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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Stanford’s woes may cut deeper than the current roster

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Notre Dame at Stanford

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 27: Stanford Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee (18) looses the ball while being sacked during the game between Notre Dame and Stanford Cardinals on Saturday, November 27, 2021 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Douglas Stringer/IconSportswire)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The figurative disease is clear: Stanford no longer dominates in the trenches on offense or defense, dooming it to two consecutive losing full-length seasons. Going 7-17 in its last two seasons of 12 games would have been hard to fathom at any point before 2019, and not because of the pandemic exception removing 2020 from the tally.

David Shaw had averaged 10.25 wins in his first eight seasons leading the Cardinal. From 2010 to 2015, Stanford reached five Playoff-access bowls, including three Rose Bowls.

No one foresaw this kind of cliff’s edge.

The reasons for this figurative disease are a bit more in-depth than simply football-related. Thus, Shaw may have years more work to do to pull Stanford out of this nadir.

For a moment last season, the Cardinal looked dangerous. Actually, for two moments. Beating then-No. 14 USC — and thus getting Clay Helton fired — and then-No. 3 Oregon by the first weekend of October to reach 3-2 suggested Stanford might be a contender in the Pac 12.

Instead, the Cardinal lost its next seven games, including the last four by an average score of 43.25 to 11.5.

Was the late-season fall-off evidence of the loss of conditioning Stanford was essentially forced into by COVID restrictions? No teams faced stricter protocols than Stanford and Cal, costing both of them most of their offseason work for two years. For development-based programs, that offseason work is make-or-break.

Obviously, there is no way to know the on-field impacts, but given how horrid the Cardinal was in the trenches, the wonder holds some merit.

Here is the other half of the Cardinal’s “30,000 feet” problems. Stanford may be even harder to transfer into as an undergrad than Notre Dame is, and Irish fans have been bemoaning that difficulty for some time now.

The Cardinal pulled in a notable graduate transfer in Oklahoma safety Pat Fields — a three-year starter for the Sooners — but he was only the third grad transfer in Shaw’s 11 years. It is hard to get into Stanford, and there is no other way to phrase it.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal’s starting running back, Austin Jones, transferred to USC, and his backup, Nathaniel Peat, headed to Missouri. Leading linebacker Gabe Reid jumped to Utah.

This is a one-way talent drain on Stanford. For a long-time successful program, the Cardinal is not able to pull in players from lesser teams in the Pac 12 or even the Mountain West. It can only send them out.

Stanford ranks No. 7 below at 83 percent returning production.

To return 83 percent of its production yet still be viewed as a below-average team suggests how bad Stanford was last season, even more so than its record. Yet, better to return the players that were better than their backups than not to, right?

Quarterback Tanner McKee, standing 6-foot-6, is a genuine NFL prospect, viewed by some as a possible 2023 first-round pick. He has targets in receiver Elijah Higgins (45 catches for 500 yards and four touchdowns last year) and tight end Benjamin Yurosek (43 catches for 658 yards and three touchdowns), along with receiver Michael Wilson, returning to full health after playing in only four games each of the last two seasons. In 2019, Wilson had 56 catches for 672 yards and five touchdowns.

None of those targets will matter if the Cardinal offensive line cannot protect McKee. It allowed 31 sacks last year, and every one of those linemen return, bringing 104 career starts with them. Again, it is better to return the players who were better than their backups than not, but the difference may be minimal.

The real difference may come from having a full offseason of workouts. If that has been the underlying issue, and not simply a talent concern, then Stanford should quickly improve on last year’s 86.9 rushing yards per game, No. 126 in the country, even without those two lead backs.

Here is where most insist on highlighting junior running back E.J. Smith, Emmitt Smith’s son. According to Pro Football Focus, E.J. broke 14 tackles last season on just 26 carries. He took five of those rushes for more than 10 yards. The hype around him may be due to more than his name.

Lending some validity to the COVID-conditioning concerns of the Cardinal offensive line is that its defensive line has fallen off just as much. Stanford used to dominate the line of scrimmage, and it has struggled to hold its own against anyone the last few years.

Then again, these problems began in 2019, and going back even further than that, maybe the Cardinal was holding on by smoke and mirrors.

Stanford gave up 235.7 rushing yards per game last season, No. 127 in the country, and now returns only one defensive lineman with a collegiate start.

That failure and dearth of experience have led the Cardinal to convert to a 4-3 front from its years of a 3-4 look.

Shaw is in no danger of losing his job. If Stanford goes 1-11 this year, he might have reason to worry in 2023. The Cardinal’s recruiting has largely held up, and it needs to given that is the only way for Stanford to obtain talent while the rest of the country taps into the transfer portal.

Nonetheless, the Cardinal win total Over/Under is 4.5, per PointsBet, and the emphasis is on the Under. Stanford should open the season with an easy win against FCS-level Colgate, but after that, it is hard to see the Cardinal being favored in any game until heading to Cal on Nov. 19. It will be a 24-plus-point underdog at Notre Dame in mid-October.

Shaw has proven he is capable of springing an upset at any time, just see last year’s two wins against top-15 teams, but the further Stanford’s offensive and defensive lines fall, the harder it will be for the Cardinal to have any advantage against any opponent.

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