September 30, 2014

(AP) - Ninth-ranked Notre Dame is about to face its stiffest challenge this season.

After beating four teams with a combined record of 7-11 - with none of those opponents' victories coming against Power Five conference teams - the Fighting Irish on Saturday host 14th-ranked Stanford, which has the nation's top-rated defense.

The Cardinal also have beaten the Irish four of their last five meetings.

So it's the first real test for a young Notre Dame squad coming off last Saturday's sloppy 31-15 victory over Syracuse where it won despite five turnovers. Coach Brian Kelly said he doesn't think of the game against Stanford (3-1) in those terms.

''We really focus on what we need to do to get better. We turned the ball over. We gave up some big plays on the perimeter. We focus a lot more on that stuff than the bigger picture issues,'' he said Tuesday, adding the focus of the coaching staff is developing players.

''We are not an experienced group and if we sway too far from working on getting out of our breaks and taking a direct snap, because we may fumble it, we're going to be in trouble. So that's where I really have to stay as a task master when it comes to those details.''

The Irish (4-0) are ranked higher than the Cardinal but are one-point underdogs, just the second time since the start of the 2011 season that an opponent has been favored at Notre Dame Stadium. The other time was last season against Oklahoma, when the Irish were 3 1/2-point underdogs. The Sooners won 35-21.

That was the only home loss for the Irish in the past 16 games after starting 6-5 at home under Kelly.

The Irish have scored 30 or more points in their opening four games, the first time they've accomplished that since the 1943 season, when they won a national championship. The Irish also haven't allowed more than 17 points, so none of the games have been close.

That's expected to change as the Irish face Stanford and then play at top-ranked Florida State in two weeks.

Stanford has the nation's top scoring defense (6.5 points) and is allowing an FBS-low 198 yards per game. But the Cardinal's offense hasn't been able to keep up, ranking 77th in scoring (27.5) and 68th in total yards (413.3) per game.

Stanford also has nine turnovers, is averaging nearly six penalties per game and senior kicker Jordan Williamson is 4 for 8 on field goals.

''Turnovers and penalties and missed field goals have crushed us in the red zone,'' coach David Shaw said. ''It's being confident. It's being efficient. It's being productive. It's always advancing, never retreating.''

Unfortunately for the coach and the Cardinal, it has been too much of the latter lately.

Stanford has won three of four despite its offense, though a 13-10 home loss to Southern California in which the defense dominated still stings. The Cardinal nearly repeated that disaster last Saturday.

Six times Stanford drove inside the Washington 30, but a missed field goal by Williamson and a fumble by quarterback Kevin Hogan kept the game close. The Cardinal committed three turnovers, including Remound Wright's fumble late in the second quarter that was returned 32 yards for a touchdown to pull the Huskies even at 13.

Hogan had a 5-yard TD run with 4:29 left that gave Stanford a 20-13 win.

Shaw said the mistakes are correctable and he will not change the offense's schemes in the red zone because they have been remarkably efficient with Hogan and Andrew Luck at quarterback previously. Instead, he said he expects his players to complete the plays like they do in practice.

Shaw also will continue to use a rotation of running backs - Wright, Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders and Ricky Seale - that has come under scrutiny because, like the offense, it has produced mixed results. Stanford is averaging 165.5 yards rushing after running for 207.4 per game last season behind featured tailback Tyler Gaffney.

The challenge this week will be as daunting as any Stanford's offense faces all season.

The Irish play a similar, physical front as Stanford's defense, and the teams have matched up well against each other recently. The Cardinal beat Notre Dame 27-20 last season at Stanford. In 2012, the Irish stuffed Stepfan Taylor inches from the end zone before a controversial whistle blew the play dead on fourth down, sealing a 20-13 overtime victory against the Cardinal in South Bend.

Shaw compared Notre Dame's defense to the aggressive styles New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio employ because ''everybody is a viable blitzer.'' He said the communication between Hogan and a talented but young offensive line will need to be at its best.

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