SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- His team's full-blown identity crisis prompted Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to hesitantly drag out an adjective that became a punch line during Charlie Weis' tenure.
"Then, if you really look at it, what we've been talking about is, the best word I can use is a nasty kind of tenaciousness to us that we've got to play with," he said earlier this week. "That no matter what happens, we have to find a way to win."
Nasty. Sounds tough, intimidating. Sounded mean when Weis said it over five years ago. Problem is, nasty isn't just scoring at will, it's also breaking the opponent's will. Nasty is, well, Stanford.
The No. 16-ranked Cardinal comes to Notre Dame on Saturday (2:30 p.m. on NBC) with three victories and an ornery disposition. Wild-eyed Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh has transformed a bunch of smart kids into heavy-breathing lunatics on defense, one that leads the nation against the pass and is hungry to improve against the run.
"I would say more than a pretty good job [on defense through three games]," Harbaugh told school website gostanford.com this week. "They're really forming an identity, getting a lot of turnovers. Yards come tough against our defense."
Notre Dame has Zen-like linebacker Manti Te'o leading an Irish defense that's desperate to tighten up all facets of its coverage. Stanford has unhinged hit-man Shayne Skov at linebacker -- a guy who missed time with a leg infection but returned last week against Wake Forrest and made an impact.
"Skov played at a high level," Harbaugh told MercuryNews.com. "He did a good job of knocking people back and running through gaps. He looked like Shayne Skov, a playmaker. That's what he gives our defense."
"I think really we're going to go in there and play the game just as if it were any other game, come out and play hard and maybe take time to kind of enjoy the victory afterwards," Skov told gostanford.com.
That's not a nice thing to say.
With the ball, Stanford proudly kicks teams when they're down. Harbaugh's squad has outscored its first three opponents by a combined 155-41. Last November, the Cardinal stomped Southern Cal, 55-21. Following Stanford's seventh touchdown against the Trojans, Harbaugh went for two.
"What's your deal?" a disgusted Pete Carroll asked Harbaugh at midfield after the game.
Harbaugh's deal is that he couldn't care less. Why should he? His team is feared, undefeated and favored by a laughable 4 1/2 points on the road. His team has an identity. His team is downright nasty.