When Notre Dame and Stanford meet to close the 2019 regular season, the Irish will look to break a haunting late-season trend: Notre Dame hasn’t won in Palo Alto during the Brian Kelly era. This year will almost certainly be the Irish’s best opportunity, as the Cardinal will finish a season with fewer than six wins for the first time since going 5-7 in 2008, the second year of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
Notre Dame (9-2) enters having won four straight games, with the last three decided by — in order, for fans of patterns and trends — 31, 32 and 33 points. Saturday’s 40-7 win on Senior Night over Boston College saw the Irish start slowly — Notre Dame only led 16-7 at halftime — but kicker Jonathan Doerer outscored the Eagles by himself with four field goals in the game and the offense came alive in the second half to score 24 unanswered points.
Stanford’s three-game streak is headed in the other direction, as the Cardinal (4-7, 3-6 Pac-12) have lost their last three games, two of which have been by a combined seven points. On Saturday in Palo Alto, Cal pulled out a win over Stanford in the Big Game to reclaim the Axe for the first time in 10 years. The Bears held the Cardinal to just 61 yards rushing on 24 carries, Stanford’s third-lowest rushing output in 2019.
These two teams first met nearly 100 years ago in 1925, a 27-10 Notre Dame win. The Irish won three of the first four matchups, but the series has been fairly even ever since they began playing consistently starting in 1988 and every year since 1997. Stanford has won four of the last six meetings — though Notre Dame won 38-17 last year in South Bend — with Notre Dame’s last win at Stanford coming all the way back in 2007, the Cardinal’s first year under Harbaugh.
Notre Dame at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 30 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -16.5
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
After the clunker against Michigan and the narrow win over Virginia Tech, Notre Dame’s offense has been in rhythm. In that span, the Irish have averaged 43.3 points and 463 total yards per game. Last week, quarterback Ian Book led the Irish both in the air and on the ground, passing for 239 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 66 more yards. The concern: The run game outside of Book has all but evaporated.
Book's receivers who stole the show. Cole Kmet, Chris Finke, and Chase Claypool snagged seven passes and one touchdown apiece, with Kmet leading the way in yards with 78 and Finke right behind him with 71. Even speedy wide receiver Braden Lenzy got in on the fun, taking an end-around run 61 yards for a touchdown — his second rushing touchdown of the season — on his only carry of the game.
The defense that has been Stanford’s calling card in previous years has struggled mightily in 2019. The Cardinal enter the final week of the regular season ranked 98th in the FBS in total defense, allowing over 429 yards per game. Teams also have been able to score against Stanford more than in previous years, as the Cardinal give up nearly 29 points per game — compared to just 22.9 in 2018 and 22.7 in '17. The Cardinal surrendered 40 or more points in two of the first three weeks of the season (USC, UCF) and have allowed fewer than 21 points in only three games.
When Stanford Has the Ball
Stanford’s 4-7 record can’t be entirely attributed to its offensive woes, but the nation’s 111th-ranked offense in terms of total yards is not without at least some responsibility. Davis Mills and K.J. Costello have split time at quarterback, with Mills starting the last two games. For the season, Mills has thrown for 1,394 yards and eight touchdowns, with 290 yards and a touchdown in last week’s loss to California. Factoring in personal stats and game result, his best game of the season was at the end of September, when he completed 18-of-25 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
The mantra for Stanford over the years has often been a strong running game and timely receiving, but the former has been largely nonexistent in 2019. As a team, the Cardinal rush for just 108.7 yards per game, the eighth-lowest per-game average by any FBS team this season. Cameron Scarlett has not found a ton of space, averaging just 76.6 yards rushing per game. Meanwhile, Stanford’s top three receivers — Michael Wilson, Connor Wedington and Colby Parkinson — haven’t lit it up statistically in 2019. They have, however, very evenly distributed the wealth, with each of the three sporting a per-game receiving average between 49.2 and 51.3 yards.
Defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s Irish defense is finding its groove as the season winds to a close, having allowed 20 or fewer points in each of the last four games and twice holding opponents (Duke and Navy) to just seven points. In addition to the stingy scoring defense, the unit is among the nation’s most opportunistic, entering this week at No. 3 in turnovers gained (22) and No. 2 in fumbles recovered (14). Just last week against Boston College, excluding garbage time, Notre Dame’s havoc rate was 24.5 percent. In other words, on one of every four non-garbage time snaps, the Eagles were either tackled for a loss, had a pass knocked away or turned the ball over.
While this game has often carried substantial postseason implications for both teams — especially when played at the end of the season at Stanford — this year’s edition finds Notre Dame seeking a five-game winning streak to close the regular season and provide momentum entering bowl season, while Stanford is simply looking to pick up the pieces after a disappointing campaign.
Prediction: Notre Dame 35, Stanford 16
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.