The old recruiting adage: "It's not the Xs and Os, but the Jimmy's and the Joe's" will be on display Saturday in Palo Alto, as Notre Dame's four freshmen, plus redshirt-freshman Louis Nix and redshirt-sophomore Dan Fox, as well as true sophomore Prince Shembo (who played briefly vs. the Cardinal before being knocked out as a true freshman last season) will play against the best-schooled offensive line of their young careers.
Two of its OL combatants, OT Jonathan Quinn and OG David DeCastro, are considered 2012 1st Round NFL Draft prospects.
Teamed with seniors Sean Cwynar (NG) and Ethan Johnson (DE), as well as Butkus finalist Manti Te'o and senior outside ‘backer Darius Fleming, Notre Dame's young pups will attempt to do what their two predecessors at the program could not: slow the Stanford offense.
"We feel like across the board we match up physically a lot better," Kelly said of his current front seven compared to last year's group that faced Stanford in Week Four. "They're an outstanding offensive line. I think they've got two NFL caliber offensive linemen. So it's going to be a challenge whether (ND plays) a freshman or a senior. We'll have our hands full."
Led by a breakout effort from Manti Te'o (16 second-half tackles/21 all told), Notre Dame held the Cardinal rushing attack – at just 3.77 yards per carry – to its second least productive game of the 2010 season: 44 carries, 166 yards, one touchdown, and no carry in excess of 11 yards (that by quarterback Andrew Luck).
The 404 total yards gained was also the Cardinal's second-lowest total of the season.
"I think a lot of their success comes from road-grading and road-grading and road-grading teams and defenses backing off," Te'o said. "For us, we love that kind of game. We played a team like Michigan State (23 carries/28 yards vs. the Irish in September) that will run and run and run until the cows come home. Personally I like that kind of game.
"With Stanford, they have a balanced attack where they can run and run, but Luck will drop back and throw it to one of his 6'8" tight ends," Te'o offered. "That's something we're aware of and we need everyone to do their job and get after them."
Te'o's run-stuffing effort will be aided by Johnson (unlikely 100 percent, but nonetheless a huge cog in the machinery) and Cwynar who will play often on the nose and in 4-3 defensive sets. Te'o's classmate Carlo Calabrese struggled with just four tackles (one solo) vs. Stanford last season – his prowess vs. the run must be on display Saturday night.
Senior and 30-game defensive end starter Kapron Lewis-Moore is out for the game and the remainder of the season for the Irish after late-October knee surgery.
Youth to Be ServedAt first blush, the presence of several first-year players along a defensive front against the Cardinal offense seems less than promising. Why then is Kelly apparently confident in his troops entering Saturday's showdown?
"I think it starts with at this point they're very familiar with what we do defensively. I would be more anxious, if you will, if this was their first start," he offered. "But they've played a lot of our defense; they know our defense; we're going to play our defense.
"Obviously there will be some adjustments when there is an extra tackle in the game (for Stanford) and they're unbalanced. But certainly at this point in the season, all of those freshmen really know our defense well, and now it's just a matter of them doing their job."
Kelly will soon conclude his 22nd season as a collegiate head coach. Has he ever relied on this many freshmen up front in the past?
"I don't know that you ever count on a freshman to give you the consistency that an Aaron Lynch has given us; the consistency that Troy Niklas has given us in a number of different roles," Kelly said. "Then before Stephon getting sick, obviously he was in some really big games for us. (Tuitt may miss his second straight game due to illness.)
Lynch leads the team with 13 QB Hurries and trails only Te'o (4.5) with four sacks. Tuitt's 27 tackles ranks first among all freshmen though the versatile end/guard/tackle has played in just eight of 11 games this season.
"Yeah, I would say that it's really beyond what I would have expected, because you don't go into a season expecting freshmen to impact you the way they did," Kelly continued. "They certainly have."