Oct. 12, 2016

By John Heisler

The vibe this week has been a bit different for both Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Stanford’s David Shaw.

Both these programs have won football games at hefty rates in recent years. Kelly and Shaw have been used to pointing their teams in the direction of the playoffs and major bowl games.

In fact, when the Irish and Cardinal have met in each of the last five seasons, both teams have been nationally ranked–with Notre Dame three of the last four seasons ranked ninth or higher.

Stanford has played in the Rose Bowl three of the last four years (winning two of those), while Notre Dame appeared in the Bowl Championship Series title game in 2012 and a year ago played in a New Year’s Six contest.

In 2016, however, both teams (Stanford at 3-2 and Notre Dame at 2-4) come to Notre Dame Stadium unranked (that hasn’t happened since three straight meetings in 2007-08-09) after both began the year in the Associated Press preseason top 10.

The Cardinal hasn’t come into this rivalry off consecutive losses since doing that twice in a row in 2006 and 2007.

Since the series was renewed in 1988, only six times (1997, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2009, 2010) has Notre Dame come into the Stanford matchup having lost the previous week.

It’s the first time since 2009 that both teams come in off a loss (Stanford had fallen the previous week to California that year, the Irish had lost three in a row).

All that tells you why it’s been a bit unusual for Kelly and Shaw to have spent more time than normal this week analyzing their own teams with the media than projecting intricacies of the 2016 matchup.

But don’t think that means the competition Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium will be any less intense.

History in this rivalry favors the home team, especially in recent years. Notre Dame has won 12 of 15 games in Notre Dame Stadium, falling only in 1990, 1992 and 2010. Stanford has won five of the last seven meetings overall, including four straight in Palo Alto (the Irish have not won there since 2007). Notre Dame has won eight of the last nine in South Bend.

Each of the last four games has been decided by seven points or less–including by an average of 4.7 points.

Both teams are seeking ways to mount more effective running games.

Even with standout all-purpose back Christian McCaffrey individually leading the Pac-12 in that category, the Cardinal ranks 100th nationally in rushing (140.8 yards per game), while the Irish stand 92nd (149.5). McCaffrey’s status for the game Saturday is a question mark after he was “banged up” in last week’s game against Washington State.

“I don’t know that you’re always going to have the kind of offensive line that is experienced and veteran every year,” says Kelly. “There’s going to be some curve to it relative to the best offensive lines of all-time.

“This one is going to get better and better each week. It’s got three new starters on it. I like the fact that there’s five guys there that have a great chance of all playing together for a couple more years. That’s the real test. Yeah, we all want them to be the best they can be right now, but we have to be a little bit patient with them as well.

“I think you have to have a demeanor on offense, and it’s one that we don’t have yet. But we’re working on it. There has to be a mental approach to this. It’s not just about scheme. It’s about exerting your will, and I think our guys are working toward that and understand it and what has to happen. It’s more about exerting will than anything else.”

Both teams would like to turn around the turnover totals–with the Irish at minus-five and Stanford at minus-three.

And Shaw’s squad will be looking to upgrade an offense that currently averages 19.4 points and 307 yards per game–after the Cardinal a year ago finished at 37.8 and 435.5, respectively.

Stanford rushed for a combined total of 90 net yards in its losses to Washington and Washington State the past two Saturdays, while pouring rain and wind had something to do with limiting the Irish to 59 ground yards at North Carolina State. The Cardinal has scored four rushing TDs in 2016–but has none to show for its efforts over the last three games.

Kelly’s solution is for he and his team to find ways to close out games. The four Irish losses have come by an average of 5.2 points–and none by more than eight points.

“This year we’ve had four losses where we’ve been within a possession, whether we were on offense or defense, with a chance to win the game,” says the Irish head coach.

“Over my time here at Notre Dame we’ve won 21 games by seven points or less, and it’s the nature of the games that we play here at Notre Dame. They’re going to be close games. We’ve won those games historically, and this year we have not won those games.

