The Notre Dame Fighting Irish seek to close out the 2021 regular season with their seventh straight win as they hit the road to face the struggling Stanford Cardinal. The Irish were able to improve their playoff consideration, thanks to blowout losses for Michigan State and Oregon. However, they still need other schools to lose in order to obtain one of the playoff berths.
In contrast to Notre Dame’s lofty aspirations, Stanford is simply looking to end their injury-plagued season. They enter with a 3-8 record and are coming off a 41-11 blowout loss to archrival California. Cardinal head coach David Shaw is in his 11th season at the school and is saddled with his second losing campaign over the past three seasons.
Below are some of the key matchups in Saturday’s clash:
QB Jack Coan vs. Stanford Defense
Coan had some protection problems during his first series against Georgia Tech before then thriving. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 285 yards, his second-largest yardage output of the season and threw for a pair of scores. He’s hoping to find as many open receivers as he did against Tech, though the offensive gameplan may focus more on the running game.
Stanford’s defense this season has some gaping holes, especially when it comes to stopping the run. For the year, opponents are averaging 448 yards of total offense, including Cal’s absolute shredding of this unit by collecting 636 yards on the day. The lack of any real pass rush is one of the Cardinal’s top defensive issues, which may allow Coan plenty of freedom.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Tanner McKee
Notre Dame defenders are peaking at the right time and enter this game having not allowed a touchdown in the past 12 quarters. One big reason for that is the strong pass rush they deliver, which is something that will likely come in handy against Stanford. That’s because the weak Cardinal running game will probably force Stanford to go to their air as much as possible.
McKee returned against Cal after missing the previous two games due to injury. However, while he threw for 247 yards, he also was picked off twice. He has the size at six feet six and is in his first full season as a starter. He’s thrown two interceptions in each of his last two starts but generally plays it safe in compiling a completion percentage of 64.3 percent.
OT Josh Lugg/Joe Alt vs. OLB Gabe Reid
Lugg and Alt got off to a bumpy start against Georgia Tech, allowing a pair of sacks on Notre Dame’s opening drive. After that, they were able to give Coan enough protection to find his receivers. In this game, Lugg and Alt’s main task may end up being keeping Reid away from Irish runners to allow them to run wild.
Reid is a veteran who has 57 tackles on the year and the Cardinal’s top player when it comes to making stops behind the line. He’s collected 9.5 in that category this season and can also be seen moving back into pass coverage. He’s got one interception on the year and a trio of pass deflections. However, the woeful performance of the overall Cardinal defense makes his life difficult.
CB Cam Hart vs. WR Elijah Higgins
Hart has offered consistency in the secondary for most of this season and has been the beneficiary of Notre Dame’s solid pass rush. He hasn’t been challenged much by opposing receivers during the Irish streak of keeping players out of the end zone, though he has the size to be effective in this matchup.
Higgins offers a big target at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, with 42 catches on the year and four touchdown receptions. Like most of the Stanford receiving corps, he’s missed time due to injury this season. Still, he returned against Cal on Saturday to snag five passes in a losing effort. He may serve as a frequent passing option, given the weakness of the Cardinal running game.
WR Kevin Austin vs. CB Kyu Blu Kelly
Austin has 36 catches this season and had two in the Georgia Tech rout. Both receptions began scoring drives, including a 38-yarder on the game’s first play from scrimmage. He and tight end Michael Mayer combine to offer Coan a pair of inviting targets, though Austin may have a quiet day if the Irish running game is in gear.
Kelly does have one of the more unique names in college football, though his size and quickness offer legitimate talent to the beleaguered Stanford defense. Like many Cardinal players, he’s dealt with injuries this season. However, he does lead the team in pass deflections with 10 and interceptions with two, including a pick-six.