Defensive coordinator, Kent Baer, says the Cardinal offense has changed quite a bit from last year. "They've changed a lot from last year. They have more personnel groups than I've ever seen. 10 or 11 different personnel groups on first down, they play a lot of three tight ends, sometimes even four. Those tight ends are good players. The quarterback is veteran, he understands a lot more."
Chris Lewis has been the Cardinal quarterback with the most experience, and is expect to start. We asked Baer if he thinks Lewis has improved this year as a quarterback. "The thing I remember most about Chris is he's a competitor. We won when we were there with him, and I think he's gotten better and better. One of the unfortunate things is he's played behind an offensive line that's had a lot of injuries. They've got a couple of guys back, their tackles are good players, their center is really good. They've done so much offensively it's kind of hard to judge because it's not like the offensive we played before. I think he's playing pretty well."
Two players the Irish defense will have to keep an eye on is running back J.R. Lemon, and freshman wide receiver, Mark Bradford. "Lemon is a good back. He's made some things happen, he's real strong. Bradford is really playing well for a freshman. He's made some big plays. They utilize him pretty well. He's a big, tall kid who can run."
Baer said the struggles on offense for Stanford likely have been the result of injuries along their offensive line. "They've just had some injuries. They've shuffled guys in and out so it's kind of hard to judge who's going to be playing. I know their tackles are set, and their center is set. Where they've been shuffling guys in and out has been their guards."
Notre Dame's bowl hopes are slim right now, but Baer says the Irish have plenty of motivation for the rest of the season. "I think these kids have a lot of pride. I think it's really important that the seniors finish with a winning streak, and the young kids have some pride and finish with a winning streak. If we can come back, and take one by one, and maybe get four in a row, that could one of the longest winning streaks in the country next year. I think that's important to build on. I think our guys are hungry, I really liked our practice today, and I don't see anybody letting down."
Senior offensive tackle, Jim Molinaro, says there is plenty of motivation for the Irish. "I tell the guys the motivation is to win, that should be enough in itself," said Molinaro. "Getting a win should be motivation for everyone on this team. Finishing out these last four games with a win would be huge for us."
Julius Jones has the chance to break the 1,000-yard barrier in the last two games. Molinaro and Jones are good friends and he says any offensive lineman wants their back to reach these milestones. "As an offensive lineman, you want to have your back be successful. We do good when Julius runs well. As an offensive line, you want to establish the run, and that's the goal again this week."
Molinaro says the Irish just need to attack the Cardinal defense to be successful. "It's really simple--we've just got to attack them. They'll throw out a lot of things at us, just like a lot of teams do. We just can't be hesitant. For us, establishing the run-game is huge."
The Cardinal will be fired up to beat many of their former coaches. Molinaro says every team wants to beat Notre Dame. "Every team plays us like their best game of the season. I'm sure it's going to be a war out there on Saturday. They're probably going to do what everyone else has been doing all year, try to throw blitzes at us, slanting; they'll do anything to try to stop the run. Every team blitzed against us this year, I can't see too many new things a team can do. We've just got to attack them."
Coach Tyrone Willingham said he's not certain the Irish are out of a bowl picture yet, but when he's sure, he'll address that with the team. "I think you need to address it," he said. "We don't have secrets. At the right time you bring it up, but I have to make sure I have done all my homework. To make absolutely sure there is no possibility."
Willingham admitted there might be an opportunity for a bowl game for the Irish. "Yes" was his response when asked if there might be a loophole for the Irish to get into a bowl. "But you want to exhaust everything just to be sure."
Some have suggested the Irish shouldn't go to a bowl, Willingham said he doesn't agree with that statement. "I'm glad some people don't coach. I think that is the best way I can say it because anytime that I believe you've got a chance to practice, you have a chance to help somebody get better at what they do. I think our football team at this stage can use that and I think our seniors, if it is the right situation, would love to have that opportunity to finish their careers in a bowl game. So I don't necessarily agree with that line of thinking."
If the Irish are eliminated from the bowl picture, Willingham says that's not a concern for the Irish. "That is just one object of motivation removed from your board. There are other things that you focus on and target for your team and move on."
Willingham believes that this team has plenty to play for, and next year is one of those things. "This is the conclusion of this season but it is also the beginning of next season and there are hopefully some things we can kick start now."
When asked what those things might be, he responded, "Like a nice solid three-game winning streak with this game and see if we can advance it to the next game; we could possibly go into next year with a four-game winning streak. That's pretty significant because probably at the end of the year, there won't be many people with a four-game or larger winning streak."
The Irish do seem confident this week, just as they have the previous two. They can finish the season on a high note, and we believe that is important to this team. We'll see how important on Saturday because we believe Stanford will want to win this game.