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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Ninth-ranked Notre Dame is about to face its stiffest challenge this season.
After beating four teams with a combined record of 7-11, with none of those opponents' victories coming against Power Five conference teams, the Fighting Irish (4-0) on Saturday host 14th-ranked Stanford (3-1), which has the nation's top-rated dense. The Cardinal also has beaten the Irish four of their last five meetings.
So it's the first real test for a young Irish squad coming off a sloppy victory over Syracuse where they won despite five turnovers. Coach Brian Kelly said he doesn't think of the game against Stanford in those terms.
"We really focus on how we need to do to get better. We turned the ball over. We gave up some big plays on the perimeter. We focus a lot more on that stuff than the bigger picture issues," he said Tuesday, adding the focus of the coaching staff is developing players. "We are not an experienced group and if we sway too far from working on getting out of our breaks and taking a direct snap, because we may fumble it, we're going to be in trouble. So that's where I really have to stay as a task master when it comes to those details."
The Irish are ranked higher than the Cardinal but are one-point underdogs, just the second time since the start of the 2011 season that an opponent has been favored over the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. The other time was last season against Oklahoma, when the Irish were 3.5 point underdogs. The Sooners won 35-21.
That was the only home loss for the Irish in the past 16 games after starting 6-5 at home under Kelly. He attributed the improvement to a number of factors, including having better teams and making changes to the team's pregame routine, such as practicing at the stadium on Thursday and moving the pregame Mass from the morning of the game to the previous afternoon.
"At Notre Dame, there's a lot that goes on and probably just setting what I feel like is a really good schedule for our guys that doesn't overload them and then really, getting them to feel comfortable and relaxed at home," he said. "I felt like early in my time here, we were a little uptight and maybe trying to do too much. I think we have relaxed and played a lot more comfortable and really look at it as a home-field advantage."
Two year ago, the Irish beat Stanford with a goal-line stand in overtime to win 20-13 and send their confidence soaring as they improved to 6-0 during an undefeated regular season. Kelly said that 2012 squad just believed they would win close games, also beating Pittsburgh in overtime.
"Each year is a different group," Kelly said. "So we have not been in that situation yet here."
The Irish have scored 30 or more points in their opening four games, the first time they've accomplished that since the 1943 season, when they won a national championship. The Irish also haven't allowed more than 17 points, so none of the games has been close and the Irish have been behind this season for fewer than three minutes.
That's expected to change as the Irish face Stanford and then play at top-ranked Florida State in two weeks.
NOTES: Kelly said he doesn't know whether the results of disciplinary hearings for five players being held out of practices and games while the university determines whether they were involved in academic impropriety will be released one at a time or all at once. Honesty committee hearings are scheduled for this week, but Kelly said he doesn't know when decisions might be made. Even after the players are informed, the players have a week to appeal. Kelly wouldn't say whether any of the players have asked him to appear at their hearings.
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