The Irish have face several top-line running backs in 2009, but Toby Gerhart (pictured) might be the best Notre Dame will face this season.

Notre Dame - Stanford Game Preview

Nov. 26, 2009

Tim Prister By Tim Prister ’82

Game 12: Stanford (Nov. 28)
Conference: Pac 10
2008 record: 5-7, including a 28-21 loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 4 in Notre Dame Stadium.
2009 record: 7-4–Opened with a 39-13 victory at Washington State before falling at Wake Forest, 24-17. The Cardinal strung together three straight home victories over San Jose State (42-17), Washington (34-14) and UCLA (24-16), but then lost back-to-back road games to Oregon State (38-28) and Arizona (43-38) before returning home for a 33-14 victory over Arizona State. With two weeks preparation, the Cardinal knocked off No. 8 Oregon, 51-42, and then manhandled No. 9 USC, 55-21. Stanford couldn’t maintain the momentum last week against Cal when the Bears came away with a 34-28 victory.

Location: Stanford Stadium
Kickoff: 5:00 p.m. PT
TV Coverage: ABC

Stanford head coach: Now in his third season on The Farm, Jim Harbaugh gradually is bringing Stanford back to football prominence. After inheriting a 1-11 squad, the Cardinal went 4-8 in ’07 and 5-7 in ’08. The seven victories this season qualify Stanford for a bowl game for the first time since 2001.

The former Michigan quarterback standout and 15-year NFL quarterback threw for nearly 27,000 yards and 129 touchdowns in his career with five NFL teams. He was 21-3-1 as a starter with the Wolverines. He served as an NCAA-certified unpaid assistant for his father, Jack at Western Kentucky, while he was still playing in the NFL.

Harbaugh’s first head coaching job was at the University of San Diego, where he was 29-6 in three seasons. Harbaugh was 11-1 in 2005 and 2006, claiming the Division 1-AA Mid-Major National Championship both seasons.

Series history: Notre Dame and Stanford have met on the gridiron 23 times, 19 of which have been played since 1988. Notre Dame has won 17 and lost six in the series, including seven in a row. The series has been continuous since 1997, during which time the Irish have a 9-3 record against the Cardinal.

In 1990, No. 1-ranked Notre Dame lost to unranked Stanford, 36-31, in Notre Dame Stadium. Two years later, the Cardinal returned to Notre Dame Stadium to take on the No. 7-ranked Irish, and No. 19 Stanford pulled off the upset again, 33-16.

Although the Irish have won seven in a row in the series, four of the last five have been decided by just 29 points, including last year’s 28-21 Irish victory in which the Cardinal stormed back from a three-touchdown deficit.

The two teams played for the first time on Jan. 1, 1925 in the Rose Bowl. Knute Rockne and the famed Four Horsemen brought a perfect 9-0 record to the West Coast to take on Coach Pop Warner and the Stanford squad led by Ernie Nevers. The 27-10 victory gave the Irish their first national championship in football.

Weis on Harbaugh: Irish head coach Charlie Weis’ admiration for Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh extends back to his days of coaching in the NFL when Harbaugh was quarterbacking the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC Championship Game in 1995.

“There aren’t very many quarterbacks that are tough guys,” Weis said. “They like to think they’re tough guys, but there aren’t that many that are, and he was one that was. I have a lot of respect for those quarterbacks that are tough guys.

“At (the quarterback) position where there are so many people that want to get protected all the time and (have the) `don’t hit me’ (attitude) and everything should be a flag, there aren’t very many people who will mix it up with you, and (Harbaugh) certainly was one. That personality permeates down.”

Toughness shows: Harbaugh’s toughness shows in the way his team has learned how to run the football. In his first year at Stanford, the Cardinal averaged 3.0 yards per carry and 111 yards rushing per game. By last season, Stanford was averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 200 yards rushing per game.

This season, Stanford is averaging 219.3 yards rushing per game and 5.4 yards per carry, led by the ultimate bruiser in 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior running back Toby Gerhart. Gerhart, who easily set the Stanford record for rushing yards in a season with 1,531 yards so far this season, ranks third nationally in yards per game at 139.2. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in nine of Stanford’s 11 games, including 200-yard efforts against Washington (200) and Oregon (223). Just as noteworthy was his 29-carry, 178-yard effort against USC.

“He’ll be one of the first guys taken (in the NFL draft) because he’s a dependable, every-down runner they can just hand the ball to 25, 30 times a game,” said Weis of Gerhart. “There aren’t very many of them that size that are as durable and that have a proven track record. He’s right up there with the best of them.”

