Prister’s Preview: Stanford @ Notre Dame

ND isn’t clicking on all cylinders, but Stanford has done little in the passing game, has struggled with its rushing attack, and has yielded 86 points its last two games.


Who: Stanford (3-2) @ Notre Dame (2-4)
Where: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795); Notre Dame, Ind.
When: Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016; 7:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Stanford head coach: David Shaw (57-16 career, 57-16 in 6th year at Stanford)
Stanford 2015 record: 12-2
Last meeting: 2015—Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36
Series record: Notre Dame 19-11


Overall ND/opponent rank: 1st 
Rank by position: QB (5th), RB (1st), WR/TE (11th), OL (4th), DL (3rd), LB (2nd), DB (4th), ST (1st), C (2nd)


Nothing has come easily for the Cardinal (3-2), due largely to a challenging schedule that has included Kansas State, USC, UCLA, Washington and Washington State.

Stanford managed just 13 first downs and 272 yards total offense in the 26-13 victory over Kansas State. The Cardinal never trailed, shooting to a 17-0 lead and limiting Kansas State to 92 yards rushing and 19-of-41 passing with two interceptions. The defense registered eight sacks.

Stanford also never trailed in a 27-10 win over USC as the ground game accounted for 307 yards, including a 31-carry, 172-yard performance by Christian McCaffrey with a 56-yard touchdown reception mixed in.

The Cardinal trailed UCLA from the 18-second mark of the first quarter up to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside’s eight-yard touchdown reception from Ryan Burns with 24 seconds remaining. Defensive end Solomon Thomas put an exclamation point on the victory with a 42-yard fumble return for a touchdown as time expired.

Since then, Stanford has been out-scored 86-22 with a 44-6 pasting by the Huskies in Washington and a 42-16 loss at home to Washington State. Stanford never led in either of those two losses and managed just 509 yards total offense in eight quarters while surrendering 882.


“I’ve won those (close) games. It’s not just by luck. So it’s important to drill down deeper and to find out why we win those games. I think I have a pretty good understanding of why we won those games, and I think it goes to our preparation.

“It would be easy if we were getting beat by 40 points. We could resign ourselves to the fact that it is what it is. But we’re in a position to win these games, and we have to find a way to win. I think we can coach ‘em to the point where they understand it.”


Stanford offensive line: In 14 games last year, Stanford allowed 20 sacks. Through five games this season, opponents have totaled 16 sacks, including a stunning eight by Washington. The unit misses Outland Trophy-winning guard and first-round draft choice Joshua Garnett and first-team all-Pac 12 tackle Kyle Murphy. Stanford is averaging 84 yards rushing per game less than in 2015.

Stanford turnovers: After committing just 13 turnovers in 2015, the fewest in Stanford history, the Cardinal have coughed it up nine times (five fumbles, four interceptions) in five games this year.

Chinks in the armor: Stanford is allowing a shocking 48 percent third-down conversion rate while the rushing attack is accounting for an un-Stanford-like 140.8 yards per game. Stanford is 122nd in the country in total offense at 307 yards per game. The Cardinal have scored just 13 points in the first quarter. Stanford is 125th in the country in plays of 10 yards-plus, but don’t have the usual dominant running game to fall back on.

Banged up secondary: Starting cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks have missed the last two games. The state of Washington took advantage, particularly Washington State’s Luke Falk, who completed 30-of-41 passes for 357 yards and four touchdowns. (Note: Holder and Meeks are expected to play against Notre Dame.)

Stanford linebacker play: Blake Martinez is gone and Shayne Skov is long gone. They were back-to-back difference-making linebackers for the Cardinal, and there’s been a drop-off. Veteran off-the-edge rusher Peter Kalambayi has been the only real constant.


Stanford’s culture of winning: Stanford is in the midst of just its second two-game losing streak since 2010, during which time the Cardinal have recorded more sacks (270) than any FBS team. Stanford hasn’t lost three in a row since 2008. Stanford has 69 victories this decade, the fourth most behind Alabama (77), Florida State (72) and Oregon (71). Notre Dame has 57 victories in the same span.

