Published November 23, 2011
| Sports Network
Brian Kelly's Irish have turned their season around after two straight heart- breaking losses to start the year. Since then, the team has reeled off eight wins in its last nine games, including a hard-fought 16-14 win over Boston College this past weekend, Notre Dame's fourth straight victory.
Kelly would like to end the season on a strong note.
"Well, clearly you know coming back from an 0 2 start to continue the winning through a very difficult start of the season would be a great thing for our program as we move forward. So it means a lot. It's also that last game you play. You want to be feeling good about your bowl practices and things of that nature. So it's the No. 4 team ranked in the country. They've got arguably the best quarterback in the country. It's a national television game. It's a great way to finish up the season. Our guys are excited."
David Shaw's first season as head coach on the Farm has been a highly successful one, as the Cardinal remain in the hunt for a national title. Stanford lone loss on the season came against Oregon two weeks ago (53-30), but the Cardinal were able to get back into the win column this past weekend with a 31-28 win over California.
This series dates back to the 1925 Rose Bowl. Notre Dame holds a 17-8 series advantage, but the Cardinal have won the last two meetings, including a 37-14 decision in South Bend last season.
Despite just a 16-point effort last weekend against Boston College, the Irish have been a strong offensive team this season, averaging 32.0 ppg on 434.5 yards of total offense per game. A strong ground game (175.9 ypg) accentuates a strong passing attack (258.6 ypg).
It has been a two-headed attack on the ground for Notre Dame this season, with Cierre Wood (1,001 yards, nine TDs) and Jonas Gray (791 yards, 12 TDs) doing most of the work. However, it will be Wood getting the lion's share in this game, as Gray was injured last week and is likely done for the season.
When coach Kelly settled on Tommy Rees under center, the Irish passing game stabilized. Rees has completed 66.6 percent of his throws this year, for 2,648 yards, with 19 TDs. All-American Michael Floyd (87 receptions, 1,014 yards, seven TDs) is a game-changer on the outside, but the emergence of tight end Tyler Eifert (53 receptions, 634 yards, five TDs) has taken this passing attack to a different level.
The Irish defense has played extremely well at points this season, finding consistency over the second half of the season. Overall, opponents are averaging just 20.3 ppg.
Linebacker Manti Te'o ranks as one of the best at his position in the country, as the Butkus Award finalist paces the Irish in tackles (103), TFLs (11.5) and sacks (4.5). Safety Harrison Smith is next in terms of tackles (80), followed by cornerbacks Robert Blanton (63 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, two INTs) and Gary Gray (54 tackles, two INTs).
Stanford remains one of the nation's premier offensive teams, averaging a gaudy 45.0 ppg on 485.6 yards of total offense. There is certainly balance, with the team averaging just over 200 yards rushing (209), but the production is based on the play of Heisman favorite Andrew Luck, who has completed 70.3 percent of his throws, for 2,937 yards and 31 TDs.
Coach Shaw continues to be impressed with Luck.
"We give him three or four plays at a time and the guy gets us through that play. There are guys at the next level that aren't doing that. At this stage of his college career, I've never seen anybody do this. In all my years in the NFL, evaluating all the top quarterbacks that have all come out, I've never heard of any of them doing what Andrew's doing."
Griff Whalen (47 catches, 652 yards, four TDs), Ryan Hewitt (30 catches, 266 yards, five TDs) and Coby Fleener (28 catches, 551 yards, eight TDs) have flourished with Luck throwing the ball.
The ground game is spearheaded by tailback Stepfan Taylor, who has rushed for 1,035 yards and eight TDs.
The Cardinal are no one-trick pony, as the defense has played extremely well this season also. The team is allowing just 20.9 ppg. Stanford's defensive strength is against the run, holding foes to just 93.4 ypg, on 3.2 ypc.
Defensive leader Shayne Skov went down early with an injury, but others have stood up in his absence. Jarek Lancaster is the leader in tackles (57), with 6.0 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. Chase Thomas (46 tackles) has caused the most havoc up the field, with team-highs in TFLs (14.5) and sacks (6.5), followed closely by Trent Murphy (38 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 5.5 sacks).