Big Game Hunting: Is it Notre Dame’s night to be legendary against Stanford?

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Stanford running back Bryce Love breaks free in last year’s victory over Notre Dame. (AP/Tony Avelar)

It wasn’t so long ago that the annual Notre Dame-Stanford game was, well, no contest. From 2002 to ’08, the Irish took home the Legends Trophy seven straight times, with none of the final scores of those games closer than seven points.

But a new trend began in 2009, when Stanford running back Toby Gerhart ran wild on the Irish. It continued in 2010 and 2011, when quarterback Andrew Luck became a national star and then-coach Jim Harbaugh’s program grew into a powerhouse. The Cardinal were on their way to seven victories in nine years in the series. And for the last three seasons, the trophy has been but a memory in South Bend.

“We haven’t had it here in our lobby since the end of the 2014 season,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “So, [it’s] something that is very important to us and a big game for us.”

No. 7 Stanford (+5½) at No. 8 Notre Dame (6:30 p.m., Ch. 5) is a must-see clash of playoff hopefuls and the first meeting of top-eight teams in South Bend in 22 years. It’s the first time the Irish and Cardinal have gone head-to-head with both in the top 10, and the first time they’ve squared off unbeaten since all the way back in 1925 (but you knew that already).

The Irish have kicked themselves after the last two renditions of the rivalry. In 2016, they led by 10 at the half before being outscored 17-0 the rest of the way. In 2017, a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead devolved into a 38-20 disaster.

“Yeah, you can talk about not winning the last three games, but what we need to do is play a lot better for four quarters,” Kelly said.

The Cardinal were up to that old second-half magic last weekend at Oregon, where they erased a 24-7 halftime deficit and won in overtime. They have a terrific quarterback in K.J. Costello, the nation’s most accomplished running back in Bryce Love, a dominant receiver in J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and — like Notre Dame — a truly elite group of tight ends. The defense? It’s coming around, too.

It’s a major test for the Irish, in what will be a thrilling atmosphere under the lights. Legends are made on nights like this one. Irish 31, Cardinal 24.

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Look, I know what a whole bunch of you are thinking: No. 4 Ohio State (-3½) at No. 9 Penn State (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7) is the game of the week and should be at the top of this column. It’s certainly tied with Notre Dame-Stanford atop my must-watch list. That’s why I’ve been putting in extra workouts with my “channel return” thumb.

The Nittany Lions have won 16 straight at home, and Beaver Stadium will light up the sky in “Whiteout” fashion.

“There’s a home-field advantage, and there needs to be a significant home-field advantage,” PSU coach James Franklin said. “You know, I’m challenging all of Nittany Nation. I’m expecting we’ll have 110,000-plus in the stands. I’m expecting we’ll have another 100,000 fans outside of the stadium. And we need to make it the most challenging environment in the history of college football.”

Gee, is that all? This Nits offense (55.5 points per game) is wicked, but I like the Buckeyes’ “O” (54.5) better. The weapons at receiver and out of the backfield are everywhere. This is the night OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins becomes a Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Bucks, 34-31.

Three more Top 25 matchups:

No. 12 West Virginia (-3½) at No. 25 Texas Tech (11 a.m., ESPN2): Freshman QB Alan Bowman and the Red Raiders have put up 181 points in three victories since an opening loss to Ole Miss. Last week’s dominant performance on both sides of the ball at Oklahoma State was hugely impressive. Guns Up again? Nah. Give me senior QB Will Grier and the Mountaineers by 10.

No. 20 BYU (+17½) at No. 11 Washington (7:30 p.m., Fox-32): BYU has thrived in close games and still is riding the high of a Week 3 mega-upset of Wisconsin. The wait continues, meanwhile, for the type of Huskies performance that signals “playoff contender.” UDub sweats out another “W.”

No. 19 Oregon (-2½) at No. 24 California (9:30 p.m., FS1): This is a tougher Bears team on both sides of the ball than we’re used to seeing. But even though they blew the aforementioned lead to Stanford, these aren’t your gimmicky Ducks, either. For most of the game against the Cardinal, Oregon was the more physical team — and that’s saying something. UO gets it done.

My favorite favorite: Purdue (-3) at Nebraska (2:30 p.m., BTN). The Boilermakers are off to a disappointing start at 1-3, but they played to their potential last weekend in a romp over ranked Boston College.

My favorite underdog: Florida (+7½) at No. 23 Mississippi State (5 p.m., ESPN). A payback game for the Bulldogs against former coach Dan Mullen, who had the gall to leave (for a great job) after nine outstanding seasons in Starkville? Please. Mullen shines as a Bulldog

in an upset.

Last week: 7-1 straight-up; 4-3-1 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 18-9 straight-up; 13-13-1 vs. the spread.

THE LOCALS

NO. 14 MICHIGAN AT NORTHWESTERN

The facts: 3:30 p.m., Fox-32, 720-AM.

The records: Michigan 3-1, 1-0 Big Ten; Northwestern 1-2, 1-0.

The storyline: Each of the last two games between these teams at Ryan Field came down to the final play. Any chance for a repeat of such excitement? It would be a breath of fresh air — win or lose — after the Wildcats’ awful outings against Akron and Duke. The medical retirement of running back Jeremy Larkin was a bummer, but coming off a bye week can only help Pat Fitzgerald’s team. The ’Cats will be up for this one.

The line: Wolverines by 14½.

Greenberg’s pick: Michigan, 27-20.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT E. MICHIGAN

The facts: 5 p.m., ESPN+, 560-AM.

The records: NIU 1-3, 1-0 MAC; EMU 2-2, 0-1.

The storyline: How’s this for a place to start? NIU has won 10 straight, and 16 of 17, in this series. So, naturally, it’s EMU that’s favored. Huh? Truth is, it might be very difficult for the Huskies to bounce back so soon after a frustrating, physical, exhausting defeat at Florida State. But the Huskies competed at a high level in that game. QB Marcus Childers and the offense never gave up. The defense delivered lots of stops. If it was the start of something, the Eagles are in trouble again.

The line: Eagles by 3½.

Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 26-24.

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