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Irish prepare for physical Stanford

It’s midterm week on Notre Dame’s campus. Add that to the list of distractions for the No. 7 Irish this week, who will host a small army of ESPN television shows and on-air personalities as they’re finishing their exams. Head coach Brian Kelly said he’s not worried about his team’s focus this week.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said his players know what to expect against No. 17 Stanford.

That’s because Notre Dame plays Stanford on Saturday, a team that Kelly and the current Irish senior class have yet to beat. The Cardinal beat Notre Dame soundly in their past two meeting, and Kelly said Tuesday those mental bruises are still lingering 10 months later.

“If there is one team that has physically beaten us, it’s been Stanford. And [Notre Dame’s players] know that,” Kelly said. “They turned the film on and watched what they did to their opponents. They physically intimidated their opponents, and that’s clear. …They don’t need much push from me to know what to expect this weekend.”

Stanford likes to flex its muscle on both sides of the ball — attacking defenses with a persistent running game and big tight ends, and attacking offenses with an aggressive group of linebackers.

Senior running back Stepfan Taylor, who Kelly called the heart of the Cardinal team, is averaging 112 yards per game so far this season. He had 142 yards and two scores last week while wearing down the Arizona defense for a 54-48 overtime victory.

Kelly said Stanford makes it harder to stop the run by making defenses account for their twin tower tight ends. Seniors Zach Ertz (6-foot-6, 252 pounds) and Levine Toilolo (6-foot-8, 265 pounds) are too big for one defensive back to cover, which pulls extra safeties away from the middle of the field where they can be more effective in the run game.

“It’s a nightmare,” Kelly said. “[Irish tight end] Tyler Eifert is the same problem when we split him out. If we put the ball in a good location he’s going to catch it every time. We’ve gotta have some answers there. If it just becomes a match-up there every time one-on-one, we’re going to have to look at some different key coverages.”

Notre Dame didn’t have the right answers during the past two years. Stanford scored seven touchdowns against the Irish during those back-to-back wins and four of them came from passes caught by tight ends. Kelly said this year’s team — which has given up a total of three touchdowns — has closed the gap that left them physically beat a season ago.

“I think we’re stronger physically across the board,” he said. “We’re a mature football team. We have a lot of veterans on defense. From an offensive line standpoint we feel like we can handle ourselves much better.”

Kelly cited the one negative play Notre Dame’s running game allowed against Miami, compared to a long list of plays that went backwards against the Cardinal a year ago. Stanford’s defense is bigger and stronger, too, and has a habit of pushing teams in the wrong direction. Stanford’s defense has an average of 8.8 tackles for loss each game this season, which is the fourth most in the country.

Quick Hits
- Saturday’s game will be the first time two teams who are ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll and the U.S. News & World Report academic poll meet on the field. Kelly said that not enough attention gets paid to teams like Notre Dame and Stanford who are trying to succeed on and off the field.

“I know that's one of the reasons why I came to Notre Dame. I wanted to make sure that everybody knew that you could do it in the classroom and you can certainly do it on the football field,” he said.

- Notre Dame’s players will wear pink towels, cleats, wristbands and other accessories during Saturday’s game as part of the breast cancer awareness campaign embraced on all levels of football during the month of October. Kelly, the husband of a two-time cancer survivor, said the pink-clad trend is “an incredible, powerful thing.”

- The Irish have attempted 75 passes since the last time they surrendered a sack late in a 20-17 win over Purdue. Kelly said that level of protection has helped first-year starter Everett Golson get more comfortable in the pocket.

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