Notre Dame preparing for physical test against Stanford

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Notre Dame preparing for physical test against Stanford

Last week was fast and athletic. This week, it's big and physical.

Miami came out swinging last week, and would've jumped out to an early lead had wide receiver Phillip Dorsett not dropped two sure-fire touchdown passes. Notre Dame weathered that storm and went on to hold the 'Canes to just three points, extending the team's touchdown-less streak to 12 quarters.

On Saturday, Notre Dame's opponent has a different offensive profile.

"Theyre a run-first team, theyll try to smash it down your throat and then throw a shot pass or something, so you really gotta be locked in on your assignment each and every play," safety Matthias Farley said of Stanford's offense. "If you have a tight end, then you have to be locked in on the tight end or whatever it is, because the tight ends are big, theyre fast, theyre physical and they can lull you to sleep with the run."

Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are matchup nightmares for a defense, and the pair top Cardinal pass-catchers in receptions. But running back Stepfan Taylor is who makes Stanford's offense go, carrying 119 times for 555 yards and five touchdowns.

"He's fast, he's strong, he's a powerful runner, and he keeps his legs moving, which makes it hard for opponents to bring him down," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "I played against him my sophomore year, and the strides he's made to improve his game have really shown. He's doing really good."

In two games against Notre Dame -- both wins for Stanford -- Taylor has rushed 226 yards on 48 carries. He's gone above 100 yards on the ground in both games, acting as an offspeed pitch for an offense led by Andrew Luck.

This year, though, the roles are reversed. Taylor is the go-to guy, while Stanford's passing game is the change of pace.

While Notre Dame has seen opposing defenses roll coverages to keep the ball out of Tyler Eifert's hands, teams haven't been able to do that against Stanford. Roll to Ertz, they'll throw to Toilolo, and vice versa.

"It's basically a skinnier lineman running up that can catch that has some speed," Te'o said. "Whenever you have that threat, it's similar to the threat, a dual threat quarterback."

"It's a nightmare," coach Brian Kelly explained. "Tyler Eifert is the same problem if we split him out, if we put the ball in a good location he's going to catch it every time so we've got to have some answers there. If it just becomes a matchup every time, we're going to have to look at some different key coverages. So we're aware of what our problems are and we'll have to address them if the game shows them to be real issues."

Stanford's offense was at its best last week, scoring 54 points in a shootout win over Arizona. Taylor rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, while Ertz and Toilolo combined to catch 11 passes for 205 yards and two scores. On the flip side, though, Stanford's defense gave up 48 points and 617 yards to an offense that had quarterback Matt Scott throw 69 times.

"I think Arizona's quarterback was outstanding. I don't know that he played at a level that he's never played before because I didn't have enough film to watch, but I hadn't seen a guy play that well so the quarterback was outstanding," Kelly said. "Arizona got worn down. They're not a big, physical team. Stanford started to exert their will on them and that's how that game got up into the higher numbers. The quarterback was outstanding for Arizona, and then Stanford just wore them out."

Stanford has shown it's equipped for a shootout, even as uncharacteristic as that sounds. Notre Dame hasn't shown that -- largely because they haven't had to -- but chances are, this Saturday won't replicate last Saturday in the box score.

A key here for Notre Dame, though, is Stanford has only been tested once on the road this year. That was a 17-13 loss at Washington, a game in which Taylor only ran for 75 yards and Stanford's offense didn't score a touchdown. The Cardinal only mustered 235 yards of offense against Washington, so there is a blueprint out there.

The national spotlight is back on Notre Dame this weekend, with College GameDay posting up in front of Hesburgh Library and NBC sending Doug Flutie, Hines Ward and its college football crew to South Bend. The first batch of BCS standings will be revealed on Sunday, and if Notre Dame wins, they could be in the mix for the No. 1 spot.

But the mantra all week, and all year, has been to tune out the noise.

"For us, I think I our team is at a point where we're mature enough where we understand where our mindset needs to be, where our focus needs to be," Te'o said. "That's on Stanford. It's going to take all hundred and something of us, players and coaches, to be focused on Stanford in order to beat them."

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