Gerhart has rushed for a nation-leading 23 touchdowns. He enters the Notre Dame game with five straight 100-yard rushing games. He now has 18 100-yard games in his career and will finish his time on The Farm No. 2 on the school’s all-time rushing list behind Darrin Nelson.

“He’s just explosive and he keeps his legs moving at all times,” said Irish defensive end Darius Fleming. “He’s one of the few running backs that keeps his legs moving after contact. Besides being a big guy, he is as quick as he is powerful, and he’s tough.”

Three of Stanford’s top 10 single-game rushing performances in school history have come over the last two seasons, including two this season (321 vs. Washington and 325 vs. USC). The Cardinal rushed for 237 yards against Arizona State, which came into the game ranked second nationally against the run at 57.8 yards per game. Stanford has rushed for 200 or more yards six times this season. In its seven wins, Stanford has averaged 258.5 yards rushing per game.

“They are a power run team,” said Irish linebacker Brian Smith. “They have some sets that are obvious run plays, and they’re going to just try to run it down your throat. They’ll show you what they’re going to run and then try to run it down your throat.”

Beating the big boys: After losing his first three games to ranked opponents in 2007, Harbaugh not only has had success against ranked teams since then, but spectacular success on occasion. With a 1-3 record in `07, including a 28-point loss to UCLA, a 24-point loss to Oregon and a 38-point loss to Arizona State, the Cardinal traveled to USC as a 41-point underdog. Stanford shocked the college football world with a 24-23 victory.

Stanford failed to defeat either of its ranked foes in ’08 (a 41-17 loss to No. 15 Arizona State and a 22-point loss to No. 6 USC). But the Cardinal is 3-0 against ranked teams this year, including victories over No. 24 Washington, No. 8 Oregon and No. 9 USC, which marked the second straight time the Cardinal had gone to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and knocked off the Trojans.

The flip side is that all four of Stanford’s losses this season have come against unranked teams, although three of the losses have come against 8-3 Oregon State, 8-3 rival Cal and 6-4 Arizona. The loss to Wake Forest in the second week of the season now looks like a bad loss with the Demon Deacons falling to 4-7 on the season.

Notre Dame connection: Three Stanford players–wide receiver Chris Owusu, safety Sean Wiser and offensive tackle Joe Dembesky–were high school teammates of Jimmy Clausen’s at Oaks Christian Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Wiser, a wide receiver in high school, caught 60 passes for 904 yards and nine touchdowns from Clausen in ’06. Owusu caught 33 passes for 747 yards and nine touchdowns the same season.

Two former Irish players are on the Stanford roster. Former Irish tight end Konrad Reuland is No. 3 on the Cardinal depth chart. Reuland has six receptions for 142 yards (23.7-yard average). Former Irish walk-on kicker Nate Whitaker has excelled this season for Stanford. He has converted 11-of-17 field goals, including a 54-yarder against Wake Forest, and is second on the team in scoring with 54 points.

Home cooking: For years, Stanford Stadium had been known as one of the easiest places in the country to play. Small crowds more concerned about the performance of the band were considered the norm in Palo Alto.

No longer.

Stanford has posted a 9-2 record at home over the last two seasons after going just 3-16 on its home turf from 2005-07.

Toby Gerhart particularly likes playing in Stanford Stadium since he has rushed for more than 100 yards in 12 straight games, dating back to the 2007 season.

As Luck would have it: While Notre Dame is proud of Jimmy Clausen’s accomplishments this season, Harbaugh has not been hesitant to call his red-shirt freshman, Andrew Luck, the best quarterback in the country.

Luck ranks second in the Pac 10 and 11th nationally in passing efficiency. His 423-yard passing performance against Arizona ranks third on Stanford’s single-game chart. He became the first Stanford quarterback to throw for more than 400 yards with fewer than 25 completions when he averaged 20.14 yards per his 21 completions against the Wildcats.

His 2,377 yards passing on the season is the highest total by a Stanford freshman quarterback, breaking the old mark of 2,134 yards set by Chad Hutchinson in 1993. His 13 passing touchdowns are the most by a freshman since Steve Stenstrom’s 15 in 1991.

Return address: Stanford is one of the nation’s top return teams with a total of four (three kickoffs, one punt) for touchdowns. The Cardinal ranks second nationally in kickoff returns with a 29.3-yard average.

Chris Owusu, Clausen’s old high school teammate, is fourth nationally with a 32.5-yard average. He has returned three kickoffs for scores, including the opening kickoffs against San Jose State and Washington. The three kick returns for scores ties a Pac 10 record originally set by USC’s Anthony Davis in 1974 and tied by UCLA’s Matthew Slater in 2007.

