From the 1925 Rose Bowl to Charlie Weis’s penultimate season in 2008, Notre Dame and Stanford met 23 times. Notre Dame won 17 of those games, usually in resounding fashion; the average Irish win featured an 18.5 point scoring margin. Included in that 17-6 record is a seven game win streak from 2002 to 2008. What Stanford problem, amirite? From Weis’s listless final campaign through the Brian Kelly era, Stanford has flipped the script dramatically; they’ve won seven of the last nine games, and their average win has been by 10.3 points. What’s worse, the Irish have recorded several high-profile losses to Stanford on the recruiting trail during the Kelly era.
There’s no way around it, even for the most rose-colored-glasses-wearing among us: Notre Dame football does indeed have a Stanford problem. But how much of a problem? And how fixable is it, both generally and by the personnel on hand today? We’ll dive into the history of the series a bit and look at recent recruiting work and other off-field factors; we’ll overturn some conventional wisdom and confirm some. Then we’ll laugh, we’ll cry, and we’ll drive off a cliff in a sudden fit of elan. Well, no, we won’t do that, but come along for the ride anyway.
Breaking Down the Series History
“We need to get back to pummeling Stanford regularly, like we always used to do!” This is a common refrain among Notre Dame fans, and indeed even I remember them as barely more than a patsy of an opponent. The reality, though, surprised me. In truth we’ve pummeled Stanford regularly when they had bad coaches, and we haven’t when they didn’t.
Knute Rockne knocked off Pop Warner in that first meeting on New Year’s Day in 1925. Frank Leahy beat Marchmont Schwartz (if you find yourself saying “Who?” – exactly) in 1942. Joe Kuharich and Ara Parseghian earned a split against a decent John Ralston in 1963 and 1964. I’ll let you guess who earned which part of the split… Those four meetings were the entire history of the series through 1987. Rockne over Warner in a battle of titans, Leahy over Schwartz in a substantial mismatch, and Ralston splitting with an all-time great and an all-time not-great.
In the Lou Holtz era, Notre Dame started to play Stanford almost annually, as former university president Fr. Ed Malloy tabbed them an “aspirational peer” (puke). Holtz beat Jack Elway’s hapless 1988 squad handily, then went 2-1 against Denny Green and 2-1 against Bill Walsh, with each loss crippling a potential title contender. The 1992 loss in particular was rough – a 33-16 defeat that took a lot of luster off Notre Dame’s supposed invincibility at home. Walsh is one of the all-time greats at any level; Green wasn’t spectacular, but he was definitely a good coach.
And then came Bob Davie. Oh, Robert. Robert, Robert, Robert… From 1997 to 2001 Davie went 2-3 against Ty Willingham, who had succeeded Walsh after the 1994 season. I don’t think Willingham was always a terrible coach; I think he checked out at some point at Notre Dame and never checked back in. He was never really a good coach, obviously, but it didn’t take much to be better than Davie. If you needed one more reason to dislike Davie, his record against Stanford was probably a major factor in Notre Dame hiring Willingham. Thanks, Bob. The hot dogs of Michiana salute you for your service.
It was Willingham, ironically, who ushered in the aforementioned seven game win streak in 2002. In his three seasons at the Irish helm, Notre Dame beat Stanford by a combined score of 111 to 29. Weis continued the trend, although in less dominating fashion, with his own four-game win streak. Who was leading Stanford for those games was critical, though; from 2002 to 2006, Weisingham beat up on Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Harris had the worst win percentage all-time at Stanford, and Teevens had the third worst; their combined record at Stanford was 16-40 (.286). The Irish were essentially clubbing baby seals.
Weis inexplicably beat Jim Harbaugh in 2007 and 2008, before Harbaugh turned the tables on the series starting in 2009. Harbaugh and David Shaw combined to go 7-2 from that point forward, with one win coming against Weis and the other six against Brian Kelly.
