Early in Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, the Irish had a particularly painful Saturday. No, it wasn’t the demoralizing loss to Michigan, where Denard Robinson ran his way into the record books — and Notre Dame’s end zone with 27 seconds left — to beat the Irish 28-24.
It wasn’t necessarily the week after that either, when Mark Dantonio’s gutsy “Little Giants” fake field goal call controversially beat Notre Dame in overtime. While the play clock may or may not have expired, the game that sent Dantonio to the hospital with a minor heart attack was just another bump in a difficult early season road for Kelly.
But looking back at those early games in Kelly’s first season and the toughest loss might be the one Stanford handed Notre Dame at home. Jim Harbaugh’s Cardinal coasted to a 37-14 victory, pushing the Irish to 1-3 on the season with a lopsided victory that wasn’t necessarily indicative of the game Notre Dame played.
Bob Diaco’s defense forced Andrew Luck to play the worst statistical game of his season, throwing two interceptions to the Irish. Michael Floyd had 110-yards receiving, leading the game. The Irish even entered the fourth quarter trailing just 19-6, before Jonas Gray was stuffed at midfield on a 4th and 1.
But after Stanford stopped the Irish things got ugly. An 11-play drive was capped off by a touchdown run from fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic. On Notre Dame’s next possession, Crist’s first throw found Marecic, who returned the interception for a touchdown. All of a sudden the Irish were down 34-6 and the gap between the two programs felt as gigantic as the four-touchdown deficit.
After the game, Kelly stated the obvious:
“Begin by tipping my hat to Stanford, Coach Harbaugh,” Kelly said. “Well-coached football team. They were well prepared. It’s a fine football team. They deserved to win today.”
But what wasn’t obvious at the time was the familiar blueprint Notre Dame has followed to success. Forced to gut and rebuild a broken Irish football program, Kelly and his staff followed a similar path to the one Stanford laid down under Harbaugh (and has continued with David Shaw), turning around a program that went 1-11 into one of the Pac-12’s best.
It feels like a long time ago, but Harbaugh’s first season in Palo Alto was only a measured success. Digging out of the 1-11 ditch Walt Harris left behind, Harbaugh won just four games, losing even to Notre Dame’s rag-tag 2007 outfit, a group that rallied late in the season to avoid the collar of being the worst Irish team ever.
But if there was a glimmer of hope for the Cardinal it was their shocking upset of No. 2 USC in early October, beating Pete Carroll’s Trojans 24-23, shocking the Coliseum crowd in a game that may go down as one of the biggest upsets in football history.
While that game is now remembered quite differently, the win didn’t really feel like a breakthrough but rather lightning in a bottle. The Cardinal lost five of their next six before closing the year with a tight victory over Cal.
Of course, Kelly’s first season looked lost almost from the start. Stanford’s decisive victory over Notre Dame had the Irish dropping three of their first four, hardly the debut for a new coach under scrutiny for the first time. But Kelly didn’t mince words after the game.
“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some of going to be 8 or 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out.”
The Irish won their next three games before losing ugly against both Navy and Tulsa, a bottoming out that felt like one of the darkest moments in the program’s history. But an unlikely thumping of No. 15 Utah gave Notre Dame hope for a bowl berth. Then a decisive win against Army — and the conquering of an option offense in Yankee Stadium — felt like a step forward.
But it was nothing compared to the victory in the Coliseum, snapping an eight-game losing streak that lasted three head coaches and seemingly a generation of Irish (and Trojan) fans. On a rain soaked night in Los Angeles, Notre Dame needed a little luck — an injured Matt Barkley and a crucial late drop by Ronald Johnson — but the win propelled the Irish into a bowl game blowout of Miami and had Notre Dame on its way.
Stanford didn’t become Stanford until Andrew Luck took the field. The redshirt freshman took over in Harbaugh’s third season on The Farm, delivering an 8-5 season that included consecutive wins against No. 7 Oregon and No. 11 USC, having many believing that the Cardinal had arrived.
