NOTRE DAME, Ind. – When most people think of Pac-12 football the term “smash mouth” rarely, if ever, comes to mind. “Pretty boy” USC quarterbacks, air-it-out offenses and the speed of teams like Oregon are all typically things that jump to the forefront, but Stanford has steadily bucked those thoughts over the last six years.
It started when Jim Harbaugh took over in 2007 when he brought his Bo Schembechler mentality with him to Palo Alto. Despite the fact that he won his last two meetings against Notre Dame, even Irish fans have to smile when thinking about the classic “What’s your deal” exchange he had on the field with then USC head coach Pete Carroll after Stanford’s win over the Trojans in 2009.
Harbaugh told Carroll and the world that day that Stanford would not be college football’s whipping boy any longer. Harbaugh is now in the NFL, but the mentality he has brought with him continues under second-year head coach Brian Shaw.
“They’re a physical football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Stanford this week. “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. You put on the film and you see the kind of football team that they have become.”
Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin has been busy watching Stanford’s defense on tape this week. The senior says the Cardinal is more physical than any team the Irish have seen so far this season.
“They get into guys and they push them around,” Martin said of what he has seen from the Stanford defense. “The four or five games that we have on them they’ve just out-worked and out-physicaled every opponent they’ve faced. That’s something we’ve been working on this week. We’ve gotta come and be prepared for a fist fight on Saturday.”
Fellow Irish senior, center Braxton Cave, says he is ready for more than just a fist fight when he digs in the trenches on Saturday.
“They play hard (and) they play to the whistle,” Cave said of Stanford. “I’ll give them credit for that, but so do we. I’m looking forward to the battle. It’s definitely gonna be a battle.”
The Thanksgiving weekend game at Stanford was one of four Cave was forced to miss last season due to a foot injury. He was forced to watch from the sideline as Stanford beat Notre Dame 28-14. Stanford’s defense held the Irish to just 57 rushing yards and a less than pedestrian 1.7 yards per carry, while sacking quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix five times.
“It was a tough one to watch that’s for sure,” Cave said of watching the beating in Palo Alto from the sideline. “They’re a good team (with) a great scheme (and) good players, but we have the same thing here. It’s gonna come down to just executing our plays and doing our thing.”
Right tackle Christian Lombard was with Cave on the sideline during that game.
“It was definitely hard to watch,” Lombard recalled. “I don’t want to say shocking, because our offensive line had a solid group last year, but it was hard to watch. I know guys who played last year have a chip on their shoulder going into this game. We’re gonna prepare like every other game this year, but that chip on our shoulder’s gonna be there.”
Linebacker Manti Te’o is looking for his first win against Stanford. He led the Irish with 12 tackles in last year’s loss, but also saw the Cardinal roll to 196 rushing yards in the victory. Te’o says this year’s Stanford team reminds him most of a rival the Irish have already beaten this season.
“I think if there’s any team similar to Stanford it would be Michigan State – just their run first mentality,” Te’o commented. “But, with Stanford they execute well. They have big linemen who are very quick off the ball and who are very strong. Their running backs are very smart running backs. They’re very patient. They’re north and south and they’re fast.”
Te’o had 12 tackles while helping hold the Spartans to just 50 rushing yards in last month’s 20-3 win in East Lansing. Stanford has two offensive weapons that MSU doesn’t have though – tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz, who stand 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-6, respectively, and line-up wide in the formation ala ND’s Tyler Eifert.
“They pose a physical threat where they can jump and go up for the ball,” Te’o said of the tight ends. “Also, they have some speed and they have some power for the running game. Everybody just has to be on their Ps and Qs and just do their job.”
Toilolo and Ertz have combined for 34 receptions, 594 yards and four of Stanford’s eight receiving touchdowns through five games this season.
Like Te’o, offensive left guard Chris Watt played in last year’s loss to the Cardinal. He and the rest of the Irish offensive linemen were left with their head spinning to some extent after the number the Stanford defense did on them.
“I just felt like we didn’t communicate as well as we should have last year,” Watt said of the offensive line’s role in the 14-point defeat. “They’re obviously a really intense team, so even if we do communicate we’re gonna have to match that intensity out there. If we want to keep in the game we have to maintain our physicalness as well.”
From what Lombard has seen on film, he knows the line will have to be ready for the unexpected this weekend.
“They do a lot. They move a lot of guys around,” Lombard said of how Stanford will try to confuse the Irish. “They play a lot of players. They do a lot of stunting. It’s almost like watching the Packers with Clay Matthews and stuff like that. They have a lot of guys walking around.”
What makes Stanford so tough though goes beyond mental manipulation on the field. It comes down to intensity and sheer brute force.
“I think it’s both,” Lombard agreed. “In weeks past you could get away with something fundamentally that you can’t get away with these guys. Not only that but, they’re gonna be bring it every play, so it’s a combination of both.”
“They get after it. There’s no shying away from contact with those guys. It’s gonna be a back alley fight, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Saturday’s start will be Martin’s 32nd straight in a Notre Dame uniform, so he’s been a part of each of the last two losses to the Cardinal. The senior is looking for another kind of effort when the two ranked opponents meet this weekend.
“They’ve had our number the last two years,” Martin said. “(They have) a really physical defense and have really dominated all their opponents this year. It’s gonna come down to the will of our guys versus the will of their guys. They’re hard working (and) give a hundred percent on every play and we gotta match that. We gotta bring the intensity on Saturday.”
Opposing teams are rushing for just 77.2 yards a game and 2.7 yards a carry this season against the stouter than stout Stanford defense. Notre Dame is coming off its best rushing performance in a dozen years after gouging Miami for 376 yards last week. The Fighting Irish won’t approach that kind of number this week, but they know if they are going to win the offensive line will play a vital role in their success.
“We’re the group that this game’s gonna come down to – how well we execute and we know that,” Cave estimated. “We put it on our shoulders to go out there and play physical and put points on the board.”