There’s not much left for the Cardinal to play for. No bowl game. No Axe. No shot at escaping the cellar of the Pac-12. But that finality can be its own motivation.
“It’s our last week, so we’re playing like that,” sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee said after practice on Tuesday, “getting work after practice and things like that…because we know it’s our last chance.”
Pride, more than anything, will be on the line when Stanford (3-8, 2-8 Pac-12) hosts No. 5 Notre Dame (10-1) on Saturday to conclude a frustrating season. All signs point to a third consecutive blowout at home. Avoiding that, or even pulling off another upset against a ranked opponent, would bring some solace as the Cardinal honors its seniors and looks toward the murkiest offseason of head coach David Shaw’s tenure.
“That’s going to take our best effort of the year to give ourselves a chance,” Shaw said on Tuesday. “That’s what we’re aiming to do.”
Beating Notre Dame — or even making it look like Stanford belongs on the same field as the Fighting Irish — will require a level of play that the Cardinal just haven’t been able to produce since early in the season. Last week against Cal, poor tackling in every phase of the defense allowed the Bears to gash Stanford with explosive plays and run for a jaw-dropping 10.4 yards per carry. The offense, meanwhile, stalled as sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee threw two picks in an erratic return from injury.
Against Notre Dame, the Cardinal will hope that McKee improves as he continues to work his way back from a knee injury. He’ll continue to play with a thin crew of pass-catchers, though, as sophomore wideouts John Humphreys and Silas Starr have been ruled out for the game. Also out for Saturday are junior outside linebacker Stephon Herron and sophomore running back Casey Filkins, while fifth-year tight end/defensive end Tucker Fisk is questionable.
After the Big Game loss, McKee said the team needed to “practice angry” heading into their final week. Shaw said the staff has made some adjustments in previous weeks to the defense’s preparation to try and correct the issues in tackling.
“I’m not gonna be overly specific there,” Shaw said, “but we have tweaked some things and how we practice [over] the last week plus… There are things that we’ve worked on technique-wise and things we’ve tweaked in our daily practice schedule to get our guys in position.”
But that wasn’t enough to stop Berkeley’s rout in the Big Game, and Notre Dame will present a much tougher challenge. Shaw wasn’t shy about calling the Fighting Irish the best team Stanford will face this season. Notre Dame only has one loss this season, which came from fellow playoff-hopeful No. 4 Cincinnati (then No. 7) and is fresh off a 55-0 demolition of Georgia Tech. Star Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams, who’s rushed for 928 yards and averages five yards per carry on the season, could be just the latest rusher to batter Stanford’s dismal defensive statistics.
“Obviously, things haven’t gone as planned,” said fifth-year defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry on Tuesday. “We’re still trying to figure out what exactly we can do to mitigate some of the yardage that we’ve been giving up… We’re just going to try and throw our best stuff out there against Notre Dame. There’s one last shot.”
Wade-Perry is one of the 27 seniors, fifth-years and sixth-years that Stanford will honor before the game on Saturday — a list that also includes key contributors like senior defensive end Thomas Booker, senior inside linebacker Ricky Miezan, Fisk, sixth-year quarterback Isaiah Sanders, fifth-year fullback Houston Heimuli and senior wide receiver Michael Wilson.
All NCAA athletes who played during the pandemic-affected season in 2020 received an extra year of eligibility, adding intrigue to the decision that Stanford’s seniors — including numerous starters among the defensive line and linebackers — will face at the end of this year. For now, though, the occasion is just extra fuel ahead of a tough match up.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors playing their last game as Stanford football players,” Shaw said. “A lot of guys know that… [and] really want these guys to go out the way that we want them to go out.”
It’s a long shot that Stanford’s seniors will be able to end their undergraduate athletic careers with a win, but there have been crazier upsets this year. And another struggling Cardinal team actually led Notre Dame 17-7 in the final game of the 2019 season before a blocked punt killed Stanford’s momentum. That game, of course, ended in a thorough 45-24 Cardinal loss and settled the first losing record, 4-8, of Shaw’s head coaching career.
This year, Stanford stands to go one worse. The Cardinal are playing for their seniors and their future trajectory as a program. It’s not much compared to what they hoped to play for at the start of the year. But it’ll have to do.
Stanford kicks off against Notre Dame at 5 p.m. PT on Saturday. The game will be televised on Fox.