Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly believes whole-heartedly in his spread offense, which relies on finesse, smart choices, and athleticism. He also believes that the intricacies of the game may have to take a back seat to good old smash-mouth football when his Fighting Irish team plays host to Stanford on October 13.
The Irish are undefeated and ranked seventh in the country going into the game. Notre Dame fans, and alumni like me, have watched the offense grow more complex each week, while the defense remains among the best in the country. This game, however, is going to be more about physical strength than finesse, if past meetings with the Cardinal are any indication.
"I want to go in there and slug away," Kelly says. "I think that's the kind of demeanor we want our football team to continue to take shape with. That's who we want to be. It's how we want to play the game. We try to exert that physical presence both on the offensive line and the defensive line. It's who we're shaping up to be."
Stanford may prove to be Notre Dame's toughest opponent so far this season. The Cardinal are ranked 17th in the country, having already upset heavily-favored USC. They have won three straight against the Irish, each time dominating play physically at the line of scrimmage.
Notre Dame's defense will be tested. The Irish have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season, and Notre Dame has never trailed in its first five games this season. But Stanford is coming off its best offensive performance in over a decade, racking up 617 yards of total offense in a 54-48 win against Arizona.
"They haven't beaten Stanford," Kelly says of his players. "I would say that if there's one team that has physically beaten us - physically -- it's been Stanford, and they know that. Secondly, they turn the film on and watch what Stanford did to their opponents. They physically intimidated their opponents, and that's clear. They don't need much push from me to know what to expect this weekend."
Notre Dame's schedule was judged the toughest in the country in the preseason. Now, the Irish find themselves with Stanford between them and the opportunity to have a nine- or ten-win season, perhaps more, and a place in a BCS bowl game. A win could ensure Notre Dame a top five ranking when the season's first BCS poll is released. Those of us who live and die with Notre Dame every weekend are starting to consider the possibility of a national championship for the first time in a generation.
But first the Irish have to win. To do that, they will have to be tougher and stringer than they have been in the past three meetings with Stanford, and the offense will have to continue the weekly improvement it has shown through the first five games. There are difficult games ahead on the schedule - at Oklahoma and at USC - but first, the Irish have something to prove to themselves and the rest of college football. They need to show that they are tougher than Stanford.
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Rick Blaine, an award-winning broadcaster and columnist, holds two degrees from Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @RickBlaineCT.