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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Bryce Love, tough defense anchor Stanford

When No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 21 Stanford take the field Saturday night in California, the matchup will feature one of the nation’s Heisman contenders in a junior running back who ranks amongst the nation’s 10 best rushers.

And it will also feature Irish junior running back Josh Adams.

The Cardinal offense will likely feature a heavy dose of Bryce Love, whose 1,723 rushing yards and 8.84 yards per carry both rank second in the nation amongst FBS running backs. Love has set an FBS record with his 11th run of at least 50 yards this past Saturday in his team’s 17-14 win over California. Love’s ability to break tackles — he leads the nation with 4.8 yards after contact — has allowed him to break off those long runs, and it’s also the junior’s most impressive trait, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.

“Bryce Love is going to be the best back that we see all year,” he said. “He’s up for finalist for the Doak Walker, obviously a premier back in the country — 1,700 yards, very fast, breaks tackles. The impressive thing about him is his ability to break tackles. That’s what really stood out to me.”

Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love fights off an Irish tackler during Stanford’s 17-10 win over Notre Dame on Oct. 15, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium.
Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love fights off an Irish tackler during Stanford’s 17-10 win over Notre Dame on Oct. 15, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Over the last month, Love has been dealing with a sprained ankle, causing him to be listed as day-to-day each week. But it has not seemed to have slowed him down as of late, as Love has gone over 100 yards each of the last two games — including a 166-yard performance against what was then the nation’s No. 1 overall defense in Washington.

“It really hasn’t been tough,” Cardinal head coach David Shaw said of managing Love’s health over the last month. “We’re not talking about a torn muscle, we’re not talking about head injury, we’re not talking about a ligament. Sprained ankles are discomfort, they’re painful. And when they’re extreme, then you’re not functional. So, thankfully, there’s only been one week where Bryce wasn’t functional. He could not play against Oregon State [on Oct. 26] — he knew it, we knew it. … But it’s all about pain tolerance, and Bryce has a very, very high pain tolerance.”

But whether Love is 100 percent or not, the Irish (9-2) know he will be a threat, particularly running behind the Cardinal offensive line.

“Their offensive line [is] one of the best ones we’ll see all year,” Kelly said. “I think their physicality is who they are and what they’re about.”

Also behind that offensive will be sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello, who has started each of the last three games for the Cardinal (8-3, 7-2 Pac-12). Although the Cardinal have three quarterbacks who played in at least six games — senior Keller Chryst and fifth-year Ryan Burns being the others — only Costello has played in the last two, bringing stability to Stanford’s offense through the air as well.

“They’re really settled in on Costello as the quarterback,” Kelly said. “He really now has kind of opened up the offense, in a sense, if you think of that in terms of Stanford. Good, quick release, athletic, big, can move. And I love their receivers. Big kids that run really good routes.”

And on the other side of the football, the Cardinal defense — which ranks in the nation’s top-30 in scoring defense — will be one of the best units the Irish face this season.

“Defensively, that three-four defense, they’re rangy at the four-techniques,” Kelly said. “The nose, [senior Harrison] Phillips, is as good as there is in the country, and at the outside linebacker position, they’ve got great experience, veteran presence out there.

“And I think the real strength of their defense is in the back end. I think [junior] Justin Reid is as good a safety as we’ll see all year. David Shaw does a great job. Obviously, they’re playing really well right now, so it will be a great challenge for us on the road.”

Although the Cardinal will be focused on their on matchup with the Irish, their eyes will also be on Saturday’s Apple Cup between No. 14 Washington State and No. 15 Washington. If the Cougars win, they will represent the Pac-12 North in the conference championship game against No. 11 USC. If they lose to the Huskies, however, the Cardinal earn the championship-game berth.

“I think we all kind of are,” Shaw said about rooting for the Huskies. “But we can’t spend too much time and energy on it. We’ve got one of the top teams in the nation coming in this week in Notre Dame. We can’t spend too much effort on somebody else’s game. We have to get ready to play one heck of a football team.”