Game Day: No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 17 Stanford

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You’ll have to forgive me if my crystal ball seems a little cloudy this morning. I could blame the cobwebs from a long night of travel. But it’s getting a handle on what kind of team No. 17 Stanford is that I’m struggling with.

While the Cardinal have one of the country’s most impressive victories on their resume, there are still plenty of variables I’m not sure about. How do you explain their pedestrian escape against San Jose State or their defensive implosion against Arizona last week? Their loss to Washington – the only road game the Cardinal have played thus far – made Stanford look pretty limited offensively, not all that different than the Michigan State team Notre Dame handled. But in their 21-14 victory over the Trojans, David Shaw’s squad showed they were still the physically dominant team that shutdown Notre Dame’s offense the past two seasons.

As we head towards kickoff, here are a few questions I haven’t quite answered yet.

Can Everett Golson beat this Stanford defense?

Most people accuse me of being too hard on Golson, but I’m a big believer in his future with the Irish. But young quarterbacks against Stanford’s defense don’t necessarily thrive.

Nobody has been able to line up and run the ball against Stanford, and the Irish certainly haven’t been able to the past two seasons. While Golson has the ability to make things happen with his feet, he’s going to have to beat the Cardinal with his arm… and his head.

If there’s a weakness in this Stanford defense, it’s in the secondary. But Golson, who is still learning how to be a student of the game and exploit favorable match-ups with Tyler Eifert, needs to take advantage of the opportunities he’s presented. If he can make some big plays down field when he gets the right pre-snap reads, the Irish should win this game.

Can the Irish get a big play or score from the defense or special teams?

It’s hard to say anything negative about Bob Diaco’s defense. It might be heresy, but the Irish are playing as good of defense as they’ve played in a very long time – and that includes under head coach Lou Holtz. But if the Irish are going to win this weekend, getting a big play out of the defense or special teams is imperative. The Irish didn’t force a turnover or get a sack against Miami. They’ll need to do some of both on Saturday afternoon.

Just as important, it’s time for the Irish special teams to make a leap forward. Nobody expects a trick play out of Scott Booker’s troops, but most would settle for Ben Turk launching a punt and flipping the field. George Atkinson is due to break a kick return and Davonte Neal still needs to get loose in the open field. Without Ty Montgomery returning kicks for Stanford, the Irish kick coverage team needs to get back to their dominant ways. Winning a game like today’s requires a complete performance from the team. And getting a few big plays from the defense and special teams will go a long way.

Can the Irish weather the storm? Literally.

This afternoon has the chance to become one of those instant classics. With rain predicted for much of the afternoon, and thunderstorms coming around game time, it’s looking like weather will certainly be a factor. Can the Irish hold onto the football and get accurate throws from Everett Golson? Can they move the chains if this turns into a slugfest? Will the surprisingly decent playing surface hold up this afternoon?

Stanford played the second-half of their season last year in a mud bowl at Stanford Stadium and they’re built to battle in the trenches. But if the Irish match that intensity, they’re built to do the same thing.

Most people are starting to believe the Irish have arrived. In the past, that usually ended badly. Will this year be any different?

A quick perusal across the internet has more pundits picking the Irish to win than lose, with ESPN’s arrival on campus almost validation that Notre Dame has once again come back into the land of relevancy when it comes to BCS appearances and – gasp! – national title aspirations. But can the Irish continue to win when it’s expected of them?

In years past, Notre Dame let defining moments define them. Whether it was Charlie Weis’ signature loss to USC, disappointments in back-to-back BCS bowls or the Irish stubbing their toe against USC and Florida State last season, Brian Kelly and his team believe this season is different.

Las Vegas believes in the Irish, tabbing them a touchdown favorite. With all eyes on Notre Dame, can the No. 7 Irish win a game that could vault into even loftier territory?