The highly anticipated matchup between Notre Dame and the Stanford Cardinal arrives Saturday afternoon and the stakes surrounding the outcome are high – whether Stanford head coach David Shaw wants to talk about them or not.
While visions of a College Football Playoff spot dance in Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s head, the 10-1 Irish have proven they are not invincible with a 24-22 loss to Clemson earlier in the season and a nail-biter 19-16 win over Boston College last week. Plagued with injuries, the Irish have adopted the “Next Man Up” mentality, which they hope will serve them well against a staunch Stanford squad.
The Cardinal are not without shortcomings either – they may have bounced back from a tough 16-6 loss to Northwestern to start the season, but the Oregon Ducks exposed several weaknesses when they handed Stanford its second loss in a thrilling 38-36 finish on the Farm two weeks ago. Stanford’s struggle with a fast start is very real but luckily Shaw has found his chill, managing to utilize all his offensive weapons and keep opposing defenses on their toes.
If Stanford wants to bring the Legends Trophy back to the Farm, or if the Fighting Irish wishes to solidify their place in the college football playoff, they will have to rely on stellar performances from several notable players.
Kevin Hogan, Stanford
Kevin Hogan’s veteran presence in the pocket has been a cornerstone of Stanford’s offense for the past four years. Hogan is 33-10 as a starting quarterback and 13-6 against AP Top 25 teams and his school-record 33 wins are the most by any active college player. He has thrown for 2,231 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, with only seven interceptions and he boasts a 151.1 QB rating and 65.7 completion percentage, both which rank sixth nationally. Also, Hogan is 11-1 in games played November 17 or later. So there’s that.
Will Fuller, Notre Dame
The Notre Dame faithful raised their hands in celebration as Will Fuller announced to the world that he'll be bringing his talents back to South Bend to play for the Fighting Irish next season. For Brian Kelly's bunch this is huge news, as the junior wide receiver from Philadelphia has hauled in 51 passes for 1,009 yards and 12 touchdowns through 11 games. The 6-foot, 180-pound junior has also been named as a 2015 Biletnikoff Award Semifinalist.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Christian McCaffrey’s impact has been felt, and seen, by the entire Pac-12 but he is also the all-purpose back heard round the college football world. The sophomore running back leads the FBS with 255.18 all-purpose yards per game. McCaffrey’s 389 all-purpose yards vs. Cal last week were the most by any FBS player on the season and he owns four of the 11 FBS 300 all-purpose yard outputs this year. Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders is the NCAA single-season record holder for all-purpose yards/game (295.5) but an explosive showing against Notre Dame could help McCaffrey break his teammates father’s record.
Sheldon Day, Notre Dame
Senior defensive lineman Sheldon Day’s most impressive stat is that he leads the team with 14.5 tackles-for-loss for a total of 66 yards taken away from opposing teams. He also has 39 tackles on the year and leads the team with 13 quarterback hurries. He helps lead a defense that has only allowed two offensive touchdowns or less in 37 of its last 66 games and only allows an average of 21 points per game over the last six season combined. Stanford might be in for a long, stingy Day.
Remound Wright, Stanford
While the WildCaff is well-known, another offensive weapon that will be key for the Cardinal is fifth-year senior running back Remound Wright, who leads the nation in rushing attempts-to-touchdown ratio, finding the end zone once every 5.4 carries. Wright’s rushing touchdown total (19) is also tied for sixth-best nationally. Despite the fact that Stanford will be without fullback Daniel Marx to create holes, the ground game is the way to go against a Notre Dame rushing defense that ranks only 68th in the nation and allows 168.0 yards per game.
Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith was a second-team All-American last year – this year, he leads the team with 98 tackles, including 60 solo and eight for losses. In last year’s 17-14 victory over Stanford, Smith made a career-high 14 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. He remains a guy David Shaw is keeping his eye on.
“You watch film of him and get an appreciation for a guy like this,” Shaw said. “He really can kind of do it all. There are a lot of guys who are fast and quick, but not tough, not physical. But guys who are tough and physical and fast and explosive, you get a lot of respect for. Then you watch on film and realize now we’ve got to defend them.”
Blake Martinez, Stanford
Blake Martinez will be in charge of welcoming Notre Dame to the party in the backfield on Saturday. The senior linebacker leads the Pac-12 with 9.9 tackles per game and has 109 tackles on the year. He also has recorded 4.5 tackles for a loss and five pass deflections. Martinez has led Stanford in tackling in nine of its 11 games. If he can bring down Notre Dame running backs and bat down passes, Stanford will be successful.
DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer may have struggled last week against Boston College, but he is a big reason the Fighting Irish remain in playoff contention. He has 2,362 yards on the year and 18 touchdowns. He ranks 19th in the nation in pass efficiency rating at 152.5, which is seven spots higher than Florida State’s Everett Golson, Notre Dame’s starter last season. It also ranks as the fifth best rating in Notre Dame history. Kizer has a 64.3 completion percentage, which ranks 27th nationally.
Joe Schmidt, Notre Dame
“Joe Schmidt just runs the show back there – physical, smart, great position, makes plays in the backfield, makes plays in the pass game,” said Shaw of the graduate student linebacker. If an opposing coach like David Shaw singles you out, then your impact has been felt. Schmidt has 60 tackles, three tackles for a loss of 11 yards and two sacks for a loss of 10 yards on the season.
Josh Adams, Notre Dame
The Irish will be without their leading rusher C.J. Prosise, who suffered a high-ankle sprain last week, thus freshman running back Josh Adams will be the best man up. Adams started two games ago against Wake Forest when Prosise was out with a concussion. He has rushed for 592 yards on 84 carries, the fourth highest total for a freshman in a season at Notre Dame. He only ran for 39 yards on seven carries against Boston College, which Kelly attributed to tough runs between tackles. Look for him to attempt to break loose against the Cardinal.
Stanford needs to come out swinging, and scoring a touchdown on its first possession of the game, something the Cardinal has only done three times this year (Oregon State, Washington, Colorado) would set the tone. Notre Dame loves to startt fast, outscoring opponents 116-43 in the first quarter of games this year, so Stanford will need to work efficiently to keep up.
Conversely, Notre Dame will rely on playing mistake-free football while looking for big plays from their running game and the defense. Can DeShone Kizer continue to rise up in the biggest moments? Head coach Brian Kelly hopes so, as making the final four in January is on the line against their rivals from Palo Alto.
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.