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Notre Dame vs. Stanford: Is This a Must Win Game for the Irish?

It’s been a long week as Notre Dame players, coaches and fans seek to respond to the two straight losses suffered at the hands of Michigan and Michigan State.

Now that the Wolverines and Spartans have jumped into the polls, Notre Dame’s schedule doesn’t relent as the Irish face their first ranked opponent of the Brian Kelly era.

The 16th ranked Stanford Cardinal make the trip to South Bend this weekend after dispatching Sacramento State, effortlessly pounding UCLA and dropping 68 points on Wake Forest to start the 2010 season.

Like so often happens early in the Irish schedule, this will be the fourth straight undefeated opponent that Notre Dame will play (yes, I counted 0-0 Purdue).

After a bit of a rocky start to Brian Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame, a thin layer of desperation is floating in the air as fan and foe alike envision a brutal 1-5 start to the season with the match up against the Cardinal followed by battles against Boston College and Pittsburgh.

Does that make this weekend’s game a must-win for Notre Dame?

In the grand scheme of things, this week’s tilt against Stanford is not a must-win situation even though it is an important measuring stick for this Irish team and its new head coach.

Oddly enough, despite the disappointing 1-2 start, the threat of early season losses piling up and all the negativity that comes from a lack of winning, I think Notre Dame is in a good position this week.

That is because the Irish are still in the early stages of a new coaching staff, the team is an underdog (currently sitting at +4) and most rational fans are not expecting a victory over a ranked opponent after slightly readjusting expectations following week three’s conclusion.

There’s always going to be pressure to win every single game and there will no doubt be throngs of fans sharpening their pitch forks with a 1-3 start, but there is much more reward available in this match up then there is a risk at stake.

Would a Defeat of Stanford Be the Biggest Win in Years?

Our team at One Foot Down hosted this week’s Irish Blogger Gathering and this was the second part of the question and answer that I submitted. Here’s what I had to say:

"As far as a defeat of this Stanford team being the biggest win of the last six years, well I think it would have to be taken into consideration.

This is the highest the Cardinal have ever been ranked coming into a game at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish have lost 11 straight to teams ranked sixteenth or higher in the polls and the last home victory over a team ranked at or better than where Stanford is right now was six years ago in 2004 against No. 8 Michigan.

So yeah, it would be a pretty big win in Brian Kelly’s first season."

Those 11 straight losses have come to the following teams:

No. 8 Pittsburgh (2009), No. 6 USC (2009), No. 5 USC (2008), No. 13 USC (2007), No. 4 Boston College (2007), No. 14 Penn State (2007), No. 4 LSU (2006 bowl), No. 3 USC (2006), No. 11 Michigan (2006), No. 4 Ohio State (2005 bowl) and No. 1 USC (2005).

After beating No. 23 Pitt and No. 3 Michigan in his first two games at Notre Dame, Charlie Weis did not defeat a single team that finished the year ranked over the rest of his career at Notre Dame.

When a program has struggled in such an ugly fashion against top 16 teams (these 11 straight losses coming by an average of 19 points) it is numbing to think of that number climbing to a dozen.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve all given up the fact that the Irish will win, but that a loss isn’t as shocking as it once was when Lou Holtz went 25-17-1 against top 16 teams.

The previous paragraph pretty much sums up the state of the Notre Dame program over the past ten to fifteen years and it is definitely not an easy pill to swallow for many. But it is what it is and there’s nothing we can do about it until the Irish start winning some of these big games.

Which is why, despite the dour attitude exhibited by many after last weekend’s loss, I am rather excited for Notre Dame to play Stanford.

Honestly, what if the Fighting Irish pull out a victory?

Do you know what that could do for a program in the infant stages of a new coaching regime? Or how much confidence it would give the team after a slow start to the season?

This could be the type of victory that turns the season around and puts the nation on notice that Notre Dame is building a stronger program and is ready to beat top teams again.

Sure you could say that Weis won his first game two games against ranked opponents and the excitement from those victories never materialized for the program as a whole later down the road. But those two wins came against teams that finished the year unranked and with a combined record of 12-11.

