If you're reading this, you know a few things about Stanford Football. First, the Cardinal went to South Bend on Saturday afternoon and came away with a victory that was surprising only in the level of dominance. They beat the Irish soundly on both sides of the ball, and the game really wasn't as close as the score would indicate.
You also might know that the Cardinal has ascended to #9 in the current AP poll, a ranking which would've seemed inconceivable as recently as two years ago.
And, of course, you know that Stanford heads to Eugene, Oregon, next Saturday evening for a matchup with the fourth-ranked Oregon Ducks. There are several marquee games next weekend -- Texas-Oklahoma, Wisconsin-Michigan State, Florida-Alabama -- but the biggest game on a day of big games will involve the Stanford Cardinal. It's big enough that ABC has moved the game to prime time, so folks on the east coast won't have to stay up late. More on that matchup later.
But first let's look back on the Notre Dame game. I had no doubt that the Cardinal would win this game, but I was impressed with the manner in which they won. Andrew Luck played well, but he didn't look a Heisman candidate. (The running game was solid, but the running back committee only totaled 166 yards rushing. Basically, the offense did what they needed to, whether running or passing, and rolled up 404 total yards and 37 points. Those numbers will win most games.
The story, though, was the defense. Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist threw for 304 yards, but he had to sling it 44 times to reach that total, and he was punished all afternoon. The box score shows three sacks, one of which led to a fumble and an eventual Stanford field goal, but Crist also absorbed countless hits from people like Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas, and Thomas Keiser.
Much was made of the defense's switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, and this was the first game where we truly saw the fruit of that transition. Looking at it now, it makes perfect sense. There aren't too many 6'6" 270-pound athletes out there, and fewer still who can obtain admission to Stanford. Consequently, Stanford defense ends have typically been overgrown linebackers playing out of position. With this new alignment, someone like Keiser can just be a linebacker, so long as he's able to get after the quarterback from time to time. The 3-4 also allows for a variety of blitzing. You won't see anything as complicated as what the Pittsburgh Steelers will throw out there on a Sunday afternoon, but it was clear this weekend that Crist and the Notre Dame offense rarely knew where the pressure would come from. And how did they do against the run? Notre Dame's two running backs totaled 64 yards on the day.
On the sidelines, Jim Harbaugh also clearly out-coached Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. In the closing moments of the first half, for example, the Irish defense intercepted a deflected pass and their offense took over at their own 24-yard line. With just 1:21 left in the half, his team already down 13-6, and Stanford having only one timeout remaining, it would've made sense for the Irish to just head to the locker room, grateful that they were down only a touchdown. It looked like they were going to do just that after Armando Allen was stoned for no gain on first down. But then the Irish got tricky and called for a pass that dropped incomplete, stopping the clock. After Allen ran again on third down, gaining only three yards, Harbaugh burned his final timeout, stopping the clock with forty-five seconds left. After a weak punt, Stanford took over at midfield with thirty-four seconds to work with. From there it went like this: Luck to Stepfan Taylor for 8 yards, Luck to Griff Whalen for 17 yards, Luck on a scramble for 7 yards, and Nate Whitaker for a 36-yard field goal. Stanford 16, Notre Dame 6. To be fair, Brian Kelly might not have been responsible for those play calls (following the punt he looked to be scolding someone on the headset about it), but it was still a botched sequence that cost the team points and buried them just a bit deeper.
If there's an area of concern, it's on the injury front. Chris Owusu played for the second week, but this was his first game returning kicks. He doesn't yet appear to be the weapon that he was last year. If he can continue to improve -- and I'm left to assume it's a knee injury he's dealing with, because Jim Harbaugh won't reveal anything -- he'll add another dimension to an already explosive offense. Ryan Whalen didn't play this week, but we know nothing about his injury, either.
The good news, though, is that this team has greater depth than any Stanford team I've ever seen. The starting tight end went down on the first play of the first game, but with Coby Fleener and Konrad Rueland, this position is still an area of strength. Projected starting wide receivers Owusu and Whalen have missed three games between them, but Luck hasn't missed them, instead focusing on his tight ends and rediscovering Doug Baldwin. Running back Jeremy Stewart has been in and out of the lineup, but the rest of the running backs have made his absence irrelevant.
As of this minute, the Stanford Cardinal is undefeated, atop the Pac-10 standings, and ranked number nine in the nation. Enjoy it now, but get ready for much, much more.
[Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images]