Irish Prepared for Physical Cardinal

Fierce battles at the line of scrimmage again expected as Stanford makes its biennial trip to South Bend.

In a bygone era, Stanford's form of football -- brutish, and in the eye of the football lifer, beautiful -- was the norm.

Line 'em up, knock 'em down. Repeat. Only the strong survived.

But the late 1990s influx of a horizontal passing game and shotgun-spread attacks resulted in the need for an acquisition of spacial playmakers -- on both sides of scrimmage. The power game as the chief means of offensive transport became the exception rather than the rule.

For senior Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt, those days of yore are sorely missed.

"I know, it is strange," said Schmidt of the reality that Stanford's style is no longer prevalent in the college game. "I love doing it. That's ball. That's old school, getting in a fight. Downhill, it's a linebackers game. It's an O-Line/D-Line game. A fight in the trenches, and we love that. It's a mindset we like to have. Obviously they do too. It should be fun."

It's only fun when both teams are unleashing haymakers, as was the case in both 2012 and 2013 when Stanford and Notre Dame battled to one-score margins, splitting the home-and-home pair. The Irish won the former in overtime, a college football classic. The Cardinal prevailed in the latter, a senior day celebration in Palo Alto last fall in which the undermanned, 16-point underdog Irish took their hosts to the final gun, falling 27-21.

Total combined rushing attempts in those contests: 159 -- Stanford registered a whopping 91 of them.

"We all understand that Stanford is a physical and smart team. They're going to try to pound you," said sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith. "It's a mindset, we expect it, but also look forward to it.

"Last year I was a freshman and it was Stanford week and so many guys were talking about it. I really didn't understand (why) until I went through it. Luckily they prepared me for it during the week."

"You're not going to get hit with a pillow, you're going to get hit with a sledgehammer every single play."

Yes, the team and program that prides itself on treating each week with identical razor-sharp focus likewise understands there's something different about facing the Cardinal.

"We approach every game the same, but in the back of your mind, you know it's going to be tougher," said senior left guard Nick Martin. "But I love these games. It's fun football. Not a lot of (fancy) stuff, just one-on-one, let's grind it out, and let's hit each other."

Of late, Stanford has hit the Irish more than vice versa, holding the Notre Dame rushing attack to fewer than 65 yards in three of the last four outings. The only exception? 2012, an Irish victory in which head coach Brian Kelly worked in 44 rushes for 150 rushing yards. The total from that rain-soaked South Bend Saturday is just 15 short of the combined rushing yardage accumulation for the Irish in the 2010 (44 yards), 2011 (57 yards), and 2013 (64 yards) meetings.

Conversely, the Cardinal rushing attack has remained a constant in contests against the Kelly-era Irish (and prior):

2009 (Charlie Weis' last game): 48 carries, 280 yards, 4 TD
2010: 44 carries, 166 yards, 1 TD
2011: 42 carries, 196 yards, 0 TD
2012: 40 carries, 147 yards, 0 TD
2013: 51 carries, 261 yards, 2 TD

"A lot of it is predicated by the offense they run, the size of the offensive line," said senior nickel Matthias Farley. "But what it comes down to is that it's going to be a battle. They're always going to be one of the most physical teams. You have to have that mindset going into it.

"You're not going to get hit with a pillow, you're going to get hit with a sledgehammer every single play."

The Ultimate Test

An odd reality emerged from Notre Dame's 2014 spring session, and it's since carried over through four games this fall: a former walk-on emerged as the team's best middle linebacker.

Joe Schmidt ranks among the squad's best players on either side of scrimmage. Still, when repeatedly lauded by head coach Brian Kelly, a caveat is usually offered.

"Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense," said Kelly at the conclusion of the spring session. "Right now he can't come off the field...We'll obviously have to do a lot defensively.  Joe is not 255 pounds, and if the game is a downhill ISO game, we're going to have to be cognizant of what his shortcomings are."

Those have yet to present. Smith has shined as a run-stopper and all-around playmaker in the middle of what appears to be a tenacious Irish defense. The Mater Dei High School (Orange, Calif.) product appreciates what this week's foe brings to the table, on and off the field.

"We like to play similar styles of football. They attract a lot of the same people that Notre Dame attracts," Schmidt said. "I have the highest respect for Stanford as an institution. As a football program, I think they're fantastic. I love playing them."

Schmidt acknowledged a difference between the present-day Cardinal and the offense the Irish faced last fall, one which featured a battering ram running back, Tyler Gaffney, who earned a whopping 33 carries en route to 189 yards.

"They have four or five of those guys now," Schmidt marveled. "Every one of their running backs is averaging over five yards a carry. They can beat you with speed (too). They're not giving one guy the amount of touches that Gaffney got. It's different, but it's not like they're not being effective.

"They have some of the best playmakers in the country and they have a weapon to get them the ball," Schmidt continued of Stanford's receivers and quarterback Kevin Hogan.

Reminded that his head coach felt the six-foot, 235-pound Schmidt might need aid against power running teams, Schmidt retorted, "I can't wait to play them."

Before the requisite follow-up question could be posed, the prideful Schmidt interjected, "I can't wait to play them."

Saturday, he gets his chance.

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