Looking back, those wins were about deceptive as any in recent memory.

This 2010 Stanford team however, looks to be a club that can win nine or 10 games if they stay on track this year. A win over a team like that would mean a lot more for Notre Dame going forward with a new staff in place.

Does Stanford Really Qualify as a Top Team?

There’s no question in my mind that right now the Cardinal are one of the top teams in the country and one of the favorites to win the Pac-10. I will hear none of the snobbery which says that Stanford is not Florida or Texas, therefore beating them can not be considered a big win.

Many thought they’d take a step back this year without Heisman candidate Toby Gerhart running the ball, but so far the Cardinal offense looks even better than last year. Anytime a team scores 68 points against another BCS conference team (especially when it’s Wake Forest and not say, Washington State), you know their offense is powerful.

In comparison, Notre Dame has only scored 68 points twice since World War II, with the last occasion coming in a 1977 beat down of Georgia Tech to the tune of a 69-14 final score.

Plus, Stanford has maybe the best quarterback in the nation in Andrew Luck. Put a gun to my head right now and I’m either picking Luck or Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett to lead my team at quarterback. Great teams usually have really good quarterbacks and Luck is one of the best.

Also, Luck is not the entire offense like so many would assume. So far Stanford has six different players with 10 or more rushing attempts, while the team has four players with 100 or more yards gained this year.

At receiver, seven different players have totaled 50 yards or more through the first three games and the Cardinal boast one of the best return games in the country with Chris Owusu handling the ball (and he was injured for the first two games).

In essence, Stanford matches up in the best possible way against the Notre Dame defense with a power running game, multiple weapons at running back and receiver plus a quarterback capable of doing damage through the air (and on the ground too; Luck has 140 yards this year) and who rarely turns the ball over.

The Cardinal have some athletes on defense but clearly that side of the ball is what’s holding them back from being a legit national title contender.

The big question will be if Notre Dame’s offense can keep pace with the Stanford offense and not continue its early season habit of turning the ball over at inopportune times and failing to put the ball in the end zone.

But there can be no question that Stanford is a very good team and that a win over the Cardinal would be something extremely positive to take away from the first month of this season.

Using This Game as a Measuring Stick

I don’t want to advocate the acceptance of losing or promote the notion that everything will be fine and dandy if Stanford defeats Notre Dame this Saturday, because there could be some severe repercussions from a loss.

Will the team’s psyche be so damaged by a 1-3 start that they will never be able to recover?

What will seniors like Armando Allen, Chris Stewart and Brian Smith do when the only thing left to fight for is pride and a middle of the road bowl game?

Even though a loss wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would likely bring up more questions and doubts for everyone involved with the Irish program.

I don’t think anyone is pining to travel down that road right now.

However, I get the sense that as long as the Irish are not blown out and continue making progress in certain areas, then this game will be an inevitable bump in the road on the way to greater days in the future.

And make no mistake about it, Notre Dame can win this game too.

Stanford is going to have a hard time dealing with the Irish spread attack and the multitude of passing options available to quarterback Dayne Crist. What’s more, Stanford has shown that they can be gashed on the ground by opposing team’s running backs.

As scary as Stanford’s offense has looked so far this year they really haven’t gone toe to toe with a formidable opponent yet and when push comes to shove Notre Dame might have a decent edge on defense.

I guess my point is this: Notre Dame is not favored to win and if recent history is any judge, probably won’t win.

But if the Irish come out and play hard for 60 minutes and actually come out on top, it could be one of the season defining victories that gives the fans hope going into next year, even if Notre Dame’s 2010 record isn’t pristine come this December.

And who knows, maybe a victory over Stanford will be the catalyst for a six game winning streak that completely turns around the perception of this team after the loss to Michigan State.

This is what I mean when I say that a loss won’t be too devastating (low risk being an underdog with a new coach) but a win could be a giant stepping-stone for the future.

Notre Dame and her followers are starving for this victory and demoralized after another heart breaking loss last week.

Maybe this will be the game where Notre Dame finally gets the breaks, puts in a great effort and lifts everyone’s spirits.