5 To Watch: Stanford Offense

A handful of key match-ups and Stanford offensive players to watch for in Saturday's contest against Notre Dame.

#1 -- QB Josh Nunes
Andrew Luck's replacement is the focal point of Stanford's South Bend chances. As illustrated below, this is a Stanford offense loaded with talent. The offensive is NFL-big, the running back stable is deep, the tight end combination may be the country's best, and the receiving corp can make plays. If Nunes can't orchestrate the entire effort, though, all that talent will go to waste.

So far, the results surrounding Stanford's new man have been lukewarm. He was mediocre in his first start against San Jose State and decent in his second against Duke before pulling a Tim Tebow-like reversal against USC. The first half of that game was atrocious (5-for-16, 2 interceptions), but the game-winning drive - featuring a pair of shocking first-down scrambles - will go down in Stanford lore.

Nunes quickly returned to Earth in his first road start as Washington, throwing into the turf and failing to lead Stanford to an offensive touchdown against a mediocre Husky defense. He then bounced back to deliver his first statistically impressive performance (21-34, 360 yards) against Arizona, though that came against a bad, physically overmatched defense. Nunes became the first Pac-12 quarterback since 2009 to run for three touchdowns in that game. So even though he's still not considered a true scrambling quarterback, he'll surprise with his legs.

Now, Nunes faces his second road test after the first one ended so disastrously in Seattle. This one comes against an elite Notre Dame defense, so Cardinal fans are crossing their fingers. The new quarterback's development will be on full display. His pretty deep ball may help him against the relatively inexperienced Irish secondary.

#21 -- WR Jamal-Rashad Patterson
Leading Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery is listed as doubtful, so the Cardinal will turn to Patterson, a senior who's frustrated fans. The Georgian was highly touted out of high school, but had recorded only nine career catches entering this season. He grabbed two balls last week against Arizona, including a career-long 54-yard bomb.

Patterson, a track star in high school, re-committed himself to the hurdles this past offseason. He lost weight and regained explosiveness that had slightly eroded during his Stanford career. Now, with Montgomery likely out, he has the chance to finally truly shine for the Cardinal against a pair of first-year Irish starters at cornerback.

#33 -- RB Stepfan Taylor
Taylor is the Cardinal player that everyone knows about. Brian Kelly referred to him the "heart of the Stanford offense," while David Shaw called him the "most underrated running back in the nation" prior to the start of this season. No. 33 hasn't disappointed yet this season; he's busted out a number of 100-yard rushing performances in the teeth of stacked nine-men defensive boxes.

The vaunted Notre Dame front seven hasn't given up a rushing touchdown all season, but expect Stanford to run straight at the Irish's strength with Taylor. That is the Cardinal identity, and they won't back away from it easily. The war up front will be mighty interesting.

#86 -- TE Zach Ertz
While Irish fans may think that their man Tyler Eifert is the nation's best tight end, Stanford supporters will counter with their weapon Ertz. A stunning combination of physicality (six-foot-six, 252) and speed, the senior also demonstrates uncanny balance and coordination for someone his size. His versatility and athleticism allows him to split out wide as a receiver, where he dwarfs smaller cornerbacks with his height.

Ertz scored Stanford's winning touchdown against USC while lined up against a defensive back. It's likely that he'll line up wide again, especially considering the absence of Montgomery. So while six-foot-eight Levine Toilolo may be the most physically imposing Cardinal tight end, Ertz may be the one that gives the Notre Dame the biggest headache.

#85 -- FB Ryan Hewitt
The last time Stanford visited Notre Dame stadium, Owen Marecic singlehandedly wrecked the Irish. The fullback/linebacker became the first player in college football history to score a touchdown on consecutive plays both offensively and defensively. Marecic has since departed to the NFL, but the Cardinal have replaced him with another flowing blonde hair Braveheart warrior - although he only plays offense this time.

Hewitt may not be quite as good of a blocker has Marecic was, but he's still one of the country's best in that regard. Originally a tight end, Hewitt truly stands out with his pass-catching abilities. He's a versatile weapon out of the backfield for the Cardinal and a central component to moving the chains in Shaw's run-first, playaction attack.

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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