SOUTH BEND - If Brian Kelly has his own decided schematic advantage tucked away in the breast pocket of one of his perfectly pressed suits, this is the week to untuck and flaunt it.

There doesn’t seem to be a mathematical possibility that could lift No. 22 Notre Dame's regular-season-closing confrontation at No. 4 Stanford (10-1) Saturday night into a BCS bowl qualifier, but the opportunity to advance the program can’t be overstated.

From an X’s and O’s standpoint, opposing defenses — even average-to-mediocre defenses — have locked into the football equivalent of a check in chess. That is dropping eight, sometimes nine, defenders and daring Irish sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees to force the ball into very tight windows.

"You can counteract that," Rees said confidently after practice Tuesday. "As an offense, that’s our job."

A natural antidote would be for Rees to simply burn those defenses with his legs, except for the fact he’s averaging minus-0.8 yards per carry this season and minus-0.6 for his career.

Checkmate?

"He’s not going to take off," said Kelly, 8-3 in road/neutral site games and 6-0 in November in his second season as ND’s head coach. "As much as I would like to give him the green light or whatever that means, that's just not going to happen. So he's got to find other ways to defeat it."

Actually, Kelly has to find the answers. Rees has to execute them — and against a team that has all kinds of other bells and whistles.

Stanford’s offense has scored 30 or more points in 14 consecutive games, and kicked it up to 40 or more in nine of those. The Cardinal has had one flub in 62 tries in the red zone and has gone three-and-out just 10 times this season.

By comparison, ND (8-3) had three of those alone Saturday against Boston College. BC had six against the Irish defense.

Defensively, Stanford will likely tilt its scheme to force Rees to beat it. The Cardinal is fifth in the nation in rushing defense, and only Oregon has been able to get traction against it.

And the Irish will be without senior starter Jonas Gray in the running back stable. ND’s leader in rushing touchdowns (12) suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament with what Kelly terms "collateral damage" in Saturday’s 16-14 BC escape.

Surgery has yet to be scheduled, but figures to be soon. The recovery/rehab timetable is six months, which would take Gray past the NFL combine, the individual workouts and the NFL Draft itself.

Junior Cierre Wood, ND’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006, naturally takes on a larger role. Just how his surrounding cast will be configured is still in the works.

Kelly said freshmen George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel — combined 12 career carries — will be in the mix Saturday night. Junior Theo Riddick, a running back-turned-wide receiver, could turn back into a running back. But he has missed ND’s past two games with a hamstring injury.

"He just didn't have that explosiveness," Kelly said of his decision to sit Riddick against BC. "He felt pretty good. He felt like this week he should be able to contribute. So we'll run him around again today and give him an opportunity to really assess where he is.

"Generally, if there's not a lot of soreness and we see that burst, then we’ll figure him into what we're going to do on Saturday. Theo offers us some versatility if we think it's necessary. Before we can even get there, we'll have to see what he looks like."

All of which elevates Rees’ need to be a playmaker and not just a custodian of the offense.

"Well, there is no question that the quarterback has to make plays for us," Kelly said. "He’ll have to do that again for us to win. If he's not central in what we're doing and getting the ball out and making sure we get into the right plays, we won't win the football game."

And if the trend persists, it pushes Kelly to look at all his options in the spring of 2012 at the QB position. If it dissipates, Rees has a chance to help the program take a significant evolutionary step.