It’s the Coaching, Stupid
Well, that’s an oversimplification. But it’s a big part of it, and it’s certainly a part of why many current Notre Dame fans remember Stanford as a doormat. Recapping… Since 1988, Notre Dame went 6-0 against Elway, Teevens, and Harris, who combined for a .402 win percentage at Stanford; the Irish went 13-13 against Green, Walsh, Not-Terrible Willingham, Harbaugh, and Shaw, who combined for a .618 win percentage at Stanford.
From the other perspective, Holtz went 5-2 against Stanford, Davie went 2-3, Willingham went 3-0, Weis went 4-1, and Kelly has gone 2-6. That’s somewhat illustrative, but I think the opposing coach gives critical context. Unless you want to seriously argue that Bob Weisingham is a better coach than Kelly, which, well…
So part of the changing fortunes absolutely rests on who is on the other sideline. Even acknowledging that, though, the recent struggles are largely attributable to coaching errors on the Irish side. Kelly’s 2010 and 2011 teams falling to Andrew Luck’s Stanford was understandable, especially when so many kids were sick in 2011 that we couldn’t even fill out the 60-man travel squad. The 4-2 Stanford advantage since Luck’s graduation, however, has to fall on the Irish coaching staff; Stanford is clearly a better program than they were in the 2000’s, but their wins from 2015 to 2017 were all avoidable. To wit:
- 2015: A Brian VanGorder special, as Kevin Freaking Hogan shreds the Irish defense for an 81% completion rate and four touchdowns. The play to set up the game-winning field goal is a perfect microcosm of the BVG Era; Joe Schmidt is in the middle of nowhere trying to cover for guys who don’t know what to do, as Devin Cajuste runs alone down the seam. Tactical errors by the staff, in addition to the strategic error of hiring VanGorder in the first place.
- 2016: The Irish look lethargic but still manage to grab a 10-0 halftime lead. All the happy feels vanish quickly as Deshone Kizer throws a pick six to start the second half, and the patented 2016 Inexorable March to Eventual Gut-Wrenching Defeat begins. The defense played pretty well, but the offense looked incoherent, uninspired, and uninterested. The players bear some blame here, but the coaches bear most of it.
- 2017: One of the most frustrating losses in the series for me. We were in control despite the Shell of Brandon Wimbush at QB, and then the wheels absolutely came off. A quick touchdown drive by Stanford, a horrific interception by Wimbush to give them a short field, another quick touchdown, and then CJ Sanders fumbles the ensuing kickoff to give them another short field. At that point the defense was absolutely gassed and it was over. Whether it was a failure to prepare Wimbush adequately, or a failure to stop the bleeding, or something, the Irish were outcoached again.
Here’s the funny thing – and I know some/many of you will disagree with me on this – I don’t think David Shaw is actually a better coach than Brian Kelly, certainly not at a 3:1 ratio. There are structural differences that make Notre Dame a harder place to win than Stanford (more on that below). I think he’s good, for sure, and better than I was willing to admit earlier in his tenure. I also think that if you put Shaw in South Bend and Kelly in Palo Alto, the two programs would at least be no worse off than they’ve been. Broadly speaking, it’s not Poirot vs. Clouseau here. I think it’s more like Poirot vs. Maigret.
Shaw is good and he’s the perfect guy for Stanford. Kelly is good (as perceived by the larger college football world) but has struggled to hit the right line at Notre Dame. There’s a chance he might be doing that as we speak, as the Irish are 14-3 since the start of last season; if so, he should be able to handle one of the most frustrating features of his Notre Dame tenure.
I summarily dismiss the idea that their style is “better” than any other, so no, I don’t think part of the on-field problem is that we need to emulate their offensive style. I don’t really get the fascination with it in certain quarters, either. It has no resemblance to anything Lou Holtz ever ran. Nor does it have any resemblance to anything Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops ever ran. It even no longer has any resemblance to what Nick Saban runs. Stanford has never played for a national title or been in the playoff with it. Jim Harbaugh isn’t exactly lighting things up in Ann Arbor with it either. Is it the worst thing ever? No. It’s also not the best thing ever, and the fact that Michigan and Stanford are the only major programs that run that sub-genre of pro-style offense should be a big clue. As should the fact that actual pro offenses don’t run a traditional pro-style anymore either.
