Over the last five years, a matchup between the Cardinal and the Fighting Irish has been a marquee event — a game between two top-25 teams duking it out for the Legends Trophy in what has evolved into one of the more exciting rivalries in college football.
This year, while the prize of the Legends Trophy is still in play, the stakes, at first glance, do not seem nearly as high.
On Saturday, Stanford football (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) will travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame (2-4). The game features two teams caught in uncharacteristic slides, with Stanford having lost its each of its last two games by more than 25 points and Notre Dame having lost three of its last four.
For Stanford, a pair of unusual blowouts has the team scrambling on virtually all fronts. In their past two matchups, the Cardinal have been outscored 86-22, have allowed 11 sacks and have mustered just 90 rushing yards after totaling 614 over their first three games.
While many have been quick to pinpoint one specific area in which the Cardinal need to improve, from the quarterback to the offensive line, Stanford’s last two performances have overwhelmingly pointed to weaknesses throughout, which makes finding a remedy to the situation all the more difficult.
“We have been inconsistent from one through 11 with guys on the field,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “Receivers, tight ends, quarterbacks, running backs as well … It looks like the offensive line just because we didn’t run the ball very well and we’ve given up sacks the last two weeks. But it’s not just those guys. They’ve got a hand in it, but we’ve all got a hand in it.”
Meanwhile, the injury woes have only increased for Stanford.
Junior running back Christian McCaffrey’s status is uncertain, with Shaw terming his status a “late-week decision” that likely won’t come until Friday.
Senior wide receiver Francis Owusu, junior offensive tackle Casey Tucker, senior Greg Taboada and sophomore defensive back Quenton Meeks are all “close,” according to Shaw, although he conceded that some missed practice earlier in the week may affect just how much the four of them can play.
Additionally, junior cornerback Alijah Holder and junior fullback Daniel Marx are both doubtful.
The losses of Meeks and Holder, in particular, have put an onus on the Stanford secondary, and while some of the younger players have stepped up admirably, the Cardinal defense is certainly reeling from the absence of its two starting cornerbacks.
“We’ve missed them,” Shaw said of Meeks and Holder. “Both guys, I thought [in] the first couple games, played very, very well. But at the same time, all those other guys who are playing now have been rotating in. We’ve missed their presence, we’ve missed their playmaking, we’ve missed their coverage.”
After years of being incredibly fortunate as far as health goes, Stanford knows that it can’t use injuries as the definitive explanation for its issues. Part of the mentality that Shaw has instilled in the program during his tenure has been the “next man up” philosophy, and Stanford’s ability to produce a consistent pipeline of deep talent has often been one of its strengths.
The defense, in particular, will need to channel that as it takes on a deceptively tough Notre Dame offense.
The Fighting Irish, coming off an ugly 10-3 loss to North Carolina State last weekend, are not a team to be overlooked. Notre Dame is returning a number of its offensive weapons that torched the Stanford defense for some big plays last November, including sophomore running back Josh Adams, who rushed for 168 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries, and junior quarterback Deshone Kizer, who almost led the Irish to a win against Stanford last year before a late field goal gave the Cardinal the victory.
“Big, strong, athletic, strong arm, competitive,” Shaw said in his description of Kizer. “We have the utmost respect for him.”
On the other side of the ball, the Notre Dame defense has had some awful moments in its first six games this season, with at least 30 points allowed in four of its six contests. The struggling Cardinal offense may be just what the Irish need in order to get back on track, so that matchup will most likely end up telling the story of how this game turns out.
A loss for either team would be yet another catastrophic blow.
For the Cardinal, a loss would signal the first Stanford three-game losing streak since 2008, back before David Shaw was even head coach. A loss for the Irish would drop them to 2-5 and would further put head coach Brian Kelly’s job in jeopardy as Notre Dame navigates through its poor start.
So while a playoff berth is out of the question for both teams at this point, the stakes may be just as high this year as they have been in years past. And with the tradition surrounding the two teams involved, it’s clear that the game won’t be overlooked.
“For both of us, we’ve been wounded,” Shaw said. “But you’ve got two proud football teams, two talented football teams, two physical football teams. Every year, really, in the last seven years, this has been one heck of a football game.”
“It’s going to be physical, it’s going to be intense. The records don’t matter — it’s going to be a physical football game.”
Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu.