SOUTH BEND – The Stanford football players are certainly intelligent. You have to be to attend school at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
The Stanford players obviously attend school in the state of California – and in the case of many of them – are natives of The Golden State. But that doesn't mean that this bunch is laid back or not hard-hitting, because as Notre Dame can attest, the Cardinal are every bit as physically intimidating as any team the Fighting Irish will face this season.
“(We) haven't beaten Stanford,” third-year Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “And if there is one team that has beaten us physically is Stanford, and (our players) know that.”
The 17th-ranked Cardinal (4-1) will battle the seventh-ranked Irish (5-0) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (NBC).
Stanford began to change its culture when current San Francisco 49er coach Jim Harbaugh was named coach in Palo Alto in 2007. Notre Dame managed to take care of the Cardinal while Harbaugh was building his program back up in 2007 and 2008, but in the past three seasons (two under Harbaugh), the Cardinal have beaten Notre Dame each time by an average of nearly 15 points per game.
“A lot of things stand out about this football team,” Kelly said of the Cardinal. “First, they're a well-coached team in all phases, offense, defense, and special teams. They're a physical football team. They play that way up front, in the back end, their running backs, tight ends. It's apparent across the board the kind of team you're going to play when you face Stanford.”
One big facet of Stanford's play that is missing from years past is that they no longer have All-American quarterback Andrew Luck. But Stanford's offensive backfield isn't hurting for talent despite the graduation of Luck. The Cardinal offensive attack is centered around another All-American candidate, running back Stepfan Taylor.
“We're going to play a lot of great backs,” Kelly explained, “and I don't want to throw superlatives out about everybody, but (Stepfan) Taylor is an outstanding back. He's proven himself. He's a physical player. He can get banged up, come back and continue to compete. You can see he's the heart of their football team and one of their captains.”
It is readily apparent that Stanford wants to run the ball and the Irish have faced other offenses this season (Navy, Michigan State and Miami) that also feature power running attacks. However, there is something askew about what Stanford tries to do with Taylor that will prove challenging to Notre Dame.
“Stanford is unique itself,” Kelly said. “Not only do they run the ball out of multiple formations and jumbo packages, they create great one on one match ups, so you would think you play a lot of zone you have to drop extra players down to defend the run which gives them a one on one match up, so another unique challenge for us.”
Kelly has acknowledged that keeping 18- to 21-year-olds grounded while they are achieving the success that Notre Dame has achieved this season (it's highest ranking since 2006) can be difficult. But he believes that his players' attention has been contained while studying the team that they will be lining up against this Saturday.
“They turned the film on and watched what Stanford did to their opponents,” Kelly said. “They physically intimidated their opponents and that's clear. They see when they turn on the film and watch the way they play the game, they don't need much push from me to know what to expect this weekend.”