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Notre Dame Football 2015 Off-Season Preview: Stanford Cardinal

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Notre Dame looks to win in Palo Alto for the first time since 2007. Also, the Irish beat Stanford in 2007.

HOGAN PLAYING IN FRONT OF A PACKED HOUSE AT STANFORD'S SPRING GAME.
HOGAN PLAYING IN FRONT OF A PACKED HOUSE AT STANFORD'S SPRING GAME.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

STANFORD CARDINAL

2014 Record: 8-5

F/+ Rank: 18

Wins: UC Davis, Army, Washington, Washington State, Oregon State, California, UCLA, Maryland

Losses: USC, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon, Utah

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Season Recap

Stanford began 2014 sandwiching a frustrating loss to USC in between shutouts of UC Davis and Army. A botched fake punt in the 4th quarter brought the game-winning touchdown for the Cardinal as they slipped past Washington prior to losing in South Bend. Wins over Washington State and Oregon State then were sandwiched in between a loss at Arizona State.

The Cardinal were soundly defeated at Oregon and then dropped a double overtime game to Utah making them 5-5 on the season. However, a strong finish brought some momentum into the off-season. Stanford beat California, UCLA, and lastly Maryland in the bowl game--each by at least 20 points.

Series: 19-10-0 Notre Dame

The 30th meeting between the schools will wrap up the regular season for Notre Dame this fall. The Cardinal have been ranked in the last 5 meetings, in addition to the last 4 matchups featuring both programs ranked by the AP Poll.

Notre Dame has lost the last 3 meetings in Palo Alto by an average of 9 points per contest.

Coach Resume: David Shaw (42-12, 5th Year)

Shaw's streak of double-digit wins was snapped last year. After starting 34-7 from 2011-13 the 8 wins last fall were the fewest for Stanford since 2009 when they also went 8-5.

Shaw is currently the 6th winningest active coach who is working at a Power 5 school.

Returning Starters: 10 Total (8 offense, 3 defense)

This roster is now fully David Shaw's recruits and all of the Harbaugh guys are gone on defense. Most pieces are back on offense but a major rebuild is underway on the other side of the ball.

Linemen Situation: Fine on Offense, Downright Scary on Defense

The Cardinal lost left tackle Andrus Peat to the NFL when he was taken 13th overall by the Saints but all other 4 starters return. Josh Garnett is entering his senior season at left guard, Graham Shuler a redshirt junior at center, and Johnny Caspers also a redshirt junior at right guard.

Senior Kyle Murphy made 13 starts at right tackle last year and may be switched over to the left side in 2015. Rising 5th-year senior Brendon Austin made 3 starts last year as an extra-tackle and could possibly find a starting role this season along with competition from sophomore Casey Tucker.

The situation on the defensive line is quite dire.

From their 3-4 defense Kevin Anderson (13 starts, 14.5 TFL, 8 sacks, 93rd overall to Indianapolis) is gone at defensive end, David Parry (11 starts, 8 TFL, 5 sacks, 151st overall to Indianapolis) is gone at nose guard, and Blake Leuders (8 starts, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) is gone at defensive end. Additionally, 4 more linemen did not come back for a graduate season while a 5th, Ikenna Nwaford, medically retired.

Senior DE Aziz Shittu (14 tackles, 1 sack) and sophomore NG Harrison Phillips (9 tackles, 2 sacks) are the only other players who are back with significant playing time. Phillips (255 lbs. last year) is adding weight along with rising redshirt freshman Solomon Thomas (256 lbs.) to add depth on the inside where redshirt junior Nate Lohn (1 career tackle) and incoming freshman Wesley Annan are the only other bodies.

Stanford is hoping to see former 4-star redshirt junior Jordan Watkins (0 career tackles) step up at end, while former walk-on Torsten Rotto (3 career tackles) is moving from linebacker to help out. They'll also welcome Cal transfer Brennan Scarlett (54 career tackles) and freshmen Gabe Reid and Dylan Jackson, both 3-star recruits.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Despite rumors that he'd be transferring out of Stanford for his graduate season the Cardinal will be getting Kevin Hogan back as the starting quarterback. He's taken some heat over the years but has generally been a solid signal caller during his time on The Farm.

Last year, Hogan finished with 2,792 yards on 65.9% accuracy, 7.9 yards-per-attempt with 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. He also ran for 295 yards and scored 5 rushing touchdowns.

Biggest Problem for 2015: Mostly Everything on Defense

Stanford is an interesting case because their track-record on defense over the last half decade has given them the benefit of the doubt from most observers that they'll simply re-load again this fall. Yet, this is clearly the biggest rebuilding effort for them since Harbaugh left, if not longer.

More to the point, while Stanford has recruited fairly well there are only 10 defenders on the roster (including Scarlett) who carried a Composite score of .900 or greater coming out of high school. Of those 10, only linebackers Peter Kalambayi (32 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks) and Noor Davis (19 tackles) have made an impact while at Stanford.

So this is a season where a lot of factors are going to have to converge for Stanford to stay near their high standards. They'll need a good swath of unproven players to step up, they'll need a bunch of 3-stars to do the same to add depth, and they'll likely need an impact true freshman or two.

Biggest Strength for 2015: Offensive Line

4 starters coming back on the offensive line is undeniably a major strength for the Stanford offense, and team as a whole. At the same time, they will need to step up without Andrus Peat anchoring the left side and reverse the poor rushing that has affected Shaw's offense on an every-other-year basis--falling to 71st in rushing S&P in 2014 after a below average 2,064 yards were gained on 477 carries.

