Opponent Outlook: Stanford hasn't let losses derail season

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Even with two losses, there's plenty for Stanford's football team to play for Saturday when it entertains Notre Dame in the regular-season finale.

The Cardinal recovered from a two-point loss to Oregon two weeks ago to win the annual grudge match with Cal.

Heading into the showdown with the Irish, Tom Fitzgerald, who covers Stanford football for the San Francisco Chronicle, takes a look at some of the pressing questions surrounding the game.

ND Insider: How did the loss to Oregon two weeks ago change the trajectory of Stanford's season?

Tom Fitzgerald: It took them out of the playoff discussion, although subsequent events have given Stanford a glimmer of hope in that area. Of course, they would need to beat Notre Dame and then have a lot of things work in their favor. But the loss didn't cost them the Pac-12 North, as it turned out. It just shows that they're vulnerable to a team with a quarterback as good as Vernon Adams Jr. is. That kid, now that he's healthy, would expose a lot of defenses. As it was, Stanford just missed tying that game at the end despite losing the ball twice on center snaps in the fourth quarter, once on the Oregon 14.

NDI: What allowed the Cardinal to recover from their early loss to Northwestern?

Fitzgerald: Strong leadership from the seniors, much improved play from the offensive line and quarterback Kevin Hogan — and a whole lot of sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey. I don't know whether the early kickoff time (9 a.m. Pacific) affected them, but they didn't look in sync. The defense looked slow and out of position. Since then, the defense has gotten better, and the offense generally has been clicking on all cylinders.

NDI: What do you know about the Cardinal now that you didn't know in August?

Fitzgerald: Plenty. That McCaffrey is unlike any other player in the country. I'm not sure he's the best player; I haven't decided my Heisman vote. But he is unique in college football. Also, I think he's the MVP of college football. He means more to that team than any other star does to his team. I suspect that Alabama, Clemson, etc. would still be great without their Heisman candidates. Stanford would be a .500 team, at best, without McCaffrey. Also, we've learned that their young players have melded well into the defense. We've learned, on the other hand, that their pass rush leaves a lot to be desired.

NDI: What will Stanford's toughest matchups be against Notre Dame?

Fitzgerald: I haven't seen a lot of Notre Dame at this point. I'm going to go back over their last two games on tape. But I'd say it's whoever goes against Ronnie Stanley. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez is having a terrific year, far and away Stanford's leading tackler. The other inside 'backer, whether it's Kevin Palma or Jordan Martinez, isn't up to that caliber. Stanford doesn't have the stud pass rusher it has had in recent years in Henry Anderson, Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas. Nor does it have the 300-pound rock in the middle it had last year in David Parry. This is a rebuilding year for the defense, as everybody knew it was going to be.

NDI: Why is the Notre Dame game meaningful to Stanford?

Fitzgerald: Playing a team with the tradition of Notre Dame makes this game meaningful, no matter what. But it also gives Stanford a chance to impress the CFP panel in the unlikely situation that enough teams above them in the rankings fall to put Stanford back into the debate. Beyond that, it gives McCaffrey a terrific chance to impress the Heisman voters, and it gives the whole team a chance to maintain its momentum going into the Pac-12 title game.

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) celebrates with teammates after his touchdown on a 49-yard catch against California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)