“This is our season for us,” said junior offensive tackle Walter Rouse. “There is nothing after this game. This is like our bowl game. This is everything for us.”
The goliath, No. 5 Notre Dame (10-1), presents the final task of 2021 for the Cardinal (3-8, 2-7 Pac-12). Head coach David Shaw, without pausing a second, called the Irish the best team Stanford has faced all season.
The Cardinal beat No. 3 Oregon. The Cardinal beat No. 13 USC. But ND is another beast.
And it doesn’t help that Stanford is on its longest losing-streak since 2006, when it dropped nine in a row. On the other end, the Irish have only lost to Cincinnati — now No. 4 and a dark horse for the national championship. Zach Zafran, Drew Silva, Daniel Wu, Michael Espinosa and Sofia Scekic discuss senior leaders, home field advantage, avoiding a shutout and offensive strategy.
Cybele Zhang [CZ]: Saturday will be the final time many Cardinal players put on a Stanford uniform. As is tradition, all 27 fourth, fifth and sixth-year seniors will participate in Saturday’s Senior Day — independent of whether those with remaining eligibility will return next season or not. Which of those honored players has been an especially notable impact player for you this season?
Zach Zafran [ZZ]: Senior defensive end Thomas Booker. Who else would it be? No other player gave me a call during Big Game week. Jokes aside, Booker has proven time and time again his value to this team. Not only is he a difference-maker on the field (fifth in total tackles, tied-second in tackles for loss and second in QB hurries), but he is invaluable off of the field as well. The senior, a two-year co-captain, is the heart and soul of the team and has demonstrated unwavering leadership, even throughout their struggles late this season. The 2021 William V. Campbell Trophy finalist has had an incredible career as a Cardinal, and I expect him to cap it off in a big way come Saturday.
Daniel Wu [DW]: It’s got to be fifth-year outside linebacker Gabe Reid for me. He’s quietly been one of the more reliable players on a rocky defensive line and had a career day against Oregon that helped Stanford pull off the upset — I think the Stanford crowd that day first started to believe after he intercepted Anthony Brown. Here’s hoping he finishes strong this week.
Michael Espinsa [ME]: I’ll go with sixth-year quarterback Isaiah Sanders. Running option plays with him gave Stanford’s offense a dynamism that will be hard to replace next year.
CZ: While the Irish lead the all-time series (21-13), Stanford leads the series when at home (9-8). Does home field advantage in Stanford Stadium affect the match-up at all? We saw record breaking crowds last week for Big Game but also near-empty student sections at the Washington and Utah games.
ZZ: Stanford may have seen record-high turnout for last week’s Big Game, but sadly, I foresee record-low turnout for this week’s game. A large portion of the student body is out of town for Thanksgiving break and many won’t return to campus until Sunday. For those who are around, last week’s blowout loss to Cal may discourage them from coming to the game. Outside of the students, the general public’s attendance this season has been far from admirable, and I don’t see that changing for the team’s final game. The Cardinal will need to look for advantages outside of the crowd’s support.
Drew Silva [DS]: The combination of the widespread support of Notre Dame football, the Cardinal’s six-game losing-streak and Thanksgiving break could make Stanford Stadium appear to be in South Bend, Ind. I certainly expect the crowd to be a factor in this game, just not in Stanford’s favor. Don’t be surprised if Cardinal fans are noticeably outnumbered by Fighting Irish supporters.
DW: Stanford’s seniors deserve a crowd for their final game, but, as Drew and Zach have said, this might be a tough one considering the Thanksgiving weekend and Stanford’s record this season. But playing at Stanford Stadium is still much easier than flying out to South Bend, home crowd or not. And who knows, with a quieter stadium maybe it’ll be easier for the students who do go to get a good heckle in at the Notre Dame bench.
Sofia Scekic [SS]: There have been two games this season where the Red Zone (Stanford’s student section) saw record-breaking attendance — and both those games ended in losses for the Cardinal. While crowds are nice, they don’t seem to help the Cardinal all that much. I could see this being a low-attended game on both sides — although Notre Dame is having a solid season, I think fans know this game is likely going to be a blowout early in favor of Notre Dame. The trip from South Bend is long, and close, competitive games are more fun to watch.
CZ: Last week Notre Dame shut out Georgia Tech, jumping out to a whopping 45-0 lead in the opening 30 minutes alone, which is even more severe than No. 16 Utes’ 38-0 halftime-lead versus the Cardinal earlier this season. What should Stanford do to ensure that they can get points on the board and don’t get shut out, too?
ZZ: It’s been a point of discussion all season long: the run game needs to get going. In each of Stanford’s three wins this season, the offense has exceeded the 100-yard mark on the ground. In each of their losses? The Cardinal have only done so once. Sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee looked rusty in his return to the gridiron, which included an ugly interception on only the second play of the game. After a full week of practice, however, I expect the gunslinger to return to form. But, his play will be limited to how seriously the Fighting Irish plays Stanford’s run game, which relies on the performance of the offensive line and running backs.
DS: As Zach mentioned, I think we will see a much better Tanner McKee than we did last week. McKee will have to have one of his best performances of the season in order to find the end zone against a Notre Dame defense that has allowed nine total points in their last three games combined. However, McKee and the rest of the Stanford offense will also need a considerable contribution from the run game in order to put some points on the board.
DW: After an entire season watching this team get stonewalled at the line of scrimmage, I don’t think there’s much hope in fixing the run game before the Fighting Irish come to town — although, as has been the theme all season long, there should be enough talent on the offensive line and at running back for that to happen. Besides that, though, the Cardinal will also need to be opportunistic on defense and convert on any turnovers they manage. They’ve been close — the defense managed a pick and a forced fumble against Cal and almost had a pivotal fumble recovery against Washington. A score off a short field would be the best chance for Stanford to keep pace with Notre Dame.
