Where to begin? After last Saturday night’s gut-wrenching, last-second loss to Oregon State, Stanford football (1-4, 0-4 Pac-12) faces the unenviable task of turning the page against Notre Dame (3-2) in South Bend on Saturday.
Last Saturday marked Stanford’s best performance in a long time. For the first time in eight FBS games, the Cardinal were competitive. All three of our keys to the game last week more or less panned out. Stanford got the downfield pass game going, with fifth-year wide receiver Brycen Tremayne leading the way in his first career multi-touchdown game, back at his best after a grueling recovery from injury. The defense did enough to slow down the Beavers, at least for 50-plus minutes, tallying eight tackles-for-loss and for once putting pressure on the opposing quarterback. Moreover, in front of students for the first time this year, Stanford started fast, enjoying the lead against FBS opposition for the first time since last October against Washington. This ended the Cardinal’s barren run of seven games of playing catch up.
Indeed, for 59 minutes, Stanford played well enough to win and felt in control of the game. But, as the most cliche of cliches reminds us, the game is 60 minutes. Even by the standards of this rough patch, the Cardinal really outdid themselves. The offense failed to convert a third-and-four at the Oregon State 24-yard line, which would have put the game away (let’s leave discussion of the play call, which took junior quarterback Tanner McKee off the field on the decisive down, offline). The defense, for so long in control, then had the chance to put the Beavers away, defending a five point lead and the length of the field, as Oregon State needed to go 76 yards in 54 seconds with no timeouts. For the statistically-inclined, Stanford’s win probability at this point was 97.8%, per ESPN. But Lady Luck is a nasty enemy to have, and she spat in the face of Stanford on Saturday night. With under 30 seconds on the clock, the Beavers threw up a prayer, and two Cardinal defensive backs made devastating errors. The Cardinal somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, earning a deafening stunned silence at Stanford Stadium.
The losing streak continues — Stanford has dropped 11 in a row against FBS opposition. Along with lowly MAC program Akron, that is the worst such streak in college football. It’s easily the worst among Power 5 programs. Not to mention, Stanford has only one win in its last 11 matchups against FBS opponents on the Farm back through the middle of the 2019 season — the program dropped only nine home games in the entire decade from 2009 to 2018.
Let’s be clear: there is plenty of football left in 2022. However, if results don’t start to change, the program is approaching mid-2000s levels of futility.
What a tough task, then, to get prepared for a blue-blood program and tough road environment in Notre Dame. Even though the Fighting Irish have not looked particularly special this season, losing at home to Marshall, they are rightfully heavy favorites. Nevertheless, Stanford will be desperate to exorcize last week’s demons on the field — here are the keys to pulling off the unlikely upset against a team Stanford has not beaten since 2017.
I. Find the positives, and keep the faith
One way or another, we will learn a lot about the mental strength of this Stanford team against Notre Dame.
Last year, after back-to-back last-minute losses to Washington State and Washington — two contests in which Stanford, as against Oregon State, was one first down away from killing off the game — the wheels fell off the Cardinal. From that point on, they were blown out every game to finish the season.
It is so, so hard to bounce back from an extended losing streak, and regrouping mentally after a game in which you do enough to win yet still fail is even harder. But as David Shaw emphasized in his postgame press conference, the program has genuine positives to build on coming off of the Oregon State game. On offense, the passing attack was solid, the line kept McKee clean and the team minimized costly mistakes. On defense, the front seven played its best football all season with eight tackles-for-loss.
Stay positive, stay loose and keep going — that elusive win will come, be it this week or next.
II. Contain Michael Mayer
This year’s vintage of the Notre Dame offense generally fails to live up to years past. The Irish rank 75th out of 131 FBS teams in total offense. Quarterback Drew Pyne is limited as a passer, and the Notre Dame passing attack barely cracks the top-100. The run game is fine: It will challenge Stanford’s front seven but is nothing to write home about.
That said, junior tight end Michael Mayer is one of the best two or three at his position in the country, and he truly is a game-wrecker. Mayer easily leads the team in receiving, going for 118 yards and two touchdowns against then-No. 16 BYU last week — indeed, half of Pyne’s completions were to the 6-foot-4-inch Kentuckian.
Mayer is a unique matchup. Notre Dame lines him up both in-line and split wide in the slot. Come Saturday, the former will exploit favorable matchups against Stanford linebackers who generally struggle in coverage, while the latter always causes issues given Mayer’s size advantage over slot defensive backs. Mayer racked up 105 yards at Stanford Stadium last November, and it will be interesting to see whether his presence affects how aggressive Stanford is against the run. His threat could force Stanford defenders to hesitate on run plays, as the Irish will target him in the play action game, hampering the Cardinal’s ability to commit the necessary bodies to stop the run.
If the Cardinal contain Mayer, the Notre Dame offense loses much of its bite; let him loose, and the Irish have no qualms about turning to him 10-15 times over the course of the evening.
III. Take shots, early and often
In some ways, this is another way of saying “start fast,” but for the sake of variety let’s discuss big plays. Obviously, Stanford cannot afford to fall behind early — this is the kind of game that can get ugly quickly, given all the recent struggles. Hitting some big plays, then, is a way to establish some excitement on the sidelines and potentially seize an early advantage.
For all of Stanford’s weapons, big plays haven’t necessarily been a big part of Stanford’s offensive DNA of late (at least, not when games have been competitive). But, the Cardinal successfully looked downfield against Oregon State. Indeed, on just the second offensive play, Stanford sent junior tight end Ben Yurosek on a vertical seam pattern, getting an underutilized weapon involved earlier to the tune of 31 yards and putting the offense in prime position to strike early.
Of course, the biggest play of the day was Tremayne’s second touchdown grab, a 37-yarder from McKee. This was simply my favorite play of the day — Stanford got creative, faking a reverse to senior wide receiver Michael Wilson (who had carried the ball effectively earlier), which froze the Oregon State secondary, allowing Tremayne to beat his corner and get wide open on the post.
Let’s see more misdirection, eye candy and pre-snap motion. For the first time all season, it felt as though the Stanford passing attack was taking advantage of its talented receivers. Staying aggressive in this department — Stanford’s most talented phase of play — is the team’s best chance of turning the game into a true contest.
Pablo’s Picks of the Week
- Notre Dame 45, Stanford 14
- Game I’ll be watching: No. 3 Alabama at No. 6 Tennessee.
- Upset of the week: I’ll back Florida State, as a slight home underdog, to knock off the unimpressive No. 4 Clemson.
What a Saturday: Alabama at Tennessee, No. 10 Penn State at No. 5 Michigan and No. 7 USC at No. 20 Utah (which unfortunately conflicts with Stanford’s game) are all must-see TV. Note that Utah is favored over USC, and I back the Utes to make a statement in Salt Lake City, coming off of their loss to UCLA.
Pablo will be in the booth Saturday to call the game on KZSU.