Referendum

Ten story lines for the Irish fan to consider, both on and off the field, for tonight's contest vs. Stanford.

#1 – A true triple-option

No, not a Service Academy's standard fullback dive, QB keeper, or perimeter pitch. In Stanford's case, it's the power running game, the play-action pass from the best in the business, and the undervalued third skill set – a quarterback scrambling to move the chains.

"They run the football. That's what they do," said Brian Kelly of Stanford's bread-and-butter.

"There are so many parallels to playing an option team. If your eye discipline is not good against those tight ends, they will run behind you every time on play action pass. So it's a combination of running and play action pass in the red zone that make 'em outstanding as a football team."

Stanford's run/pass/scramble option has produced the nation's 10th best offense and its No. 1 red zone offense this season: 61 of the Cardinal's 62 trips inside the 20-yard line have resulted in points including an astounding 48 touchdowns – 24 rushing; 24 passing..

#2 – Strength vs. Weakness?

Manti Te'o devours screen passes: standard, tunnel, "Rocket", you name it, he diagnoses it and embarks on a seek and destroy mission.

The junior linebacker is far less successful at defending tight ends down the seams – a Stanford staple.

"It's all about matchups. So when they put an extra tackle or tight end on the field, you're still matching up your base personnel and their ability to fit the runs as well as cover."

It's not just Te'o, as Prince Shembo and Carlo Calabrese have struggled to defend the flats and short zones as well. The turf could be sloppy after two previous contests (Oregon and California) played in a muddy mess – that always favors the passing game.

#3 – Referendum on Rees

Tommy Rees has quarterbacked the Irish to 12 wins and has participated (starter or main quarterback) in three losses. He's brought the Irish back to victory (USC 2010, Pittsburgh 2011, Wake Forest 2011) and provided a late lead on two other occasions (Michigan 2011, Tulsa 2010). Just once has Rees been wholly-ineffective in an Irish defeat (USC 2011).

A win tonight would top 2010 victories over ranked but reeling Utah; rival but reeling USC; former rival and really reeling Miami; and over a strong 2011 Michigan State squad along with a host of also-rans this season.

At some point, Rees will have to play a full game of error-free football vs. a living, breathing defense such as Stanford's. There's no time like the present.

#4 – Five Years Since Five

Charlie Weis' 2006 Irish won eight consecutive games. Since, the longest streak at the school is four: Weis' 2007-08 group ended the former and began the latter season with a pair of wins while Brian Kelly's 2010 Irish won four straight to end the season; his 2011 Irish have compiled a pair of four-game winning streaks.

Number five tonight would be the most impressive victory during that time span.

#5 – Workhorse Wood

Cierre Wood carried 26 times last week for 94 yards in last week's win over Boston College. He's previously toted the rock 20 or more times on Purdue occasions: 21-104 vs. South Florida, 25-134 vs. Michigan; 23-94 vs. Pittsburgh; 20-191 vs. Purdue.

Wood is capable of carrying the ball 25 times vs. the Cardinal defense – surviving and thriving vs. the nation's No. 5 rush defense will be a tall task.

To be blunt, any help from the freshmen pair of George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel, or the potential return of Wood's classmate Theo Riddick to the backfield, should be considered gravy.

Wood must rule then day – an ice bath plunge awaits.

#6 – Not Strong, Spectacular

Michael Floyd has dominated in five challenging games for the Irish during the Brian Kelly era: (Tulsa, USC, and Miami 2010; South Florida, Michigan 2011)

He's played well – near his capabilities – in two others: (Michigan State 2010; Michigan State 2011)

He's been held in check – whether his "fault" or not – three times when the Irish desperately needed more: (Michigan 2010; Pittsburgh and USC 2011)

In some capacity, either as a chain-mover, dominant player after the catch, or red zone force, Saturday will require one of the best efforts of Floyd's career. Downfield blocking is assured – Notre Dame needs its best playmaker to be spectacular, not merely solid.

#7 – Out or Injured

Notre Dame thrived late last season despite the loss of nearly a dozen front line players. Tonight's list of sideline or hobbled players will have a direct impact on the contest – notably at the line of scrimmage: Out: RB Jonas Gray, RDE Kapron Lewis-Moore, C Braxston Cave
Expected Out: RDE/NG Stephon Tuitt (illness)
Questionable: WR Theo Riddick (hamstring), ST Austin Collinsworth (ankle)

Senior defensive end Ethan Johnson is far from 100 percent with an ankle injury that kept him out of action for more than a month, and redshirt-freshman defensive lineman Louis Nix encountered a family emergency this week.

No team is at full strength in Week 12. Stanford is/has been without a handful of front line players including explosive tight end Zack Ertz, top wide receiver Chris Owusu, and future All-America linebacker Shayne Skov. Its two-deep has encountered similar hazard. But Notre Dame enters its final home contest in dire straits along the defensive line and without one of its three best players (Gray). Notre Dame can't afford an injury along its offensive front, as only versatile 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss has any competitive situation experience among the three non-freshmen (presently slated for a redshirt) backups.

A tall task awaits vs. one of the nation's most physical teams.

#8 – Like Last Time is Fine

Stanford kicker Nate Whitaker booted five field goals in last year's Cardinal victory in South Bend. If his brother Eric, or returning starter Jordan Williamson, drills five more today, Notre Dame will likely exit Palo Alto with a five-game winning streak intact.

#9 – In Search Of…

When was the last "Notre Dame Moment?"

The program's two best wins of the millennium: at Florida State in 2002 and at Michigan in 2005, both degraded in value as those season's progressed.

Other memorable upset wins (Michigan 2002 and 2004) occurred in South Bend and are comparatively mild to the school's glory days. A win at #9 Tennessee in 2004 was enjoyable though hardly seismic…the pickings are slim.

Today would qualify. Which reminds me…

#10 – Oh Yes it is

"Well, it's still about, for us, preparing the right way and then performing on Saturdays," said Kelly of Saturday's game. "I've said this a number of times: I like the way we've prepared. We haven't performed on Saturdays the way we need to consistently. We're showing that at times. This is just another one of those – it's not a referendum on our season, but it's another step towards where we want to be in consistency in November."

Saturday night is not only a referendum on Notre Dame's season, but on the 25-game Kelly era to date. The team and program appears on solid ground, but the proof is in the product, not theory and rhetoric.

Notre Dame hasn't defeated a Top 10 team since Week Two of 2005 (Kelly has yet to face such a foe). It hasn't defeated a team that finished in the Top 10 at season's end since 2002 (Michigan).

A moment is at hand…


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