Notre Dame is not that far away.
Twenty-seven different players have made their first-career start this season for the Irish (2-9). That's reason for optimism heading into next season, and today against Stanford (3-7), you could see number 28.
In place of an injured James Aldridge, freshman Robert Hughes rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown in the 28-7 victory over Duke last weekend. The Chicago product should be in line for his first-career start at Stanford this afternoon.
Guys like All-American candidates Trevor Laws and Tommy Zbikowski are suiting up in a Notre Dame uniform for the last time this afternoon against the Cardinal, but in today's game you will continue to see more of a youth movement.
And you'll see, this team is in line for a winning season next fall.
Here are the keys to the game.
***Protect quarterback Jimmy Clausen: Since the freshman has returned to the starting lineup two weeks ago, his pocket awareness has been better. However, Air Force and Duke don't bring the same caliber of pass rush as Stanford is going to.
Sacks are drive killers, and the Cardinal blitz, blitz, and blitz some more. They rank 11th nationally in sacks per game, and it's no secret no Notre Dame team has given up more sacks in a year than this season. They rank last nationally.
If Clausen is running for his life all day, the Irish are going to struggle to win this game.
***Take care of the football: With the exception of its pass rush, the Stanford defense is borderline horrendous. They rank 81st against the run, and 117th in pass defense. If the Cardinal pressure doesn't lead to bonehead mistakes, the Irish offense should be okay. Hughes should improve on his career-high from a weel ago, and Clausen will likely go a third-straight week without throwing an interception.
***Pressure the quarterback: More freshmen should be involved here. Stanford's offense is pretty inept, but when given time, quarterback Tavita Pritchard could hurt the Irish. Stanford ranks 117th nationally in sacks allowed. Notre Dame is 109th in sacks.
This could be the game freshmen outside linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith breakout. The two have played hard all year, and should have no problem getting to the quarterback. With no running game, Stanford will be in trouble if constant pressure is getting to Pritchard.
Prediction: Notre Dame 21, Stanford 20: The Irish haven't closed a season with two wins in a row since 1992. That is one of the small victories this team can take away from this season with a win.
Clausen will continue to show his progress heading into next season, by not throwing an interception for a third-straight start. Hughes and Armando Allen will give Irish belief they can run the football next season, as the Irish head into the off-season feeling decent about themselves.
Following the game, it's time to get minds right for hitting and bad Charlie.