As much as Notre Dame fans hate to admit, the 2016 football season still has at least 6 more games remaining. The first of those 6 is the second and final home night game of the season, featuring a visit from the Stanford Cardinal, a powerful opponent experiencing its own mini-slide with two straight blowout losses, albeit to much better teams than the Fighting Irish have proven incapable of vanquishing.
So now, two teams that have decided their last four meetings by a touchdown or less will meet again, both with the goal of gaining momentum via a nice win over a big-name opponent in prime time.
To figure out how the Cardinal match up, why they like their creepy mascot, and who on their team would be useful in the zombie apocalypse (among other factoids), we interviewed Matt Vassar of Rule of Tree to garner his perspective on a wide array of questions revolving around the Stanford football team.
Here’s what he had to say:
1. It's obviously not to the catastrophic level that Notre Dame is currently sitting at, but having lost two in a row in humiliating fashion to Washington and Washington State, what's the feeling in the Cardinal fan base for how this season will turn out, considering the high expectations it started with? Also, why do you think Stanford has struggled so mightily against the Washington schools?
Although I'm still optimistic for the remainder of the season, most fans I've encountered are pretty bleak about Stanford's prospects. And who can blame them? Stanford has only put up two offensive touchdowns in the last two games, while giving up 13.
A lot of people blame the sudden collapse of the team on injuries to four key players after the UCLA game (WR Francis Owusu, FB Daniel Marx, and both starting CBs, Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder). There's certainly some merit to that, although we've also gotten some good production out of the backups; for example, backup WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside has now caught touchdowns in three straight games and backup CB Frank Buncom IV led the team in tackles and got a pick six against WSU.
For me, though, the explanation for Stanford's losses is rather simple: nobody else has faced an opening five-game slate like Stanford's. Each of Stanford's first five opponents (K-State, USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State) are ranked by Sagarin in the top 30. And if you agree that these opponents should be in the top 30, then Stanford has looked the part of a top-30 team as well, having:
- Two good wins against top-30 opponents (K-State and USC)
- Two bad losses against top-30 opponents (Washington and Washington State)
- One narrow win against a top-30 opponent (UCLA)
Doesn't that seem about right for a top-30 team?
2. Christian McCaffrey is a bonafide Heisman candidate and future NFL player, but that surprising stat about him never having scored a road touchdown in his career is incredible. Think he finally gets that road scoring slump off his back against the tragedy that is the Notre Dame defense?
He might not get the chance. Christian McCaffrey came out of the Washington State game in the third quarter with an injury. David Shaw said he's improved during the week, but is "pretty beaten up," and Shaw probably won't know whether he can play until Friday night or perhaps even game time.
Stanford's RB situation isn't great right now; our other heralded RB, Bryce Love, missed the beginning of the season because of injury, and has been playing hurt ever since. With Stanford's reliance on the run and both RBs now injured, Stanford could be in trouble for the rest of the season.
3. Tell me about Ryan Burns, as it seems like his performance has been pretty mixed so far this season. Is he the guy going forward, or do you think Keller Chryst will get more of a look as the season progresses? Also, how do you think the Stanford passing game does against what has been a very bad Irish secondary and pass rush?
Unfortunately, Keller Chryst's numbers haven't looked any better. He's played in every game except USC, and has only gone 7-for-17. He got the most snaps in the most recent game against Washington State, and could only go 2-for-9 with an interception.
The quarterbacks aren't completely to blame, though; the offensive line has been porous. For instance, it gave up eight sacks against Washington, and Washington didn't even blitz on any of those eight sacks.
As for Notre Dame, I agree with your assessment; as rough as Stanford's passing game has looked in the last two games, Notre Dame's passing defense has looked even rougher. I'd expect this to be a return to form for the Stanford passing game, something more akin to what we saw against USC when Ryan Burns finished with a 98.2 QBR, going 18-for-23 with 2 TDs.
4. Who on the Stanford offense, besides McCaffrey, does the Notre Dame defense need to watch out for on Saturday? Who could really make some big plays?
