Chris Polk hurts, but the Cardinal still won't be able to keep up. The one thing that might sway this is Stanford coming out of the bye week. But I wouldn't expect 446 rushing yards this time around. Loss (2-2).
  • Oct. 6 vs. Arizona: Students are finally back on campus and realize there is a football game. Not sure what to make of the Rich Rodriguez Wildcats yet, but Stanford should be the better team and getting Arizona earlier in the season is always helpful when a new coaching staff is involved. Win (3-2).
  • Oct. 13 at Notre Dame: I'm expecting the Irish to have their third quarterback controversy of the season by this point. Stepfan Taylor has a huge game on the road and continues to be the most underrated running back in the conference. Cardinal pull this one out. Win (4-2).
  • Oct. 20 at Cal: A Big Game before Halloween? Spooky. New quarterbacks are always good for at least one road loss in games they are favored to win. Given the magnitude of this game, this might be that one. Loss (4-3).
  • Oct. 27 vs. Washington State: Cougars throw for 400 yards, but Cardinal score more points. Win (5-3).
  • Nov. 3 at Colorado: Buffs still not ready to make a move. Cardinal cruise. Win (6-3).
  • Nov. 10 vs. Oregon State: With bowl eligibility locked up, the Cardinal are looking to improve their postseason status. Whoever is playing quarterback has the offense figured out and Taylor will surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight year. Should be a great way to honor him on senior night. But this could also be a trap game. OSU played a lot of youth last season that has to grow up sometime. Win (7-3).
  • Nov. 17 at Oregon: Yeah ... not going to happen. Loss (7-4).
  • Nov. 24 at UCLA: I think this could be a swing game for both teams. But my best guess is UCLA is still a year away from making real noise. Win (8-4).

Stanford 2012 schedule set

January, 4, 2012
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Here's a look at Stanford's schedule in 2012 (all games on a Saturday unless otherwise noted). Let the win-loss debate begin.
  • Sept. 1 San Jose State at Stanford
  • Sept. 8 Duke at Stanford
  • Sept. 15 USC at Stanford
  • Sept. 22 Bye
  • (Thursday) Sept. 27 Stanford at Washington
  • Oct. 6 Arizona at Stanford
  • Oct. 13 Stanford at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 20 Stanford at Cal
  • Oct. 27 Washington State at Stanford
  • Nov. 3 Stanford at Colorado
  • Nov. 10 Oregon State at Stanford
  • Nov. 17 Stanford at Oregon
  • Nov. 24 Stanford at UCLA
  • Nov. 30: Pac-12 Football Championship Game (just for those of you with extra high hopes).

First thoughts:
  • Nice to open up with three straight at home, but a big challenge early against USC. The bye week right afterward helps getting whoever is at quarterback ready for his first trip as a starter to Washington.
  • Traveling to Notre Dame is always tough -- no matter who is playing quarterback. Takes away the sting of back-to-back road games when you don't have to leave the region to play Cal.
  • About the Big Game being played so early, Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby said this through a release from the school: “The October 20 date for Big Game is 2012 is certainly not our first choice but the conference is governed by the will of the majority and we have a duty to respect the outcome of the vote. We will work with California and the Pac-12 office to advocate for the Big Game and all rivalry games to be scheduled toward the end of the season in future years.”
  • By my count, Stanford should have bowl eligibility by, at the very least, the end of the Colorado game -- though the Notre Dame-Cal stretch will be critical. Winning both would be outstanding, splitting would be passable, but dropping both could be a momentum killer because the Cardinal have three very winnable games (home to WSU, at Colorado, home to OSU) heading into Oregon.
  • Would rather face UCLA with new coach Jim Mora early in the season while things are still getting sorted out. By the final week, the Bruins will know what they are doing (for better or worse). Plus, depending on how things play out, it's not out of the realm of possibility that UCLA might need that final game to clinch bowl eligibility.
  • The extra time to study in between Washington and Arizona will be helpful for prepping against the new-look, Rich Rodriguez-led Wildcats.
  • Having five of the final seven games on the road is going to be rough. But better to have it that way than five of the first seven on the road with a new quarterback.

As previously mentioned in the mailbag, I see eight wins -- though I wouldn't be shocked at seven. Anything over eight would be a bonus and anything under seven would be a disappointment. I think the schedule works out nicely for a team with a new quarterback and one that will certainly be under the spotlight once again next season, albeit for different reasons than this year.


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.

Video: Stanford safety Michael Thomas

November, 26, 2011
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Kevin Gemmell talks with Stanford safety Michael Thomas following the Cardinal's victory over Notre Dame.

Final: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14

November, 26, 2011
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video
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
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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.

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