Ah, rules. All our lives we're inundated with them - moral rules, rules of thumb, Road Rules. There's simply no getting around them. While, admittedly, most rules fall into the category of "gee, this is a pain in the ass", some actually do provide benefit. Take for example, "look both ways before crossing the street." It would certainly be delightful to go bounding across the road with nary a care in the world; but, as anyone who has devoted large portions of their youth to Frogger can tell you, such activity can definitely result in your being squashed and denied 50 points.
While we're on the topic of rules, we ought to admit that they apply to football teams as well as the mere mortals who root them on. No, I am not discussing those rules dictated by sad, older men wearing ridiculous striped shirts and white pants (in most cases, post-Labor Day, I might add). Rather, these types of rules are more like your mother telling you to look both ways; just good advice.
In that vein, in order to be successful, two very important rules apply explicitly to this Notre Dame season - 1) win at home, and 2) take care of business against the teams you should beat (particularly savvy fans will note that in Week 1, the Irish managed to nearly break both of these in one fell swoop). In spite of that early scare, Notre Dame is now 3-0 at home to start the season for the first time since 2002 (they haven't finished undefeated at home since '98) and have beaten three teams that, one might argue, they should have. And that, my friends, brings us to the Cardinal of Stanford....
Before I get into the particulars of this year's game, I would just like to take Irish fans on a journey of terror through some previous Stanford/Notre Dame games. This is not for the squeamish, so feel free to skip ahead if the mangled detritus of past ND seasons is a bit much for you. For the rest, behold:
1990 - Stanford 36, Notre Dame, 31: When one considers all of the factors that were present, this may rank as the worst upset in Irish history. The Irish entered the 1990 season having won the 1988 national championship and just narrowly missing out on it in 1989. After beginning the season 3-0 with wins over Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, Notre Dame was ranked #1 in the country and had what looked to be a laugher against Stanford at home as the Cardinal were 1-3 and coming off a home loss to San Jose State. At one point in this game, Notre Dame led 24-7...and then the bottom fell out. Fumbles, offensive ineptitude and a stout effort by Stanford made the score 31-29 Irish with 36 seconds left. It was at that point that "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell plunged into the endzone giving Stanford a 36-31 lead. After a few desperate heaves towards paydirt by Rick Mirer failed to connect, it was all over. Notre Dame would go on to finish the year at 9-3, while Stanford would limp to 5-6. I still gag a little remembering this one.
1992 - Stanford 33, Notre Dame 16: While this Stanford team was better than the 1990 version (they were coached by Bill Walsh and finished 10-3), so was Notre Dame. The Irish ended the year 10-1-1 and #4 in the country (they ended #6 in 1990). Of course, this would end up as their only loss...and, of course, it was at home. It bears mentioning that, on the first play from scrimmage, Demetrious Dubose recorded a safety and, in the second quarter, ND led 16-0 before crapping the bed royally. For these reasons, this one also ranks highly on my list of "games that will induce vomiting."
1997 - Stanford 33, Notre Dame 15: Not nearly as awful a loss as the first two for a couple of reasons - 1) Bob Davie was coaching the Irish (though, Willingham was coaching Stanford), 2) it was on the road, 3) this wasn't a great Notre Dame team. In spite of not being as monumental a choke job, this one was still pretty bad. We're talking here about a Notre Dame team that finished the regular season 7-5 and bowl-bound versus a Stanford team that would end 5-6. Moreover, that Stanford team won by three frickin' touchdowns! In my estimate, this should have been ND fans' first clue that the Davie era would not be a pleasant one.
I bring up these past disasters because, if they're not careful, this year's Notre Dame team could find itself in the same situation for a couple of reasons. First, Stanford is not a bad team. They are currently 3-2, having beaten Oregon State (and, I suppose, by transitive properties, USC), San Jose State and the Washington Huskies (or Tyrriers, as I like to call them). Their two losses were blowouts, but to decent teams - Arizona State (41-17) and TCU (31-14). Beyond all this, Stanford has also done something Notre Dame hasn't yet - win on the road. Simply put, Harbaugh is making great strides and will have these guys fired up and ready to go.
Now, of course, Notre Dame does have some major advantages here. First off, they're coming off their best game in two years and will be playing in front of, what will no doubt be, an energetic home crowd. Second, Notre Dame beat this same Stanford team on the road to end last season and, since then, Notre Dame has improved in much more substantial ways than has Stanford. While both teams were young in 2007 and return a fair number of players (ND lost 26 letterman, Stanford 20), Notre Dame went out and got the top recruiting class in the country; whereas Stanford's came in at #50. More importantly, Notre Dame has six members of that recruiting class in their two-deep and several others contributing regularly (for their part, Stanford has two true freshman in their two-deep). If this were the NFL, it would be the equivalent of Notre Dame having drafted well and signed a number of high profile free agents during the offseason. In other words, while this is no doubt a better Stanford team than last year, this is a much better Notre Dame team. To put it yet another way, this is one of those games the Irish should win.
Beyond talent differentials, the other reason this game is a must-win for the Irish is that it is the last home game until November. After Stanford, Notre Dame goes on the road to take on a tough North Carolina team before a bye week. Following their open date, the Irish travel to Seattle to take on a depleted Washington team who, no doubt, will be desperate for a win; especially against Ty's former team. These are two games that Notre Dame could lose. In the case of UNC, one might even bump that estimate up to probably will.
Things don't get any easier after that. The next home game is against Pitt, a tricky team and a toss-up game. Then, it's off to Chestnut Hill for BC - need I say more? Given this upcoming schedule, it's critically important the Irish dispatch Stanford this weekend. Heading into that slate at 4-1 gives Notre Dame a lot more leeway than would 3-2. A loss would send ND into this stretch on a particularly bad note. It would be a regression and, ultimately, detrimental to the team's ability to finish with a winning record and a decent bowl berth. The last thing a young team like this needs is an emotionally crippling loss at a critical point in this season. This week is a crossroads for Notre Dame - win and you have the wind at your back, lose and the ship starts taking on water. For these reasons, this week's Stanford game is an absolute must-win.