Date: Nov. 23 at Stanford
This has become one of the sacred games on the Notre Dame schedule, even though it was a late bloomer. The two programs have met every year since 1988, other than 1995-96, when Washington was a temporary replacement.
Head coach David Shaw and the Stanford Cardinal have become an elite program the past three seasons while posting 35 victories.
The game at USC has been the regular season finale in even numbered years for Notre Dame ever since 1956, and since 1999 Stanford has become the ideal program to visit in the regular season finale in California for the odd-numbered years.
Notre Dame and Stanford epitomize the ability to achieve academic and athletic success, so the burgeoning rivalry is a natural. The Cardinal have been in three straight BCS games, while the Irish surprisingly made it to the BCS Championship last year, further enhancing this series.
The first meeting between the two featured a national title showdown in the 1925 Rose Bowl won by Notre Dame (27-10). The Fighting Irish hold an 18-9 lead in the series and snapped a three-game losing streak to the Cardinal last season with a thrilling 20-13 overtime victory.
Top Offseason Notes
Former Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton joined the Indianapolis Colts to reunite with quarterback Andrew Luck. Mike Bloomgren was promoted to OC after serving as Stanford’s offensive line coach the past two years.
Recruiting coordinator Mike Sanford (an Irish assistant from 1996-98) will add quarterbacks and receivers coach to his duties, and former Cardinal QB Tavita Pritchard (2006-09) moved from defense to running backs coach.
In player personnel news, the offense received a huge boost when it was announced that running back Tyler Gaffney will rejoin the program for his senior year after taking the past year off to play minor league baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a junior in 2011, Gaffney provided a strong complement to graduated three-time 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor while rushing for 449 yards, 6.1 yards per carry and seven touchdowns.
Because Stanford’s roster was pretty well stocked with returning players, only 12 recruits were signed in February, with no defensive linemen and two offensive linemen.
The Cardinal returns seven defensive starters plus several others with starting experience from a unit that ranked No. 1 nationally last year in sacks (4.07 per game) and 11th in scoring defense (17.21). It is expected to be the best in the Pac 12 again while spearheaded by outside linebacker Trent Murphy (18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks in 2012) and end Ben Gardner (14.5 tackles for loss, with 7.5 sacks), both of who were first-team All-Pac 12. The return of linebacker Shane Skov for a fifth year instead of turning pro also was a boost, and safety Ed Reynolds is a ball hawk, returning three of his six interceptions last year for touchdowns, and barely missing a fourth.
The offensive line and its smash-mouth attack returns four starters to block for redshirt sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan, who started the last five games and was 5-0, four of them against ranked teams, highlighted by the 20-14 Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin. He completed 71.7 percent of his passes and rushed for 263 yards, which is especially notable because Luck also was a productive runner.
Besides Gaffney, the others expected to replace Taylor at running back are Anthony Wilkerson and Barry J. Sanders (whose father you might remember).
Stanford lost a lot of offensive firepower not only with the ultra-reliable Taylor but the premier tight end combination of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. The overall scheme was built a lot around the two tight ends.
The top five receivers from last season are all gone, including Drew Terrell, although there is confidence that a healthy Ty Montgomery could provide game-breaking skills to the attack.
What Notre Dame follower could have envisioned five years ago that Stanford would become the top opponent, at least on paper, on a schedule that includes USC, Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State and even Arizona State? Furthermore, this program has developed a physical smash-mouth identity, first under Jim Harbaugh (2007-10) and now David Shaw, after being known for years as a finesse, passing program.
The Cardinal owns four straight conquests of USC and nearly added four in a row against the Irish last year. Stanford’s 35 victories the past three years (35-5) are tied with Alabama (also 35-5) and Boise State (35-4) for most in the country, and it doesn’t appear to be a program ready to quietly go away, especially with it being so strong along both lines. SI.com (Sports Illustrated) has Stanford as its early preseason No. 3, behind Alabama and Texas A&M.
With the small recruiting haul this year, maybe Stanford might be in for a fall down the road. The third season is usually when the stamp of the head coach gets put on the program, so that might be telling for Shaw too. For now, though, Stanford has a strong overall operation and foundation on which it can continue to thrive.