Friends, it’s finally here — the regular season finale. It feels like just yesterday we were watching Sam Hartman debut in a huge way against some horrible teams to start the year, and now it’s the final game of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football season and our 8-3 Irish are about to take on the struggling Stanford Cardinal in the season finale on the road.
Stanford’s had a tough year, almost exclusively losing to any good teams they played but being feisty enough to challenge a few of them and even beat Coach Prime and his Buffaloes, which looks a bit less impressive now but for Stanford is still an impressive win in this first season under new head coach Troy Taylor.
So, how do the Cardinal stack up against ND for this matchup? To find out, I reached out to our good friends at Channel Tree Sports, my go-to destination for anything and everything Stanford athletics. I was lucky enough to get both David Ta and Sam Weyen answering our questions, and they provided some great insight into the Cardinal rebuild, how this season has gone, strengths and weaknesses of this team, and several other more...off the wall topics.
So, let’s not tarry any longer — time to dive into their answers and prepare ourselves for the final game until bowl season for our favorite frustrating football fellas.
1. It’s been a tough first season under new head coach Troy Taylor, but that was to be expected. What have you seen from him and his team so far that has Stanford fans excited for the future? How does he differ from David Shaw in how he’s approaching building and running the program?
Channel Tree Sports: Recruiting is much improved. The new staff has adopted a modern recruiting approach (modern: a word you’ll never hear associated with the Shaw regime). Embracing modernity in recruiting means a few things, including pursuing transfers. We used to get 1 every 3-5 years. This past year, Taylor scored 7. He’s aggressive and he’s lobbied Stanford to streamline a rather friction-laden process.
Embracing modernity also means clever playcalling. Troy Taylor’s offense is far more exciting and creative than Shaw’s 4-page playbook. There’s room for Taylor to grow, sure–his options are hamstrung by the personnel he inherited–but at the very least we’re not running it up the middle all the time. We’re all excited to see what Taylor can do once he has his guys.
In many ways Taylor is Shaw’s antithesis. Shaw’s staff was old, old school, unwilling to embrace the portal or NIL (to the extent that Stanford’s capable of doing so), and rather boring. Taylor’s staff is posting memes on Twitter. Shaw once described himself “as an NFL coach who adjusted to college because he loves Stanford” who preached duty and virtue. Taylor is a long-time high school coach who preaches about family and love. What a cultural whiplash–but it seems to be connecting to the 18 year old recruits who are leaving their homes for the first time.
One final difference (to shoehorn in) is that our defense plays with much more conviction, led by players like Junior ILB Gaethan Bernadel (#0) and 5th Year ILB Tristan Sinclair (#8). Our tackling has improved: we aren’t elite but still way better than our tackling in past years. The defensive line plays with a high motor: Sophomore OLB Tevarua Tafiti (#11) has emerged as a force on the defense.
2. Talk to me about Ashton Daniels – what does he do well, how good do you think he can be, and what should the Irish do to focus on limiting his effectiveness on Saturday?
Channel Tree Sports: True sophomore QB Ashton Daniels (#14) can make wow plays at times–look no further than his beautiful touchdown pass to Freshman WR Tiger Bachmeier (#24) in Big Game this year. He’s also quite an impressive rusher, often leading the team. But he struggles with accuracy and decision-making. There’s a clip somewhere from early in the season against Hawai’i where he failed to see a wide open Senior TE Benjamin Yurosek (#84) in the endzone. It was painful. Another example that comes to mind is a scramble play during our Arizona game where he threw the ball while beyond the line of scrimmage. And hey in his defense, it wouldn’t hurt Daniels’ numbers if his receivers would stop dropping passes.
I think to limit Ashton Daniels, the Notre Dame defense would have to capitalize on his inexperience and the swiss cheese offense line that loiters around him. Pressure him early and often to force him to make mistakes. Perhaps confuse the young signal caller with exotic coverage packages.
3. First, please use a paragraph or three to tell us about Elic Ayomanor, who’s clearly a stud at wideout.
Second, who else should Irish fans be wary of on the offensive side of the ball heading into this game?
