This is what qualifies as a down year at Stanford.
The Cardinal lost three games by three points apiece, including that dramatic blown coverage in South Bend. Stanford won its rivalry game against Cal for the fifth straight year. Stanford blew out No. 10 UCLA in Los Angeles to close the regular season. The Cardinal also won its bowl game to finish 8-5.
It’s a sign of what Jim Harbaugh built and David Shaw renovated that Stanford could see last fall as a disappointment. Yet that’s exactly the case for a program that went 46-8 the previous four years with four straight BCS appearances.
Now Stanford wants to get back to that elevated success. With senior quarterback Kevin Hogan and NFL talent on the offensive line, the Cardinal has the material. However, with a defense in transition and a schedule without a let-up, returning to double-digit wins could be a challenge.
Irish Illustrated’s preview of Notre Dame’s schedule wraps up with the Cardinal.
The Kevin Hogan who labored through that rain-soaked Saturday in South Bend last October wasn’t the one who finished last season.
The Hogan Notre Dame bottled was the kind of quarterback who gets beat out by a hotshot young gun, which for Stanford means re-shirt freshman Keller Chryst, now coming off his red-shirt season. But the Hogan who finished last season against UCLA and Maryland won’t be leaving the field.
In the Foster Farms Bowl, Hogan picked apart Maryland with 14-of-20 passing for 189 yards and two touchdowns, with 50 yards rushing to boot. In the regular season finale at UCLA, Hogan went 16-of-19 for 234 yards and two scores to go with 46 yards rushing. That’s the Hogan people saw as a potential NFL quarterback. For Stanford, it’s the Hogan who came back for his final season.
“He still has a chance to stake his claim on a lower rung of greatness just below Stanford’s Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks - Frankie Albert, Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Andrew Luck,” said Mark DeVaughn, who covers Stanford for Scout.com. “After all, he’s earned as many Rose Bowl berths as those four combined.”
Maybe Shaw works Chryst into the mix this season, but it appears that won’t come at the expense of Hogan, last year’s Cardinal captain. The quarterback who desperately wanted a Notre Dame offer out of Gonzaga Prep in Washington D.C. will get a chance to beat the Irish in his final appearance in Stanford Stadium this November.
As much as the graduate transfer rule made headlines at Notre Dame this off-season, it also added volatility to Stanford’s roster. The Cardinal lost starting cornerback Wayne Lyons to Michigan, potential top running back Kelsey Young to Boise State and fullback Patrick Skov to Georgia Tech.
However, the Cardinal also added defensive end Brennan Scarlett from Cal, a one-time rumored target for Notre Dame in the graduate transfer market. Scarlett’s brother, Jordan, is a running back on the Stanford roster, not that it made the rivalry swap any less awkward.
Stanford needed Scarlett badly because for the first time in years the Cardinal lacks the kind of defensive line beef that has battered Notre Dame in recent seasons. The Cardinal lost all three starters from last year’s 3-4 front, with former Notre Dame target Solomon Thomas expected to step in as a red-shirt freshman.
“The defensive line serves as Stanford’s biggest question mark,” DeVaughn said. “For years, Stanford has relied on the nose guard position to be the run-stuffing, pass-protection-digesting strength of its 3-4 schemes. But this roster lacks a single nose guard.”
Overall, the defense lost seven of its top 10 tacklers, including Notre Dame legacy Alex Carter, now playing cornerback for the Detroit Lions. Top safety Jordan Richards, defensive end Henry Anderson and linebacker A.J. Tarpley are also gone.
Stanford ranked second nationally in scoring defense last year (16.4 points), seventh in rushing defense (104.5 yards), sixth in sacks (46) and first in plays allowed of 20 yards or more (37). Maintaining those high-level stats could be a challenge with the defensive line’s turnover.
Notre Dame has no peer in tight end production in the last decade in Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Troy Niklas, Tyler Eifert and Ben Koyack.
However, Stanford is solid in this department by most standards, just not in comparison to Notre Dame.
Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo and even Konrad Reuland are on NFL rosters entering training camp, with Fleener (Colts) and Ertz (Eagles) both second round picks in the seasons they came out. Stanford had a recent drop at the position, but sophomore Austin Hooper could erase it.
Hooper finished last season with 40 catches for 499 yards and two scores. Former national recruit Dalton Schultz, a one-time Notre Dame target, is coming off a red-shirt year. It means the Cardinal could get back to making multiple tight end looks effective in their run-based offense.
“It helps a team’s cause to have one unit exceedingly better than any opposition’s counterpart. Stanford has that in its tight ends,” DeVaughn said. “Sophomores Greg Taboada and Eric Cotton could start at any Pac-12 school. Both ESPN and Scout rated Schultz the nation’s top prep tight end.”