Close wins: Whereas the Irish are 0-4 this year in one-score games, Stanford put the finishing touches on a 26-13 win over Kansas State with a McCaffrey touchdown run with eight seconds left and a fumble return for a score with no time left in a 22-13 win over UCLA. The Cardinal also showed a killer instinct against USC, scoring 10 points in the final six minutes of a 27-10 victory.

Christian McCaffrey: The NCAA’s all-time single-season leader in all-purpose yards (3,864 in 2015) is on pace for a 1,350-yard rushing campaign, which pales in comparison to his 2,019-yard season last year. He’s banged up with just 20 carries for 84 yards in the back-to-back losses. McCaffrey is one of just two active FBS players with 2,000 career rushing yards (2,839) and 1,000 yards receiving (1,050). If he’s on the field, he’s a threat.

Defensive tackle/end/linebacker combination: Stanford still has playmakers up front on its defense. End Solomon Thomas has 4½ sacks, seven tackles for loss and a team-high four quarterback hurries for a defense that has 14 sacks. Harrison Phillips is a burly combination tackle/end with 3½ sacks and 6½ tackles for loss. Outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi has 13½ sacks in his career, including 2½ this season.


One of two things will happen Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium: Either Stanford will lose its third straight game for the first time since 2008 or Notre Dame will lose its third straight home game for the first time since 2007.

Neither team is ranked, which is a first in this series since 2009. Whereas the last two games between these two combatants in Notre Dame Stadium have produced a total of 64 points, this game alone should approach that number, similar to last year when the Cardinal squeaked out a 38-36 victory on a last-second field goal.

Stanford has allowed 40 points in each of its last two games. Opponents scored as many as 40 against the Cardinal just twice in the previous four years.

So the mostly-friendly cross-country rivalry is in a bit of a topsy-turvy mode as they clash for the 20th straight season. Notre Dame holds an 11-8 advantage during the last two decades, although the Cardinal have won five-of-seven with the lone two blemishes coming in Notre Dame Stadium in 2012 and 2014.

This is by far the most vulnerable Stanford team since prior to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in 2007. Even Harbaugh’s first Cardinal teams, which managed just nine wins in 2007-08, played the Irish to seven-point losses.

The quarterback play of Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst has reflected their youth. The running game has sputtered with Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey ailing. They’re not a big-play offense and the defense sprung a leak the last two weeks.

Stanford hasn’t even been able to build on its tight end reputation with just 10 grabs and no touchdowns between the top two on the depth chart.

Notre Dame has had its own issues, but it’s still a big-play, quick-strike offensive attack. Hurricane Matthew slowed the Irish down last week in the loss at N.C. State. But the weapons remain ample while still scoring at a 33.7-point pace despite being limited to a field goal by the Wolfpack.

Stanford’s secondary has been banged up, and it’s been reflected by the 20 pass plays of 20 yards or more (84th nationally), which is the distance this Notre Dame team likes to attack. It should be noted that Notre Dame’s defense has allowed the exact same number of 20-yard pass plays through six games, but 80 percent of those came during the first four games when Brian VanGorder was the coordinator.

Running the football against Stanford still is no day at the beach (3.7 yards per carry), so don’t look for this game to be the one that unveils Notre Dame’s ground-oriented attack. But there is yardage to be had on the ground, and if the Irish can mix it in effectively with DeShone Kizer taking his cracks down the field, Notre Dame should approach their season scoring average.

Losers of six of their last eight games dating back to the 2015 regular-season finale at Stanford, the Irish desperately need a victory. Led by Kizer and the passing attack, an improving defense, and a team that has not abandoned the ship, the Irish get it done, handing Stanford its third straight loss in Notre Dame Stadium.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 3; over-under 55    
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 34, Stanford 27
Season Record: Straight-up 3-3, vs. points 5-1, over/under 1-5 Top Stories