The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will close out the first half of their 2022 season with a nighttime clash at home against the Stanford Cardinal. The matchup marks the first time in four years that the Cardinals have played at Notre Dame, with the scheduled 2020 meeting canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cardinal head coach David Shaw has struggled in recent years, compiling an 11-19 record over the past three seasons. That includes last year’s miserable 3-9 campaign, a far cry from the 82-26 mark that he’d compiled over his first eight seasons at Stanford. The Cardinal enter this game with a three-game losing streak in a rivalry that’s developed over the past quarter-century.
Stanford Offense: Running Game Improvement Required
Starting quarterback Tanner McKee is back and hopes to maintain the momentum that saw him flourish during the Cardinal’s first five contests last year. He’s got great size and connected on over 65 percent of his passes during his first year in the starting lineup. Keeping him healthy is paramount, considering that his backups, Ari Patu and Beau Nelson, have little or no game experience.
The Stanford running game had been a cornerstone of the program’s offense, with multiple backs going on to success in the NFL. The decline in this area for the Cardinal largely dovetails with their struggles and the transfer portal has delivered even more hits in the offseason. E.J. Smith is the son of NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith and the leading returning runner. However, he carried the ball just 26 times last year and has questionable depth behind him.
One of McKee’s prime targets through the air will be wide receiver Elijah Higgins, who had 45 catches last year and scored four touchdowns. That department would be bolstered if Michael Wilson and Brycen Tremayne can avoid injuries after a 2021 season in which they combined for just 38 receptions. The tight end position will be in the solid hands of Benjamin Yurosek, who had 43 grabs last year.
Keeping McKee safe is a major facet of the Cardinal offensive line’s job, with bookend tackles Walter Rouse and Myles Hinton leading the way. Rouse and guard Barrett Miller constitute a solid wall on the left side, while Hinton will once again be joined by right guard Branson Bragg. Drake Nugent will handle center chores, though this unit needs to get better at run blocking.
Stanford Defense: A New Look That Needs New Results
Overhauling the Cardinal defense was a necessity after allowing 236 yards per game on the ground last year and struggling to get to the quarterback. The most obvious change will be seen in the defensive alignment, which now has a four-man front as opposed to the 3-4 setup of years past.
Tobin Phillips and Anthony Franklin will likely make up the interior of the Stanford defensive line, with Zach Buckey expected to provide depth. At the end or edge slots, Stephen Herron is back, though the arrival of freshman David Bailey could be something to watch. He’s an early entree, so he has the potential to make an immediate impact.
Behind them, linebacker Levani Damuni was the leading tackler for the Cardinal last year. He’ll once again be joined by fellow backer Ricky Miezan, who helped bring down 67 ballcarriers.
On the corners, Kyu Blu Kelly is the standout after last year’s effort of 11 pass deflections and two pickoffs, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He’ll be paired with Ethan Bonner, while the strong safety duties will be handled by hard-hitting Kendall Williamson. The free safety spot has Oklahoma transfer Patrick Fields set to take over the job.
Stanford Special Teams: Kicking Up a Storm
The kicking game will once again be the responsibility of Joshua Karty, who impressed during his first season. Another returnee, punter Ryan Sanborn, also was effective by managing to deliver 19 punts inside an opponent’s 20-yard-line and finishing with a 43.3-yard average. Casey Filkins is likely to be busy on both kickoff and punt returns, with Wilson’s past injury problems likely limiting his use to just the receiving corps.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Stanford
In last year’s regular-season finale, former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s final game saw the Irish come away with an easy 45-14 win. Notre Dame led 24-0 at halftime and then allowed their first touchdown in the month of November at the start of the second half. From that point, however, they coasted the rest of the way.