NOTRE DAME — Though Stanford and Notre Dame have met only 27 times, Brian Kelly won’t hesitate to call the series “a great rivalry.”
It’s quite a label from the Irish head coach, who once downplayed the history between Notre Dame and Michigan. Perhaps that’s the reason Notre Dame chose to keep the Cardinal on its schedule, while the Irish drop Michigan after next year.
“Both teams want to be the smartest, toughest football teams in the country,” Kelly said of Stanford.
The two schools are interwoven not only in standards and traditions, but also alumni.
Former secretary of state and current College Football Playoff selection committee member Condoleezza Rice earned her master’s degree from Notre Dame and is a professor at Stanford. Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick attended Notre Dame for undergrad, then went to Stanford Law.
“There are obvious similarities,” Swarbrick told ESPN. “Private (schools), among the smallest undergraduate populations in the FBS, excellent academic reputations, a broad commitment to collegiate sports model as reflected in number of sports and levels of success, passionate alumni scattered around the globe and very strong brands.”
No. 25 Notre Dame (8-3) is attempting to build off a strong home showing against BYU. No. 8 Stanford (9-2) is prepping for the Pac-12 championship.
These two programs have a lot in common, but who has the edge when they meet Saturday, Nov. 30?
Stanford is led by quarterback Kevin Hogan, who once dreamed of playing for the Irish but committed to Stanford before Notre Dame entered the recruiting picture.
Stanford doesn’t pass a whole lot (Hogan averages a hair under 200 yards a game), but when it does, Ty Montgomery is the target. Montgomery, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound receiver, has pulled down 822 of Hogan’s 2,052 passing yards and nine of his 18 touchdowns.
Without the dominant tight ends Stanford has enjoyed in the past, Hogan is usually relegated to downfield passing, which may present mismatches with Notre Dame’s safeties.
Unlike several of the quarterbacks Notre Dame has faced this season, Hogan isn’t much of a run threat.
Running duties are instead handled by senior Tyler Gaffney, who has averaged 5.2 yards per carry for 1,296 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. To put that in perspective, Notre Dame’s top two rushers (Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III) have 140 fewer yards and 10 fewer touchdowns — combined.
Gaffney burned up Oregon and USC, running for 157 and 158 yards and scoring in both games.
With Louis Nix in the lineup, the trench battle could have been fairly even. Jarron Jones showed his potential against BYU, but Stanford offers a much greater challenge on the line.
As Irish Illustrated noted earlier in the week, Notre Dame’s at its best when it runs the ball often. The Irish are 20-0 in their last 20 games when they run the ball at least 30 times.
The theory was successfully tested last week, when Notre Dame ran the ball 47 times for 235 yards in a 23-13 win over BYU. That streak will be tested against Stanford’s third-ranked rushing defense, which allows only 89.5 rushing yards per game.
The Cardinal is anchored by linebacker Trent Murphy, whose 19 tackles for loss and 13 sacks are team highs.
Notre Dame shut down tackle for loss threats like Pitt’s Aaron Donald and BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, but the 6-6, 261-pound Murphy is on a different level.
“He sets the tone of their defense because he plays so physical, and he’s long, he’s athletic,” Kelly said of Murphy on Tuesday. “He can do so many things because he can stand up, he can play as a drop player and so he allows the defense to give you a lot of different looks.”
If quarterback Tommy Rees is forced to go to the air, he’ll throw against a secondary that’s grabbed 10 interceptions. He’ll also be relentlessly pursued by a pass rush that has an eighth-ranked 34 sacks on the year.
It’s interesting to note that Stanford has done its greatest scoring damage in the third quarter this season (102 points scored), while that’s when Notre Dame is usually at its best defensively.
As well as Jones and center Matt Hegarty fared against BYU, Notre Dame will hurt without its two trench point men against Stanford.
The Irish have struggled to score in the red zone this season, a crippling weakness against a Stanford team that doesn’t give up many points to begin with.
Stanford wins this one and Notre Dame enters its bowl game 8-4.
Stanford 24, Notre Dame 13