Nov 25, 2011, 1:16 PM EST
With turkey and leftovers stuffed into refrigerators everywhere, the rest of the weekend can be dedicated to what’s important (and no, it’s not Black Friday sales): Football. As the final regular season Saturday of the year approaches, Notre Dame has the chance to prove that they’re a different team than the one that opened the season stubbing their toe twice.
As the Irish journey to Palo Alto, Brian Kelly‘s squad will have the opportunity to measure themselves against the best team they’ve played in Kelly’s two years in South Bend. After getting beaten convincingly by the Cardinal last year, Kelly welcomes another chance at measuring his team against one of the nation’s best.
“They were a physical, good‑looking football team, something that we have worked on considerably,” Kelly said this week. “I think if you go and look at where we are, we have made substantial progress in that period of time.”
We will see tomorrow night. With the regular season closing, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Saturday night’s prime-time affair with No. 4 Stanford.
1. Andrew Luck’s next touchdown pass will pull him equal with a legend.
It may already feel like it, but believe it or not, Andrew Luck doesn’t have a bust in Canton, Ohio yet. But the senior quarterback, all but certain to be playing his last game at Stanford Stadium, needs just one touchdown pass to pull even with the gold standard of Stanford football: John Elway.
Luck current has 76 touchdown passes, needing just one more to pull even with Elway at 77, and just one more on the season to pull even with his single-season record of 32, set last year. In the senior quarterback’s three years of starting he’s already put his stamp all over the Cardinal record books, trailing only Elway and school-leader Steve Stenstrom in career passing yards, while likely pulling ahead of Stenstrom as the school leader in total offense on Saturday as well. Luck also holds the school marks for completion percentage and passing efficiency.
More impressively, Stanford is 30-6 with Luck as its starting quarterback. That’s far and away the most wins by any quarterback in school history, well ahead of Stenstrom (24) and some guy named Jim Plunkett (22).
Even though all of America knows it now, the Irish have always realized how dangerous Stanford’s senior quarterback is.
“Before he was really a household name, we could all tell he was that good,” Harrison Smith said. “He’s gotten even better. He’s got it all. He can throw the ball like nobody we’ve seen.”
2. The spotlight is back on Cierre Wood… Right where he wants it.
After carrying the load from the backfield at the beginning of the year, Cierre Wood takes back the featured running back role after a knee injury to Jonas Gray cut short his senior season. And the junior from Oxnard, California is ready to do whatever it takes to help the Irish get a big win in Palo Alto.
“If they need me to carry the ball 50 times that’s what I’ll do,” Wood said. “If they need me to carry it 10 times that’s what I’ll do. As long as we get the W that’s what I’m more concerned about.”
The number of carries Wood gets will likely fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, as the Irish will lean heavily on the back that started the season as a clear-cut starter, but since ceded a little more than half of the carries to Gray.
Running backs coach Tim Hinton was impressed with the way Wood handled the situation and is confident he’ll be ready to pick up any slack now that he’s the lead back once again.
“You’ve really got to compliment Cierre for how he handled it because some kids aren’t going to do as well as he did. The bottom line is he continued to come out and produce,” Hinton said.
With freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel the only depth behind him, Wood knows all eyes will be on him as the Irish prepare to battle the No. 6 rush defense in the country.
“Wherever my teammates need me, that’s where I’ll be.”
3. Irish eyes need to be in the right place against an explosive Stanford offense.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might be the only person to compare the offense Andrew Luck pilots to those run by service academies. But the Broyles Award nominated Diaco has a good point, and Stanford’s offense will challenge the discipline of Irish defenders more than any offense the Irish have faced this year.
“It’s a challenge, it’s a discipline challenge,” Diaco said. “It’s a different offense, but not that much different than Navy or Air Force, where they’re running it, running it, running it, but they’re really producing a bunch of chunk yardage plays with passes off their runs.”
The Irish linebackers will be tested more than any time they have been this year, forced to play downhill to help stop a Cardinal running attack that’s among the best in the country. That job is made much harder with Luck’s proficiency in the play-action passing game, one of the biggest challenges linebackers face.
“They are an explosive offense that has a tough, rugged, run-the-ball first mentality,” Diaco said. “Probably the best o-line we’ve faced, with for sure the best group of tight ends we’ve faced, and a pack of running backs that are as good as any group that we’ve had so far. So the proof is in the pudding as it relates to the whole team.”
4. George Atkinson has a chance to add to an already impressive freshman season.
George Atkinson has already had an impressive freshman season, making an immediate impact in special teams with two kickoff return touchdowns, tying the school record that’s shared by Irish legends like Rocket Ismail, Tim Brown, and Allen Rossum. But on Saturday night, Atkinson will have a chance to make an impact just a few miles from his hometown, and potentially do so in the backfield as well, as he and fellow freshman Cam McDaniel will be forced into action at running back.
