Five For A Win

Decided underdogs, Notre Dame nonetheless has a chance to take out No. 8 Stanford, a punishing, efficient, but beatable squad that next week will play for the Pac-12 championship regardless of Saturday's outcome. Irish Eyes identifies five key components necessary for a Notre Dame win.

Every Possession Ends with a Kick

It's nod to Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron's outlook on the game: extra point, field goal, or punt.

As noted often on these pages, it's okay to punt. It's okay to run the ball on third and five and gain four. Don't turn it over. Live to fight another day. It was the team's mantra last fall with Everett Golson under center, why should it change with Tommy Rees running the show?

Notre Dame is 25-1 in the Kelly era when committing one turnover or fewer. They cannot, barring the unlikely event of a special teams touchdown in their favor, win with two turnovers Saturday on The Farm.

A touchdown drive (two are likely necessary), multiple field goals from outside the red zone, and of course, a handful of punts. That's the realistic recipe for Irish offensive success Saturday and vs. any quality team it's faced over the last two seasons.

Irish Safeties: Stop it

Notre Dame's abhorrent back line tackling has resulted in game-changing touchdowns vs. the Irish by Michigan, Purdue, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Air Force, Navy, and Pittsburgh. (That's tackling, not coverage.)

Do you know how many misses along the back line -- those manning the safety and cornerback positions in Bob Diaco's defense -- resulted in opponents' touchdowns during the 2012 regular season?

One, Pittsburgh's Ray Graham ran through then-injured Matthias Farley (broken wrist) for a 14-yard scamper and score.

Speaking of Farley, he can't continue to tackle air and nip at ankles if the Irish are to score an upset Saturday. Off-balance and lunging throughout the season, Farley either lacks confidence, is playing with an injury, or both. And it appears likely Farley and Austin Collinsworth will be asked to carry the load at safety Saturday with the purported suspensions of Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate.

Collinsworth has excelled as a blitzed this season, especially earlier in the season. He's struggled in man-to-man coverage in the slot, beaten for scores by Brigham Young, Arizona State,

Neither player is alone in blame for a disappointing season-long effort along the back line, but both must be much better Saturday if the Irish are to "keep the points down" as they're found of saying, at Stanford.

Ground, Pound, and Rebound

Notre Dame will not have a great day rushing the football Saturday, not statistically. They won't likely run for more yards than they pass, or run for more yards than their foe, or convert more than a couple third-and-short situations into first downs by simply hammering over their veteran left side.

And I admit, my oft-reference statistic that Notre Dame is 33-4 when it attempts more than 30 rushes is in jeopardy Saturday. They could rush 35 times and lose to this team.

But rushing success is attainable, and for Saturday, success should follow if the Irish run more, or nearly as much as they pass. If they can commit to running the football more than 30 times, thus limiting the likelihood of a turnover or the disadvantageous down-and-distance situations that cause them.

Notre Dame can bring three 'backs at the Cardinal front. Each should get his shot. They'll all be dropped for no gain or loss, it's simply tough sledding vs. this Stanford defense, ranked No. 3 nationally against the run.

Rees and the Irish of course have to pass. They'll have to hit at least three shots downfield (20-plus yards) to loosen what will be a confident, aggressive defense.

But the quarterback will spend too much time on his back if the Irish look to throw more than 35 times. It's a proven recipe for disaster in the Brian Kelly era, and against Stanford, a proven method of ensuring the backup quarterback plays, just as Rees did last year when Stanford knocked Everett Golson from the game on a scramble upfield, and just as Andrew Hendrix did when Rees was knocked from the game, twice, in 2011, the initial hit damaging his ribs on Notre Dame's first drive.

(Stanford mentally destroyed former Irish quarterback Dayne Crist in 2010 as well -- the Cardinal front seven is an angry, petulant group.)

The Irish have to run the ball if only because it means they're not passing it. They have to run to establish at least an intermittent presence at scrimmage. They have to run so Rees has time to throw something other than a bubble screen or series of hitch routes.

Not every run can fill the fan base, coaching staff, or ball carrier with promise and confidence. But they all add up.

Ask Stanford.

The Best Player on the Field

Six months ago, would any Notre Dame or Stanford fan -- or any NFL scout, for that matter -- have blinked had I suggested in a game preview that junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt would be the best player on Stanford Stadium's field Saturday night?

Conversely, every Irish fan would have scoffed at that notion just two months ago.

Tuitt has improved throughout 2013 as he recovered and regained speed and strength from off-season hernia surgery. The Tuitt we saw Saturday vs. Brigham Young was 300-plus pounds of mortal terror in the backfield. The Tuitt that took the field in Ann Arbor in early September was nothing more than 300-plus pounds. Emphasis on the pounds and the plus.

WIthout Louis Nix in the fold, Notre Dame needs Tuitt to be superhuman, not solid, when Stanford runs to the wide side or when Kevin Hogan dials up a play-action pass.

His reemergence as a premier player would allow teammates such as Prince Shembo, Sheldon Day, and maybe nose guard Jarron Jones a chance to make plays that matter as well.

Because Stanford's Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, and Jordan Richards will doubtless make plays of their own vs. the Irish attack.

They won't square off, but Murphy and Tuitt are a pair to watch Saturday. Which pass-rushing terror will reign?

Mental Toughness: The Plays that Matter

Can T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, or Troy Niklas put forth the best effort of their collegiate careers?

Aren't each of the three physically as good as their counterparts? Can one or two from the trio be better Saturday than he's been to date?

Can a reserve such as Corey Robinson -- unlikely to be called upon more than once or twice -- make a big play that could have instead gone either way?

Can the contest's most physically gifted human, Jaylon Smith, play steady, winning football on 60 snaps, but totally dominate two others? Those two can make the difference. That's what happened vs. the Cougars last week when Daniels owned the first half, when Smith made two huge goal line plays, and when Robinson converted with his first successful slant route -- 17 yards to move the chains.

They'll need more, much more, of the same.

"They were focused, there was a single-minded focus on playing that game," said Kelly. "That's what I was referring to, and we need to continue to build on that and develop that, and that's the way we've got to play this game of football.

"We don't play the game the way we need to play it each and every week, everybody, every player," he continued. "And we're getting there.  Our guys are understanding it and they are seeing it. And now that I'm able to really show them, they are looking at it and going:  We get it, Coach. That's a positive thing that they were able to take from the BYU game."

In other words, Notre Dame has to be locked in. Stanford will be. It's their Senior Day. It's their revenge game. It's their "no pressure" dress rehearsal before next week's game that will -- win or lose Saturday -- determine their Pac-12 championship and thus their BCS Bowl fate.

The Irish are a 14.5-point underdog for a reason. Stanford has a rushing game it can count on, a rush defense coupled with a pass rush that guarantees most foes won't hit 30 points, and a dynamic kick returner.

On paper, Stanford is better. In reality, they're in far better health on both sides of scrimmage.

But as the song promises, that shouldn't matter to Notre Dame. Not once the ball is put down and the whistle blows.

"What though the odds be great or small…"


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