Stanford heads into Notre Dame this weekend coming off a loss that needs no recounting. Suffice to say, it's a new week, a new opponent, and God help us, a second X in the win column. The major droolage involved in visualizing a smackdown of Tyrone and Co. at their new home on national TV is hard to exaggerate. But despite a wretched offseason for ND (they hired two new head coaches, lost a starting QB and two running backs to academics and transfers, and had four players ejected from the program for accusations of sexual assault), the Domers have been playing tough football this season and at this point, both history and statistics favor the leprechauns. Historically, this is the 17th meeting between the two teams, and ND has a 6-2 advantage at ND. The last time Stanford won a game at Notre Dame stadium was 1992, and a win this Saturday would be the first time Stanford ever beat ND twice in a row. In more current affairs, the Irish are flashing a 4-0 record and #9 ranking, and have a punishing defense that stops the run, defends the pass, and recovers turnovers with remarkable proficiency. The story of the game may come down to two factors: Stanford's ability to limit its turnovers, and the results of the showdown between ND's anemic offense and Stanford's vanilla defense.
Notre Dame has an outstanding offensive line, and few will bet that the oft-toothless Stanford D-line will make much headway against it. The O-line can boast of 4 returning starters, who together share a jaw-dropping 74 starts between them. Senior center Jeff Faine, an Outland and Lombardi Trophy candidate and preseason All-American, is sandwiched between senior guards Sean Mahan and Sean Milligan. Senior tackles Jordan Black and Brennan Curtin (Black is entering his 4th year as a starter) round out the line, and despite some puzzling gaffes on passing downs, the Irish offensive front is one of the finest to run behind in the country.
The QB situation is up in the air for both teams, and while Chris Lewis will probably take the opening snap for Stanford, nobody knows if he will be piloting the offense for the rest of the game. Redshirt freshman Kyle Matter has been surprisingly effective at keeping the offense moving, and is both completing a higher percentage of his passes and throwing significantly fewer interceptions.
On the Irish side of the ball, the controversy is more basic: if Carlyle Holiday is ready to go, he'll play. If not, former walk-on Pat Dillingham will enjoy his first collegiate start after a standout performance in relief vs. Michigan State. Holiday was the team's second-leading rusher last year in an option-oriented offense, and while Tyrone has demanded more from Holiday's arm than did Davie, the results thus far haven't been impressive. Holiday has completed just 37 of 83 passes with one TD, despite throwing behind one of the best O-lines in the country. Notre Dame's passing game is ranked 97th in the country, averaging 157 yards a game. Dillingham is an as-yet-unknown quantity, having thrown exactly 6 passes on the year (3 for completions, one of which was a brilliant touchdown strike to the shifty WR Arnaz Battle). While he lacks Holiday's mobility and field smarts, Dillingham is suspected to be the better passer and thus more suited to Tyrone's offense. Whichever QB trots onto the field on Sunday, the Stanford D will have its work cut out for it.
The Irish are replacing wide receivers Javin Hunter and David Givens, who combined to catch 70 of Notre Dame's 109 completions. The wide receiver position has two reliable starters in Arnaz Battle and Omar Jenkins, both 6'1" possession receivers. Battle has picked up 8 passes for 151 yards, while Jenkins has collected 10 for 186 yards. They are complemented by 6'6" TE Gary Godsey, yet another former Irish QB reaping the benefits of a position switch, who has caught 8 passes on the year.
Ryan Grant starts at tailback, sharing time with Rashon Powers-Neal. Both backs were buried on the depth chart before the surprising carnage at the position over the off-season promoted them to 1 and 2. Both are averaging a hefty 4.3 yards a carry.
The Irish rank 6th in the nation in rushing defense, 13th in scoring defense, 14th in pass-efficiency defense, and 14th in total defense. It may have been prophetic when the Irish managed to hold defending ACC champ Maryland to just eight first downs and no points in their first game. A key to their defensive success is the defensive line, laden with size, seniors, and talent. The Irish had to replace two standout defensive ends this year in Anthony Weaver and Grant Irons. Senior RE Ryan Roberts (who leads the team in sacks with 4) and LE Kyle Budinscak have ably done just that, and currently bookend two powerful interior linemen, senior DT Darrell Campbell and senior NG Cedric Hilliard. All the linemen except Budinscak have at least one sack to their credit and are consistently clawing their way into opposing backfields.
Senior linebacker Courtney Watson (6'3", 243), a Butkus Award Candidate, is the heart of the Irish linebacking corps. After missing the first two games with the flu, he's been outstanding as the only returning starting linebacker, racking up 15 tackles in the win over Michigan State. Replacing the All-American Tyreo Harrison at the other ILB spot is sophomore Mike Goolsby, who leads the team in tackles with 30.
In the backfield, the Irish return key CB's Shane Walton and Vontez Duff, who share 27 starts in their careers and 5 picks on the season. Strong safety Gerome Sapp returns as well, and he was recently pegged as the number 5 safety in the country by The Sporting News. Glenn Earl fills out the backfield at free safety, and is currently the third-leading tackler on the team. There is plenty of height in the Irish backfield, as the corners measure in at 5'11" and the safeties at 6'1".
Again, a major key to this game will be limiting turnovers and keeping the offense on the field. The Domers have held the ball an average of 34:12 per game, while their opponents have made do with just 25:48 minutes on average. The Irish also own a +7 turnover margin, giving up the ball 6 times in 4 games.