Tim Hinton knows it’s not ideal, but expects both Atkinson and McDaniel to be ready.
“The bottom line is at this point in the year, Cam and George have to produce,” Hinton said. “It’s their time. They’re freshman. You look around the country and there are some freshman that are obviously playing. The negative is they haven’t had the practice reps that some of those other freshman were getting because we were trying to get our two top dogs running. But now it’s their time. Now we’re expanding those reps and the knowledge has to be there.”
So far, neither Atkinson nor McDaniel has shown the ability help the run game, with the duo combining for just 12 carries and 36 yards, with Atkinson chipping in two short touchdowns. But Cierre Wood knows that it’ll be his job to pay it forward, helping the youngsters get up to speed for Saturday night.
“I’ll just do what the veterans when I was coming up did for me,” Wood said. “Help them learn the basics first, then everything else will take care of itself on the field.”
It’s apparent for anyone that’s watched Atkinson this year that the freshman has game-breaking speed and an explosiveness that would be great in the open field. But he’s raw at running back, a slight player that probably would’ve come into Notre Dame as a wide receiver if the depth chart wasn’t as thin as it is. Yet the Irish could help their cause if they find a way to get the ball to the talented freshman in space, giving him the opportunity to show off his speed and the athleticism that makes him one of the most dangerous players on the field.
Playing in front of plenty of family and friends, not to mention a national television audience, Atkinson has the chance to put his career on a really impressive trajectory if he can come up big against Stanford.
5. It’s time to throw the kitchen sink at Stanford.
There’s no use holding onto all those wonderful tricks and gadgets the Irish have likely worked on all year. It’s time to use a few of them against Stanford, hopefully catching the Cardinal off guard with one or two unexpected wrinkles.
Consider this a quick wishlist of things Irish fans hope to see on Saturday night:
It’s time to see what Kelly and Mike Elston have up their sleeves in terms of a fake punt. Last year the Irish were successful pulling it off, and it’d be great to see if the Irish can steal a possession away from the Cardinal if the timing is right. Even better, keep Michael Floyd back returning punts all evening, even if it’s in punt safe mode. Better yet, try setting up some blocking for him.
Just because Brian Kelly doesn’t think he can trick Andrew Luck doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try. After all, Luck has a limited group of receivers right now and injuries to wide receiver Chris Owusu and tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo means he’ll be working well down the depth chart at some key positions. For as good as Luck is, he’s thrown five interceptions in the last four games, and threw two against the Irish last year.
It’ll be a blow to the Irish defense if Stephon Tuitt can’t play on Saturday, but it’d be surprising if the Irish get much out of the talented freshman that’s been severely ill with an undisclosed illness. Either way, Saturday night is a great opportunity for Aaron Lynch to make some noise, especially against an offensive line that’s one of the best in the nation. (At the very least, Lynch should try and draw some holding flags.)
It’s time to bring back Andrew Hendrix in a package or two. When he was used, it was always in the middle of a series as a complement to Tommy Rees and the running game, and that’s the perfect way to use him Saturday night. If Theo Riddick is healthy, the Irish could get him on a jet sweep, or better yet — use that as a way to get Atkinson some carries in space. Even thought the hook-and-lateral didn’t work against Luke Kuchely, putting it on tape the week before Stanford was a purposeful move. If the Irish can get Cierre Wood around the edge, they’d be wise to try using that quick pitch / lateral that has been so successful over the past two years, but hasn’t been used in weeks.
Regardless of how highly ranked Stanford is, the Irish need to take their shots down field with Floyd. Feeding the ball to Floyd quickly in the possession receiving game is fine, but they need to run the top off the Stanford defense, and athletically, the Cardinal don’t have anyone Floyd’s equal, and the secondary is missing standout safety Delano Howell. Floyd is just seven catches away from Golden Tate’s single-season record of 93. Expect him to break that sometime in the third quarter. In one of the premiere games for tight ends in the country, it’d be good for Tyler Eifert to go cement his place as the Mackey Award winner on Saturday night.
6. Another game, another set of alternate uniforms. But don’t worry Irish fans, these ones are on Stanford.
In a trend that’s likely leading to an ulcer for some football traditionalists out there, when the Irish battle the Cardinal on Saturday, they won’t be facing a team wearing their traditional white pants, cardinal jerseys and white helmets, but a squad that looks like a group of red storm troopers, with black matte helmets punctuating an all-red look.
The Cardinal are joining the Nike Pro Combat revolution, wearing an alternate uniform that’s a whole lotta red, which according to Nike’s marketing machine is a “metaphor for the pulse of life and the heart that pumps the relentless engine that is Stanford Pride.”
Stanford joins Oregon, Georgia, Boise State, Michigan State, LSU and Ohio State as team’s that have gone with the “Pro Combat” look, and of course, Shaw has no problem embracing it.
“I think they’re great,” Shaw said to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a recruiting world that we live in.”