Channel Tree Sports: A bright spot in an otherwise challenging season, sophomore WR Elic Ayomanor (#13) leads the team in receptions (55), yards (955), and receiving touchdowns (6) by a landslide. A big and fast 6’2” wideout with a 4.48 40 time in high school, he poses a challenge to defenders. However, he has had some bad drops. He also has had a knee brace which allegedly hampered him. It’s probably no coincidence that once he removed the knee brace during the Colorado game, he exploded. A key weakness in the Stanford offense heading into this season was a lack of talented receiving options. To the delight of Stanford fans, Ayomanor has rocketed skyward to become a top target and may see a lot of looks in this game.
Notre Dame should try to take away Ayomanor during the game to stifle the already struggling passing attack. Then again, Stanford is bad enough to where Notre Dame may not need to do much to succeed.
4. Which position groups on the Cardinal defense are relative strengths, and which groups are the weak links whom the Irish offense should pick on? What must the inconsistent ND offense do to find success on Saturday?
Channel Tree Sports:
Strengths: WR, Special Teams
The WR group has (surprisingly) broken out. Sophomore WR Elic Ayomanor (#13) could very well be one of the best players in the nation while Freshman WR Tiger Bachmeier (#24) has the potential to develop into an all-conference player. Both Bachmeier and Ayomanor are known for making highlight reel-like catches every other game.
Senior K Joshua Karty is easily our best player. Every kick, even 60+ yarders, have been virtually stress-free because of him. Mark my words, he’s going to the NFL and will stay relevant. Freshman CB Aaron Morris (#31) is a gunner who plays with fire and passion. His acceleration allows him to quickly get to returners forcing a fair catch.
Weaknesses: QB, OL, RB, Secondary
Like we said, QB Ashton Daniels (#14) is an inexperienced passer who struggles with accuracy and decision-making. A gritty runner, Sophomore Justin Lamson (#8) is our running quarterback and has understandably struggled to pass the ball. It may be hard to gauge quarterback talent because our offensive line is porous giving up 37 sacks so far this season. Speaking of the line…
Our offensive line is porous and has not given our quarterbacks a lot of time. We lost our entire starting offensive line to the transfer portal this year. They are starting at Duke, Cal, and Texas. What’s left are young and inexperienced. Taylor usually likes to run the ball but because of issues with the offensive line he hasn’t been able to. Protection has struggled. We frequently have 7 guys back in protection because we have to. But the pass rushers still wreck havoc forcing our quarterbacks to run for their lives while our three receivers go up against 6+ defensive players in coverage.
Senior RB EJ Smith (#22) is talented but spends too much time running East-West and needs to move into North-South running much faster. The group generally struggles in pass protection. Sophomore Ryan Butler (#15) is perhaps the most competent pass blocking RB. Taylor likes to run the ball but hasn’t been able to do so.
Our secondary has struggled mightily. We are second to last in yards allowed (312.4 yards per game), #127 in passing efficiency allowed (158.73), and second to last in 3rd down conversion defense (0.497). Sophomore CB Collin Wright (#6) has done relatively well but sometimes gives up big plays.
5. Are there any Irish players who scare you heading into this matchup? If so, who are they and why?
Channel Tree Sports: QB Sam Hartman scares me because I know our secondary has struggled all season long. Stanford is #127 in team passing efficiency defense at 158.73. Also he has a tortured sailor’s vibe and I’m afraid he’ll put a seaman’s curse on us. (Sam… WHO HURT YOU).
S Xavier Watts has 7 interceptions on the season so far. While Ashton Daniels hasn’t been turnover prone, the nation’s leader in interceptions can capitalize on Daniels’ aforementioned questionable decision making. The 2023 Bronko Nagurski Finalist absolutely dominated USC, a much better offense, with two interceptions, a fumble recovery, and seven tackles.
6. FAN QUESTION:
How can I actually watch the game?— dan (@the_danimaI) November 19, 2023
Channel Tree Sports: Write a letter to Larry Scott and he’ll share his Pac-12 Network password with you. Alternatively, go to the holy grail of pirating that is sportsurge.net (which for legal reasons I must say that Channel Tree Sports does not endorse).
