Quarterback and Running BacksWith senior Jonas Gray out (791 rushing yards, 12 TD), junior Cierre steps back into the starter's role for the first time since Notre Dame's Game Seven loss to USC. Wood last week became the first runner to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards at the program since Darius Walker in 2006. Only Walker (2005-06), Julius Jones (2003), and Ryan Grant (2002) had done so previously this millennium.
Stepping to the fore will be freshmen backups George Atkinson (two kick return scores) and Cam McDaniel – neither has made a scrimmage impact with the game in question though Atkinson has a 1-yard touchdown plunge in addition to his pair of crucial kick return touchdowns. Both have been special teams regulars, McDaniel appearing in six of the last seven contests.
Former running back and current slot receiver Theo Riddick is rumored to be part of the backfield equation but his efforts could be hampered by a hamstring strain that kept him out of the previous two contests.
Starting his 15th game under center for the Irish will be sophomore Tommy Rees. Rees has fired 19 touchdowns but thrown 11 interceptions, finishing just three games without a pick. His oft-referenced record of 12-2 as Notre Dame's starter will face its toughest test today – the 4th-ranked Cardinal the most prominent team he's face.
Wide Receivers and Tight EndsThe starting trio of Michael Floyd, T.J. Jones, and Robby Toma will start their third straight together with usual slot receiver Riddick still nursing injury. Jones committed to the Cardinal before choosing Notre Dame as part of Brian Kelly's first crop of recruits in 2010. The second-year starter has 36 receptions for 367 yards with three scores.
Toma has been a late-season sensation, emerging as a fan favorite after 12 receptions for 128 yards over the last two games – included among the receptions were two pretty grabs and one phenomenal diving snare of a low Rees pass.
Floyd leads the Irish in receptions (87), yards (1,014) and touchdown receptions (7), and is the team's top player this fall and easily its top weapon this Saturday with Gray sideline. Floyd caught eight passes for 110 yards in last year's matchup though a good portion of the yardage occurred after the contest had been decided.
Junior tight end Tyler Eifert ranks among the nation's best (a peer competitor for the honor will be on the opposite sideline, Coby Fleener, who burned the Irish for a 3rd Down score last fall). With his next reception, Eifert will tie program legend Ken MacAfee's position record of 54 receptions in a single season. Eifert will tie MacAfee's high mark of six scores with his next touchdown grab as well.
Eifert and Floyd are Rees' top third-down targets (19 and 15 conversions, respectively) with the rest of the offense combining for 14 third-down receptions to move the sticks (Riddick with 5, Jones with 4).
Backing up the receiver trio will be Riddick and senior John Goodman while Eifert is joined by either Alex Welch or true freshman Ben Koyack in multiple tight end sets. The pair generally serves as blockers in the team's power running packages.
Offensive LineStarters from left to right: Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Mike Golic, Trevor Robinson, and Taylor Dever – all but Golic will make their 11th start of the season with the latter earning his third straight in usual starter Braxston Cave's stead. Cave is out for the season after foot surgery.
The only reserve lineman likely to see time is 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss, who'll backup both guard spots and Golic at center. Nuss could play tackle in a pinch as well with redshirt-freshman Christian Lombard the other backup (right) tackle option. Scholarship center Bruce Heggie is available for action but freshmen backups Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty are having a year of eligibility preserved by head coach Brian Kelly, though both will make the trip and be forced into action should a rash of injuries strike the Irish offensive front.
Martin and Robinson have both started all 24 games of the Kelly era while Dever has started 22, missing a pair at mid-season last year due to a hamstring injury. Watt will conclude his first season as a starter with his 12th straight Saturday in Palo Alto.