And In That Corner ... Stanford Cardinal’s weaknesses line up perfectly with Notre Dame’s strengths
The beauty of Notre Dame playing both Stanford and Cal within one season is the same college-football mind can provide insight on both the Bay Area opponents. The only regret is both games are in South Bend, so a San Francisco beer cannot be personally bought for Alex Simon of The Mercury News.
He deserves one for turning around these answers on shorter notice than usual, given the effects of Las Vegas delayed much work around here.
The Irish host the Cardinal on Saturday at 7:30 ET on NBC.
DF: Wait, you were at Stanford’s 28-27 loss to Oregon State as a fan? You chose to go to that game? I ask this only somewhat in jest, why?
AS: The simple answer: it’s college football! I also love the Stanford band, which was their usual incorrigible delight. But as someone who is typically still working on Saturday nights, the one Saturday night I had free was this one (after I covered David Shaw’s son catching a game-winning touchdown pass, no less), and the chance to show a friend the underrated Stanford tailgate scene. And the game ended up being quite worthwhile!
I did not watch most of that game. More precisely, I saw the final six or seven minutes from a stool at a blackjack table in the Excalibur in Las Vegas, only a short walk from Allegiant Stadium. I missed most of the broadcast shots of fans sleeping through Stanford’s first chance at an FBS win in a long while. My primary takeaway was that the Cardinal is prone to giving up big plays. I don’t say that solely because of that disaster of a losing play; including that tackling catastrophe, Stanford has given up 10 explosive scores this season. Would you put the onus on the scheme or on players just getting beat?
It’s definitely more player-based in terms of the breakdown on that play. But even more than the scheme, there’s just a talent difference for the Cardinal right now. Stanford has always found specific niches where they were successful, and longtime defensive backs coach Duane Akina has been a bright spot — current Saints corner Paulson Adebo was just drafted after 2020. But in the last few years, the recruiting has dropped off rather significantly, and it’s starting to show on the field.
Note from Douglas: That is former Notre Dame commit Paulson Adebo, the Irish finishing as runner-ups to the Cardinal for the Texas product, a two-time first-team All-Pac 12 cornerback who could have, in theory, helped keep Notre Dame a bit more competitive in two Playoff appearances where its defensive backs were exposed.
My instinct was both. It would be hard for one or the other to lead to a defense giving up 6.85 yards per rush against FBS opponents (sacks adjusted). Going against a Notre Dame offense that has leaned into the ground game the last three weeks, is there any reason to think the Cardinal will slow the Irish rushing attack? I am not saying Notre Dame will match the 281 yards on 54 carries it used to rout Stanford, 38-17, in 2018, but I did think to look up those numbers.
I would say no, but I do think the main way they could slow down the rushing attack is by being too vulnerable through the air while focusing on the ground. The Irish have obviously been more run-based in their recent upswing, but the Cardinal could sell out to stop the run and force Drew Pyne to try and beat it. North Carolina found out how that goes the hard way, but I still think Stanford’s more inclined to test it secondary rather than leave itself light in the box.
It seems I have little respect for the Cardinal defense. Tell me why I’m wrong.
I mean, this is a 1-4 team that ranks 110th of 131 FBS teams in points allowed per game — and that includes a 10-point effort against an FCS team. You’re well within reason to not give much respect! But could turnovers be a factor? Outside of the FCS game, Stanford has forced zero fumbles and has one interception. It wouldn’t shock me to see Stanford’s turnover luck swing its way here ... if it creates the opportunity for it. We’ll see (... I’m grasping at straws here).
Offensively, Stanford became one-dimensional when sophomore running back Emmit Smith Jr. was sidelined for the year. I say that pretty harshly, and I stand by it even if the Cardinal has averaged 4.14 yards per carry in the last three games without Smith, gaining 356 yards on 86 carries (sacks adjusted). This is a fraught way to look at stats, but if you take out Stanford’s longest run in each game (22 yards, 24, 18), then that average carry falls to 3.52 yards. It is anything but a sustainable ground game. Have I overreacted to Smith’s absence in these judgments? Do you expect Smith to revive the running attack next year?
If anything, I think you could make the point that you’re underreacting. There was a point late in the fourth quarter on Saturday where I looked at the stats on the wraparound scoreboard and couldn’t believe Stanford had triple the passing yards (269) than rushing yards (90) against the Beavers. Tanner McKee is a good quarterback, but this is a very un-Stanford-like offense right now.
In looking at those rushing figures, I found Washington sacked Cardinal quarterbacks eight times for 37 yards. Eight times? Did the Stanford offensive line just wave through the Huskies? Is this the weekend Notre Dame sets its official sacks record, unofficially officially at nine?
I don’t think so, if only because Stanford’s use of the Wake Forest slow-mesh handoff could take would-be sacks of McKee and make them into tackles for loss of the running back. But yes, the Irish, Marcus Freeman and Al Golden should feel like this is a week they can really put up some strong numbers when rushing the passer.
Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee has some NFL potential, but this team is thoroughly wasting it. Don your NFL scout hat and give me a rundown of what makes the pros so high on him.
Well, let’s start with the measurables: 6-foot-6, 230 pounds is essentially the same as Josh Allen (6-foot-5, 237 pounds). So if you take that as the archetype, then apply how Stanford has been blending its usual pro-style passing game — and he’s earned high remarks for his ability to move through his progressions, when given time to throw — with some modern innovations, like the Wake slow-mesh handoff, and you see adaptability. Even though the Cardinal seems hesitant to let him run, he’s shown flashes of being able to do so, like when he went for 15 yards against USC. His numbers even on a per-play basis are better than when Allen was at Wyoming ... so if you see him like that, you can see big potential.
Two contrasting things worth pointing out, though: McKee is already 22 years old, having taken an LDS mission after high school. McKee also, technically, is only in his sophomore season of college eligibility right now. Does he get a high enough report that he decides it’s time to go pro now? It’s an interesting dilemma.
I suppose with a quarterback like that, I should take Stanford more seriously, but it is 0-11 against its last FBS opponents, losing by an average of 18.64 points. With that context and knowing the Cardinal is a 17-point underdog on the road this week, what do you expect to see Saturday night?
Well, last season, Notre Dame went to The Farm as a 19-point favorite and led 24-0 at halftime. That game finished 45-14, and to some, it was obvious that Notre Dame was going to have no trouble covering that number. The reason why is still true this week: Notre Dame’s biggest strengths are perfectly aligned with Stanford’s biggest weaknesses. Sure, Notre Dame could be more inclined to take its foot off of the gas than in last year’s game, when the College Football Playoff was still a remote possibility and the Irish wanted to send the best result possible. But even if so, Stanford’s already lost both of its road games this year by exactly 18 points. If you can get Notre Dame at -17 or lower …