Following Flynt - What To Watch for at Stanford

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The Fighting Irish left for California earlier today, headed for Palo Alto and a matchup with the Stanford Cardinal. Here are a few things to watch for in Saturday's regular season finale.

Without Gray: In a heartbreaking storyline of the 2011 season for Notre Dame, the Irish lost running back Jonas Gray to a torn ACL in last Saturday's game against Boston College. After a momentum-changing fumble against South Florida in the season opener, head coach Brian Kelly presented Gray with a challenge: "How do you want to be remembered? As that guy that fumbled on the one yard line or as that guy in your senior year that bounced back from some adversity and had an incredible season?"

Averaging 6.9 yards per carry with 791 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, it's safe to say that Gray bounced back. With 1,001 yards and nine touchdowns, Cierre Wood has also done his share of damage on the ground, but the Fighting Irish are sure to miss the combination of both power and speed that the duo provided for much of the season. Against Stanford and in the upcoming bowl game, freshmen George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel will have to share some of the backfield responsibility, and receiver Theo Riddick may also see some time at running back, where he played during the 2009 season.

Luck: I have little doubt that Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit will make a couple of references to "Andrew Luck vs. the Luck of the Irish" during Saturday's broadcast. By this point, it may sound cliché and overused, but it is certainly one of this weekend's storylines. Andrew Luck is a Heisman Trophy candidate, arguably the best quarterback in college football and expected to the first pick in April's NFL draft.

If Notre Dame is to knock off Stanford, the team will have to outplay the Cardinal. But battling several key injuries and a few illnesses, it may also take a bit of their own "luck" to pull off the victory. Not to discount whether or not the Irish can beat Stanford with pure talent, but Notre Dame has had its share of bad luck in three losses this season. Remember Ronald Johnson's dropped touchdown in last year's victory over USC? A couple of similar favorable breaks would certainly help the Irish this weekend.

Just Another Saturday Night: That is the mentality that Kelly and his staff have this weekend. As he has explained all season, his team takes the same approach to preparing for every opponent, whether that team is 2-7 (Maryland) or 10-1 (Stanford). Saturday will mark the sixth night game of the season for the Irish. They are 3-2 in the previous five night matchups, with wins against Purdue, Wake Forest and Maryland, and losses versus Michigan and USC. The Fighting Irish have yet to face a truly elite squad like the Cardinal, but they will treat this game like the eleven previous contests.

However, make no mistake about it - this game is unlike any Notre Dame has played all season. A win in late November, on the road and against a highly ranked team, would be the biggest in quite some time for Notre Dame. Last year's wins at USC and over No. 14 Utah were important, but beating Stanford would be the biggest victory in Kelly's young career at Notre Dame.

Finals Week: If the football season were likened to the academic semester, there is no question that this weekend's matchup in Palo Alto is the toughest exam of the season. Stanford is ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll, fifth in the Coaches poll, and sixth in the BCS. The team's only loss was two weeks ago against Oregon. Though its national championship hopes are diminishing, Stanford is certainly still in the hunt for a BCS bowl berth.

For Notre Dame, all signs point to the Champs Sports Bowl being the final destination, but BCS hopes are also still alive - even if they are on life support. A victory at Stanford would improve the Irish to 9-3, technically making them eligible for one of the four BCS bowl games. However, it will take much more than a victory in Palo Alto for Notre Dame to leap all the way to No. 14, the minimum position that the team must reach in order to be selected. Just like the grading curve on a difficult exam, a few D's and F's from other teams might be required for the Irish to receive an "A" and a coveted BCS invitation.

Pro Combat: In the latest uniform change of the 2011 season, Stanford will be wearing a special Nike Pro Combat uniform. The uniforms are all red and feature a black matte helmet instead of the traditional white helmets. Stanford will be the seventh college team sporting the Pro Combat look this season. Army and Navy will also wear this type of uniform in their annual game on Dec. 10.

Fear not, Notre Dame uniform traditionalists, the Fighting Irish will wear their regular road white jerseys and gold helmets.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

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