Notre Dame-Stanford Preview - Sports Illustrated

Notre Dame-Stanford Preview

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(AP) - Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the formula against No. 13 Stanford is simple: the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish need their best players to play their best.

''If they do that, they're going to win. So it's a different kind of mentality going into this game, that our really good players have to step up and play really well,'' Kelly said. ''They can't drop the ball, fumble the ball. They know that. I don't have to preach it as much as they know going into this game that they have to take care of the ball and they have to play really well.''

Three fumbles and an interception cost the Irish (10-1) in a 24-22 loss at Clemson in early October, and the Irish survived five turnovers against Boston College last week in a performance that led to escalating concerns by some about whether Notre Dame is playoff worthy.

Kelly believes the Irish should be in the playoffs if they beat the Cardinal (9-2) on Saturday in their regular-season finale, saying he believes Notre Dame has accomplished enough to try to earn the school's first national championship since 1988.

However, Notre Dame dropped from fourth to sixth in this week's College Football Playoff rankings.

''I think if you look at the teams across the board that we've played, from the start in September, all the way through November, we've played a very good schedule. It hasn't been front-loaded. It hasn't been back-loaded. We've had to play good football all year,'' he said.

The knock on the Irish is their defense has played up and down all season. They've forced opponents to go three-and-out on 29.7 percent of their possessions, ranking 11th-best nationally, but they've allowed 18 plays of 35 yards or more. They've also lost focus at times, allowing Georgia Tech to score two late touchdowns to make it close and allowing Boston College to score 13 points in the fourth quarter last Saturday to cut the lead to 19-16 to make it uncomfortably close.

''If we have a weakness, when we feel the game is in our hands, we let up a little bit,'' Kelly said. ''That's unfortunate, but it's a little bit of who we are.''

Kelly's defense will have its hands full against Stanford's speed.

With Christian McCaffrey running past defenders and into Heisman Trophy consideration and freshman Bryce Love taking advantage of his limited opportunities to deliver big plays in a flash, the Cardinal have become more difficult to defend than ever.

''We've talked so much about increasing our speed really for the last six or seven years,'' coach David Shaw said. ''To find those guys that can finish plays. We talked a couple years ago about tired of having 20-yard gains, we want 50-yard touchdowns.''

The Cardinal have eight touchdowns of at least 50 yards and six of 40 or more yards. McCaffrey and Love are the biggest reasons for this added element, providing an added challenge for defenses.

''They've had speed on the perimeter, and I just think that they've got McCaffrey who gives it to them in all phases of the game,'' Kelly said. ''I think that's probably the difference on offense.''

McCaffrey leads the nation in all-purpose yards (2,807) and is second in rushing yards (1,546). He has four of Stanford's long touchdowns and several other big plays that ended before the end zone.

''I think that we're kind of a cliche power football team is what people like to call us and we have so much speed and athleticism on this team, it's fun to see,'' McCaffrey said. ''I think it does surprise a lot of defenses.''

McCaffrey has done his damage from a multitude of positions, scoring on long runs from the backfield, passes and even a 98-yard kickoff return in a 35-22 win against California last week.

''He's an explosive runner,'' offensive lineman Joshua Garnett said. ''You just give him one little crease and he's gone.''

When teams focus on stopping McCaffrey, that's when Love steps in. Used only sparingly as he learns Stanford's complex offense, Love's sprinter speed has added a dangerous element to the offense.

He has three big-play touchdowns and is averaging 11.4 yards on his 37 offensive touches. Love's latest touchdown came late against Cal when Kevin Hogan faked a handoff to McCaffrey and then gave it to Love on a jet sweep.

Love sprinted 48 yards for the touchdown to seal the win.

McCaffrey and Love are far from alone when it comes to big-play threats for Stanford. Barry Sanders has two long touchdown runs and receiver Michael Rector is a capable deep threat.

''I think we have got one heck of a 4x100 team,'' Shaw said. ''I think it's truly special.''

Kelly listed the players who needed to play great Saturday, starting with receiver Will Fuller, who had three dropped passes against Boston College and has been held without a touchdown for two straight games, and added linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive lineman Sheldon Day and offensive tackle Ronnie Smith.

He didn't mention running back C.J. Prosise, who still was listed as the starter on the depth chart Tuesday although Kelly described him as day-to-day with a high ankle sprain, saying he's in a walking boot. Kelly on Sunday described Prosise as doubtful against Stanford.

If Prosise doesn't play, the Irish will be without 12 players who either started at some point during the season or were expected to be significant contributors before they were injured. Kelly said what sets this team apart is they never complained about the injuries.

''They just keep going and they keep moving forward. That's kind of the mentality of this group,'' he said.

Kelly said all the Irish can do Saturday is play their best and leave their fate in the hands of the selection committee.

''We knew that coming into the season. So we'll take care of what we can take care of,'' Kelly said.