Getty Images

And In That Corner … The woebegone Stanford Cardinal

13 Comments

Early in August, a handful of links are emailed to Notre Dame beat writers to request credentials to away games. Nearly four months ago, it seemed a no-brainer to be sure to go to Stanford for the Irish season finale. Now, that certainty seems so dubious, months of emails needed to be scoured to confirm that request was ever made, let alone approved.

It was and it was, but the Cardinal’s fall to 4-7 has still been precipitous and unexpected. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Steve Kroner explains what has gone wrong, and if there is reason to doubt Stanford moving forward …

DF: What strikes me each week as I try to keep up with the Cardinal — and, to be clear, as it has stumbled to 4-7, I have watched less and less actual action — is how few names I recognize anymore. Just about every name I noted in the summer seems to be hurt. Can you run through the top-line injuries at this point, just to make sure I don’t miss one?

SK: Stanford’s injury list is truly long. The biggest names are quarterback K.J. Costello, left tackle Walker Little and cornerback Paulson Adebo. Costello was the starter the previous two years and both Little and Adebo were preseason All-America picks. Others of note include tackles Devery Hamilton and Henry Hattis, linebackers Ricky Miezan and Jacob Mangum-Farrar, safety Malik Antoine and kicker – yes, kicker – Jet Toner, who got hurt on a kickoff early in the UCLA game.

Also, wide receiver/returner Connor Wedington, who has made a few circus catches this season, got hurt on the opening kickoff against Cal in the Big Game on Saturday. He did not return and is doubtful to face the Irish.

Forced into a starting role by injuries, Davis Mills has fared well in completing 66.7 percent of his passes, but he has also thrown five interceptions against only nine touchdowns. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Missing Little all season has been a problem, obviously, and Irish fans should lament not seeing Adebo — cornerbacks that good are rare, especially ones that nearly committed to Notre Dame — but the most obvious loss has been Costello. He was supposed to stabilize an offense that lost several playmakers in the offseason for the NFL. What has sophomore Davis Mills been able to do in Costello’s stead?

Davis Mills has been solid in place of Costello, but he has also been hurt this season; a calf injury kept him out of the UCLA game, when Stanford had to go with third-stringer Jack West. Mills set the school record with 504 passing yards in the Cardinal’s loss at Washington State on Nov. 16. Mills throws the deep ball very well, but he’s not particularly mobile. He also has thrown two interceptions in each of the past two games.

The offensive collapse, scoring only 21.5 points per game, has not been the only issue. It may not be fair to say Stanford’s defense has fallen apart even further since it did hold Colorado and Cal to 16 and 24 points, respectively, but its 28.5 points allowed per game would mark a David Shaw era worst by 5.6 points. The Irish could push that difference all the way to a full touchdown by scoring 46 points this weekend, by my math. What about this unit has been so uncharacteristic for a Shaw team?

I really don’t have a definitive answer about the defense. It has had its moments – particularly against Northwestern and Washington – but it simply hasn’t been as effective as most Stanford defenses of recent vintage. The injuries certainly have played a part in that, but they probably don’t explain all of it.

Missing a bowl game for the first time in Shaw’s nine years cannot be going over well. By no means is his job in jeopardy; he should have years’ worth of runway before his seat heats up. But what is the mood about this season? Has it been chalked up to the injury situation or are there deeper concerns?

David Shaw deservedly has built a large reservoir of support in the Stanford community. It’s fair to say people in and around the program aren’t happy with a 4-7 record, but there is a recognition of 1) the inordinate number of injuries and 2) after 10 straight bowl trips (the first two under Jim Harbaugh, the ensuing eight under Shaw), one losing season isn’t a reason to become overly concerned.

Notre Dame hasn’t been favored by two possessions against Stanford since 2006. This 16-point spread would have been unfathomable entering the year. Do you have a prediction for Saturday afternoon? As I type that I remember … This game is at 1 local time; few things bring me more delight.

No prediction for Saturday other than I think the game will be closer than what the spread would lead you to believe.