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Stanford turns to Nunes, Taylor to replace Luck

Andrew Gastelum | Friday, October 12, 2012

How do you replace 10,387 total yards of offense, 82 passing touchdowns and a two-time Heisman runner-up whose last name emanates exactly what you hope a quarterback has on his side?

The Cardinal’s answer is replacement by committee, and an experienced one at that as senior playmakers lead each major offensive category on a team relying heavily on fundamentals.

“Over the past three years we obviously went up against one of the best quarterbacks to ever come out of college football,” senior linebacker Manti Te’o said. “It was a pleasure to play against him and be on the same field as him because he brought a different dynamic to the game. But with Stanford, I love playing against this type of team … It’s back-to-basics football.”

In his second year at the helm since taking over for current San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, Stanford coach David Shaw finds his team without its do-it-all leader in No. 1 pick Andrew Luck. Nonetheless, Irish coach Brian Kelly said the Cardinal remain dangerous with a glut of options on the offensive side of the ball.

“Stanford is unique itself,” Kelly said. “Not only do they run the ball out of multiple formations and jumbo packages, they create great one-on-one matchups, so you would think you play a lot of zone you have to drop extra players down to defend the run which gives them a one-on-one matchup. So [it’s] another unique challenge for us.”

The Cardinal offense finds its legs in senior running back Stepfan Taylor, who led Stanford’s 21-14 upset win over No. 2 USC on Sept. 15 with 213 total yards and two touchdowns. The last time Notre Dame saw Taylor, the captain rushed for 118 yards on 20 carries in a 28-14 Stanford win Nov. 26, 2011 in Luck’s last home game.

“We’re going to play a lot of great backs, and I don’t want to throw superlatives out about everybody, but Taylor is an outstanding back,” Kelly said. “He’s proven himself. He’s a physical player. He can get banged up, come back and continue to compete. You can see he’s the heart of their football team and one of their captains.”

Even though Notre Dame shut down Heisman candidates in Michigan State junior running back Le’Veon Bell (77 yards) and Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson (90 yards), Te’o – who has yet to defeat Stanford – said the Irish defense has a tough task in limiting the double-threat ability of Taylor, who leads the team in rushing and is third in receptions.

“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. “I played against him my sophomore year, and the strides he’s made to improve his game have really shown.”

Meanwhile, senior quarterback Josh Nunes has the arduous task of replacing a legend at the quarterback position. Following then-No. 8 Stanford’s 17-13 loss at Washington on Sept. 27, critics and fans alike called for Shaw to bench the first-time starter. But Nunes responded the following week with a five-touchdown performance (two passing, three rushing) and 360 passing yards in a thrilling 54-48 overtime win over Arizona on Saturday.

“Any quarterback who plays under a guy like Luck is going to know a lot and learn a lot because you were able to watch one of the best players in recent years in college football go about his business and emulate whatever he is doing,” sophomore safety Matthias Farley said. “You have to be keyed in on fact that he has a strong arm and can extend the play if he needs to. He’s a very, very talented quarterback and you have to go into the game knowing that he can make plays.”

So far this season, Nunes’ main targets have been a pair of towering senior tight ends: 6-foot-8, 265-pound Levine Toilolo and 6-foot-6, 252-pound Zach Ertz. Toilolo and Ertz have combined for eight touchdowns and 594 receiving yards, more than half of Nunes’ 1,151 passing yards this season.

“They have dual-threat tight ends and they’re big,” Te’o said. “It’s basically a skinnier lineman running out there that can catch and has some speed. Whenever you have that threat, it’s similar to a dual-threat quarterback. You have to understand what you’re going up against and their tendencies and their strengths.”

 

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu