Those who have not by now heard that Notre Dame is expecting a test of “physicality” when the Irish host Stanford this Saturday have not been paying attention. Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly spent all week hammering that point home with his team and he echoed the sentiment in his two public meetings with the media as well.
“Any time you can go and show how you’re going to play the game, I think that sends a message,” Kelly said on Thursday of the physical tone his team needs to set against Stanford. “But they (the Irish) know ultimately that they can’t win this playing a finesse game. You’ve got to do it by beating them at what they do well.”
Kelly has been apt to use baseball analogies when talking about his team and the game, but that doesn’t really fit the kind of game he expects to see this week. Instead, he went to boxing this week, saying “rope-a-dope” won’t cut it when the Irish and Cardinal square-off. IE-less Muhammad Ali and more Joe Frazier.
Now is the time for the Irish to get in the ring and slug it out.
“We want to go in there and slug away,” Kelly continued with the boxing theme. “I think that’s the kind of demeanor we want our football team to take shape with.”
“It’s a championship bout. You’ve got two really good football teams. It should be a great game on Saturday.”
Kelly went back to the boxing analogy when he visited ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike set on campus Friday morning.
“To even equate them to a Big Ten team would not be fair, because they have a lot of pieces to this offense and defense that really hits you right in the mouth,” Kelly said of Stanford. “This is good old fashioned football at its best. The way they’re coached and coach (Brian) Shaw – as you know, that’s still a bit of a (Jim) Harbaugh-driven kind of program in the shape they have taken.”
“This is gonna be a game where it’s gonna be a heavyweight bout. I know that sounds like a cliché’, but this is the way this game will have to be played. It’s gonna be a fight and the tougher physical team will probably win this game.”
If the game is the main event maybe Manti Te’o vs. Stanford tight end Zach Ertz is the undercard. While Kelly has been extolling Stanford’s physical prowess from South Bend all week, Cardinal head coach Brian Shaw was singing the praises of the Irish from Palo Alto as well – starting with Te’o.
“He’s got as good of instincts as anybody I’ve seen on this level,” Shaw said of Te’o. “He reads the quarterback so well. He’ll get a jump on a pass, and he’ll get a jump on a run play.”
“There was a run play where as soon as the ball’s snapped and the guard starts to pull, he actually passes the linebacker and beats him to the play. It’s uncanny. He’s a special football player.”
Is Te’o “special” enough though to win the coveted Heisman Trophy though? Shaw has experience with that process after going through it win former Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck last year.
“I’ve learned that I don’t vote for Heisman Trophies,” Shaw began when asked if he would vote for Te’o for the Heisman. “And people who vote for Heisman Trophies don’t listen to me. I stay out of the conversation. It was a tough lesson for me, but I’ve learned it.”
No matter how good Te’o is the odds are stacked against him to take home the Heisman this year. The biggest thing he has working in his favor is his Notre Dame affiliation. Former Michigan man Charles Woodson remains the only defensive player to win the Heisman, but he was also a punt returner – something that Te’o does not have on his resume.
“Whenever a defensive player is recognized in that kind of light with Charles Woodson – I’m definitely humbled by that,” Te’o said at his press conference this week. “I’m going to continue to do what I got to do in order to first help my team win. If that keeps me in this whole Heisman talk that’s also good too. What I’m focusing on is helping my team win.”
While Te’o’s choice of schools came down to USC and Notre Dame when he was coming out of high school, Stanford was among the teams that recruited him as well. He visited the Palo Alto campus when Jim Harbaugh was still the head coach.
“I was a really, really fun visit for me to be there and to be on the west coast and near a lot of family,” Te’o recalled of his visit to Stanford. “But everybody feels a certain way. I prayed about it and that led me here to Notre Dame. That’s not saying anything about Stanford, because Stanford is a great school, but I prayed about it and everything pointed to Notre Dame.”
Both head coaches were asked about the similarities of the two schools this week. Notre Dame and Stanford have academic similarities and they are both excelling on the football field this year. Kelly stayed more or less neutral on the subject, but Shaw, himself a Stanford alumnus, could not hide his own bias.
“We have something in common with Notre Dame, and that’s playing tough, physical defense, loving our linebackers, and running the ball on offense, and have the quarterbacks do what they need to do to win the game,” Shaw explained , but that’s where the similarities end in his eyes.
“We’re still in our own universe,” Shaw said of his alma mater. “We don’t even send a letter of intent to anyone unless they are admitted to the school.”
Most of the talk of “physicality” has come from the Notre Dame camp this week when speaking about Stanford’s players, but Shaw sees a physical challenge for his team as well. The Cardinal has allowed just one sack a game through five games this season, while the Fighting Irish defense has 14 quarterback takedowns.
“This will be our biggest challenge,” Shaw said when asked about his offense facing the ND defensive front. “These guys are big and they are physical. When the linebackers blitz they hit it hard. This is going to be a big test.”
“We’ve done well, but the thing that helps our pass pro is our running back. We’ve got to be able to run the ball and have our play action, which helps slow down the pass rush, hopefully.”
The other challenge Stanford faces on Saturday is going on the road to get a win. The Cardinal is 4-0 at home this season, but their lone loss came in their only road game to date at Washington.
“That’s going to be the big test,” Shaw said of playing at Notre Dame Stadium in Stanford’s second road game of 2012. “I told that to the team yesterday. That’s our gauntlet. The gauntlet that’s thrown down in front of us is can we play our best game on the road.”
“We’ve gone on the road one time this year and we did not play well. Defensively we did a solid job against Washington, but we still allowed a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver. We’ve done that two games in a row. We need our defense to play their best game this week.”