“We had an opportunity to discuss the things we have to do to win those close games, and we’re working hard on that. We expect to win some of the close games that we’re going to be playing in over the next six weeks.

“Look, it would be easier if we were getting beat by 40 points, you know? We could resign ourselves to the fact that it is what it is. But we’re in a position to win these games, and we have to find a way to win.

“You have to have focused action in some really close games, and that’s where the next level is for our football team.”

The Notre Dame-Stanford series has produced plenty of moments for the history books for both teams.

Among the Irish highlights have been these games:

–1924–Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen defeated Pop Warner and Ernie Nevers 27-10 in the Rose Bowl in a national championship season for Notre Dame.

–2005–Notre Dame helped close out old Stanford Stadium after 84 seasons with a 38-31 win. A Darius Walker six-yard TD run finished an 80-yard Notre Dame drive as the Irish scored the winning points with 55 seconds remaining.

–2012–Notre Dame prevailed 20-13 in the rain in overtime in South Bend as the Irish defense thwarted Cardinal back Stepfan Taylor at the goal line on fourth down to end the game.

–2014–In the most recent game at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish came from behind to score on a fourth-down throw from Everett Golson to Ben Koyack in the end zone with 1:01 on the clock for a 17-14 Notre Dame triumph.

Kelly and Shaw will be looking to add to their respective lists in prime time Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.

And records aside, Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer hasn’t forgotten last year’s game (when Kizer scored the go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds remaining, only to see Stanford kick a field goal as time expired to win 38-36) nor the overall significance of the rivalry:

“(Last year) was everything and more when it comes to being in a rivalry game when two teams on two sides of the country play against each other. And you hear all about it. To go out there and play them was awesome.

“Obviously, we were playing for an opportunity to play in a national championship. To lose the way we did definitely hurt, and that’s something that’s definitely fueling our preparation moving forward for this game. We’ll definitely keep that in mind as we continue to get ourselves ready to go back out there and play against them again.

“It doesn’t matter if both teams are undefeated or both teams are zero-win teams. When you’re playing Stanford, you know everything that’s been put into this rivalry. There’s a lot of history that goes back with this rivalry that I don’t even know of, that I know I have to go out and represent. To have the opportunity to put on the golden helmet against the Cardinal out there, it’s an honor, and you really have to treat it that way.

“So moving into this game there is nothing on my mind as far as a rocky start, a great start, personal accolades. None of that is on your mind. You just want to focus on how you can win a rivalry game against Stanford.”

*The back half of Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule features three ranked teams in the current Associated Press poll–#16 Miami, #17 Virginia Tech and #25 Navy, all at 4-1–and all six teams are .500 or better with a combined 21-10 mark.

*The Notre Dame-North Carolina State game earned a 2.4 rating (3.72 million viewers) on ABC, making it the fourth highest-rated game of the day–behind Tennessee-Texas A&M (3.9 on CBS), Miami-Florida State (3.2 in prime time on ABC) and Alabama-Arkansas (2.55 in prime time on ESPN).

*Notre Dame on six previous occasions has opened seasons at 2-4 (1962, 1963, Gerry Faust’s first season in 1981, Lou Holtz’s first season in 1986, Bob Davie’s first season in 1997, 2003)–with the 1997 season marking the best finish at 7-6 after Davie’s initial team won its last five regular-season games.

Here are introductions and presentations scheduled for Saturday night in conjunction with the Notre Dame-Stanford game:

–The colors will be presented by John J. Brennan, chair of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees, and his wife, Cathy. Mr. Brennan is the chairman emeritus and former chief executive officer of Vanguard Group, and the Brennans are the parents of three Notre Dame graduates–William, Kara and Conor.

–Notre Dame four-time NCAA individual track and field champion Molly Seidel will be recognized just prior to kickoff.

–The Presidential Team Irish Award goes to the YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative) program at Notre Dame.

–Notre Dame’s Rio Olympians will be recognized at a first-period timeout.

–The Notre Dame faculty recognition goes to Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of History and the Kroc Institute for International Studies.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following the Irish athletics scene since 1978.