SS: The obvious answer is to score early and score often, which is something I think there’s a chance we could see now that McKee has (hopefully) shaken off the rust from missing two games earlier this season. However, as Drew mentioned, this Notre Dame defense is very good, and putting up points will not be easy. The defense (and offense, to be fair) needs to play with urgency from the first snap and create turnovers like Daniel said, and the offense needs to protect the ball, while McKee needs to have the game of his life to break through a tough Notre Dame defense.
CZ: Sophomore tight end Benjamin Yurosek has had a breakout season, averaging 15.3 yards per reception (the most on the team). He has 566 total yards thus far, as well as two touchdowns. Perhaps a large part of why he’s been relied on so heavily is because the receiving corps is so depleted. Now, joining senior Brycen Tremayne on the sideline will be sophomores John Humphreys and Silas Starr — both listed as out this weekend. Who else can Tanner McKee target, or will Stanford need to rely on a lackluster run game?
DS: After being named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list, which honors the nation’s best collegiate receiver, senior Michael Wilson’s season debut was postponed until the Utah game due to an injury. The 2020 All Pac-12 honorable mention has seen an increase in receptions and receiving yards in each game since his return. Last week, in his only game with McKee under center, Wilson led the Cardinal with six receptions for 61 yards. McKee should again look to target Wilson early and often, which would dissuade Stanford from relying on their ground game alone.
ZZ: Like I said before, it all starts with the run game. However, if the rushing attack can get going, we’ve seen what McKee is capable of. It doesn’t help that the receiving core has fallen so thin, but there are still pieces that the offense can turn to. Michael Wilson is one such piece that has the ability to impact the game, and, as Drew said, his performances have steadily improved since his return. This Saturday may be Wilson’s chance to prove his pre-season recognition was well-deserved.
DW: At wide receiver, don’t forget sophomore speedster Bryce Farrell, who broke loose for a 52-yard score against UCLA. He’s been able to get open on deep routes and against Utah but couldn’t connect with backup quarterbacks senior Jack West and freshman Ari Patu. Stanford is playing spoiler with nothing to lose. McKee should let it rip and give Farrell a few more chances to reel in some bombs.
SS: Michael Wilson showed last year before he got injured that he is a reliable and talented pass-catcher. Like Drew said, he’s seen more opportunities with each game since he’s returned from injury. If there’s a game where he can put up big numbers and carry the offense, it’s this one, especially because Stanford’s already-depleted pass catching corps has gotten even thinner. It’s the final game of the season and the offensive line has seen even more injuries in recent weeks (see Branson Bragg before Big Game), so I don’t think it’s even worth it taking part of the game trying to get the running backs to create some points for the Cardinal. I think Stanford will be much better off relying on McKee and receivers like Wilson.
CZ: The Cardinal have not beaten Notre Dame since 2017. Can they do it again? Score predictions for Saturday night?
ZZ: Notre Dame 38, Stanford 13 — The Fighting Irish haven’t allowed an opponent to score a touchdown since October. The Cardinal haven’t scored more than 14 points in a game since mid-October. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is averaging a whopping 34.4 points per game. Stanford just got thrashed by a Cal team that scored only three points against a far-from-impressive Arizona team the week before. The Cardinal have shown an ability to upset teams at unexpected times, but facing a Fighting Irish team that is in pursuit of a CFP spot is an extra challenge, especially while riding a six-game losing streak. I don’t see that type of upset happening this week.
DS: Notre Dame 42, Stanford 10 — On the night of Oct. 2, 2021, I would have predicted a Cardinal win. Just hours before, Stanford had taken down No. 3 Oregon and Notre Dame had lost at home to Cincinnati. I envisioned the Cardinal and the Fighting Irish finishing their regular seasons with a close game that would have significant bowl implications for both teams. However, these teams have trended in completely opposite directions since that day, with Stanford going 0-6 and Notre Dame 6-0. The second halves of these six-game streaks show the stark difference in these trends; in their past three games, the Cardinal have an average point differential of -32, while the Fighting Irish post an impressive +36. While I would love to see the Cardinal play spoiler to the Irish’s playoff hopes, I see Stanford losing by a considerable margin.
DW: Stanford 35, Notre Dame 31 — This will be the most ridiculous pick I write, but I can’t go out in my last roundtable picking against Stanford. The theme all year long for the Cardinal has been a failure to execute and utilize the team’s talent on offense. Why not have it all suddenly come together on Saturday? Catch me rushing the field with the five other fans in the student section.
ME: Notre Dame 46, Stanford 6 — I’ll go out in my last roundtable picking against Stanford no problem. As a matter of fact, I’ll pick Stanford to score the least amount of points out of everyone here so if Notre Dame really runs up the score and Stanford doesn’t score I’ll have the prediction closest to the actual score score and win the competition we have among the staff.
SS: Notre Dame 45, Stanford 7 — Notre Dame is going to run away with this one early. The Cardinal have nothing to play for other than pride or a high note to send the seniors off with, but there’s no conference championship, bowl game or playoff seeding on the line anymore. I can’t help but imagine how demoralizing the Big Game loss has been for the team, and I expect they’ll have a tough time bouncing back from that against the No. 5 team in the country in front of a likely very empty stadium. As much as I’d love to see a Stanford upset in what will be my last football game as a student, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t score until close to the end of the game when Notre Dame has pulled many of its starters.