WR Michael Rector. At the 11th hour, he unexpectedly forewent the NFL Draft and returned to Stanford to play his redshirt senior year. He's a speedster, has made catches in 13 consecutive games, and is always a deep threat (he put up that 40-yard touchdown against Kansas State).
He might also have a bit of versatility: he surprised everybody in the USC game when he scored his first rushing TD (56 yards). And especially if Christian McCaffrey is out, we might see him fielding some kick returns as well (he previously returned one for 28 yards against UCLA).
By the way, he's also a flipping genius. I kid you not; he dreams of one day becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, and spends his spare time in the laboratory conducting stem cell research.
5. The Cardinal defense looks very mediocre compared to how tough it typically is - where are the strengths and weaknesses of the unit, and how do you see them matching up with the Notre Dame offense?
Although you're certainly right that this is not the top-5 caliber of defense that we saw a few years ago, Stanford's defense is probably more maligned than it deserves. And it's hard not to have that sentiment after back-to-back games giving up 40+.
Even so, when you consider the offensive freight trains that Stanford just ran into, the numbers aren't quite so bad. For instance, Bill Connelly's S&P has Stanford's rush defense in the top 30 and pass defense in the top 20.
The entire front seven has been very solid, registering an average of 3 sacks/game (28th-best in FBS). Being paired against Notre Dame's offensive line that ranks 84th in the country for sacks allowed/game seems like a very favorable matchup for Stanford.
My biggest area of concern is in the injured secondary. Equanimeous St. Brown has already put up 6 TDs and 571 receiving yards; will Stanford's backup corners be able to keep up?
6. Give me the name of the X-factor of the Stanford defense that ND needs to account for at all times. What does he bring to the table and how will he affect the game?
Solomon Thomas on the defensive line is an absolute beast, and has registered a sack in 16 of the past 18 games. He made the 42-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against UCLA. He previously received Pac-12 Player of the Week honors and was on the All-Pac-12 first team (both from Athlon and Phil Steele).
He's been tearing up offensive lines all season, even when he is double teamed.
7. You can bring back one former Stanford player to improve this team. Who would it be? Andrew Luck to kick start the offense, or someone else not as obvious?
Andrew Luck is a great suggestion, but I'm not sure how much help he'd be if he gets smacked in the face as soon as he snaps the ball (which happened more than just a few times to Ryan Burns in the game against Washington). For that reason, I'm looking for support on the offensive line.
I'm taking NFL first rounder and All-American Andrus Peat. Peat at LT took care of Kevin Hogan's blindside in 2013 and 2014, and was part of a unit that allowed only 1.14 sacks/game.
8. David Shaw has seen a ton of success at Stanford after taking over from Harbaugh. Who do Cardinal fans prefer between the two, and considering his recent run of success, is there any real cause for Shaw to worry if this year goes off the rails?
Funny you should ask; during the off-season, we actually ran a poll at Rule of Tree asking if Stanford fans preferred Shaw or Harbaugh. It was a landslide: 71% in favor of Shaw.
That said, a popular sentiment among readers was that Harbaugh is great if you need to turn your program around quickly (as Stanford needed to after the 1-11 season before Harbaugh arrived). But there were also a lot of concerns that Harbaugh's thorny personality isn't conducive toward long-term success, and that Shaw is the better long-term fit for Stanford.
I think Shaw's job is very safe right now, even if this season goes off the rails.
9. Do Stanford fans like their mascot? Give me your raw, uncut opinion on that weird tree-person mutant.
I love The Tree! And I'm not alone; ESPN named it the best mascot in the Pac-12, although admittedly, there aren't a lot of good options in the Pac-12.
I mean, Oski (Cal) looks like a bizarre cross of Yogi Bear and Richard Nixon:
Wilbur T. Wildcat (Arizona) looks like every hillbilly who's ever been arrested on the TV show Cops:
And Tommy Trojan (USC) looks like he lost the rest of the Village People:
Okay, so maybe being the best mascot in the Pac-12 isn't all that much of an honor.
