And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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After nearly three months of being the favorite, the Irish finally get to try their hand as an underdog. That’s how Brian Kelly‘s troops find themselves as they prepare to head to Palo Alto on Saturday, ready to take on the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal, led by All-Universe quarterback Andrew Luck.

Leaving Luck — all but guaranteed to be the first pick in the NFL Draft — out of the equation, the Irish won’t be playing the most talented team they’ve faced this season (that distinction goes to USC, a team Stanford beat in overtime). But the Cardinal, built by former head coach Jim Harbaugh and taken over by first-year coach David Shaw, are the most complete team the Irish will face, with excellent depth along the lines and physicality across the board.

To get us up to speed before the tryptophan kicks in, I’m joined by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tom FitzGerald. Tom has been covering Bay Area sports for almost three decades and is the beat man for Stanford sports, watching the Cardinal go from doormat to national powerhouse the last five years.

He was kind enough to answer some questions for us and get everybody up to speed on what the Irish are tasked with this weekend.

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It’s been a weird couple of weeks for the Cardinal. After looking like one of the most complete teams in college football, they squeaked by USC in an overtime classic, got run out of the gym by Oregon, and then hung on to beat Cal in the Big Game. Where is this team’s confidence heading into the regular season finale?

The confidence is still there, but they are banged up. Losing tight end Zach Ertz was a major blow; his status this week is up in the air because of his knee injury. He got hurt on the opening kickoff against USC. Stanford loves to use a three-tight-end alignment, and Ertz is a key to that because of his ability to get separation from defenders. Wide receiver Chris Owusu is also out because of another concussion, this one against Oregon State. Even when he was playing, he wasn’t giving them the deep threat they needed. Defensively, they haven’t gotten over the loss of inside linebacker Shayne Skov (out for the season with a knee injury), and strong safety Delano Howell is playing hurt.

Obviously, Stanford’s dominance hasn’t subsided since Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL, where he’s turned the 49ers into one of the surprise team’s of the NFL. How would you assess David Shaw’s first year as a head coach? Will we be able to get any true picture of Shaw’s ability as the man in charge until Andrew Luck leaves?

I think Shaw has done a terrific job for a rookie head coach. In several games, he and his staff made halftime adjustments that turned close games into routs. As I said earlier, he has had to put up with some key injuries, as many coaches do at this time of year. He kept his players poised against USC with a crowd of 93,000 screaming against them. He and his staff found ways to contain USC’s Robert Woods and Cal’s Keenan Allen, both of whom are probably going to be studs in the NFL.

On the subject of Luck, as someone who’s watched him play more than just about anyone, how good is he? I don’t think it’s possible for Luck to be underrated, but where does he rank in all the college quarterbacks you’ve seen?

Absolutely at the top of the list. He can make every kind of throw — the dart through a tight window, the bomb, the out-pattern with mustard on it, the touch pass over the linebacker, the slant, the screen — you name it. He has superb field awareness, maneuvers deftly to avoid sacks, scrambles very well on occasion (especially for a guy as big as he is). He has missed some throws lately and thrown some picks; I think part of that is just not having Ertz and Owusu. He’s in sync with Griff Whalen but not with the younger wide receivers. The previous gold standard for college quarterbacks in the Bay Area was John Elway, the epitome of charisma and resourcefulness. But Luck does more things better at this stage of his development. He’s also very bright, a terrific team leader and a fine interview. Oh, and did I mention he calls his own plays?

Obviously, the loss of Braxston Cave and Jonas Gray will hurt the Irish running game. While they look statistically dominant, Stanford has given up some yardage on the ground. Do you think the Cardinal front seven can control the line of scrimmage against the Irish offense?

I haven’t seen much of the Irish, but I would suspect so. Stanford’s defense has generally been stout against the run, except against a few really quick guys. It’s not a top-drawer defense, though. Chase Thomas, their best linebacker, had a very quiet night against Cal, and the other linebackers are not especially gifted.

It’s hard to call it struggling, but Andrew Luck has thrown five interceptions in his last four games. Statistically, he had his worst performance of last season against the Irish as well. What’s the key for the Stanford offense against a surprisingly stout Irish defense?

As usual, it’s running the ball and getting at least five yards on first down from Stepfan Taylor. When they do that, it opens up a lot of opportunities — more runs or play-action passes. Luck is very good at looking off the safeties and obscuring where he’s about to throw. Another plus for Stanford is when they plug in Tyler Gaffney for Taylor. Whether it’s in the wildcat formation or not, he has nice quickness and tremendous drive.

This is the first game all season where the Irish have been underdogs. What’s the key if Notre Dame wants to spring an upset on Stanford?

As you pointed out, Luck has made some mistakes lately. The Irish need to cause some turnovers and capitalize on them with touchdowns, not field goals. They need to contain Stanford’s ground game, cover the tight ends tightly, watch for Ty Montgomery on the end-around and dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s not easy to do against these guys. If it rains, the field will be a mess, as it was for the last two games. (Don’t get me started on a six-year-old field that doesn’t drain well at a university that has some of the finest facilities in the country.)

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A special thanks to Tom for finding some time to make this happen. If you want to read more of Tom’s coverage — including his most recent work on the other top-flight academic institution that can’t figure out how to grow real grass — check out his work on the Chronicle’s Stanford Blog.