By TOM COYNE
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame wants to slug it out with Stanford.
The seventh-ranked Fighting Irish (5-0) were pushed around by the Cardinal (4-1) the past two seasons, and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is challenging his players to go toe-to-toe with No. 17 Stanford on Saturday.
“The theme all week has been, we’re going to be in for a physical, hard-nosed, four quarters, of just one of those good old-fashioned backyard brawls. It’s going to be that kind of game,” Kelly said. “We got our guys thinking about that on Monday and kept building through the week. That’s really been the theme this week for our football team.”
Asked about Stanford trying to intimidate opponents, Kelly cut off the questioner.
“They don’t try. They do,” he said.
Notre Dame is off to its best start in a decade, but Stanford has dominated the long-running series of late. The Cardinal have won three straight for their first winning streak against the Irish, the last two by at least two touchdowns.
The Irish are winless in five career games against ranked Stanford teams, including the past two seasons. Stanford’s 37-14 victory in 2010 is Notre Dame’s most lopsided loss under Kelly.
The Cardinal also have a history of ruining undefeated runs by the Irish. Stanford beat top-ranked Notre Dame 36-31 in 1990, and the 18th-ranked Cardinal downed the No. 6 Irish 33-16 in 1992 for Notre Dame’s only loss that season.
Stanford coach David Shaw was a receiver on that Cardinal team in 1992. He remembers coach Bill Walsh being serious all week leading up to that game.
“He knew we had a chance to win. At the same time, we had to play well and we had to make all the plays we did to win,” he said.
Shaw sees similarities between the Irish and the Cardinal.
“A big physical defense and a running game they want to stick to no matter who they play,” he said. “The styles may be a little different, but I also think we’re pretty similar as far as our philosophies on playing the game of football.”
Each school also has tough academic standards that can make it harder to recruit top athletes. But it’s also what attracts some top players, such as Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who also considered going to Stanford.
“You want to get the best educational experience, and what better place to do that at than Notre Dame and Stanford?” he said.
Te’o has had two of his best games against Stanford. He had 12 tackles in a 28-14 loss last season and a career-high 21 tackles in the 37-14 loss during his sophomore season.
“I love playing against this type of team,” Te’o said. “It’s just football, and they’re going to keep running, running, running until you stop them.”
One of Te’o’s big responsibilities on Saturday will be stopping Stanford tailback Stepfan Taylor, who is 14th in the nation in rushing at 111 yards a game. Overshadowed the past three years by Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart, Taylor is on pace for his third straight 1,000-yard season.
“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,” Te’o said.
This is Stanford’s second road game of the season, following a 17-13 loss at Washington on Sept. 27. The Cardinal are 3-10 at Notre Dame Stadium.
“That’s going to be the big test. That’s our gauntlet. Can we play our best game on the road?” Shaw said.
For the Irish, the test will be matching up physically with Stanford.
“They know ultimately that they can’t win this playing a finesse game,” Kelly said. “They’ve got to win it by beating them at what they do well.”