Of course, it was Brian Kelly’s third season when a redshirt freshman named Everett Golson took over the Irish offense. It was the perfect marriage between head coach and quarterback that helped Notre Dame pull off an undefeated regular season and the chance to play for the national title.
Like in Palo Alto, Golson unseated a veteran. Tommy Rees moved into a crucial backup role. Tavita Pritchard spent more time with a baseball cap on than a helmet.
Both coaches had excellent players bridging the gap until they found their quarterbacks. For Harbaugh it was Toby Gerhart, who nearly won the Heisman in Luck’s first season. For Kelly, it was Michael Floyd, the school’s all-time leading receiver. But while Irish fans might remember it differently, neither coach truly set sail without their quarterback.
Nobody is going to confuse Palo Alto and South Bend. And while the two academic institutions have very different personalities, Stanford and Notre Dame share more similarities than differences.
Just look at the two rosters. With both programs recruiting from the same talent pools, the Irish and Cardinal staff run into each other quite frequently on the national recruiting trail.
On the Cardinal roster, many thought Alex Carter would be playing for the Irish. His father Tom played for Lou Holtz before being taken in the first round by the Washington Redskins. Quarterback Kevin Hogan wanted to play for Notre Dame but the offer came too late. Defensive end Blake Lueders was committed to Notre Dame before the coaching change. We’ll see the fifth-year senior on the edge of the Stanford defense on Saturday.
Winning has enhanced the football profile of the Cardinal. And both Harbaugh and David Shaw have upped the recruiting profile of one of the West Coast’s most dominant football programs, with Stanford winning its share of head-to-head battles with Notre Dame not just on the field, but on the recruiting trail.
Notre Dame wanted Noor Davis, a linebacker with national offers. The Irish desperately tried to land blue-chip cornerback Wayne Lyons. Blue-chip freshman cornerback Terrence Alexander was a Signing Day defeat that still stings. And just about the entire starting offensive line for the Cardinal had offers to Notre Dame, including All-American candidate Andrus Peat. Pass rusher extraordinaire Peter Kalambayi would look pretty good coming off the edge for Brian VanGorder, a recruit Kelly mentioned on Tuesday.
Of course, Notre Dame still wins more recruiting battles with Stanford than they lose, flipping a handful of Cardinal verbal commitments since Kelly came to town like Doug Randolph, TJ Jones and Tate Nichols. Slot receiver Amir Carlisle will go up against a program he once committed to play for, providing the Irish will a playmaker who could factor greatly into Saturday’s contest.
While the Irish defense will continue to evolve under VanGorder, the Irish’s defensive philosophy during Kelly’s first four seasons looked mighty similar to that of Stanford’s. The Irish coaching staff was chasing big, physical edge players, same as the Cardinal. They were looking for rugged 3-4 linebackers to play on the inside. A few weeks ago, former linebacker Danny Spond probably said it best:
“Any time you’re recruited by Stanford, you’re probably going to be recruited to Notre Dame and vice versa.”
Perhaps what makes Saturday’s game the most important of the weekend is the fact that Stanford and Notre Dame are two programs that can proudly wave the flag for football programs doing things right. While ESPN camps out at Mississippi State in preparation for the SEC showdown with Texas A&M, this intersectional rivalry lives in almost a different world.
That’s not to say that these programs aren’t immune to their own problems. But as Notre Dame’s five players remain out for their fifth game of the season after suspected academic improprieties, it’s worth pointing out that the next multi-game academic suspension in the SEC might be the first.
Yet even as these programs seem to play under different rules, both Shaw and Kelly have lifted their teams into the upper echelon of college football, both programs legit contenders for a spot in the College Football Playoff. That they’re pairing that excellence on the field with an academic reputation few universities can touch is an achievement that’s criminally under-discussed.
That’s a big reason why the annual matchup between the two programs is being fiercely guarded by both schools. Even amidst nine-game conference schedules and ACC affiliations, neither university has plans of giving this game up.
But Saturday, all niceties will be over. Both programs face a must-win game on Saturday afternoon. For Notre Dame and Kelly, the Irish need to reassert their position in a rivalry where the Cardinal have won four of the last five.
To do it, they’ll need to follow a familiar blueprint.