You might wonder about Wisconsin, but they employ a less “pure” style of manball than Stanford. They’re pro-style, and they use power running, play action, all that good stuff, but they incorporate more spread principles into it than Stanford. Even Michigan has moved towards more of a spread this year with Shea Patterson under center. Yes, Harbaugh is embracing three receiver sets and RPOs. Somebody get the manball crowd some vapors…
The Stanford Problem Off the Field – Academics
No, I’m not talking about recruiting high-academic kids. We’ll get to that in a bit. I’m talking about the surprisingly non-existent Stanford academic casualty. You’d have to take your shoes off to count the Notre Dame players who lost time or washed out due to academic issues over the last nine seasons. You know how many significant players Stanford has lost in that same time frame? None. As in zero. As in nobody. Seems a bit odd, no? Northwestern, Duke, Vanderbilt, and of course Notre Dame have all regularly had academic casualties in the last several years. Not Stanford, though. Why? Are they better than everyone at educating and supporting those kids? Eh, maybe, but I doubt it. Are they better at screening kids during the admissions process? Again, maybe, but I doubt it – they might be a little better but nobody is flawless. So what gives?
I certainly don’t think they’re doing anything dastardly; they want to win the right way, and that’s what they’re doing. I do think they make academic life much, much easier on their football players thanks to two critical policy differences with Notre Dame. And more than anything else that’s different about the two schools, this is where I think we should try to copy them.
- Late drops: In fairness, this isn’t specific to football players or even athletes. Stanford encourages all students to take courses that push them to and beyond their perceived limits. To tilt the risk-reward equation enough to make that attractive to a hyper-achieving student body, they allow drops up to a few days before the final. The upshot of that for football players is that if any of them are borderline on eligibility, they can just drop the problem class(es) at the last minute. A Stanford football player really has to work hard to get a course grade below a C.
- The five-year plan: Notre Dame pushes its players to finish a degree in no more than four years, preferably three and a half, presumably to help with graduation rates and/or boost the pitch that you can head to the League with your degree. This leads to kids taking full in-season course loads and full summer school course loads. Stanford, on the other hand, basically puts all football players on the five-year plan. Twelve credits per semester is a huge stress difference from 15 and occasionally 18 credits per semester, plus summer school.
Notre Dame is never going to institute late-session drops for all students, so cross that one off. But we should absolutely allow the five year plan, and if we really want to maintain a leadership position in academia, allow the five year plan and let kids know that they can always finish their degree on the university’s dime after trying the NFL. The university can certainly afford it, and more importantly, it’s the right thing to do in exchange for the work these kids have put in to be true student-athletes.
Notre Dame is an excellent academic institution. It’ll never have the academic prestige, either within academia or in the public at large, that Stanford has. Never. And that’s OK – we don’t need to chase them there. We do need to look at what they do to help their players succeed and pick some things to copy that would still fit inside Notre Dame’s larger mission.
The other side of eligibility is, of course, student conduct. A less charitable writer might draw some unflattering conclusions about how Stanford handles student-athlete conduct issues, given the highly-publicized Brock Turner case and a 2016 New York Times article about a Stanford football player who twice was judged to have raped another student by internal boards, but not by a strong enough majority to move forward with the case. Thankfully I’m not less charitable… Suffice it to say that I find absolutely nothing worth emulating in how they handle conduct issues. They seem to prioritize an admitted student’s opportunity to earn a Stanford degree more highly than justice. OK, so I guess I am less charitable.
The Stanford Problem Off the Field – Recruiting
“Stanford kicks our butt on the recruiting trail!” Another common rejoinder among Notre Dame fans, and accepted as absolute irreproachable gospel by a subset of those fans. Here’s the reality, though:
- The respective ranks for Stanford/Notre Dame full classes in the Brian Kelly era (from 2011 forward) are 22nd/9th, 7th/17th, 52nd/5th, 13th/11th, 24th/13th, 16th/15th, 14th/10th, and 39th/10th. Only in 2012 did Stanford pull a higher ranked class than Notre Dame.
- The average Stanford class rank in that time is 23rd, while the average Notre Dame class rank is 11th.
