SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The way Andrew Luck has been playing, Notre Dame might prefer seeing Toby Gerhart again.
Stanford’s first victory over Notre Dame in eight years looked more like a Gerhart highlight reel as he rushed for 200-plus yards and three scores last year, and threw for another. But the 16th-ranked Cardinal (3-0) have hardly missed the Heisman Trophy runner-up, piling up 155 points — including 68 in a thrashing of Wake Forest last weekend — on the way to their best start since 2001.
“Everybody here knows how excellent Toby was as a football player,” Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “This year they don’t have Toby, but they’re still putting up numbers, still being successful. We can’t really worry about last year. We’ve got to focus on stopping Andrew Luck on offense.”
While folks east of the Rockies debate whether Terrelle Pryor, Greg McElroy or Ryan Mallett is the best quarterback in college football, Luck is putting up numbers to rival any of them. He’s thrown for 10 touchdowns already and has yet to be picked off, and his pass efficiency rating of 192.3 is third-best in the country.
In his 15 games as a starter, the redshirt sophomore has thrown for 3,249 yards and 23 TDs, with just four interceptions.
Oh, Luck can run some, too. He’s averaging almost 11 yards a carry, and scored on a weaving, 52-yard run against Wake Forest.
“When you look at him and you see him throw, you’re like ‘OK, he’s a pocket quarterback,”’ Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith said. “Then you watch the Wake Forest game and … he’s obviously got speed, too, and some athleticism. That’s just another aspect.”
Bad news for the Irish (1-2), he and the Cardinal are just getting warmed up.
Stanford is likely to be without Ryan Whalen, its leading receiver the last two years, after he hurt his left arm against Wake Forest. But the Cardinal will have playmaker Chris Owusu, who had touchdown receptions on his first two drives back after missing the first two games with a reported knee injury.
“I’m starting to understand things a little bit more on the football field,” Luck said. “Last year I still didn’t know what to expect after three games. Now I sort of get what’s going on.”
Granted, Luck and the Cardinal have yet to really be tested. But that changes with the trip to South Bend, where Stanford has only two wins, the last of which came in 1992. Notre Dame has won all but four of the 15 meetings in the series since then.
After the game against the Irish, Stanford travels to Oregon and then hosts USC.
“We’re early in a season,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh cautioned. “I’m not ready to write a book yet after three games.”
That’s exactly what the Irish are saying.
An overtime loss at Michigan State on a faked field goal was Notre Dame’s second straight and sixth in the last seven games. All the losses have been by a touchdown or less, and all but one were decided late in the fourth quarter.
But before the grumbling starts — OK, before it becomes a full-on rage — this isn’t the same shell-shocked bunch that staggered to the end of last season and got coach Charlie Weis fired. Dayne Crist has already put up some big numbers, and the first-year starter will only get more comfortable with coach Brian Kelly’s hair-on-fire, adrenaline-pumping spread offense. The defense has been spotty — again — but the return of starting safety Jamoris Slaughter and backup Dan McCarthy at least gives the secondary some depth, something it didn’t have the last two games.
There’s no question mistakes are being made, Kelly said. But all of them are fixable.
“We have to find a way to win,” he said. “We play hard, we’ve been doing the right things and that’s all well and good. Now it has to be, we’ve got to fall on our swords. We’ve got to come back and play this game with more toughness and more tenacity than we’ve ever played with before.”
The Irish have a 10-game losing streak against ranked teams, a stretch of futility that dates back to 2006 and includes four losses at Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish also have lost three of their last four at home, a slump that would have been unfathomable during the glory years.
But the present is all that matters now.
“Nobody feels sorry for Notre Dame at 1-2,” Kelly said. “We can’t be, ‘Well, geez, we deserve this.’ We don’t deserve anything. We deserve what we get. We’re 1-2, and we need to do somethingabout it.”