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November 27, 2013

A model of consistency

Sustained success.

Only a handful of college football programs can say that year after year, they are among the nation's best. Win double-digit games every season and it's a sign that you have things pretty well figured out.

With a victory Saturday night against Notre Dame, Stanford would claim its 10th victory of the season. Last year, in David Shaw's second as head coach at his alma mater, the Cardinal won 12 times. The year before that, in Shaw's debut season following head coach Jim Harbaugh, they won 11. Harbaugh won 12 times in 2010.

With a victory Saturday night in Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal would claim its 45th victory in its last 52 games for a dazzling .865 winning percentage over a four-season span.

"They have a plan," said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, who takes his 8-3 squad into Palo Alto Saturday night. "They stick with it and they recruit to that plan."

It was Harbaugh who built Stanford into a national power; it is Shaw who has shown for three years running that he can sustain it. He enters the Notre Dame game with a 32-6 record.

"He's a smart football coach and he knows what he wants," said Kelly, who himself has won 28 of his last 33 regular-season games. "He's a graduate, he knows Stanford and he knows what he's looking for. Any coach that has a plan and sticks with it knows what he's looking for and has a great chance for success."

By Harbaugh's fourth year on The Farm, he had the Stanford program humming. After a 12-1 season in 2010, Harbaugh parlayed his success into the head-coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers. It helped having a guy playing quarterback by the name of Andrew Luck.

But even with a solid but unspectacular quarterback in Kevin Hogan, the Cardinal keep rolling on. They've won 15 in a row at home, which is the second longest home winning streak in the country. Stanford is 12-1 at home against ranked opponents, including wins over No. 2 Oregon, No. 9 UCLA and No. 15 Washington in 2013.

They do it with suffocating defense. They currently rank 13th in scoring defense (18.9 ppg.), third in rushing defense (89.5 ypg.) and 22nd in total defense (348.5 ypg.). If the Cardinal maintains a comparable defensive scoring average over its final three games of the '13 season, it will mark the third time in four years that they've held opponents to less than 19 points per game. Each of Shaw's three Stanford teams has held the opposition to less than 100 yards rushing per game.

With Luck at quarterback, Stanford was an offensive thrashing machine, averaging better than 40 points per game in 2010 and 2011. Clearly, they could wing it. But if the Cardinal maintains its 203.7-yard rushing average, it will mark the fifth time in six seasons they've eclipsed the 200-yard mark.

"There's a profile that they follow and you can see it when you watch their team," Kelly said. "They are long and physical, so they recruit to that profile, but they develop it as well.

"We aren't giving them enough credit for what they do within their program if we just say it's (recruiting to profile). They develop their players, but they do a very good job of profiling in terms of what they are looking for."

Their offensive linemen are tall and massive. Four of the five starters along the offensive line are at least 6-foot-5, and three of them are at least 6-foot-6. Their tight end is 6-foot-6. Five of the seven backup offensive linemen listed on their depth chart are at least 6-foot-6. Their three-man defensive front and outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who comes off the edge as a pass rusher, also features three players 6-foot-6.

But at the end of the day, those are just measurements. Most programs are capable of signing prospects that fit their physical needs. You still have to develop the talent pool into a winner, and few programs have won like the Cardinal.

Coming into the 2013 season, only Alabama, LSU, Oregon, Oklahoma, Boise State, Northern Illinois and Stanford could claim three straight double-digit-winning seasons.

It's level of and blueprint for success that Notre Dame doesn't like to publicly claim, but a model for consistency nonetheless that the Irish would like to emulate. The Irish took a huge step in that direction by defeating Stanford last season in overtime, 20-13, earmarked by a dramatic fourth-down, goal-line stand.

"Both teams want to be the smartest, toughest football teams in the country," Kelly said. "Stanford, right now, is ranked eighth in the country; we are ranked 25th. We get a chance to decide it on the football field.

"Last year, we were able to get Stanford. The whole game, if you think about it, we were fighting for every inch. We were going to have to fight for every inch and the game was decided by inches.

"Quite frankly, it's going to be similar on Saturday. Both teams will be fighting for inches, not yards. We've got a chance to settle it again on Saturday. It's a great rivalry."

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