Playing at Stanford has been difficult for Notre Dame in the Brian Kelly Era. The Irish have not won at Stanford Stadium during Kelly's 10-year tenure, going 0-4 with losses in 2015 and 2017 as the higher-ranked team.
This year might be different, however. The No. 15 Irish come into Saturday's season-finale against the Cardinal as heavy favorites as Stanford is going through its worst season in more than a decade.
The Cardinal enter this matchup 4-7, but that doesn't mean the Irish (9-2) will be able to cruise. Stanford is gunning for a face-saving victory to end the season.
“(We're) excited about having an opportunity to put it all together on national TV against an outstanding opponent and hopefully play our best football game of the year,” said Cardinal coach David Shaw, who is in his ninth season.
The Irish are playing for bowl position more than anything, trying to impress the College Football Playoff Committee enough to qualify for a New Year's Six bowl, though that remains unlikely. A win would give Notre Dame 10 wins for the third season in a row, a feat the Irish have not accomplished since 1991-93, in the salad days of Lou Holtz.
“We don't put a number on it,” coach Brian Kelly said of defining success. “We simply say that we want to graduate champions. And we want champion performances from our football team in our program each and every year.”
Still, double-digit wins in three consecutive seasons would be a significant accomplishment.
“I'd say (10 wins is) a pretty high bar,” Kelly added. “To win 10 out of 12 games each year, given the kind of schedule that we play, if you had that stock, you'd probably be pretty happy.”
The Cardinal will play without starting quarterback K.J. Costello, who has missed time throughout the season with a thumb injury suffered in September. Costello threw for more than 3,500 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, but has been out for Stanford's last two games, both losses, giving the reigns to redshirt sophomore Davis Mills.
Mills has averaged 8.6 yards per attempt in seven games this year, but his record in starts is just 2-4.
The Cardinal defense will be focused on stopping Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, who has thrown 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in the last three games and had 325 total yards and four scores against Stanford last season.
Shaw is worried about Book's ability to make plays outside of the pocket and the Cardinal seem ready to bring plenty of pressure at Book to force him to make quick decisions.
“I don't know that there's many quarterbacks in the country that about half the season he's led them in passing and rushing,” Shaw said of Book. “It's not that there are a whole bunch of designed quarterback runs, it's just the kid's got a great feel for football. He pushes up in the pocket and can escape, can buy time with his legs.
“It's hard to get your arms around and wrap him up and bring him down.”
The Irish have not beaten Stanford on the road since 2007, which was also the last season the Cardinal finished with only four victories. Stanford is coming off a home loss to rival Cal that broke a nine-game winning streak over the Bears.
Notre Dame at Stanford
Where: Stanford Stadium, Stanford, California
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Records: No. 15 Notre Dame (9-2), Stanford (4-7)
Radio: 1190 AM, 107.5 FM
Impressing the CFP Committee
Notre Dame is ranked 16th in the College Football Playoff Committee's rankings this week - behind three-loss Auburn and fellow two-loss teams Oregon, Wisconsin, Florida, Penn State and Michigan. The Irish likely need to finish in the top 11 to qualify for a New Year's Six Bowl and the only real chance of that happening is a convincing win against Stanford combined with relative chaos in front of them. If Notre Dame does not make a New Year's Six Bowl, the Irish could be headed to Orlando, Florida, for the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28.
The Irish and Cardinal have played every year since 1988 with the exception of a small hiatus in 1995 and 1996. In that time, the Irish have usually had the advantage, but the Cardinal had won three in a row before Notre Dame took last year's top 10 matchup in South Bend, 38-17, propelling the Irish to an undefeated season. Stanford being unranked is rare for this rivalry: since 2011, seven of the eight matchups between the Irish and Cardinal have had both teams enter the game in the top 25 (2016 was the lone exception, when neither was ranked).
Irish defense vs. Cardinal rush offense
The Cardinal have made their mark in recent years with elite running backs such as Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love leading the charge. This year's top back is Cameron Scarlett, who has more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage (797 rushing, 215 receiving), but is averaging only 4.2 yards per carry and the Cardinal are averaging just 3.6 as a team. After struggling against Michigan's ground game, Notre Dame has held its last four opponents an average of 108 yards below their season rushing averages. Having another strong game in that area against Stanford would force Cardinal quarterback Davis Mills, who started the season as the backup, to win the game without much help.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Stanford 17
– Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette