Luck or the Irish? Stanford, ND clash in finale

Associated Press  |  Last updated November 25, 2011
Andrew Luck has had unparalleled success in college football the last three seasons, so it's only fitting that Stanford gives the most sought after NFL prospect a rare sendoff. The celebrated star on Senior Day will be the redshirt junior. In what will likely be his last game at Stanford Stadium, Luck leads the fourth-ranked Cardinal against streaking No. 22 Notre Dame on Saturday night, giving the regular-season finale a national stage for both teams - and the star quarterback - to leave a lasting memory and perhaps provide a launching point for bigger things ahead. ''I don't want to get caught up thinking, `Oh, last time here' and then go out and play a terrible game,'' said Luck, the NFL draft's projected No. 1 overall pick who has insisted he won't return. ''My only focus is beating Notre Dame.'' How the finale goes will likely define each team's season. Stanford (10-1, 8-1 Pac-12) has a chance to secure a BCS bowl berth and keep alive its slim chances of a national title. The Fighting Irish (8-3) can improve on last year's win total and show real progress in coach Brian Kelly's second season. Luck or the Irish? In the end, only one will feel satisfied. ''It's not a referendum on our season, but it's another step towards where we want to be in consistency in November,'' Kelly said. ''We've done very well in November and we want to continue to build on that in this game against Stanford.'' Emotions will be pouring all over the field. Stanford is including fourth- and fifth-year players in Senior Day celebrations before the game to honor several starters with a year of eligibility remaining who will likely not be back, including Luck, left tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro. All are expected to be first-round picks in the NFL draft. The celebration also has some special twists. Stanford will be wearing the Nike Pro Combat uniforms for the first time, featuring a deeper version of Cardinal red from top to bottom and replacing white helmets with black ones. The tomahawks helmet stickers are gone. And if No. 9 Oregon loses to Oregon State earlier in the day, Stanford would host the Pac-12 title game and Luck - and the rest of his teammates - will get another crack at home next week. ''We've got to take care of Notre Dame. You can't be worrying about other things,'' DeCastro said. ''But I'm sure the news will make its way around the locker room.'' Even without a Pac-12 title, a chance to play for the BCS championship is still there. Stanford coach David Shaw railed against the system earlier this week when, after four teams ahead in the rankings lost, the Cardinal only moved up to No. 6 in the BCS standings. For Stanford to have any shot, it likely needs Alabama to lose to Auburn and Oklahoma State to drop its home finale against Oklahoma. Beating Notre Dame is still paramount. The Irish have rolled off four straight victories since losing to Southern California and would likely be playing for a BCS bowl berth if they had won just one more game. Instead, they'll settle for an opportunity to reclaim some of the national spotlight. A victory would vault Note Dame beyond last year's win total and give the program a chance at a 10-win season in the bowl game. Notre Dame hasn't beaten a top-five opponent since a 17-10 victory over Michigan on Sept. 10, 2005, and would love nothing more than to end that drought. ''I don't want to build it up that much,'' said Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, one of several Irish players infected by the flu bug in recent weeks. ''They're obviously one of the best teams in the country, and we're going to get a crack at them at their home. So it's definitely a big game for us and one that we look forward to.'' Notre Dame and Stanford are on opposite ends of major injuries. The Irish lost senior running back Jonas Gray to a knee injury last week, clearing the way for Cierre Wood - part of a powerful one-two combination - to become the featured back. The Cardinal, meanwhile, are expected to get back tight end Zach Ertz after he missed the last three games with a right knee injury. Of greater importance for Stanford is stopping star receiver Michael Floyd. Big, fast wideouts have given Stanford's secondary fits all season, and Floyd will provide the latest test. The Irish will face an even bigger challenge defensively. Luck's methodical way of shredding defenses has become a staple. He often calls his own plays, audibles and can control a game like no other player in the nation. Just not so much lately. Luck has had shaky starts in his last three games and his grasp on the Heisman Trophy is no longer a runaway. With a chance to outshine one of America's most beloved - and hated - programs in front of a primetime national audience, Luck's last stand could forever define his college legacy. ''It's definitely special,'' Luck said. ''You definitely want to go out with a win. You don't want to lose your last home game.'' --- Follow Antonio Gonzalez at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
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