"I'm as fired up as anything about the kickoff coverage. That was really impressive by our guys.
"I thought (special teams coordinator) Brian Polian did a tremendous job. With the exception of the fumbled punt, kickoff coverage was good. Nate Whitaker tying a Stanford school (field goals made) record was huge. I was pleased with the play of our special teams and the way our defense played."
The inclusion of fired former Charlie Weis assistant Brian Polian and Notre Dame transfer Nate Whitaker was gamesmanship on Harbaugh's part to be sure (and he later mentioned tight end transfer Konrad Reuland and fired defensive line coach Randy Hart, to boot), but his assessment was nonetheless accurate.
On nine kickoffs (bad sign, No. 1), Stanford stopped Notre Dame inside its own 20-yard line five different occasions. Add to that three Whitaker touchbacks and Notre Dame's average starting position was somewhere south of neighboring Plymouth.
The Cardinal special teams played well enough that sunny afternoon in South Bend that their defensive dominance and offensive execution could take a back seat.
Fast forward to the present, and with the teams' developed talent level now relatively even instead of disparate as it was four seasons ago, Notre Dame's special teams will doubtless play a crucial role in a contest for which the oft-referenced "hidden yards" are less of an issue than the potential explosive return moments provided by one of the nation's best, Ty Montgomery.
"Keep the ball out of Ty Montgomery's hands," said Irish senior kicker Kyle Brindza. "I played with him in my (high school) All-American game. The kid can fly. The kid is a football player, all-around great athlete. Nothing bad you can say about him. Even on a personal level, he's a great guy. He's one of the most dynamic kids in the country. We've gone up against (USC's) Robert Woods, Marqise Lee in the past. He's up there. Just have to keep it out of his hands."
Asked if direction or the occasional "sky kick-off" would be used (a sky kick entices a return from just inside the goal line), Brindza offered, "Touchbacks. No sky kicks. Not at all. Not at all."
With 21 touchbacks on his 28 kickoffs to date, Brindza has relative control over Montgomery's kick return opportunities.
A greater challenge exists in the punt game for Notre Dame's kicking triple-threat.
"Hang time," said Brindza. "Hang time. Not try to out-punt the coverage. A lot of fans are going to get annoyed that the ball is only going 40 to 43 yards. I'm going to (try to) hit a 5.0 (second) ball and make him fair catch it. Or possibly just hit a 40-yard punt that goes out of bounds. Just keep it out of his hands so there's no chance of a lapse in coverage."
Montgomery burned the Irish coverage unit -- then a dreadful group -- last fall for returns of 51 and 34 yards. Both led to Cardinal field goals in a 27-21 Stanford victory. As a sophomore facing the Irish in 2011, Montgomery secured an 11-yard score with 10 seconds remaining in the first half to give the host Cardinal a 21-0 lead.
He ranks ninth nationally in kick return average this season (finished No. 2 last fall) and leads the nation with eight returns in excess of 50 yards, including two touchdowns, since the start of the 2012 season.
Of note, the Irish returned five Stanford kickoffs last season, gaining fewer than 20 yards on three with a 37-yard strike by George Atkinson intermixed. The latter sparked a Notre Dame touchdown drive.
Two years ago against Stanford in South Bend, Brindza put all four of his kickoffs deep into the end zone, negating any Cardinal returns. (Montgomery did not play.)
"It'll always come down to special teams that wins the game," said Brindza of facing Stanford. "When I look back at 2012, I remember our special teams being flawless. No hiccups. That's how it has to be this time as well."
Brindza, who kicked a field goal near the end of regulation to put the 2012 epic into overtime, added that he'd like another repeat effort Saturday -- from the Irish crowd.
"I've never been in an atmosphere so hectic, so electric, so exciting," he said of the team's 31-0 win over Michigan, it's last home appearance prior to two neutral site victories in Indianapolis and East Rutherford, N.J. "It was the loudest stadium I've been in. We've played in the Big House in prime time, we played in the national championship game. The Michigan (crowd) is how we have to have it for this week against Stanford."