7. FAN QUESTION:
Over/under on number of actual people in the stadium? I’ll put it at 24,000. PAID attendance two years ago was 31,000, and that was actually a good Notre Dame team with a shot at the playoff.— Jack Quinn (@jq6008) November 19, 2023
Channel Tree Sports: 10,000 quiet people in an empty stadium whose polite clapping who fuck you up. We sold out for Big Game last week, so most students have done their one football game for the year.
8. FESTIVE QUESTION: If you were to assign a 2023 Stanford player to each typical Thanksgiving feast dish (e.g. turkey, stuffing, etc.) as the player who best represents that item, whom would you choose? Please list as many dish/player combos as you like.
Channel Tree Sports: Turkey - Sophomore QB Ashton Daniels (#14) is the quarterback - the position/food that the entire experience revolves around. Much like a Turkey, Daniels’ scrambles get absolutely stuffed.
Pumpkin Pie - Like Pumpkin Pie, Sophomore WR Elic Ayomanor (#13) is the star of the show that everyone is looking forward to enjoying. Everyone loves Pumpkin Pie. Everyone loves Elic Ayomanor. Play so spicy Starbucks should make a latte out of him.
Mashed Potato - Our offensive line gets mashed every game, so this seems fitting.
Gravy - Senior TE Benjamin Yurosek (#84) has been kept back to block because of our porous offensive line just like how gravy can make up for less than stellar mashed potatoes. While currently injured, he is a star who will carry on the great tradition of Stanford Tight Ends. Also his grandfather invented the baby carrot. I’m not kidding, you can look it up. Absolute legend even though it breaks the gravy metaphor.
Dinner Rolls - A Lou Groza finalist, Senior K Joshua Karty (#43) is our best player and one of the best in the nation. Like thanksgiving dinner rolls, special teams might not be sexy. But it’s the most reliable dish in the spread. It gives you sweet sweet calories, 3 points at a time. I would not be surprised if he’s the only one that scores for Stanny on Saturday.
9. Last week we asked the Wake Forest writer to power-rank Forests. This week, we’re going to get a bit more granular and into the weeds (plant pun intended) and ask you: if you had to power-rank your top 10 trees, what would they be? Would the abomination that is the Stanford Tree be on the list? If so, where in the top 10?
Channel Tree Sports: Definitive Top 10 Ranking of Trees
- Southern Magnolia (immaculate vibes)
- Blue Spruce (will not elaborate)
- Michelle Branch (her song “Everywhere” is an absolute banger*)
- California Redwood (Forests of Endor)
- Joshua Tree (I swear they’re aliens)
- Osage Orange Tree (useless poisonous fruit evolved for now extinct animals, iconic trolling)
- American Elm (I think it’s also a glue brand)
- Stanford Tree (eats children, violates curfew, foretold by Nostradamus, tweets @daStanfordTree)
- Weed (#SmokeTrees but not in Indiana bc it’s illegal I think)
- Bonsai (short king summer)
*Pat Rick note: hell yeah, couldn’t agree more
10. Alright let’s get down to it: who wins this game, what’s the final score, and how does it happen?
Channel Tree Sports: 47-20 Notre Dame.
Sam Hartman carves up the secondary while Doak Walker award favorite Audric Estime easily cuts through the defensive line. I expect the Stanford quarterbacks to be under heavy pressure all game because the offensive line cannot win in the trenches.
Stanford hasn’t won at home this year we spanked y’all in South Bend last year. I don’t see us breaking our home losing streak against a revenge-minded Irish. Moreover, ND is the only reason we’re in the ACC next year. You can have this game as a thanks. To many more in this soon to be (sorta) in-conference rivalry.
Alright folks, I want to give a massive shout-out to David, Sam, and of course the Stanford Tree for all the insight provided here in these responses. The Cardinal may be pretty iffy right now on the football field, but the folks over at Channel Tree Sports are ALWAYS on point with their knowledgeable, hilarious, witty thoughts and analysis.
I encourage you all to head over to Channel Tree Sports for any and all coverage of this game heading into, during, and after the contest between these two schools, and also highly recommend you toss some follows to their site Twitter as well as to David, Sam, and the Stanford Tree him/her/itself. They’re all WELL worth the follow and provide some fantastic content and commentary on the goings-on of Stanford football.