Richard Sherman returned a San Jose State punt 48 yards for a touchdown in the third week of the season.

Key match-ups: The Irish face one of their worst match-ups of the year–Stanford’s rushing attack versus Notre Dame’s rush defense. On the heels of allowing five 100-yard rushers in the last three games (Navy’s Ricky Dobbs and Vince Murray, Pittsburgh’s Dion Lewis, and Connecticut’s Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon), the Irish must now stop Gerhart, who has pounded some of the best rush defenses in the country, let alone an Irish unit that ranks 80th in the country against the run.

While the Irish obviously will have their hands full stopping Gerhart and the Stanford rushing attack, the Cardinal may have some difficulty with Notre Dame’s ground game as well. Stanford is allowing 4.5 yards per carry and 147.9 yards rushing per game. Wake Forest rushed for 251 yards against the Cardinal while Oregon (236) and Cal (242) both cracked the 200-yard mark against Stanford.

Arizona’s Nick Foles threw for 415 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinal. Opponents are completing 62.3 percent of their passes against Stanford. On the season, Jimmy Clausen has been intercepted four times while the Cardinal has just seven interceptions. Clausen and the Irish passing attack have a great opportunity against the Cardinal.

The Irish aren’t expected to get much of a pass rush on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. With opponents focusing on stopping Gerhart, it’s difficult for them to “pin their ears back” and come at Luck. Opponents must respect play-action fakes to Gerhart, and thus, the Stanford offensive line has allowed just six sacks this season.

Notre Dame’s kick coverage unit allowed a 96-yard kickoff return to Connecticut’s Jordan Todman, and now they have to face Chris Owusu, who has three kick returns for touchdowns this season. Notre Dame’s kick coverage ranks 70th in the country while Stanford’s return unit is No. 2.

Don’t be fooled by Nate Whitaker’s overall field goal numbers. Four of his 11 field goals are 29 yards or less. He is just 7-of-13 from 30 yards and beyond, including 3-of-7 from 40-to-49 yards. Between Nick Tausch and David Ruffer, the Irish have converted 18-of-21 field-goal attempts.

Fighting Irish/Cardinal facts… Ben Turk’s 47.0-yard average on five punts last week against Connecticut was the best by an Irish punter since Geoff Price averaged 47.4 yards on five punts in the Sugar Bowl against LSU following the 2006 season … Golden Tate and Michael Floyd both have eclipsed 100 receiving yards in each of the last three games to become the first Notre Dame receivers to accomplish that feat since Derrick Mayes in 1995 … Notre Dame, Air Force, Navy, Wake Forest and SMU are the only schools in the FBS this season to play in more than one overtime game. Notre Dame is 1-1 in overtime games this season with a victory over Washington and a loss to Connecticut. The Irish are 3-7 all-time in overtime. Nine of Notre Dame’s 10 overtime games have been played in Notre Dame Stadium … Notre Dame’s 209.93-yard improvement per game since 2007 is the greatest gain over that two-year span in the FBS. In fact, no one is even close. No. 2 on the list is Utah State with a 152.35-yard improvement. No. 3 is Stanford with a 123.1-yard improvement … Notre Dame continues to struggle to score touchdowns in the red zone. Just 3-of-6 against Connecticut, the Irish are now 26-of-48 (54 percent) in scoring touchdowns in the red zone … Sam Young is expected to improve his all-time Irish record for consecutive starts to 50 this weekend against Stanford.

Stanford’s seven victories are the most by a Cardinal squad since 2001 when Tyrone Willingham fashioned a 9-3 record … Stanford has made a habit of starting fast this season. The Cardinal has out-scored its opponents 119-50 in the first quarter and 104-65 in the second quarter. Stanford has scored first in eight of its 11 games, including scores seven times on their opening drive … Stanford ranks 13th nationally in scoring with a 35.4 average. Their back-to-back 50-point efforts against Oregon and USC marked just the second time in school history that they had achieved that feat. The last time was 1999 when the Cardinal defeated Washington State, 54-17, and Arizona, 50-22. The 55 points scored against USC were the most ever allowed by a Trojan team … Stanford has won 15 straight Directors’ Cups, which is awarded annually to the top intercollegiate program in the country. A total of 14 Stanford teams finished in the top 10 in their respective polls. Last year, Stanford claimed national titles in men’s gymnastics and women’s rowing.

Tim Prister — Notre Dame’s starting third baseman in 1981-82 — is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he had attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games–every one since Lou Holtz’s first in 1986.