Even so, The Tree really does embody Stanford's irreverent spirit. Yes, we're an elite school, but we don't mind poking fun of ourselves or college culture. The Tree is one of the finest pieces of performance art, paradoxically building school spirit while also mocking the very concept of school spirit.
10. Notre Dame has WR Equanimeous St. Brown. Who on Stanford has the best name on the team, and can it compete with Equanimeous for best name in this game?
How about Equanimeous' younger brother, Osiris Adrian Amon-Ra J. St. Brown? He has committed to Stanford for 2017.
As for a player currently on the Stanford roster, I'm going to go with one of our kickers who is red-shirting this year:
Jet Toner. I mean, how can he not end up with a sponsorship from an ink cartridge company? I know, I know; NCAA violation. But who cares? With a name like "Jet Toner," who is the NCAA to stand in the way of destiny?
Honorable mention goes to Bo Peek, who didn't lose no damn sheep.
11. You're in a Walking Dead universe, i.e. the zombie apocalypse is upon you. Give me 6 players from Stanford you want in your traveling band of warriors/scavengers/survivors/zombies and your reasoning for including each.
First is Bo Peek because I'm sure he has a lot of pent-up rage over all the "Little Bo Peek has lost his sheep" jokes. He is our X-factor for fighting off zombies.
We'd need Christian McCaffrey to safely get out there and return with supplies. I once saw him break tackles from 11 different defenders in the Kansas State game; there's no way any slow-butt zombie would catch him.
To ensure our survival, we'll need some intel on the zombies; Osiris St. Brown would be our zombie interpreter. Like Equanimeous, Osiris speaks four different languages. If there's anybody who can pick up on the subtleties of zombie communication, it would be Osiris.
DE Dylan Jackson is an accomplished clay pigeon shooter (true story). He will be a vital hunter and watchman/assassin for our party.
CB Frank Buncom was named a Congress of Future Medical Leaders delegate, which is good. Our party needs a medic.
And, of course, Michael Rector is our scientist who ultimately finds the cure to the zombie epidemic.
12. Anything else Irish fans should know about Stanford - about the team, coach, school, fans, tradition, history, etc.?
Another blog asked me about The Tree, and how it came into being.
The short version is that Stanford has no official mascot. We were once the Stanford Indians, but the university dropped the mascot in 1972 in response to objections from Native American students. Since then, Stanford was known only by its school color: the Cardinal.
Without a mascot, though, the Stanford Band pounced and put on a halftime show facetiously suggesting a bunch of new mascots, including: the Steaming Manhole, the French Fry, and the Tree.
Why the tree? Because the city nearest Stanford is called Palo Alto, which translates to "Tall Tree." El Palo Alto itself is a giant sequoia redwood, and was used as a landmark to guide pioneers to the San Francisco Bay back when it was first discovered. El Palo Alto still stands to this day; it is California Historical Landmark No. 2.
As for The Band's version of The Tree, it got so much positive attention that they reprieved the ridiculous mascot and it eventually became a permanent fixture of the Stanford Band. Nowadays, the Band selects a new Tree each year, during what they call "Tree Week." Students who audition for The Tree perform outrageous public stunts on campus, and the current tree selects a successor based on who entertained him/her the most with the stunts.
Gosh, when our teams met last year, we were both in the national title conversation. This year, both teams look flawed, and not quite in their previous elite forms.
For me, I think this game is close and the difference might just be if Christian McCaffrey is able to play.
If McCaffrey plays: Stanford 34, Notre Dame 30 in overtime.
If McCaffrey's out: Notre Dame 28, Stanford 24.
I just wanted to briefly thank Matt for answering all of my questions with thoughtful, fact-based, and creative responses. Please follow him on Twitter, as well as the Stanford SB Nation site, Rule of Tree, and check out their page for any and all Stanford-related updates (e.g. if McCaffrey will play Saturday) as we draw closer to game day.
I’ll see you all in a couple days with my game preview. Until then,
Go God help the Irish!