Aug 23, 2010, 4:11 PM EDT
No coach has seen his stock rise as quickly as Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh learned the college game moonlighting as an unpaid assistant under his father Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky University during his final eight seasons as an NFL quarterback. After two seasons as an assistant coach in the NFL, Harbaugh took to the Pioneer Football League in 2004, running the I-AA University of San Diego Toreros for three seasons, his final two campaigns ending with 11-1 records. His three-year climb at Stanford has been more gradual, but he officially put the Cardinal back on the radar with an upset win over the 2007 USC Trojans, a 24-23 victory by the 41 point underdog, one of the greatest statistical upsets of all time. Harbaugh’s reputation is seemingly greater than his achievements, his high water 2009 season only resulted in an 8-5 season, even with impressive victories over then #8 Oregon and #9 USC, putting up 50-plus points on each. In 2010, the Cardinal return most of the high-powered offense, though the loss of Toby Gerhart could take the engine out of the machine. The defense, which will now employ a 3-4 philosophy, is likely what will determine whether or not Harbaugh’s squad is ready to take the leap to the next level.
Last time against the Irish:
While many suspected that Charlie Weis was a dead man walking, the Irish, led by a black-and-blue Jimmy Clausen and a one-man-army performance from Golden Tate, did their best to win in Palo Alto. Even though the Irish had an 11-point lead in the third quarter, the defense couldn’t get a stop when they needed it, and Toby Gerhart nearly turned another dominant late November performance against the Irish into a Heisman Trophy, coming up mere votes short. Without Armando Allen and Kyle Rudolph the Irish offense needed to be perfect, and between a first-possession fumble from then running back Theo Riddick and a stuffed 3rd and 2 in crunch time to Robert Hughes, 38 points wasn’t enough to protect a horrendous defense.
Said then head coach Charlie Weis after his final game:
“There’s a bunch of 22, 23-year-old men right there finishing out their career losing the last four games. They feel miserable and I feel miserable for them.”
Degree of Difficulty:
Of the 12 opponents, I rank Stanford as the seventh most difficult game on the schedule. Here’s the rankings so far:
4. Michigan Wolverines
5. Michigan State Spartans
7. Stanford Cardinal
8. Purdue Boilermakers
You could make a valid argument that any of the four teams listed should be ranked from 4th to 8th, and I actually expect Stanford to be extremely tough on offense with Andrew Luck running the show after a strong debut.
For all the credit Stanford got last season, they were an incredibly flawed football team. Protecting freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal were content to ride All-American Toby Gerhart, and work play-action passes off of a smash-mouth running game. In Luck, Stanford has a rising star quarterback, and even without Gerhart returning the Cardinal have plenty of offensive weapons returning. The strength of the team, the offensive line, is returning four starters, though All-American right tackle Chris Marinelli needs replacing.
On defense, wholesale changes are in store for Stanford, which replaced nearly their entire defensive staff. Enter Vic Fangio, who last coached in college back in 1983, and has spent the last 24 years in the NFL, including 11 years as a defensive coordinator. He’ll be implementing a 3-4 defensive system, and doing so with a new secondary coach and a new defensive line coach, former Notre Dame assistant Randy Hart. Hart will look to Sione Fua to anchor the defensive line, as well as leading sacker Thomas Keiser. The linebacking corps will employ ironman Owen Marecic, who is a three-time Pac-10 honorable mention fullback. Harbaugh called him “the perfectly engineered football player.” The secondary returns three of four starters, losing their best player in three-year starter Bo McNally. That said, the passing defense ranked 110th in the nation, so continuity might not be the best thing for the Cardinal.
How the Irish will win:
The key to winning is scoring the most points, and the Irish will happily oblige against a downtrodden defense. Even if Vic Fangio came from the Baltimore Ravens, it’ll be hard to turn any of Stanford’s defenders into Ray Lewis or Ed Reed. Without Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck won’t face eight-man fronts, and the mistake-free freshman All-American will be baited into some bad decisions by an opportunistic Notre Dame secondary, sitting back in a zone defense and bringing pressure from unexpected places. Kyle Rudolph gets his chance to shine against Stanford, missing his opportunity to dominate last season’s contest at The Farm.
How the Irish will lose:
The legs of Andrew Luck turn out to be a problem, as the Stanford quarterback consistently buys time inside and out of the pocket, finding favorite targets Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu to score some much needed early points. The depth chart at Stanford is finally maturing and its that depth that helps slow down the Irish offense, with special teams coach Brian Polian and Hart providing some advanced scouting on Notre Dame’s personnel. This could be the last time Harbaugh faces the Irish with Stanford, trading the red and white for the maize and blue of his alma mater after the season.
The key to beating Stanford will be playing defense, and I’ve got a lot more confidence in Bob Diaco’s new unit than the team the Irish trotted out last season. While Andrew Luck could be ascending to the top echelon of quarterbacks in college football, I’ve got a feeling that the Irish are going to “out athlete” Stanford, and run the Cardinal defense ragged.