Stanford isn’t Notre Dame’s biggest rival—not in the country, the Pac-12, or even California—but it’s been the Cardinal, not USC, that have been a recent thorn in the side of the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame has dropped four of five to the Trees after winning seven straight from 2002-2008.
The two-time defending Pac-12 champions suffered some significant losses, most notably in the front seven. Notre Dame has yet to top 20 points in four tries against Stanford under Brian Kelly. Could the Oct. 4 meeting in South Bend finally be the Irish’s time to crack the 20-point barrier?
Despite strong records, both coaches, Kelly and David Shaw, have received some criticism for their unbalanced play-calling—Kelly in favor of the pass, Shaw of the run. Will a retooled depth chart force Shaw to stray away from what has helped him go 34-7 in three seasons?
Let’s take an early look at the 2014 Cardinal, who began practice on Tuesday and conclude on Apr. 12.
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Date: Oct. 4 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20 (2013)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13 (OT) (2012)
Current Win Streak: Stanford—1
Record: 11-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Bowl: Rose Bowl (lost to Michigan State, 24-20)
Leading Passer: Kevin Hogan (So.)—180-of-295, 2,635 yards, 20 TD, 10 INT
Leading Rusher: Tyler Gaffney (Sr.)—331 carries, 1,717 yards, 21 TD
Leading Receiver: Ty Montgomery (Jr.)—61 receptions, 958 yards, 10 TD
Yards Per Play: Stanford—6.22 (33rd nationally, fifth in Pac-12); Opponents—4.68 (12th nationally, second in Pac-12)
Turnover Margin: Even (61st nationally, ninth in Pac-12)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Stanford—57.69 percent (83rd nationally, 10th in Pac-12); Opponents—48.84 percent (10th nationally, first in Pac-12)
Third-Down Conversions: Stanford—49.75 percent (10th nationally, first in Pac-12); Opponents—32.32 percent (10th nationally, first in Pac-12)
Explosive Plays*: Stanford—68 (38th nationally, sixth in Pac-12); Opponents—52 (54th nationally, sixth in Pac-12)
*Explosive plays are plays in which a team gained 20-plus yards.
Notre Dame didn’t see Kevin Hogan in 2012, as the then redshirt freshman was still three weeks away from seizing the starting role from Josh Nunes. Since being named the starter, Hogan has gone 17-3 and led the Cardinal to consecutive Pac-12 titles.
The Irish held the multidimensional Hogan to less than 200 yards of total offense and recorded two interceptions in last year’s 27-20 loss.
Hogan’s skill set as a passer is limited, but a dominant running game has allowed head coach David Shaw to keep things relatively simple for Hogan. There’s not much flash, but with a winning percentage (.850) that is higher than Andrew Luck’s, it’s hard to complain.
Behind Hogan are junior Evan Crower and true freshman Keller Chryst. A Palo Alto native, Chryst is the future of the program, but he seems destined for a redshirt year barring an early injury to Hogan. Remember, even Luck redshirted in his first year at Stanford.
Tyler Gaffney’s decision to return to school following a short stint in minor league baseball allowed the Cardinal to transition from the three-year Stepfan Taylor with relative ease. The senior ran for 1,717 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013, but departs after a second-team All-Pac-12 season.
Is it finally Barry Sanders Jr.’s time?
The redshirt sophomore, whose father is perhaps the greatest running back to ever play the position, had just five carries last season. Sanders Jr. and junior Remound Wright, who has 183 yards over two seasons, will enter spring as the favorites to succeed Gaffney.
Is the Stanford running back position a “plug-and-play” position and simply a product of great offensive lines? Just how good were Taylor and Gaffney? This may be the year we find out those answers with the Cardinal losing over 90 percent of its running back production.
Quick, name a Stanford wide receiver from the past five seasons. Had to think about it, didn’t you?
While the Cardinal routinely churn out great tight ends, there hasn’t been a heavy emphasis on the vertical passing game. Stanford hasn’t a 1,000-yard receiver in the Jim Harbaugh/David Shaw era.
Rising senior Ty Montgomery was close a year ago, coming just 42 yards short. Even with 958 yards, Montgomery failed to record more than five receptions in each of the team’s final eight games.
Juniors Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector return after surprisingly successful sophomore seasons in which they amassed over 600 and 400 yards, respectively. Junior Kelsey Young, a hybrid running back/wide receiver, is dangerous in space.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the tight ends, of course.
The Cardinal struggled to replace Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo last season, using a combination of young players and additional offensive linemen as in-line blockers. Starter Luke Kaumatule was moved to defense at midseason. The Cardinal redshirted all three tight ends in the 2013 signing class. The development of Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada will be key this spring.
If you can point to one position for Stanford’s recent resurgence, it’s the offensive line.
That unit now enters a transition year as the Cardinal say goodbye to four offensive line starters, three of whom were either first- or second-team All-Pac-12 selections a year ago.
