Opponent Outlook: Like Irish, Stanford has suffered through struggles

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Back in August, Saturday's prime time meeting between Notre Dame and Stanford was framed as a possible playoff elimination game.

In reality, there will be two disheveled programs desperately trying to avoid a free fall into football oblivion.

Notre Dame (2-4) is coming off a hurricane-induced loss to North Carolina State, while Stanford (3-2) has had back-to-back blowout losses to Washington and Washington State.

To make matters worse for the Cardinal, one-time Heisman Trophy contender Christian McCaffrey, their stud running back, suffered what appeared to be a hip injury against Washington State. His status for Saturday is uncertain.

Tom FitzGerald, who has covered Stanford football for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years, discusses some of the Cardinal woes.

ND Insider: How have the losses to Washington and Washington State impact the trajectory of Stanford's season?

FitzGerald: The losses not only took Stanford out of the hunt for another Pac-12 title, but they exposed some elements of the team that previously were thought to be very good. Like the offensive line. In the last two games, Stanford has rushed for just 90 yards total and given up 10 sacks. The Cardinal have been known for their stud O-line guys like first-round picks Andrus Peat and Josh Garnett in recent years. There's nobody of that caliber left.

NDI: Junior running back Christian McCaffrey hasn't scored a touchdown on the road in his career. Why?

FitzGerald: As a freshman in 2014 he was a spot player, scoring just two touchdowns, both receiving. In 2015 Remound Wright was the designated short-yardage and goal line tailbacks. He scored seven rushing touchdowns in road games, mostly on short runs. Those plays would have gone to McCaffrey except that David Shaw wanted to keep Wright involved and he was very good at jumping over the pile or bouncing around it. This year he had 138 yards rushing at UCLA, but the offense didn't score a touchdown until the final 24 seconds. At Washington, the O-line was overwhelmed, and there was nothing McCaffrey could do.

NDI: Stanford's defense struggled last year. This year, Stanford is giving up about 379 yards a game. What's different?

FitzGerald: In the last two weeks, Stanford has given up 86 points, seven TD passes and 882 total yards, so the defense continues to struggle against solid competition. Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips are fine in the line, but the linebackers generally are very average and the secondary has been banged up. Starting cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks have missed the last two games with injuries, and the opposition has been able to exploit the backups, especially since there hasn't been much of a pass rush.

NDI: Last year, Notre Dame's defensive plan was to shut down McCaffrey and dare quarterback to Kevin Hogan to win the game (which he did). Could Ryan Burns do that this season?

FitzGerald: Burns isn't the runner that Hogan was, nor is he as adept a field manager as Hogan was. After all, he has had just five games as the starter. He may be an outstanding college QB in time, but he's not there yet. Again, he doesn't have the offensive line in front of him that Hogan had.

NDI: What has surprised you about this team?

FitzGerald: That the offensive line has been so anemic against top-flight competition, namely Washington and Washington State. Christian McCaffrey is every bit the player he was last year, but he hasn't had much running room in the last two weeks.

Also, that opponents are much better equipped to contain McCaffrey on punt and kickoff returns. He had one excellent kickoff return against UW, but otherwise he's generally been kept in check.

And lastly, that the tight end position has been so unproductive. Backup Greg Taboada has missed the last two games with an injury, and starter Dalton Schultz has just eight catches for 64 yards. Freshman Kaden Smith, the nation's top prep tight end last year, hasn't played because he's still coming off a serious knee injury in high school.

FitzGerald: 

Washington State running back Jamal Morrow (25) runs past Stanford linebacker Mike Tyler during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

WHO: Notre Dame (2-4) vs. Stanford (3-2)

KICKOFF: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 1 1/2