Of course it came down to fourth-and-one. Long considered an offensive-line juggernaut that could grind out rushing yards on any defense, Stanford football had a chance to extend its Big Game winning streak to 10 if it could only convert another fourth-and-one and prolong its potential game-winning drive.
But this is not your Stanford of old. Picking up one yard is far from a sure thing for this beat-up Cardinal offensive line and paltry rushing attack. Cal easily stuffed fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett to reclaim the Axe, setting off a massive celebration in Stanford Stadium.
As giddy Cal fans poured onto the field to celebrate the end of a dark decade in Berkeley, Stanford fans were left wondering if they were headed for their own nightmarish Big Game streak. The Cardinal look nothing like the Rose Bowl teams of the early 2010s. For the second consecutive season, Stanford has one of the worst rushing offenses in college football. The Cardinal defense is below average even in the mediocre Pac-12. Rather than fighting for a Pac-12 Championship and possible Rose Bowl berth, Stanford was merely scrapping for bowl eligibility in the Big Game.
Saturday’s devastating loss condemned the Axe to exile in Berkeley for the first time since 2009 and secured Stanford’s first losing season since 2008. This has easily been the worst year of head coach David Shaw’s tenure, but a win over Cal could have eased the suffering of Nerd Nation. With that chance gone, 2019 is now a truly lost season.
It seems almost unfair that Stanford must turn around and play a rock-solid Notre Dame team just one week after Big Game, but that is the rhythm of its brutal 2019 schedule. Shaw’s team did not have a single “easy win” on the docket, and Saturday’s finale might be the toughest game of all. The 15th-ranked Irish have lost just two games this season, both on the road to current top-10 teams in Georgia and Michigan. Brian Kelly’s team sports a nasty defense that generates a ton of turnovers. The Notre Dame offense, led by second-year starter Ian Book, is not flashy or explosive, but the Irish move the ball consistently and rarely beat themselves.
Considering the four teams Stanford has beaten are a combined 17-27, this would be one of the most shocking upsets of the college football season. But the Cardinal have won the last five meetings between these two teams in Stanford Stadium. As notable Notre Dame fan Ty Hildenbrandt of the Solid Verbal often says, Stanford Stadium is Notre Dame’s “little house of horrors.” Stanford is just 3-3 at home this season, but if the Cardinal can channel that sleepy Stanford Stadium ambience into another upset over the Irish, Stanford fans could at least go into 2020 with a little more hope.
Nothing will salvage Stanford’s ugly season, not after giving away the Axe and missing a bowl game for the first time in 11 seasons. When Chase Garbers rumbled into the end zone from 16 yards out to write his Big Game legend and Evan Weaver came up with his 13th tackle on fourth-and-one, 2019 officially became a failure for the Cardinal.
A win over Notre Dame would not change that, but it could change the narrative surrounding the program heading into next season and perhaps even salvage some recruiting momentum with an on-field victory over a frequent recruiting opponent. Here’s three keys to breaking the Big Game malaise and picking up a signature win to carry into 2020:
1) Make Book beat you
Ian Book is a good quarterback. But he is not a great quarterback, a seemingly small disparity that has evolved into a massive headache for Notre Dame fans. Book’s accuracy and efficiency are down this season after his breakout role in Notre Dame’s 2018 College Football Playoff run. His completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating have all declined, and yet his total attempts have gone up.
Book is being asked to do more but is actually doing less in 2019. When teams have managed to shut down the Notre Dame rushing attack and forced Book to beat them with his right arm, the Irish offense has stalled. Just ask Michigan, which saved its season by shellacking Notre Dame 45-14 in the Big House. In that game, Book was held to 73 yards on 25 attempts.
Stanford’s pass defense is slogging through a horrendous season, sitting at 118th nationally with 281.7 yards per game allowed through the air. Junior cornerback Paulson Adebo and senior safety Malik Antoine, Stanford’s two best defensive backs, will both miss the game. But the senior leaders on this Cardinal defense, particularly linebackers Casey Toohill and Curtis Robinson, only get one more chance to ball out in that block “S.” If they can slow down the Notre Dame rushing attack and pressure Book into quick throws, Stanford’s defense should be able to hold its own against the heavily-favored Irish.
2) Establish the run
Stanford totally abandoned the run in each of the past two games. The Cardinal rushed for 67 yards combined in those ugly losses to Washington State and Cal. Stanford has attempted more passes than rushes in each of the past five games since the vintage run-heavy performance in the win over Washington. Although this column has often called for Stanford to give up its institutional reliance on the run, this season has been different. With three true freshmen on the offensive line, it seems that Shaw does not trust the running game enough to lean on it regularly. That has put too much pressure on junior quarterback Davis Mills and the passing attack to carry the offense.
The Cardinal cannot win this game on the ground. Notre Dame’s front seven is too strong, and the Stanford offensive line is too young. But the Irish defense is much weaker against the run than against the pass, as Kelly’s team ranks 76th nationally in rush defense and third in pass defense. There will be opportunities for the Cardinal running backs to grind out yards on the ground. As talented as Mills has proved to be, he will commit multiple turnovers if forced to throw the ball 50 times like he did against Wazzu. This Notre Dame team also ranks third in the country for turnover margin. But if Stanford can soften up the Irish defense with a consistent rushing attack, Mills can burn Notre Dame’s secondary with deep play-action throws to the bevy of speedy Cardinal wideouts.
3) Don’t fold
Stanford faces a nearly impossible situation on Saturday. The Cardinal are 16.5 point underdogs at home against a Notre Dame team that needs this win to reach a major bowl game. Meanwhile, Stanford seemingly has nothing to play for with a bowl game already out of the picture. With all the Cardinal injuries, it might be better to avoid the extra game and all the additional practices that come with a bowl.
But it is still Senior Day in Stanford Stadium with the Legends Trophy on the line. If the Cardinal go into the offseason with an ugly blowout loss, Stanford will face a trying offseason with all kinds of questions. That would put the Cardinal at 4-8, their worst mark since Jim Harbaugh’s first season in 2007. A loss on Saturday makes it feel like Stanford is right back where it started before Harbaugh arrived: a below-average program with no chance to compete with the college football elite. But with a win, the whole country would get a reminder that Stanford is still there, ready to once again contend for Pac-12 titles.
It might not feel like Stanford has much to play for against Notre Dame. But if the Cardinal fold on Saturday, it will be a dark offseason on the Farm.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.