It Begins and Ends Up Front

Notre Dame has fallen in three straight to Stanford, and during the program's back-to-back wins vs. Brian Kelly's teams, the Cardinal defensive line has whipped the Irish up front in both.

101 combined rushing yards. Nine combined third- and-fourth-down conversions in 30 opportunities (just two via the rush including a 12-yard scramble).

And one meaningful offensive touchdown in eight quarters.

That's the Notre Dame offensive output vs. Stanford over the last two seasons. That's the hurdle the Irish must clear vs. a Cardinal crew sans star quarterback Andrew Luck, but stocked with developed talent among its defensive front seven.

"The outside linebackers are difficult to block, they're active," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "(Trent) Murphy and (Chase) Thomas are outstanding players and they have caused havoc with so many teams, not just this year but last year as well. Their defense is an outstanding group.  They're difficult to run the football on, and it's hard to get the ball down field because quarterbacks are under constant pressure, and that was the case for us last year."

Last year Thomas dominated from the outset, registering three tackles for loss, two sacks, and a pair of quarterback hurries. No other Irish foe bettered those numbers vs. Notre Dame during 2011 or since. (Thomas added fumble recovery, a pass break-up, three QB hurries, and seven tackles in a 2010 win in South Bend -- one of his tackles occurred behind the line of scrimmage on 4th and 1 to end Notre Dame's final meaningful threat.)

Over the last two contests vs. the Irish, Stanford's front has produced 14 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, and five turnovers. It short, it wasn't Luck that felled Notre Dame, but sheer will.

"They're relentless pursuit to the ball," said senior left tackle Zack Martin when asked what makes the Stanford front special. "They're 100 miles an hour from the snap to the end of the whistle. That's something we haven't seen yet. We've seen teams that are very talented but these guys are to the ball every play and they want to hurt the quarterback. They know that if they can get to the quarterback and get him out of the game, the offense struggles. They've been able to do that the past couple of years so we have a big test."

The Cardinal pressured Dayne Crist into an interception touchdown, two sacks, five hurries, and three passes batted at the line in 2010. Crist and the Irish offense failed to convert on nine straight third and fourth down chances before falling behind 34-6.

Last year's performance by Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix featured much of the same, with Rees being knocked from the game briefly following a hit by Thomas, then pulled later by his head coach. Pressured throughout the second half, the Hendrix-led offense failed on 6 of 8 third-down chances before a final cosmetic drive made the final margin seem reasonable, 28-14.

"As an offensive line last year we got our butts handed to us by them," Martin admitted. "We'll have a new attitude this year. This is the best team we've played so far, the biggest game we've played so far, and we're ready for it."

Winning the Old Fashioned Way

In the not-so-distant past, the goal of every defense was to punish opposing passers. Intimidation was part of the plan, one expected from opposing offenses, accepted by opposing coaches.

Today's game has softened a bit in that regard. Not at Stanford.

"They don't quit and they like to fight," said Irish right tackle Christian Lombard who'll make his first start agains the Cardinal. "They'll be hitting after the whistle. They might look like gentleman, but it's going to be a street fight. There's no doubt about it; it's going to be a fight.

"You have to embrace that. It's what its going to be."

Lombard's fellow Chicagoan Chris Watt has faced the Cardinal twice, starting last year's contest in Palo Alto, one of 18 straight the senior left guard has served for the Irish front. Watt knows well the challenges Stanford's scheme provides.

"One of the biggest things last year was we didn't communicate up front. With all the different looks they're going to give us up there, some we won't have even practiced, we just have to communicate which guys are going where…that's going to help us in the game," he said.

Of the Cardinal growing reputation for defensive intimidation, Watt, (no stranger to physical play himself) noted, "They're really intense team, so even if we do communicate, we have to match that intensity out there. We have to maintain our physicalness as well.

"When you look at the USC game (a 24-21 Stanford win) compared to other games they've played, you can see their intensity is raised a notch. When they play us they'll raise it a notch as well. We have to match that out there because they're going to try to give it to us every play," he offered. "They're going to try to intimidate our quarterback and get him out of sorts, so we have to keep them from doing that."

Everett Golson will get his first crack at the Cardinal behind an Irish offensive line featuring three major differences from the last meeting between the teams: Lombard at right tackle, Mike Golic at right guard (instead of his 2011 relief role at center) and 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave. Cave missed last season's loss due to injury.

"They mix it up, they have a good scheme and their players are really good at running that scheme," said Cave of a Cardinal team he's monitored for three seasons. "We're studying the film and trying to break it down to simplify everything.

"The defensive front plays really hard. They use their scheme fully to their advantage. They're coached well," Cave continued. "They have (former 2009 Irish defensive line) coach (Randy) Hart out there. He's all about playing to the whistle and going as hard as you can. I've seen it first-hand with him here, so I know exactly what to expect."

Asked if Cave would like to shake his old coach's hand following a victory this time, the 5th-year senior noted, "Oh yeah…I have to."

Cave's efforts and the performance of his line mates will determine the tenor of that handshake once again.


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