SOUTH BEND, Ind. – In Jim Harbaugh's first season at Stanford, the Cardinal started 1-3 in a schedule front-loaded with tough opponents.
Granted, Stanford beat a second-ranked USC team in Harbaugh's fifth game. But the Cardinal's progression from a 4-8 team in 2007 to one that cracked the top 10 for the first time in nine years Sunday might offer a preview of the transformation coach Brian Kelly envisions at Notre Dame.
Stanford (4-0) moved up seven spots to No. 9 with its 37-14 victory over Notre Dame (1-3) on Saturday. This is the highest the Cardinal have been ranked since the end of the 1992 season, when they also were ninth.
"There's going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country," Kelly said after the loss, his team's third straight. "Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8- or 9-3. It's what you decide to do from here on out, and I know where I'm going and the way I'm going to work every day.
"Our kids have battled," Kelly added. "There's going to be success down the road for them if they stay with it, and I'm certain that they will."
Having players such as Andrew Luck, one of the most effective quarterbacks in the country, and ferocious linebacker Shayne Skov has certainly helped Stanford's turnaround. But it's the swagger and attitude that Harbaugh has brought to the Cardinal that's had the most impact.
Harbaugh's brash, never-let-up manner may raise some eyebrows — with Stanford up 41-7 on Wake Forest last weekend, he called a timeout to try and ice the Demon Deacons' kicker on a field goal attempt just before halftime — but there's little doubt it's had a positive effect on his team. An afterthought, at best, in the Pac-10 five years ago, the Cardinal are now a physical, imposing team that simply does whatever it takes to overwhelm its opponents.
Though the Irish forced three turnovers — including Luck's first two interceptions of the year — they got just three points out of them. The Cardinal held Notre Dame to 44 yards rushing. Dayne Crist threw for 304 yards, but Notre Dame scored once in the air and it came with 6:01 left to play, when the game was already out of hand.
(Stanford kicker Nate Whitaker actually outscored the Irish offense, tying a school record with five field goals.)
And in a 13-second span that epitomizes Stanford's toughness, two-way player Owen Marecic scored on a 1-yard run and then, on the next play, returned an interception 20 yards for another TD. It was the first time a player scored on both offense and defense since Utah's Eric Weddle on Sept. 23, 2006.
"You look at the physicality that Stanford played with, their body types, that's the model I've built my programs on," Kelly said Sunday. "Generally I'm going to talk about we've done but you could ... say, 'That's a pretty darned good football team, and that's the way I want you to look.'"
Kelly is as concerned as anyone about Notre Dame's mounting losses. Since last season under coach Charlie Weis, the Irish have lost seven of their last eight games. The loss to Stanford was their 11th straight to a ranked team, and five of those were at Notre Dame Stadium.
But Kelly is also realistic. From schemes to attitude to depth of talent, this is a full-scale rebuilding effort — much like Harbaugh had at Stanford. Changing the mindset off the field is as important as anything Kelly and the Irish are doing on the field, and will, they hope, eventually translate into wins.
"They know what they're doing is making a difference," Kelly said. "They're getting better. They're getting to the point where they can compete and think that they can win every game they play. They have to take solace in that right now. ... But I think what we get is that we know that we're making (progress) in our own room, behind the walls.
"We know what we're doing, and I think that keeps us moving forward."
And if the Irish ever need reassurance, they can look to Stanford. Both schools have tough academic standards that can make recruiting — and winning — a challenge.
Yet four years after that 1-3 start, the Cardinal travel to No. 4 Oregon next week for a game that could decide the Pac-10 title. (No. 18 Southern California isn't eligible.)
"We just look at every game like it's a championship game," Harbaugh said. "In order to win the championship, you've got to win your next ballgame. This was the next game. ... Now next week is the big game."