Kelly-era foil ready to rumble in South Bend

Stanford has defeated Notre Dame in four of the last five seasons and owns a 3-1 mark against current Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

The 56-game Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame has produced far more highs than lows.

A 3-1 W-L advantage against rivals Michigan State and USC. The school's first No. 1 ranking since 1993. A berth in the BCS Championship game. And most recently, a humbling of a hated rival that elicited a week-long celebration in South Bend.

And then there's Stanford.

Though one of Kelly's most memorable, hard-fought, and influential victories as Notre Dame's head man came at Stanford's expense, so too have a trio of losses, two of them of the lopsided variety.

Now the 3-1 Cardinal come calling as slight favorites against the 4-0 Irish -- the fourth such home underdog occurrence of the Kelly era, the second in which Stanford will play the role of the heavy.

Or to be more accurate, the bully. Stanford has knocked Notre Dame's starting quarterback from the contest on two occasions, Tommy Rees in 2011 and Everett Golson in 2012. On a third, the broke 2010 starter Dayne Crist mentally rather than physically. Only the seasoned Rees survived, last season as a senior putting forth a determined effort in a 27-20 defeat, a game in which the undermanned, injured Irish entered as 16-point underdogs.

"I think we all know a lot about Stanford and Coach (David) Shaw and the consistency that they have at the national level," said Kelly. "We have a great deal of respect for their football team, their program, their coaching staff, their players. It's a veteran football team. Statistically, I think we all know, best defense right now in the country."

It's a defense that has handled the Irish offense throughout the Kelly era, largely because it's made Notre Dame one-dimensional. From 2010 through 2013, the Irish rushing attack has averaged 1.9, 18, 3.4, and 2.8 yards per carry vs. the Cardinal.

Total rushing touchdowns by the Irish over those four games: 1 (Andrew Hendrix, when the outcome had been decided).

Stanford enters Saturday's game ranked No. 1 in scoring defense (6.5 points per game), No. 1 in total defense (by a 20-yard margin), and No. 1 in passing yards allowed -- just 74 per contest. Seventy-Four?

Given that the Cardinal rush defense is commensurate with its usual level (3.14 yards-per-carry, one touchdown surrendered), it's clear that this group, the best offense of the Kelly era, has a bit of heavy lifting to do this weekend and in the days leading to it.

"We won't win if we don't get big chunk plays," said Kelly of the deep shots downfield that have driven the Irish offense this fall. "But we are not going to go five, seven, ten yards (consistently) and score enough points to win. No, we'll have to find our chances. We'll have to create opportunities and we'll have to make some plays down the field, there's no question.

"Creating those opportunities during the game, is part of what we have to prep during the week."

Stanford has yielded just four plays of 20 yards or more this fall; none in excess of 30. Notre Dame's longest yardage play against Stanford when the game has been in doubt over the four games in the Kelly era is just 24 yards -- a go-ahead touchdown from Everett Golson to Tyler Eifert in the fourth quarter of the 2012 epic, and the only offensive touchdown scored in regulation by either team. (Stanford, famously, did not score an offensive touchdown in the 20-13 overtime defeat.)

Asked if his young offense is prepared for the challenge of the nation's best defense, Kelly offered, "Oh, I think so. Our quarterback is capable of being a game-changer. I think that we have 'backs that can impact the game. I think we have wide receivers. I think we have an extremely capable tight end in our offensive line is emerging.

"We have to play well. We can't turn the football over five times, but there is no reason why this offense can't win against the No. 1 defense in the country and feel like it can put points on the board. Now, I don't think anybody is going in there thinking we are going to short-circuit the scoreboard. But we're going to play pretty good defense, too."

Notre Dame's defensive rankings through four games are not only surprising, but nationally relevant. The Irish possess the fourth-best scoring defense, the 27th-best rush defense (ahead of Stanford), and the 10th-best red zone defense (tied with Stanford, among others).

Add it up, and another head-knocker appears imminent in South Bend.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories