Opponent outlook: Notre Dame's slide at Stanford expected to end

Carter Karels | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

The last time Notre Dame won at Stanford, Charlie Weis and Jim Harbaugh were the respective head football coaches at Notre Dame and Stanford.

It was 2007, and the Irish defeated the Cardinal 21-14. A five-game losing streak at Stanford Stadium has since plagued the Irish: 45-38 (2009), 28-14 (2011), 27-20 (2013), 38-36 (2015) and 38-20 (2017).

This Saturday (4 p.m. EST on FOX), AP No. 15 Notre Dame will travel to face the worst Stanford team since that 2007 matchup. The Cardinal (4-7) will finish 2019 with their first losing record under head coach David Shaw. His other eight seasons at Stanford each produced at least eight wins.

Losing wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, running back Bryce Love, linebacker Bobby Okereke and tight end Kaden Smith to the NFL last year were tough blows for the Cardinal. But nothing proved to be more challenging than the litany of injuries Stanford’s had to endure this season.

That includes starting quarterback K.J. Costello, who has been dealing with a number of injuries and remains out against the Irish. Backup Davis Mills has taken his place and is 2-3 as the starter.

Can Notre Dame take advantage of Stanford’s lowly status and reverse its trend in Palo Alto? We caught up with Harold Gutmann of the Mercury News for more insight on the Cardinal.

What do you pinpoint as the biggest reasons for Stanford’s decline this season?

Gutmann: It has to start with injuries. I know it’s a convenient excuse, but the team started with an experienced offensive line led by first-team all-conference tackle Walter Little. Little suffered a season-ending injury in the first game, more starters got hurt, and now Stanford has only six healthy offensive linemen (four of which are true freshmen).

Costello led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency last season (not Washington State’s Gardner Minshew or Oregon’s Justin Herbert) and he’s only played in half of the team’s games this season because of three separate injuries — and his backup, Davis Mills, also got hurt so at one point Stanford was starting its third-string QB. Leading receiver Connor Wedington got hurt returning the opening kickoff last week and never returned.

The injuries are just as bad on the defensive side. (Likely) future pro cornerback Paulson Adebo, who led the country in passes defended last season, is out. Senior safety Malik Antoine is out. Half the linebackers are out. Even all-conference kicker Jet Toner suffered a season-ending injury halfway through the year.

Will the Cardinal be back to prominence in 2020? Do you view this year as an anomaly?

Gutmann: The upside to all the injuries is that all the true freshmen and first-time starters are gaining valuable experience. For instance, Mills was overmatched in his first start against USC and threw for a program-record 504 yards earlier this month against Washington State. There are some worrisome trends — Stanford lost to UCLA for the first time in 12 games, lost to Cal for the first time in 10 years and won’t go to a bowl for the first time since Jim Harbaugh reinvigorated the program. But I need to see it happen more than once to think it’s a trend.

How has this season changed your perspective on head coach David Shaw?

Gutmann: Shaw is the winningest coach in program history and a proud alum. It’s going to take more than one losing season to change my opinion on him, or the opinion of most boosters. Certainly a lot of the traits that infuriate many Stanford fans, such as punting on fourth-and-1 from the opponent’s 40 seemingly every game, haven’t helped now that he’s finally hit a rough spot. But he’s built up enough goodwill to overcome this year.

Why do you think Notre Dame has had such trouble winning in Palo Alto?

Gutmann: It’s not just Notre Dame — every team has had trouble since Harbaugh turned the program around. Stanford has won 98 games this decade, tied for the seventh-most in college football. Shaw entered the year 25-7 in November, when Notre Dame comes to Stanford, and have won 22 straight non-conference games at home (dating back to Notre Dame in 2007).

That said, pretty much every streak has ended this year (see above for the long winning streaks against UCLA and Cal). Stanford is 3-3 at home this year, and has been blown out by plenty of teams much worse than Notre Dame. I think the betting line (around 17) is pretty spot on.

Who are some of Stanford’s key players that will need to shine on Saturday?

Gutmann: Running back Cameron Scarlett had 151 rushing yards in Stanford’s best win, against Washington. If Stanford can run the ball and keep it away from Notre Dame, that’s its best chance of pulling the upset. Davis Mills has looked a lot better lately, but has to avoid interceptions (he’s thrown four in the past two games). Freshman cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly has been great with so much turnover in the secondary. Defensive end Thomas Booker is one of the most talented players on the field. Linebacker Casey Toohill has eight sacks and will be playing his final game.

Scoring prediction: Notre Dame 37, Stanford 20.

Gutmann: Stanford hasn’t been able to stop mobile quarterbacks against UCLA, Arizona and Cal, and Ian Book is the best one they’ve faced. Even if the Stanford offense puts up points, the defense isn’t stopping the Fighting Irish.

Don’t miss any of our Notre Dame football coverage. Sign up for our ND football newsletter for twice-weekly updates on the Irish sent straight to your email inbox.

Stanford quarterback Davis Mills started the season as a backup. He is 2-3 as a starter.