November 22, 2017
By John Heisler
There’s plenty at stake Saturday night at Stanford Stadium when eighth-rated Notre Dame (9-2) takes the field to finish the 2017 regular season against 21st-ranked Stanford (8-3):
--An Irish victory likely would earn them a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games (for the second time in three years).
--A Notre Dame win would mean Brian Kelly’s program will have posted 10 regular-season wins in two of the last three years, something that hasn’t happened in South Bend since the 1988 national title team and 1989 squad did that in back-to-back years.
--An Irish victory would mean Notre Dame ends the regular season with six more wins than a year ago, matching the second-best turnaround in school history (only the 1964 team going 9-1 after a 2-7 mark in ’63 would have done better).
--A Notre Dame win would mean the Irish in 2017 would complete their collection of rivalry trophies (thanks to this year’s previous wins over Boston College, Michigan State, USC and Navy).
--Though the two aren’t actually on the field at the same time, the game features two of the best, most productive running backs in the country in Notre Dame’s Josh Adams (14th nationally at 121.5 yards per game and fourth at 7.82 yards per carry) and Stanford’s Bryce Love (tops in the country at 172.3 yards per game and second at 8.84 yards per carry). The Irish front line is led by senior guard Quenton Nelson, an Outland Trophy finalist.
--An Irish triumph would mark the first time in 13 games that a David Shaw-coached Stanford team dropped a home non-conference game (the Cardinal has won 17 straight non-league home games overall).
But here’s the crux.
To accomplish that the Irish will have to defeat a ranked opponent on the road in their Thanksgiving weekend assignment for the first time in a quarter-century.
Since the Irish-USC series began in 1926 Notre Dame generally has been finishing every other season in California against the Trojans, most of the time on Thanksgiving weekend. From 1965 through 1989 Notre Dame ended most of the odd-numbered seasons at Miami.
Beginning in 1999 the Irish began playing at Stanford on Thanksgiving weekend in those odd-numbered seasons. Since that year Notre Dame stands 3-6 against both Stanford and USC in those-end-of-season California clashes, but the Irish are winless (a combined 0-9, including 0-4 versus Stanford) when those Cardinal and Trojan teams have been ranked.
The last time the Irish won against a ranked opponent in California to finish the year came in 1992 against 19th-rated USC. That completed a five-game win streak for Notre Dame at the Los Angeles Coliseum against ranked Trojan squads.
Meanwhile, the Irish have come home empty-handed after trips to Palo Alto to play ranked Stanford teams in 2001 (the Cardinal rated 13th), 2011 (fourth), 2013 (eighth) and 2015 (13th). This marks the fourth straight time both Stanford and Notre Dame have been ranked when they met at Stanford Stadium.
Kelly displays those rivalry trophies just outside the door to his second-floor Guglielmino Athletic Complex office.
He’d like to add one more.
Says Kelly, “There’s a lot to play for here. A win against this football team is important because it's the Legends Trophy and getting that back is very important. It would give us all the traveling trophies this year, which is something that's kind of important to us and that we've talked about. Beating all the teams that we lost to last year, that’s significant for us as well in terms of turning the tables. And Stanford is a team that we haven't beaten out there since 2007.
“Most importantly, we've got to play the kind of football that we played earlier, later in October, and that starts with obviously being, as a football team, more complete, offensively, defensively and in our special teams.
“I know there's a lot of people that are saying you need to be this and you need to be that. Look, what we were really good at offensively was wearing people down. We didn't wear many people down against Miami because of the nature of the game, and it's hard to wear anybody down when you have the ball for six minutes in the second half (as the Irish did against Navy Saturday).
“Bryce Love is going to be the best back that we see all year. The impressive thing about him is his ability to break tackles. That's what really stood out to me. He's got elite speed, he breaks tackles and that is a lethal mix. You have to tackle this guy, and that's what makes him a special player.
“They're really settled in on (sophomore K.J.) Costello as the quarterback. He has kind of opened up the offense—he’s got a quick release, he’s athletic, big, can move. And I love their receivers—they are big kids that run really good routes. So it’s an offense that will stress you in terms of running the football, and then obviously they get the ball in space with their receivers.
“They're a physical football team. They don't make a lot of mistakes. They're well-coached. They recruit smart, tough, disciplined players. They don't beat themselves.”
Stanford ranks ninth nationally in turnover margin (plus-1.0), while Notre Dame stands 18th (plus-0.73). The two teams have combined to lose only nine fumbles in all of 2017.
“I've kind of chronicled all the things that are out there for our football team,” adds Kelly. “We've got to focus on playing better from snap one to snap hopefully 75, 80, 85, and being much more consistent from the start to the finish.
“It’s a great opportunity, playing on national television in prime time. Last time we played in prime time (at Miami) it wasn't our best football. So our players get to write the last chapter on this season. What a great opportunity for our football team.”
Kelly appreciates Notre Dame’s history of playing ranked teams away from home:
“It's hard to beat top-20 teams on the road. Exactly what we did at Miami is what you can't do--turn the football over. We fed that atmosphere at Miami by turning the football over. You've got to take care of the football. When you’re on the road you can't give anybody that energy that gives them that extra momentum. You've got to play mistake free and eliminate big plays. It's not really rocket science. You just have to play poised and disciplined. If you do that, you've got a fair shot of winning those games. Stanford has had good teams, and I think since 2012 these games have been decided by seven points or less.”
In particular, veteran Irish offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey knows exactly what to expect Saturday from Stanford.
“I think over my five years here Stanford is my favorite opponent to play. It's one of those classic football games to me, especially because they're a program and a team that's had so much success over the last probably decade or so. Since I've been here, they've always been at the forefront of the nation in terms of college football programs.
“They're a team that takes a lot of pride in what they do. They're very strong, they're very tough, and they're just as good as it gets in terms of programs. They're going to line up, they're going to see if we can beat them, and there's no fancy stuff behind it. It's just line up and play football--our technique versus theirs and let's see what happens.”
McGlinchey also appreciates yet another opportunity for the Irish to make a statement about their own program.
“I think we've set a culture here starting back when the changes became a little tangible,” he says. “You could see from what was going on here that something changed, and it's something that changed for the long haul. We knew where we were last year. We knew the kind of tough times that came with that--it's hard on everybody starting with the head coach all the way down to the players.
“We made a decision that we don't want to be there again, and it's our job as players and as coaches here to uphold the standards that this place has, the standard of excellence that Notre Dame comes with. It's about the culture and about the guys that are constantly being brought in to play here. That's what's going to continue to happen here as we continue to go forward.
“I think it's going to be a pretty easy mixture of continued success here for the future.”
Saturday can be the next step.