Lombardi: Stanford's defense is again a force. The offense has improved immensely, especially since the Cardinal lost at Notre Dame last year (Josh Nunes was still the starting quarterback then, and Kevin Hogan provided a much-needed upgrade at the position). The offense was excellent under Hogan in the red zone last year (over 70 percent touchdown efficiency), but that magic has disappeared this season.
Entering the game against lowly Cal, in fact, Stanford was ranked 100th in the nation in red zone touchdown efficiency (just over 50 percent), despite the fact that the team was rushing for five yards per carry. That's been the Cardinal's glaring vulnerability this year: In both of their losses, they've rushed for over six yards per carry and controlled the tempo down the stretch, only to blow golden opportunities (and the game) in the red zone late. Against USC, Stanford only scored 10 points on four red zone possessions.
The graduations of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo have certainly fueled this red zone vulnerability, as has some suspect play calling near the goal line. If the Cardinal again struggle from this part of the field, they are susceptible to defeat. The offense isn't a knock-your-socks-off consistency juggernaut, so it needs to convert the opportunities that it does produce for the team to avoid close calls.
2. How has Kevin Hogan performed compared to pre-season expectations this season? Does he have a bit of Jekyll & Hyde in him as a second-year starter?
Lombardi: I think Kevin Hogan is exactly who we thought he was entering the season. He's a guy who can have success throwing off playaction. He can use his legs to make plays. He's a gamer. However, he's NOT a prolific pocket passer. His comfort and success is dependent on a fairly specific Stanford gameplan. The Cardinal must commit to the run to set up the pass off of playaction, and that's when Hogan can truly get to work with athleticism and with throws to his talented receivers in single coverage downfield.
There have been games this season when Stanford has not done a good enough job establishing the run, and they've instead forced Hogan to shoulder the load as a Peyton Manning-like pocket passer. That's why we've seen some inconsistency from him. But whenever that ground and pound draws defensive respect as the spine of the Cardinal's offense, he's been able to do the job for David Shaw.
3. Notre Dame is down several starters due to injury, at least four of them along the offensive and defensive lines. What's the relative health of the Cardinal in addition to Ben Gardner's notable absence?
Lombardi: Stanford is again in excellent health (aside from Gardner), and credit should again go to a phenomenal strength and conditioning staff that has turned the Cardinal into one of the healthiest programs in the nation. Gardner's loss is obviously significant, but Stanford had four starter-caliber defensive linemen to fill the spots up front in the 3-4, so Josh Mauro and Henry Anderson have been able to neutralize the effects of his loss.
If the Cardinal offense controls the time of possession battle, the relative thinness along the defensive line (back-up tackle Ikenna Nwafor is also out) does not become an issue. Elsewhere, the Cardinal are not missing any players, though Conrad Ukropina will handle kick-offs instead of Jordan Williamson (Williamson will kick field goals) against Notre Dame. Cornerback Alex Carter will make his return to the lineup after missing the Cal game with a concussion.
4. How does the Stanford program (not its fans, that's fairly obvious) but the staff and players feel about the recent rivalry with Notre Dame? Is last year's loss in South Bend something that was discussed much beyond the days following the 20-13 defeat itself? (Both Pittsburgh and Brigham Young's players alluded to close call losses to the Irish last season as rallying points this year.)
Lombardi: The gut-wrenching loss at Notre Dame was actually THE rallying point in Stanford's Rose Bowl championship campaign. Remember that the Cardinal did not lose again from that point on, ripping off eight consecutive victories all the way to Pasadena glory. Many sources inside the program have indicated that the team's spectacular November run would not have been possible without the motivation that the Notre Dame loss provided. The struggles of Josh Nunes in that game certainly hastened the insertion of Kevin Hogan into the starting lineup at quarterback, and that was a very necessary change. Stanford's defense also cleaned up some mental errors after the defeat and began delivering absolutely airtight performances.
I think it's clear that Stanford's players respect Notre Dame for their similar physical style of play, but they don't like Notre Dame. This is certainly a spirited rivalry. And although this game has nothing to do with Stanford's Rose Bowl hopes (for that, they must win the Pac-12 title against ASU the week after), it means a heck of a lot to them.
5. Most Irish fans understand that stopping the run and running the football are the definitive strengths of the 2013 Cardinal team. What's an underrated aspect of both units?
Lombardi: Stanford's secondary is also very good. Most opponents are scared out of running the ball against the Cardinal, so they rack up passing yards because they throw so much. But a close look at the stats shows that Stanford is only surrendering 6.2 yards per pass attempt, which is a very respectable figure. Carter, Wayne Lyons, Ed Reynolds, and Jordan Richards consistently ride the strength of their front seven's pass rush to force short underneath throws. In short, this Stanford defense has no glaring weakness, and that's why teams depart so dramatically from their usual offensive tendencies against the Cardinal early in games.
On the other side of the ball, Stanford is much more explosive than common perception might suggest. In fact, they've already completed 29 passes of over 25 yards this season. The Andrew Luck offense of 2011 completed 31 such throws, the most in the Harbaugh-Shaw era. So this 2013 Stanford offense actually presents a bigger deep threat than any Cardinal team in recent memory. The new issue, believe it or not, is the shorter passing game (once a signature strength): Shaw has run into trouble trying to make up for lost tight ends' intermediate passing production, but he's finally started to get some consistency from his receivers in that regard the past few weeks. It all comes back to how effectively the Cardinal can sell play-action fakes.