And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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The regular season finale takes Notre Dame to Northern California on Saturday, where they’ll face No. 8 Stanford, a program that’s spent the past four seasons in rarified air. With the opportunity to win ten games for the fourth straight season, David Shaw’s Cardinal already have their ticket booked for the Pac-12 Championship game. But to finish off their season, they’ll look to settle a score from last year’s 20-13 overtime loss.

The storylines for the game are endless. Two excellent universities, among the elite football playing institutions in the country, with plenty in common. Players, coaches and administrators, the connectivity between both schools exists on all levels.

To get us up to speed on Saturday’s game is the San Jose Mercury News’ Jon Wilner. Jon has covered college football and basketball for almost 20 years and has had a front row seat watching the revival of the Stanford football program.

On a busy holiday week I threw Jon some questions and he sent back some really interesting answers.

Enjoy.

It’s another impressive season for Stanford, back in control of their Rose Bowl destiny thanks to Arizona’s upset of Oregon. But at this point, are people starting to wonder about the Cardinal’s losses? The loss to Utah stands out as baffling, and the loss to Washington last year looks worse in retrospect. Is this kind of criticism merely a product of continued success?

People are wondering about the loss to Utah, for sure. At the time, it didn’t seem so bad: Utah was 4-2 and outplayed the Cardinal that day. Since then, the Utes have collapsed (largely because of injuries and erratic QB play). I’m not sure the Washington loss has anything to do with anything, frankly. That was 14 months ago and Stanford has a different quarterback – it was a close road loss to a team that finished 7-6.

The bottom line is that Stanford’s approach lends itself to close games. The Cardinal play it old school: ball control, power running, huddles, and stout defense. Down-to-the-wire games are, with a few exceptions, a weekly event, and the Cardinal wins far more than it loses.

Staying on that theme, we’re now three years into the David Shaw era. He obviously inherited a great program (and quarterback) from Jim Harbaugh, but is it too early to include Shaw among the elite head coaches at the college level? Have you seen any weaknesses in his three seasons as the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football?

Based on what we’ve seen thus far, I think you have to include him among the elite coaches, although that depends in part on how you define elite. He hasn’t won at multiple schools like a Saban or Meyer, which doesn’t mean he couldn’t. But based on what he has done with what he has where he is, he’s obviously pretty darn good. The list of back-to-back coach of the year winners in the Pac-12 is short, and he’s on it.

As for weakness, I haven’t seen any. Stanford fans occasionally get frustrated with the conservative approach, but that’s how Stanford is built and – bottom line – that’s how it must be built in order to succeed at the highest level. If Stanford tried to be like Oregon or Baylor, you can forget about conference titles and BCS berths.

Another year, another impressive defensive performance. Trent Murphy is having a monster season. Shane Skov as well. How good is this unit top to bottom? Are there any weaknesses?

It’s one of the top five or 10 defenses in the country. If there are any weaknesses, it’s probably speed at linebacker. But that’s splitting hairs. The Cardinal is a slab of granite against the run, relentless in its pass rushing and very good on the back line. In fact, the secondary has been the most improved unit over the past two or three years – it’s much more athletic, much better in man-to-man coverage and much better at tackling in the open field, as we’ve seen the last two years against Oregon

Irish fans are envious of Kevin Hogan, a guy with a ton of family connections to Notre Dame, but a QB the Irish staff slow played in recruiting. He pilots an offense with some dangerous weapons, namely Tyler Gaffney and Ty Montgomery, who should be a special teams weapon as well. Stanford can beat you in a number of ways. But who is Enemy No. 1 for the Notre Dame defense on Saturday?

Tommy Rees. The last thing a Louis Nix-less Notre Dame defense needs against Stanford’s power game is to have to defend short fields. That means Rees and the rest of the offense must protect the ball. Three-and-outs aren’t going to lose the game. Turnovers on the wrong half of the 50 will lose the game.

In addition to Montgomery and Gaffney, the Irish should be concerned with quarterback Kevin Hogan’s mobility, especially on third down. He has a knack for keeping drives alive.

How important is the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry to the Cardinal? It’s been a priority for ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Stanford AD Bernard Muir spent six years at Notre Dame. As both these football programs stay among the elite, is this a game that grows in importance for Stanford and its fans?

It’s important for Stanford, although perhaps not to the degree that the Cal and USC games are important from an emotional standpoint and the Oregon game is important from a division title standpoint. It’s a good game for Notre Dame because of the west coast exposure, and there are tons of connections for Stanford above and beyond Hogan’s ties. (Cornerback Alex Carter’s dad, Tom, played for the Irish.) The schools compete against each other for recruits, especially those in the Midwest.

Last year’s game ended in dramatic (and controversial) fashion. How do you see things playing out this Saturday?

Stanford is better. If the Cardinal loses focus – if it’s looking ahead to the Pac-12 title game, for instance – then I think it could go down to the wire. But if Stanford is fully locked in, it should win by 10 or 14 points. Of course, one or two mistakes could change that. If Nix were playing, I might feel differently. But I expect Stanford’s defense to stop the Irish more often than the Irish defense stops Stanford.

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Check out more of Jon’s work at the Mercury News and give him a follow on Twitter @WilnerHotline