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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Stanford, facing a daunting schedule with a reloading offense

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This will be harped on most of the season, so let’s not waver now: Notre Dame has not won at Stanford since 2007. Until the Irish do so, The Farm will continue to be discussed as a house of horrors, ironic considering it is hardly an intimidating environment. Last year the Cardinal drew only 75 percent capacity to a stadium that can barely hold 50,000.

Lest anyone think that 12-year stretch is an anomaly, Notre Dame has gone a mere 3-8 at Stanford since the series became an annual event in 1997.

2018 REVIEW
The Cardinal generally do only alright at home, including going 4-2 last season, the losses coming 41-20 to Utah and 41-38 to Washington State. The loss to the Utes came a week after Stanford lost in South Bend.

In retrospect, that game has lost its allure, but in the moment, it was the biggest game at Notre Dame Stadium since … facing USC in 2005? That was the last time two top-10 teams met in an Irish home game. Notre Dame dusted any prestige off the Stanford challenge last year with a 38-17 rout that was hardly that close. The Irish rushed for 272 yards on 55 carries, part of a 550-yard evening.

Before that, the Cardinal was 4-0. It dropped to 5-4 before rebounding with four wins to end the year.

Those troubles primarily traced to Stanford’s defense. As injuries ravaged the Cardinal running game, its aerial attack kept the offense afloat to the tune of 28.4 points per game. Meanwhile, the defense gave up 22.9 points per game, a high during head coach David Shaw’s eight seasons. The 410 yards allowed per game was also a Shaw-era high, as was the 264 passing yards allowed per game. As much a result of teams trying to outscore Stanford, those passing yards were a byproduct of a lack of a pass rush. The Cardinal managed only 36 sacks, not the lowest figure in Shaw’s time (32 in 2017), but a far cry from the 57 in 2012 or even the 46 in 2014.

WHAT STANFORD LOST
Most of the Cardinal losses came on the offensive side of the ball, led by running back Bryce Love. He may not have had the senior year he returned for, hampered by ankle issues before an ACL tear ended his season, but Love (739 yards and six touchdowns on 166 carries) was still a focal point for opposing defensive coordinators.

As Love struggled, Stanford’s receivers excelled, and now they are gone. JJ Arcega-Whiteside (63 receptions for 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns) turned a breakout season into hearing his name in the NFL draft’s second round. The second-leading receiver, Trenton Irwin (60 receptions for 685 yards and two scores), graduated, and tight end Kaden Smith (47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns), the third-favorite target, was drafted in the sixth round.

The Cardinal are also down four starting offensive linemen, albeit linemen who could hardly stay healthy last year.

Defensively, both leading tacklers have moved on, most notably linebacker Bobby Okerke (96 tackles with 7.5 for loss including 3.5 sacks), as has cornerback Alijah Holder (59 tackles with 10 pass breakups).

WHAT STANFORD GAINED
Recruiting to Palo Alto is, in many ways, tougher than it is for Notre Dame. Thus, pulling in the No. 23 class, per rivals.com, is not unimpressive. The headliners in that class are four-star running back Austin Jones and four-star receiver Elijah Higgins.

Given the turnover throughout the Cardinal offensive skill positions, both freshmen could end up contributing, certainly by the time the Irish arrive to end the regular season.

Junior Foster Sarell will without a doubt be contributing, providing health. He was expected to start along the offensive line last year before a knee injury forced him out of action after three games. Sarell would have been on the interior of the line last season, but now should start at right tackle. As far as obvious talent goes, Sarell should be considered the equivalent of a returning full-time starter.

HEAD COACH
David Shaw enters his ninth season leading his alma mater with 82 wins to his name, averaging a 10-3 record across nearly a decade. Going 9-5 and 9-4 the last two years is considered a downturn. That is a hefty standard to have established.

Stanford set that standard by not losing to a team that finished with a losing record since 2013 (Utah). For that matter, Notre Dame has helped the Cardinal cause, going 3-5 against Shaw.

Cardinal senior quarterback KJ Costello stands second in Stanford history with 272 passing yards per game in a season, set last year. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
In discussing Stanford, there is much consternation about its offense. Losing a star like Love and three talented passing targets, along with four starting offensive linemen, leaves little to believe in upon return.

The contrary view would argue a senior quarterback returns in KJ Costello, second-team All-Pac 12 last season. He may have benefited from having excellent hands on the other end of his passes, but he still completed 65.1 percent of those throws for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.

And Costello will once again have worthwhile targets to rely upon. 6-foot-7, 240-pound junior tight end Colby Parkinson (29 catches for 485 yards and seven touchdowns) will be a matchup nightmare, and it will be difficult to double-team both him and junior receiver Osiris St. Brown.

All the while Sarell and preseason first-team All-American left tackle Walker Little will be protecting Costello and opening holes for fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett (330 yards and eight touchdowns on 79 carries, a 4.2 yards per rush average). The rest of the offensive line will be filled by those who stepped in for the injured last year, hardly green behind the ears.

This is not all intended to paint a rosy picture, but to show the Cardinal may be better than a draft-depleted offense usually would be. Stanford may not get back to 2017’s levels of 202 rushing yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry, but it should fare much better than last season’s 107.9 and 3.7, averages that ranked No. 123 and No. 112 in the country, respectively.

All the while, Costello will be at the helm, presenting a danger through the air just as he did last year.

Cardinal junior cornerback Paulson Adebo made his presence known last year with 19 pass breakups, not even counting his four interceptions and 64 tackles. That performance put him on most preseason first-team All-American listings this summer. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
If the offense can provide that, the Cardinal defense will have to rebound from the crater of 2018. That was a young defense, which should lead to a better one this season.

Preseason first-team All-American junior cornerback Paulson Adebo will lead the way for a solid secondary, after breaking up 23 passes (including four interceptions) in his first action last year, No. 2 in the country (behind Virginia’s Bryce Hall). A shutdown cornerback is a luxury for every defense, and he will be supported by junior Obi Eboh, who performed well last season in a situational role.

Fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill will lessen the loss of those two leading tacklers, himself tallying 29 in only seven games before injuries cut short his 2018, and sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker (No. 34, pictured at top) was touted before he made 3.5 sacks as a freshman.

SEASON OUTLOOK
The concern around Stanford seems overblown. It is not on the verge of the Playoff by any means, and it may not even contend for the Pac 12 this season — preseason media polls put the Cardinal a decisive third in the North behind Oregon and Washington — but Shaw’s program is not on the verge of collapse. It has a star quarterback, arguably the country’s best left tackle and a proven system.

The issue ahead of Stanford is not internal, but rather its schedule. The Cardinal face 11 Power Five teams and Central Florida, better than many Power Five teams. The calendar opens against Northwestern, at USC, at Central Florida and against Oregon before a reprieve of a trip to Oregon State. That opening quartet alone explains the sheet’s season win total over/under of seven.

Presume Stanford splits them, just for this conversation’s sake. Washington and Notre Dame will still need to make trips to Palo Alto. Lose both of those and suddenly the Cardinal cannot top that win total.

An upset of the Huskies or the Irish may prove 2018’s Stanford firepower was more because of Costello’s ability than it was because of his talented receivers benefiting from run-focused defensive schemes.

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