It’s that kind of season. With Notre Dame off to a 5-0 start, it’s beginning to feel like a Yogi Berra quote. Another Saturday, another biggest game of the year.
If you wanted, you could probably make that argument just about every Saturday. The past three games certainly qualified. With Michigan State, the Irish had their chance to vanquish an ugly streak and beat a top ten team on the road. Brian Kelly called the Irish’s dominant 20-3 victory a “signature win,” and even if the Spartans have failed to hold up their end of the bargain, the victory certainly had a monumental feel to it at the time, if only because it got the mainstream media talking about this team and wondering if the Irish might just be for real.
If beating Michigan State was big for the team’s national profile, beating the Wolverines was gigantic for ND Nation. There were a lot of ghosts in Notre Dame Stadium that night — and the Irish defense slayed them all. With Manti Te’o etching his legend in stone and the defense playing up to their maxim of “B.I.A. — Best In America,” it was a cathartic evening in South Bend, and a perfect way for the Irish to send out Denard Robinson.
Different song, same dance for the Irish in Soldier Field. Putting up a score like 41-3 upped the Irish profile, especially when top ten teams around the country were exposed for being paper tigers hiding behind a soft schedule or big preseason expectations.
(Perhaps Les Miles was so angry about Gunner Kiel staying home in Indiana because he knew what he had at quarterback in Zach Mettenberger . It’s crazy to think that the Irish’s fourth-string QB could possibly be starting for LSU.)
Notre Dame’s convincing win against Miami was another therapeutic step for a fanbase still flinching every time they see the first sign of adversity, gun-shy after years of frustration. Just as important, it was the first time in a long time where a marquee opponent let the moment get too big for them. Too often, it’s been easy for teams to play their best and rise to the occasion of playing Notre Dame. But not against this team. Miami head coach Al Golden said he had never seen anything like the case of drops his wide receivers had on Saturday night. Mental mistakes can come from pressing, and trying to do too much. They can also come from an intimidation factor. Not to say that’s the case, but it’s been a long time since you could call Notre Dame intimidating without hearing someone laugh.
And that brings us to Stanford. The next biggest game of the year. We all know ESPN will be in town, creating a circus-like atmosphere and bringing a ton of attention to the resurgent Irish. But looking at the schedule, there’s no game that the Irish truly need to have more than this one. When you’re 5-0, every game is critical, but from a pragmatic point of view, beating the Cardinal gives Notre Dame a good shot of losing just two games, even conceding tough Saturdays against Oklahoma and USC. With five winnable games where the Irish should be sizable favorites, a 10-2 season for Notre Dame means a BCS birth, especially with this schedule.
Sure, this kind of looking ahead is the type of thing that gets teams beat. It’s also the type of white noise that Brian Kelly has kept out of his locker room, with strong veteran leadership keeping this group focused on the task at hand.
Beating Stanford won’t be easy. The Irish haven’t been within two touchdowns of the Cardinal in Kelly’s two seasons in South Bend. The three-game losing streak against Stanford is the longest in the series, with the Irish never before losing even two-straight to the visitors from Palo Alto. Without Andrew Luck, the offense is still a work-in-progress, but they exploded for 54 points last weekend, winning a second-half shootout against Arizona. Stanford’s 3-4 defense, with two excellent outside linebackers in Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy, and stout defensive end Ben Gardner, poses a serious threat and will be Everett Golson’s largest test to date.
Stanford heads to South Bend ranked No. 17 and owning one very large W against Lane Kiffin’s USC squad. It may not be the brightest match-up on the marquee, but it certainly is the biggest game of the year.
(At least for another week.)