Their current class ranks 29th, but will climb some as they have just 12 commits at the moment. Notre Dame’s current class ranks 13th, with 18 commits. The trend continues. Stanford has won some high-visibility battles, true, but Notre Dame has won some as well and in any case, clearly Notre Dame still pulls in talent at a better clip overall. That holds through to the next level as well; since the Kelly era started, Notre Dame has produced 15 first or second round draft picks, while Stanford has produced 10.
“But they get all the guys we want,” you might hear some say. Do they?
Since 2011, the Irish have landed 36 kids who had Stanford offers. Stanford, meanwhile, has landed 33 kids who had Notre Dame offers. That sounds even more in Notre Dame’s favor when you consider how few recruits Stanford offers; their offer list is probably about a third the size of Notre Dame’s in any given season. In other words, we’ve taken a much bigger chunk of their offer list than they’ve taken of ours.
Where they’ve definitely hurt us over the last few years is defensively, both in numbers and in quality. Perhaps not surprisingly, that window coincides with the beginning of the VanGorder era. In the 2014 through 2017 classes, Stanford signed 10 defenders with Notre Dame offers, while Notre Dame signed just four with Stanford offers. The disastrous 2015 safety class probably did more to further the “Stanford kicks our butt on the trail” narrative than anything; we went 0-for-3 against them on safety targets. Like the Cajuste catch in that 2015 game, that safety class was a perfect microcosm of the BVG era. Here are the three losses:
- Frank Buncom: Wanted to play corner, and more importantly wanted to be a doctor. We offered him 14 months!!! after the notoriously slow-moving Cardinal did, and just four months before signing day. Not a chance.
- Ben Edwards: Not as bad as the other two because he supposedly told everyone, including his family, that he preferred Notre Dame. Still, both parents are Stanford alums, and again we offered well after Stanford did – seven months this time.
- Justin Reid: This time we offered just a month behind Stanford, but it was late in the cycle and VanGorder did virtually nothing to actually recruit him. And his brother Eric had just made the NFL All-Rookie team in San Francisco. Not a recipe for success.
Bad/blind evaluations with low effort on all of their recruitments. Microcosm. VanGorder didn’t attract anyone, and certainly not Stanford recruits who were smart enough to know better.
The 2015 safeties aside, Stanford has hurt us more in the types of defenders they’re getting than the raw number. Notre Dame “should” have landed guys like Solomon Thomas and Justin Reid, but with Stanford winning more consistently and some unaccountable recruiting dead weight on the Irish staff it wasn’t going to happen. I think Kelly fixed the dead weight issue in his 2016 postseason reinvention. If – very big if – he can fix the “winning consistently” angle, this part of the problem will take care of itself. My kingdom for consecutive 10-win seasons…
Side note on their recruiting: I would be very, very concerned if I was Stanford Fan. They usually have smaller classes because of their reliance on fifth-year seniors, so the fact that they signed just 15 kids last year isn’t a red flag in itself. What is a flag is the composition of that class. They signed just two defensive linemen and one offensive lineman; that’s after signing two defensive linemen and three offensive linemen in 2017. So their two-year take in the trenches is four offensive linemen and four defensive linemen. Two of those guys are 2017 five-star offensive tackles, but man, they need to hit on every single one of those four to avoid a serious hole.
Does Notre Dame have a Stanford problem? Definitely. It’s better for the Irish when they can be the only high academic/high football choice on the market; right now, they’re not. That naturally takes some guys out of the recruiting pool, and makes it more of a battle for some other guys. They’ve also been a pain in the ass on the field, derailing at two very good seasons with November upsets. The recruiting problem isn’t really that much of a problem, and it will be even less so if we take care of our own business. The on-field problem is a much more serious one, and one that has a much less clear solution.
Brian Kelly has had the superior horses in this game since 2012, but he’s 2-4 over that time. Preparation, execution, and in-game adjustments have all been lacking, even in seasons that they’ve been excellent against other marquee opponents. Whatever the mental block is against this team, he needs to figure it out already. Whether that can be addressed this year will go a long way toward defining how good of a year it will be.