Final Exam

Notre Dame has beaten three ranked teams, lost to another, and dropped a decision to a rival ranked at the time of the contest. None of the above is, or at any point was, as highly ranked or regarded as Saturday's foe, #8 Stanford.

Three years ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly opined openly that Stanford, a team that beat his 37-14 in Notre Dame Stadium, was a program his own aspired to emulate. Two years after uttering that jarring admission, Kelly's Irish defeated the Cardinal in their return trip to South Bend, 20-13 in overtime.

It was one of the best games of the 2012 college football season and doubtless the most brutal at scrimmage.

"I think the whole game…we call it, and we use this (phrase) a lot: we were fighting for every inch, both teams were fighting," he said of a contest that ended with the visitors marked less than a yard short of a likely second overtime.

"The game was decided by inches, that was the type of football game it was.  And quite frankly, it's going to be similar on Saturday.  Both teams will be fighting for inches and not yards."

Kelly's Irish are a bigger underdog Saturday in Palo Alto than in any of his previous 50 coached for Notre Dame -- 14 points.

More than they were against Alabama (10.5), or at Oklahoma last year (12.5), and a whopping full touchdown more than at any point during the 2010, 2011, or 2013 seasons, including a 2011 loss to Andrew Luck-led Stanford on The Farm against a Cardinal team that exited the contest 11-1.

Despite the long odds, Kelly didn't concede the contest serves as Notre Dame's so-called, "Super Bowl." To the 23-year veteran coach, it's another opportunity to show improvement and win a football game.

"We're excited. For us, we want to continue to build on our play and the way we play the game," he said. "And when I say the way we play that game, with that focus and that attention to detail and that physical and mental toughness that is so necessary week-in and week-out.

"I know that the players want to build on that. And so Stanford forces that out of you, because it gets your attention. You know, their consistency nationally has been as good as anybody in the country."

Since Kelly's first game in South Bend in September 2010, Stanford has won 44 and lost 7. Their near-four season run of excellence compares favorably to Notre Dame's best 51-game run during the Lou Holtz era (43-7-1) from 1988 through 1991.

Kelly's 36-14 mark during that same span is the best at Notre Dame since Holtz's 1992, '93, '94, and '95 squads finished a combined 36-10-2 in a 50-game span. (A 6-5-1 season in 1994 ruins a variety of Holtz-era statistics.)

"Both teams want to be the smartest, toughest football teams in the country," said Kelly of the respect between the program's on and off the field. "Stanford right now is ranked eighth in the country. We are ranked 25th. We get a chance to decide it on the football field. Last year we were able to get Stanford. Now we've got a chance to settle it again on Saturday. It's a great rivalry."

Kelly is 1-2 vs. the Cardinal with Stanford also beating the Irish one season prior to Kelly's arrival.

60 Minutes of Focus

For the Irish to even the series during their coach's tenure, Kelly realizes a few basic tenets will have to be present Saturday night.

"One or less, in terms of turnovers, that's been a win" said Kelly. "So one turnover or less, that's got to happen.  Number two, there's got to be a running game, an effective running game as part of it.

"From a defensive standpoint, eliminate big plays. If we eliminate big plays, we can give up, you know, eight or nine or ten (yards) but eliminate big play touchdowns. If we eliminate big play touchdowns and keep the points down…our margin for keeping the points down is keeping is in the teens; then we've got a great chance of winning."

Notre Dame is 25-1 during the Kelly era when committing one turnover or less in a game, the BCS Championship game last season marking the only defeat. They're 33-4 in his 50 games as Irish head coach when they attempt to run the football more than 30 times (one of the losses was in 2011 at Stanford). They're 10-1 when both teams score 20 or fewer points (Florida State 2011 the only defeat), and conversely 5-13 when the opponent scores more than 21 points, including a 3-3 mark this season.

(Yes, the Irish were just 2-10 entering the 2013 season when the opponent topped 21 points.)

"You know what you're going to get," said Kelly of Stanford. "You have to be physical. You have to be able to play smart, and you have to be able to make plays, because you're not going to get many opportunities. It's going to be a tight affair. You want to get it in the fourth quarter and make some plays late."


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