The lone returning starter is left tackle Andrus Peat, one of three notable offensive line signees in the 2012 class. The third year is generally when offensive linemen take the most steps, so expect Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett to join Peat in the starting lineup and fully unleash a unit that has been three years in the making.
The Cardinal must replace their center for the second straight year after Khalil Wilkes slid over from guard last year following Sam Schwartzstein’s departure. Sophomore Graham Shuler, a less-heralded member of that monster 2012 offensive line, has the inside track to be the man in the middle.
Stanford’s defensive front was as good as any over the past two seasons. The Cardinal were one of just three teams a year ago to allow fewer than 90 rushing yards per game. The losses are severe heading into 2014, however, as starting ends Ben Gardner and Joseph Mauro depart.
Gardner’s career came to a disappointing end after a season-ending injury in late October, allowing Henry Anderson to regain the starting role that he had lost six weeks earlier. Anderson returns, as does his backup, Blake Leuders, who started his only game last season against Notre Dame. Returning in the middle is 303-pound nose tackle David Parry.
The biggest loss may have come from the coaching staff, as defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to be the head coach at Vanderbilt.
The Cardinal promoted from within, moving linebackers coach Lance Anderson up to the coordinator role. His biggest challenge will be finding depth beyond the top three. The development of junior Aziz Shittu, a 4-star 2012 signee whose production hasn’t matched his hype, will help define how successful this unit ultimately is.
Last year, Stanford had to replace three-time all-conference linebacker Chase Thomas. Having Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov returning made that challenge a manageable one, as both seniors made the All-Pac-12 team.
Murphy and Skov have since left Palo Alto, signifying a changing of the guard on the second level of the Cardinal defense.
Fifth-year senior A.J. Tarpley, with 31 career starts, is now the leader of the group. His 87 tackles, seven of which came against Notre Dame, were second on the team behind Skov. James Vaughters, a Georgia product that spurned both the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech for Stanford, returns for his second season as a starter on the outside.
The new starters will likely be senior Kevin Anderson outside and either Blake Martinez or Noor Davis inside. Anderson played in every game last season, registering 1.5 sacks in a key road win at Oregon State. Martinez played in 10 games, including each of the final nine, finishing with 11 tackles. This unit remains solid, but will be down a notch or two from recent seasons.
A dirty little secret: you could throw on the 2013 Stanford defense. The Cardinal allowed more than 250 yards per game through the air and 22 touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Tommy Rees was unable to expose the Stanford secondary, as he completed just 16 of 34 passes and tossed a pair of interceptions.
The 2014 Cardinal will be much more experienced at the back end, as only Ed Reynolds, who decided not to return for a fifth season, departs. Reynolds led the team in tackles last year and was a third-team All-American in 2012, so his loss should not be overlooked.
Senior Wayne Lyons, who caught both of Rees’ interceptions, and junior Alex Carter both are back at cornerback. Thirty-one-game starter Jordan Richards, who matched Lyons’ two-interception performance against UCLA, returns at strong safety.
Converted quarterback Dallas Lloyd practiced at safety last season and wide receiver Kodi Whitfield (who made one of last season’s best catches) will shift to safety this spring. If a third cornerback emerges in the spring, Lyons could move to safety.
Jordan Williamson’s freshman season ended on a sour note, as he missed two potential game-winning field goals in Stanford’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
His sophomore season in 2012 was up and down, but his biggest kick, an overtime game-winner at No. 2 Oregon, split the uprights. An 18-of-22 2013 season has him poised for a big final year on The Farm.
Senior Ben Rhyne will again handle the punt duties after a solid 2013 season in which he finished second in the Pac-12 with a 42.9 yards per punt average. He was at his best in the Rose Bowl, averaging 50 yards on his five punts in the Cardinal’s narrow defeat to Michigan State.
Ty Montgomery’s role also includes kickoff returns. He had return touchdowns in consecutive games last season against Washington and Utah. Barry Sanders Jr. and Kodi Whitfield shared punt return duties last season, with both returning this fall.
Stanford was supposed to come back to earth after Jim Harbaugh left. Then again after Luck left. Two Pac-12 championships later, the Cardinal have earned the benefit of the doubt heading into Shaw’s fourth season.
Stabilizing the front seven, the hallmark of the 2012 and 2013 teams, is the biggest challenge for Lance Anderson in his new role.
The offense isn’t changing. It’s going to pound the football, and most teams on Stanford’s schedule aren’t going to be able to stop it. Expect more to fall on Hogan this season with Gaffney out of the picture.
The schedule is a bear. The Cardinal have the toughest road schedule in the country with games at Arizona State, at Notre Dame, at Oregon, at UCLA and at Washington.
Stanford has won 16 straight in Palo Alto, but if they don’t improve away from the Bay Area, registering double-digit wins for the fifth straight season will be an arduous task.