Battles up front on both sides of scrimmage. Difficult passes caught or incomplete. Tackles just prior to the sticks. Close calls going the wrong way at the wrong time.
Each will play a huge role in Saturday's contest, but if Everett Golson isn't near his best, Notre Dame will lose the first game of its 2012 season. Golson doesn't have to be a dual-threat machine as he was at Miami (15-20,153 yards plus 51 rushing yards in the first half before handing off the rest of the game), but he does have to be as efficient as he was vs. Purdue or as intermittently dynamic as he was vs. Michigan State.
Of note: Golson has three turnovers in 1.5 games in South Bend vs. one turnover in three full games away from home.
Ball security vs. Stanford's veteran tacklers; pre-snap reads vs. the best front seven he's faced; composure and decision-making in the red zone. Golson's mental challenges as a redshirt-freshman quarterback will be on full display vs. Stanford's defense -- they could be exacerbated by the Cardinal and their physical style of play.
As he goes Saturday, so goes the Irish offense.
#2-- Right Guard Mike Golic, Jr. (6'3" 300):
Through five games this season, the first-time starting right guard has been excellent, awful, sub par, good, and great. The trend is encouraging, the performance vs. quality defensive fronts such as Purdue and Michigan State troubling.
Golic played his best Saturday against Miami, pulling over the left side to open interior holes, finding the occasional 'backer at the second level, and holding the point in power situations.
Stanford's defense dominated Notre Dame up front last season (Golic was the starting center). The current Irish offensive front is better than the group that ended last season sans Braxston Cave. Can it produce consistently vs. the Cardinal, in blitz protection, in short-yardage, throughout the contest? If not, can it produce another timely dominant drive as it did vs. Michigan State and Michigan to seal both contests?
Like Notre Dame's front seven vs. Stanford's offensive line, the Irish five-man OL is at a disadvantage Saturday: timely execution might be the difference between a turnover and a punt; a field goal and six points.
#3 -- RB Cierre Wood (6'0" 215):
His classmate Theo Riddick has the most touches from scrimmage, passes targeted his way, carries and receptions. His sophomore understudy George Atkinson the most rushing yards, best average, longest runs, and breathtaking scores. But there's no doubt Cierre Wood is Notre Dame's best 'back at this stage of the roster's respective careers. His performance between the tackles will determine how many chances he gets to gash the Cardinal for drive-changing gains.
Stanford's front is the best against the run the Irish have faced, but part of their package lies in the ability to confuse opposing passers. If Wood can run successfully on first down, that advantage lessens greatly.
Wood hit his stride Saturday night in Chicago, posting his first 100-yard game in three outings following a two-game suspension. The Irish have ample backfield weapons, but Wood appears to be at his best with 15-plus carries. He needs to be fully engaged as such for the Irish offense to succeed vs. the Cardinal.
#4 -- TE Troy Niklas (6'7" 260):
From curiosity to full-blown blocking machine: that's the journey of 2011 freshman linebacker Troy Niklas through five games into his tight end career. NIklas, coupled with senior All-America Tyler Eifert, has buoyed the Irish running game with both his in-line blocking and ability to move into space and secure both linebackers and safeties as a detached tight end.
The imposing target has been targeted for just five passes this season, collecting a crucial pass interference call as well as three receptions, two of which gained 29 yards and set up Irish scores. Niklas will face his stiffest test against the Cardinal linebacking corps, one that ranks among the nation's best. Stanford's second-level defenders have an edge in terms of veteran experience, but Niklas can match their physical approach.
The more tenacious player will win, and either the Cardinal rush defense or Irish running attack will benefit as a result.
#5 -- TE Tyler Eifert (6'6" 251):
The team's best offensive player has seen his production dip with the unit's focus on running the football and limiting turnovers, but Eifert has made decisive catches in close wins vs. both Purdue and Michigan this season.
As the best developed mid-range threat and fade route receiver on the roster, Eifert could be targeted more often on third down Saturday if the Cardinal don't do what the last three defenses have done: double-team him when split wide or detached from the line. Head coach Brian Kelly has countered with a rushing attack and Eifert (in congress with Niklas) as downfield blockers.
Regardless of the approach's success to date, it's difficult to conceive of an Irish offense beating Stanford for more than two scores if Eifert isn't involved in a couple of chunk pass plays, or chain-moving efforts.