We know this much: Notre Dame can take a punch.

At least star quarterback Jimmy Clausen can. After getting "sucker-punched" in an early morning barroom scuffle last weekend, Clausen — black eye and all — is expected to start today when the Fighting Irish face Stanford in the regular-season finale for both schools.

The game has added drama as it appears Charlie Weis' five-year coaching tenure has come to an end. Even Weis acknowledged he wouldn't be surprised to be fired because of his current 6-5 record. Then, after the Clausen incident became public, the coach instituted a media blackout.

Yet the week's distractions should get shuffled to the side when the Irish and Cardinal offenses collide at Stanford Stadium. Big defensive plays will be at a premium for the nationally televised broadcast that features some of the country's best skill-position players.

Notre Dame has Clausen and primary target Golden Tate, one of the best receivers in school history. Stanford counters with redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck and record-setting tailback Toby Gerhart.

The Cardinal averages 35.4 points per game; the Irish 29.4.

Notre Dame's strategy is simple: "I think just getting off to a fast start and just moving the ball," Clausen said.

The Fighting Irish need some kind of pick-me-up after dropping three in a row, including a double-overtime 33-30 defeat to Connecticut last weekend.

Notre Dame is ranked 11th nationally in total offense behind Clausen's 3,382 yards passing for 23 touchdowns with four interceptions. Tate is 87 yards short of the school record for career receiving yards. He has 83 receptions and 1,295 yards this season.

"The receivers make big plays and big plays after the catch," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "They look like running backs once they got the ball in their hands."

The Irish lost leading rusher Armando Allen (697 yards) when he broke his hand against Connecticut. They plan to platoon Robert Hughes, Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray on the ground.

Notre Dame won't find the Cardinal lackadaisical after the team's 34-28 defeat to rival Cal last week.

"We always take pride in hitting the other team in the mouth, and we got away from that last week," Gerhart said. "We're going to get back to basics and get after people."

Said Notre Dame center Eric Olsen: "We can't be in the tank against these guys because they will just run all over us."

Weis expects nothing less than a physical game from Stanford's offense because of Harbaugh's mindset.

"They have more of a defensive mentality where they're just going to try to mash you," he said.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the running game for Stanford.

"I could talk about their offensive line, I could talk about their tight ends and I could talk about their scheme and their mentality, but that No. 7, the guy with the ball in his hands, he's special," Weis said of Gerhart.

It'd be difficult to find someone to disagree with that assessment. But Stanford has been successful this year when it has landed a second punch through Luck's usually reliable passing. The Cardinal struggled against Cal with missed throws and three dropped balls.

"We've got to throw the ball and catch it," Harbaugh said.

And hope for enough defensive stops to hold on.

  • today: vs. Notre Dame, 5 p.m. TV: Chs. 7, 10.
    Radio: 860-AM
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