SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This was supposed to be a premier mid-October rivalry game with College Football Playoff implications on the line. At least, that’s how it looked when Notre Dame and Stanford were both top 10 teams in the preseason AP top 25 poll.
Instead, Saturday night’s primetime clash between these two academically-oriented, usually-strong-but-not-this-year football programs carries the importance mostly for Notre Dame’s hopes of getting to six wins and earning a bid to a bowl game.
“I think they're kind of in a similar position to what we're doing right now, and obviously everybody has their lumps throughout the season, and we've certainly had ours,” offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said. “I’m sure that they feel that they've had theirs. But what has happened in the past couple weeks has no effect on what's going to happen on Saturday at 7:30. Both teams know that, so we're coming in with a fresh slate just trying to play football.”
A lot of the annual platitudes about Stanford don’t hold up in 2016. Their perennially strong offensive line has been astonishingly mediocre, allowing 16 sacks and struggling to carve out room for 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey. A defense that usually can be described as “tough” and “physical” is allowing opponents to convert nearly 50 percent of their third down attempts, far too many of which haven’t been in short-yardage situations, either.
Those issues exploded in David Shaw’s face in the last two weeks, with Stanford losing to Washington (on the road) and Washington State (at home) by a combined 64 points. Stanford’s previous seven losses before those two, dating back to the 2014 season, were by a combined 66 points.
“Stanford’s Stanford,” Irish defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “They’re going to have an O-line that’s great, plays with great technique and plays with great pad level. And when they come to a stage like Notre Dame they’re going to play even better. We can nit-pick and look at things, but we gotta be ready to play.”
While Stanford, probably will still cruise into a bowl game despite those surprising faults, the same can’t be said for Notre Dame. Going into the bye week at 2-5 would only further darken the clouds over South Bend and could mean that the Irish have seven losses before Election Day.
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
Saturday will be a major test for the post-Brian VanGorder Irish defense. If this group can’t get multiple sacks against Stanford, we can probably resign it to being one of the most futile pass-rushing teams in program history. If this young secondary can’t hold its own against Ryan Burns/Keller Chryst and Stanford’s ineffective passing game, it probably won’t against Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans and USC’s Sam Darnold.
But passing the test would allow Notre Dame to enter fall break with some much-needed positivity. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson showed Notre Dame players a video montage of sacks overlaid with inspirational quotes this week, while players and coaches continue to be bullish on freshman cornerbacks Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr.
The biggest worry for this team is that this dour season is sapping players of motivation, which is how 2-4 can turn in to 3-9. Players said all the right things this week, including thoughtful defenses of coach Brian Kelly, and quickly dismissed the notion that there’s nothing left to play for.
“Losing sucks, obviously, we hate losing, but we also love playing this game and me, personally, that’s what drives me,” linebacker Nyles Morgan said. “I don’t look at wins and losses, I just want to play football and win that game.”
The narrow view of the last six games of Notre Dame’s regular season is that earning a bowl bid would trigger another month of valuable practice for a team that’ll return much of its young roster next year (the only regulars without 2017 eligibility are defensive end Isaac Rochell, nose guard Jarron Jones, linebacker James Onwualu, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and long snapper Scott Daly). But the bigger-picture view is that, if this season teeters over the edge and plummets toward disaster, the calls for a coaching change will only grow louder.
A single win over Stanford won’t change the discussion or the narrative about Kelly and Notre Dame’s 2016 season, but it could be the start of a reclamation project that’ll extend into next season. That’s the positive side of things. But a loss to the most vulnerable Stanford team in years would also fit with a troubling trend of defeats to mediocre-to-bad teams in Year 7 of the Kelly era.
So there’s plenty at stake Saturday night, even if the interest and importance of this game is nowhere near where we expected it to be in August.
“As long as their head coach believes and I believe in them and they know that,” Kelly said, “then they'll never stop believing.”