Stanford squares off with its twin brother this Saturday in South Bend. Both the Cardinal and Notre Dame are power running football teams with suspect secondaries, hit-or-miss offenses, and dominant defensive front sevens. Fighting Irish quarterback Everett Golson shares the same passer efficiency rating (126) as his Stanford counterpart Josh Nunes, and both passers are still looking to prove themselves coming off similarly efficient performances against bad defenses.
The parallels don't end there: Notre Dame is one of the very few teams nationwide that matches up size-wise with Stanford, with middle linebacker Manti Te'o being the Irish version of Shayne Skov. And just like the Cardinal, the Golden Domers feature possibly the nation's best tight end. Tyler Eifert versus Zach Ertz: let the battle begin.
Here's one last piece of common ground that adds icing onto the cake: this year's Stanford-Notre Dame game is the first ever meeting between top 20 schools in both the US News & World Report survey and the football polls.
"By this point in my career, I can't stand those guys," Stanford junior defensive end Ben Gardner said of Notre Dame.
Hey, nobody said that relatives had to like each other. Beyond that, if you ask David Shaw, Stanford and Notre Dame are not carbon copies in the recruiting world.
"No disrespect to [Notre Dame] or anyone else, but we're in our own little universe [as far as academic standards and eligible recruits go]," he said.
A True Test
"This is our gauntlet," Shaw opened. "Can we play our best game on the road?"
In a game that feels a whole lot like a midterm exam, the Cardinal program has a chance to firmly re-establish the elite status that its ugly loss at Washington threatened. It'll be game number six of a 12-game regular season, and it won't be Stanford's first foray on the road anymore. Most importantly, it'll be the Farm Boys' first time this season picking on a team their own size.
A week after the Cardinal enjoyed the role of Dumbo in Ants versus Elephants, Stanford will lock into a heavyweight bout with a trio of 300-pounders on the line of scrimmage and Manti T'eo, the nation's best defender.
"Sorry fellas, there were some Manti Te'o issues we were trying to work out," Shaw apologized after arriving to Tuesday's press conference a few minutes late.
Te'o, whose grandmother and girlfriend both succumbed to separate bouts of cancer within a week of each other earlier this season, has dominated Notre Dame's opposition with 48 tackles and three interceptions through only five games. The Irish's second leading tackler, safety Zeke Motta, is 20 stops behind the burly Hawaiian.
When asked if he would vote for the 6-foot-2, 255-pound monster when it came to the Heisman Trophy, Shaw's humorous answer might have reopened some fresh Stanford wounds. "I don't vote for Heisman Trophies," he laughed. "And people who vote for Heisman Trophies don't listen to me."
Notre Dame hasn't allowed an opponent into the end zone in over a month, and they haven't surrendered a rushing touchdown all season. Stanford's success running the football will almost certainly rely on increased creativity in space, and that is promising news for speedy dual threat Kelsey Young, who sprinted for a 55-yard touchdown against Arizona.
"We will continue to try to expand Kelsey Young's role," Shaw promised.
Ricky Seale and Remound Wright also complemented Stepfan Taylor against the Wildcats, while Anthony Wilkerson - who suffered a lower leg injury against USC - practiced Monday night and will probably return to action against Notre Dame.
Speaking of speed, Young isn't the fastest Stanford player. Shaw said that Ty Montgomery (injured this week) almost always wins practice sprints, while Alex Carter and a slimmed-down Jamal-Rashad Patterson provide Young with good competition for second place.
"[Wilkerson] may try to include himself in that top three, but he's not there," Shaw laughed.
Injury Report: Montgomery Out, Patterson In, Brown's status
Montgomery, the Cardinal's no. 1 wide receiver, will almost certainly sit this week after suffering an apparent knee injury late against Arizona. The sophomore, who came into the season with high expectations, has struggled with drops at times through the first half of the year - though he has racked up 168 yards on 18 receptions. He has been replaced on the depth chart by senior Jamal-Rashad Patterson, who made two big catches against Arizona.
Shaw credited Patterson's re-commitment to track and field this past season as the key to receiver's better conditioning this year. A former Georgia state champion in the hurdle sprint runs, Patterson lost weight and regained speed as a member of the Cardinal track team. Now, he'll be tasked with loosening up an injury-thinned Notre Dame secondary that features two new cornerbacks, both offensive converts.
Stanford cornerback Terrence Brown, who suffered a concussion on his second play against the Wildcats, will probably play. Brown was kicked in the helmet before falling on his head while making a stop.
Anderson Playing Low - and Tall
Six-foot-six defensive lineman Henry Anderson, whose batted pass set up Chase Thomas' pivotal overtime interception against Arizona, discussed his emergence as a potent pass blocker at the line of scrimmage. Ironically, defensive coaches have told me that Anderson initially earned extensive playing time this year because of his demonstrated ability to finally "play low," but he's making headlines on the plays that require stretching up to knock away passes.
The big man said the key is recognizing passing situations and knowing when reaching the quarterback is impossible. "That's when you have to make sure you get into the passing lane," he said.
Fellow defensive end Gardner helped Stanford's struggling secondary with a crucial pass deflection of his own last Saturday.
"[Arizona quarterback Matt Scott] was throwing into slant windows and hitch patterns all game," he explained. "In order to do that, you have to throw a low ball, so we were ready for our opportunities to knock them away."
The match-up with Notre Dame, a ground-and-pound team with a mobile quarterback, will likely be different than Scott's pocket-passing exhibition. Gardner is ready for a physical war.
"They look a lot like our own offensive line," he said. "I'm looking forward to a physical match-up that plays to our strengths."
At this point, anything other than a terrorizing spread passing scheme is a welcome change for a Stanford defense looking to regain its bearings. "We haven't played a perfect game yet," Gardner said. "That's the goal this week."
- A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters will be "back and forth" with a relatively even amount of snaps, despite the fact that Tarpley has surpassed Vaughters at the inside linebacker position on the depth chart. Jarek Lancaster has also certainly earned significant playing time with his good play, which included a sack versus Arizona.
- Freshman Aziz Shittu has replaced Charlie Hopkins behind Ben Gardner on the two-deep at defensive end. Shittu entered the rotation against Arizona and "did well." Alex Carter is now listed as Stanford's lead kick returner - Montgomery's former spot - while Remound Wright and Young are listed second.
- Shayne Skov is "getting close, but isn't completely there yet" as far as regaining his post-knee injury explosiveness. Shaw said that "he has been a step faster every week."
- Shaw is in the midst of composing an email to the NCAA disputing the importance of the "start" statistic. He complained that players' chances at postseason awards are often hurt because they don't register enough official starts in Stanford's offense, which frequently begins games with seven offensive linemen on the field - meaning that a wide receiver doesn't get credit for a start even if he plays the rest of the game. He said that the starter statistic is a "waste of time" and noted that if Stanford starts the game in Wildcat, "Stepfan Taylor is [officially] the starting quarterback."
- Stanford left guard Khalil Wilkes played against Notre Dame wide receiver Theo Riddick in AAU basketball when he was young. Both grew up in New Jersey.
- Wilkes said he actually enjoys the Cardinal's offensive line rotation because it allows him to bring more physicality to each play. "We get a breather here and there," he said. He assured that timing and communication is not disrupted.
- Ben Gardner is letting the mullet grow back out. Supposedly, his teammates blamed him for last season's Fiesta Bowl loss since he cut it leading up to the game.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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