Stanford, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - The 25th-ranked Notre Dame Irish will try to upset the Pac-12 North Division champion Stanford Cardinal on Saturday in the regular-season finale for both schools at Stanford Stadium.
Notre Dame managed to make its way back into the Top 25 after an impressive, 23-13, victory over the offensively dangerous BYU Cougars last week. The victory was the fifth in six games for the defending national runner-up, which has plenty of motivation to improve to 9-3 before the bowl season. Coach Brian Kelly's team is 2-2 versus Top 25 opponents and 2-0 versus members of the Pac-12 this season.
Coach David Shaw's Cardinal needed a little help to win their division and they needed to take care of business themselves. The Cardinal routed California, 63-13, and the home crowd erupted when the stadium announcer revealed Oregon had been upset by Arizona once the game was well out of hand. Shaw's team will play Arizona State for the Pac-12 Championship, but will need the Wildcats to upset the Sun Devils for that contest to take place at Stanford Stadium. Shaw knows he will have to keep his Cardinal focused on the task at hand despite the implications of the game outside of their control.
"They are a physical group. When Brian Kelly took over he talked about the kind of team he wanted to build and you're starting to see it up front on both sides of the line," said Shaw on this week's opponent. "Big physical guys. Defensive line, they get off blocks. They don't stay blocked. On the offensive line they're going to push you, they're going to shove you. They're going to create holds and run the ball."
Notre Dame owns an 18-9 all-time series advantage over the Cardinal and the Fighting Irish are also 6-6 at Stanford Stadium. Notre Dame picked up a 20-13 overtime victory over Stanford at home on Oct. 13, 2012 to snap a three-game series losing streak. The loss was just one of two the Cardinal experienced in the 2012 campaign.
"We don't play the game the way we need to play it each and every week, everybody, every player. And we're getting there," said Kelly. "And our guys are understanding it and they are seeing it. And now that I'm able to really show them, they are looking at it and going: We get it, Coach. That's a positive thing that they were able to take from the BYU game."
Notre Dame's offense did a good job of moving the ball downfield against BYU last week as it compiled 470 yards of total offense and 24 first downs. The Fighting Irish got off to a hot start with touchdowns on their inaugural two drives, but failed to reach the end zone after the first quarter. Senior quarterback Tommy Rees finished 15-of-28 for 235 yards with one interception and a 63-yard touchdown pass to DaVaris Daniels, who tallied six catches for 107 yards. T.J. Jones also made his mark with five receptions for 95 yards while Cam McDaniel paced Notre Dame on the ground with 117 yards on 24 carries. Freshman tailback Tarean Folston rushed 13 times for 78 yards, including a two-yard touchdown.
Rees has not been very accurate this season, completing a career-low 54.4 percent of his throws, but he is ranked sixth nationally in yards per completion (16.1). The senior has passed for 2,739 yards and 25 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. Jones is just 14 yards shy of the 1,000-yard barrier and has made a team-best eight TD receptions. Folston appears to have become the team's second option in the rushing attack in favor of George Atkinson III, who registered only six carries versus BYU.
Defensively, the Fighting Irish did a tremendous job versus the Cougars, who came into the contest averaging 503.7 ypg. BYU was limited to only 415 total yards and its total of 13 points tied its season-low. Senior linebacker Dan Fox anchored Notre Dame's defense with nine stops, two tackles for loss and a sack.
The Fighting Irish will face an offense that appeared unstoppable last week against the Golden Bears. Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan hit on 17-of-26 pass attempts for 329 yards and connected with Ty Montgomery on four of his five TD passes. Montgomery racked up 160 receiving yards on five grabs and also scored on a 31-yard run while Michael Rector reeled in four catches for 104 yards and a score.
"We prepare for it every single game," said Shaw. "When a team drops the safeties down into the box and leaves Ty Montgomery and Michael Rector one-on- one, we're going to take our shots"
The strong outing by Hogan was by far his best of the season. The junior signal caller had not thrown a touchdown pass over his previous three games and had not passed for multiple scores in a game since Sept. 28. versus Washington State. Montgomery entered the contest with five TD catches and none since the game versus WSU. The Cardinal have favored the running attack much more where they net an average of 203.7 ypg to rank 32nd in the FBS. Tyler Gaffney has been the key player on the offense. Gaffney has rushed for over 100 yards in five consecutive games before ending the victory over California with 95 yards. The senior running back is tied for the Pac-12 lead with 16 rushing scores.
Stanford's defense is one of the best in the nation as it ranks 23rd in total yards allowed per game (348.9) and 13th in points allowed per game (18.9) despite playing in an elite conference. The Golden Bears found out how difficult moving the chains against the Cardinal can be as they went 2-of-13 on third-down conversions and averaged only 2.4 yards per carry. Sophomore linebacker Blake Martinez had a career game as he registered six tackles along with his first career forced fumble and first career interception. Trent Murphy made his FBS leading 13th sack of the campaign.