Offensive Scheme: Pro-Style

Stanford isn't immune to using the read option or going 5-wide on third down but they're still about as pro-style, rely on multiple tight end sets and extra tight ends, heavy as you're going to find.

4 Players to Remember

RB Christian McCaffrey, So.- You can expect this young player to have a big impact on Stanford's offense in 2015. He averaged 7.14 yards per carry on 42 rushes last year and also caught 17 passes for 251 yards. On special teams he found a groove with 154 punt return yards and 91 kickoff return yards.

WR Devon Cajuste, 5th Sr.- Despite near tight end size (6-4, 229) Cajuste has been Kevin Hogan's favorite target not named Ty Montgomery at the wideout position over the past couple seasons. Now that Montgomery is off to the NFL (94th overall to the Packers) Cajuste steps up as the legit number one option after combining for 62 receptions, 1,199 yards, and 11 touchdowns for 2013-14.

LB Kevin Anderson, 5th Sr.- He stepped up into a starting role for the first time last year and posted a solid 51 tackles, 11 TFL, and 5 sacks. With such an inexperienced defense he'll be relied on quite heavily this fall.

LB Blake Martinez, Sr.- After safety Zach Hoffpauir signed with the Diamondbacks and is playing baseball this year it's only Martinez and Anderson as the returning starters among the front seven. The senior inside linebacker has drawn considerable praise this off-season after leading the team in tackles (101) and totaling 7 TFL and 4.5 sacks last year. He appears to be the best Cardinal defender by quite a long way.

Special Teams: 0/4

Jordan Williamson is gone at kicker and needs to be replaced, as does punter Ben Rhyne. The prognosis coming into the summer wasn't great as likely starter redshirt junior Conrad Ukropina missed all 3 field goals in the spring game and redshirt sophomore Alex Robinson shanked a punt and finished with a 37-yard average on 5 spring game punts.

Special teams maven Ty Montgomery is also gone after handling most of the snaps at punt and kick returner. The Cardinal are likely to add more to McCaffrey's plate this fall in response.

Uniforms: 3/10

stanford uni

Bob Stanton, USA Today Sports

Since the Harbaugh era's second season back in 2008 Stanford has been attempting to become the Penn State of the West Coast in the uniform department and it's been getting progressively worse over time. Not too long ago, the Cardinal featured red pants with a striping pattern, in addition to plenty touches of black.

Nowadays, that's all gone. Stanford only wears white pants and has removed all striping as a Nike logo is the only design element left. The jerseys are excruciatingly boring with TV numbers removed (seriously, who does this?) and simple white numerals on the front and back. Luckily, the Pac-12, "S" logo, and Nike swoosh save the jersey from looking like a red tee-shirt, at least.

The helmets, especially with the ax stickers, have been serviceable although the "S" logo has always felt like a step down from the official school logo with the redwood tree. This may be changing though as Stanford wore new helmets with the tree included during their bowl and spring games.

Stanford has worn alternate uniforms a few times in recent years (HEREHEREHERE) and they've all been pretty bad.

What's To Like About the Matchup

The late-season matchup should favor Notre Dame. The Irish are the deeper and more experienced team. Stanford's defense could see a considerable drop-off.

What's Not To Like About the Matchup

Stanford could hit their stride by late season, like last year. The struggles in Palo Alto have been noted. Notre Dame hasn't scored more than 20 points in any of the games against Stanford over the last 5 seasons.

Opponent Power Ranking Based on Irish Schedule: 5th Toughest

We've been talking about Stanford's slide back to their program averages for a couple off-seasons now and last year it finally cracked a little bit with only 8 wins. From a Notre Dame perspective I look at this from a couple angles.

One, the Cardinal have done a fantastic job re-loading over the past few seasons when impact players left. New players have stepped up and the program didn't miss a beat especially on defense.

However, the other angle is that Stanford has suffered a lot of attrition, not just this off-season, but over the past few seasons. Consider that the Cardinal have sent 12 total picks into the NFL Draft over the last two years, and 13 total picks within the top 4 rounds since the 2012 NFL Draft. That's a lot of talent gone--talent that largely carried the programs historic run since 2010--that makes you wonder just how long Stanford can keep punching a step or two above their weight in comparison to their recruiting.

Will Stanford still be good? Yeah, they'll be a tough out but I'll have to read why someone like Phil Steele has them starting 7th in the country because that seems crazy to me.

Beyond the notion that Stanford's coaching is amazing and their defense has always been great in recent years therefore they'll still be that way in 2015, I don't know how they survive a schedule that features just 1 non-Power 5 team (and that's UCF, no walkover) among a very competitive Pac-12 conference. If there's hope it's that the Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Oregon, and Notre Dame games are all at home.

At any rate, Stanford finished 11th in FEI defense and 6th in S&P defense last year. I just don't see how they come near that again while replacing 3 starters at D-line, 2 linebackers, and 4 members of the secondary.

Will the offense that finished 44th and 39th in FEI and S&P pick up the slack? There's some hope with Hogan coming back with a veteran line, but they will need to add some explosiveness and run the ball a whole lot better than last year.

Big picture, I think Stanford is going to land somewhere in the 7 to 9 win range. A decent-to-good team but not one in the hunt for a conference or national title.