(Sports Network) The 16th-ranked Stanford Cardinal will try to continue one of their best starts in recent memory, as the team faces off against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend in South Bend.
Stanford is off to a terrific start to the campaign, both offensively and defensively. After blanking UCLA, 35-0, in its Pac-10 opener on September 11th, the Cardinal showcased their firepower in a 68-24 rout of Wake Forest last weekend. The 68 points were the most in 42 years for Stanford, which is off to its first 3-0 start since 2001. A win this weekend and the Cardinal would enjoy its first 4-0 beginning to a campaign since 1986.
The Irish meanwhile, are coming off their second straight heart-breaking loss, as a fake field goal in overtime lifted Michigan State to a 34-31 victory in East Lansing last weekend.
"This is a difficult loss obviously," stated head coach Brian Kelly. "It came down to one play, which Michigan State executed, and we did not. This was a game that went back-and-forth, it was a hard-fought game, but we came up short."
The defeat came one week after Michigan used a long drive and late score to top ND 28-24. The Irish defeated Purdue 23-12 to open the season and the Kelly era, and this will be the team's first game versus an opponent outside of the Big Ten.
As far as the all-time series goes, ND holds a 17-7 advantage over Stanford dating back to the 1925 Rose Bowl. The Cardinal won last season's clash, 45-38, in the Bay Area, but ND has taken the last seven meetings at Notre Dame Stadium. Stanford's last victory in South Bend took place in 1992, when the Cardinal knocked off the sixth-ranked Irish, 33-16.
The Cardinal scored TDs on 10 of its 11 offensive possessions against WF last weekend, topping the 60-point plateau for the first time since 1968. Stanford, now averaging 51.6 ppg on the year, gained 535 total yards last weekend and that includes 311 on the ground.
Following a modes performance against UCLA, QB Andrew Luck was sensational versus WF, completing 17-of-23 tosses for 207 yards and four TDs. The versatile gunslinger added 69 yards and a score on the ground and more importantly, Stanford posted a TD on all eight possessions in which he was under center.
"He played a flawless game," Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh said of his QB, who has thrown 10 TDs against no INTs through the first three games.
Last weekend's win also marked the return of playmaker Chris Owusu, who made three catches for 65 yards and two TDs in a limited role. Owusu return couldn't have come at a better time, as fellow WR Ryan Whalen was injured early on in the game. Whalen, a consistent receiver, is tied for the team-lead in catches with 10, but is unlikely to play this weekend.
Despite losing Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart to the NFL Draft, the Cardinal has still found success on the ground, rushing for an average of 242.3 ypg thus far. A variety of runners have played their part in the ground attack, which has accounted for 10 TDs.
The Cardinal defense did a nice job against WF's triple-option attack last weekend, yielding just 283 total yards. Many of those yards came after the game had already been decided, so the performance was even better then the numbers would indicate. Stanford added five sacks to the mix, while forcing a pair of turnovers in the triumph. Michael Thomas led the way with seven stops, including two for a loss, while Chase Thomas tallied 1.5 sacks. Michael currently leads the team with 16 tackles and Chase is tops with 3.5 sacks.
Through the first three games, Stanford is limiting opponents to just 13.7 ppg and only 227.7 ppg. The pass defense has been especially good for the Cardinal, which is allowing just 90.0 ypg through the air. Stanford has yet to let up a passing TD as well.
The biggest positive for ND after three games is that QB Dayne Crist has proven capable of running the offense. The sophomore gunslinger has completed 60.4 percent of his tosses with seven TDs and two INTs thus far and is coming off a career performance. Crist threw for 369 yards and four TDs versus MSU last weekend, although also had a pair of turnovers.
"Dayne did some good things, but what he has to work on is ball control and taking care of the football," stated Kelly. "He is starting to grow as a quarterback and I'm proud of the way he competes, but we have a lot of work to do cleaning up things that keep drives alive."
WRs Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick, along with TE Kyle Rudolph give Crist plenty of options to work with and they were all effective last weekend. Riddick, a converted RB, enjoyed a breakout performance with 10 catches for 128 yards and a score. Rudolph added eight receptions for 80 yards and a score, while Floyd finished with six catches for 81 yards and two TDs.
Armando Allen paces the ground game with 253 yards, but ND has scored just two of its offensive TDs via the run thus far.
Defensively, the Irish have had some issues this season, especially against the run, yielding 197.7 ypg on the ground. Opponents are averaging 5.1 yards per carry versus ND, which has also been burnt for 246.0 ypg through the air.
ND's defensive woes were brought front and center last weekend, when MSU amassed 477 total yards, including 203 on the ground. While the Irish's defense was exploited, it was the special teams that ultimately let the squad down. MSU set up for a game-tying 46-yard field goal attempt in overtime, but faked the kick and instead converted a 29-yard TD pass for the win.
"It was the same play that MSU ran against Texas Tech, it was well executed, and our guy who was in coverage fell down," stated Kelly. "It was a good throw, he caught the ball and they executed the play. They deserved to win."
The Irish are coming off a pair of tough losses, but showed they could hang in their with some highly respected programs. Expect ND to stay close once again this weekend, only to see the Cardinal escape with a victory in the end.