Counting Down the 2021 Notre Dame Football Schedule: #5 Stanford

A trip to Palo Alto closes out the 2021 Notre Dame football schedule as the Fighting Irish face the Stanford Cardinal on November 27. Last year’s matchup was canceled by the pandemic, putting a stop to a series in which the two schools had met virtually every year since 1988. What’s become an annual rivalry dates back to the inaugural meeting in the 1925 Rose Bowl, with Notre Dame currently holding a 21-13 series advantage prior to this year.

Stanford head coach David Shaw is ready to begin his 11th year in charge of the Cardinal and is coming off a truncated 4-2 year. That shortened campaign at least got the school back on track after a losing 2019 season, something unfamiliar in the Shaw era. Shaw has compiled a 90-36 mark at the school and has a 5-4 record in games against the Irish. Also, until the 2019 clash, Shaw’s teams had compiled a 4-0 record at home in the series.

Stanford Offense: Needing to Answer Many Questions

A big question mark entering the Cardinal training camp revolves around which talented but inexperienced big quarterback will replace Davis Mills. Both Tanner McKee (6-foot-6) and Jack West (6-foot-4) made cameo appearances last year but combined to complete just 16-of-26 for 216 yards. McKee reportedly has a modest advantage that could end up quickly fading if he’s unable to hold off West’s determined bid for the job.

The good news for the running game is that leading rusher Austin Jones is back after gaining 550 yards, scoring nine touchdowns and collecting 21 pass receptions. He’ll be aided by Nathaniel Peat, who averaged seven yards per carry in 2020, and Justus Woods, who barely played last year. For blocking, fullback Houston Heimuli has returned for his final season.

Among the wideouts, Brycen Tremaine presents a huge target with his 6-foot-4 frame and can stretch the field. Joining him will be Michael Wilson, who as effective in his four games last year, while Elijah Higgins is another option for whoever lines up behind center. At tight end, Tucker Fisk is more of a blocking component than receiving threat.

Stanford’s offensive line has built a strong pipeline to the NFL, with left tackle Walter Rouse likely the next prime candidate to shine at that level. The other tackle slot and center position need to be filled, though the duo of Myles Hinton and Drake Nugent, respectively, figure to plug that gap. In 2020, this unit was excellent in keeping opponents from getting through and Stanford hopes for more of the same this year.

Stanford Defense: A Focus on Bringing the Heat

Upfront, the Cardinal line needs to put more pressure on enemy quarterbacks if the team has any hopes of making a splash from a national perspective. One of the ends, Thomas Booke, in a position to boost his draft stock if he increases his sack total. Dalyn Wade-Perry is back on the nose and has the size to push past opposing lineman, while senior Ryan Johnson will handle the other end slot.

At linebacker, putting heat on the passer is also a message that resonates strongly. Thunder Keck and Stephen Herron need to step things up in the area, with both having the size to handle themselves. Their performances may serve as a litmus test for the Cardinal defense. On the inside, Levni Damuni is the team’s leading returning tackler and will have veteran Gabe Reid joining him.

The cornerback tandem of Kyu Blu Kelly and Salim Turner-Muhammad possesses the size and talent to make an impact but have been handicapped by that nagging lack of a pass rush. Kendall Williamson is an effective tackler at strong safety, with free safety Noah Williams looking to contribute more than 12 tackles and one pass deflection.

Stanford Special Teams: More of the Same is the Hope

One of the major highlights last year was the work of Cardinal special teams, with kicker Joshua Karty replacing the departed Jet Toner. Karty will also handle kickoffs for Stanford, while Ryan Sanborn is back as the team’s punter after averaging 39 yards on his 23 punts last season. Peat’s blazing speed will again be used on kick returns after averaging 24.9 yards on his 16 returns last season. For punts, Michael Wilson is back after just two returns last year.

The Last Time Notre Dame Played Stanford

Like this year, the Irish faced the Cardinal on the road in 2019, breaking open a tight game to win 45-24. Notre Dame held a 21-17 halftime lead after trailing 17-7, before then using Ian Book‘s four touchdown passes to complete the comeback. The turning point of the contest was a blocked punt by Isaiah Foskey to set up a second quarter score.

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