What was once a competitive rivalry that allowed Notre Dame to add a resume-building win in late November has turned into a tune-up game against a below .500 team annually. Stanford and Notre Dame have competed for the Legends Trophy since 1989 with few exceptions (Notre Dame did not play Stanford in 2020 due to the Pac 12’s rules regarding non-conference opponents), but the last three matchups have been Irish blowouts.
Only once over those three seasons have the Cardinal finished with a record above .500, and their combined winning percentage has been just .425, falling well below expectations at Stanford. Just as Notre Dame faces difficulty in recruiting due to high academic and character barriers, Stanford has struggled to accumulate the talent necessary to compete nationally as of late.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the program’s lack of recent success, the rivalry matchup against Notre Dame presents one of the biggest games of the year for Stanford. Cardinal head coach David Shaw was aware of the recent history heading into the November matchup but did not seem concerned about hosting the sixth-ranked Irish.
“Notre Dame is a rival, and we’ve fared well against them over the last decade plus,” Shaw said. “I don’t need to have any rah-rah speeches this week.”
Shaw has quietly compiled a winning record against the Fighting Irish (5-4) since he was hired at Stanford in 2011, but his confidence appeared misguided after Notre Dame’s dominant 45-14 victory in Palo Alto. Once again, head coach Brian Kelly was drinking Gatorade out of the Legends Trophy as his players encouraged him in the visiting locker room.
Notre Dame outmatched their rival from the onset of the game, forcing a three-and-out on the game’s first possession. The Irish finished with 510 total yards of offense compared to just 227 from the Cardinal.
Many of the narratives heading into the matchup came to fruition as Stanford’s porous defense struggled to contain receivers Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy, tight end Michael Mayer, and running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree.
Quarterback Jack Coan passed for 345 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Tyler Buchner added an additional 56 yards on the ground with a touchdown. In a breakout game of sorts for Austin, he had a game-high 125 receiving yards on six receptions. Always reliable Mayer tied his career high in receptions with nine for 105 yards which broke Notre Dame’s record for most receptions in a season by a tight end with 64.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best tight end that I’ve ever coached at Notre Dame and we’ve had some great tight ends. He’s complete in every facet,” Kelly said about the star tight end.
The defense continued its dominant performance on the season, limiting the Cardinal to zero first half points and just 11 first downs throughout the game. Defensive end Justin Ademilola strip sacked Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee and recovered the fumble himself. His twin brother, Jayson Ademilola, tied for the team lead in tackles with five and contributed a sack of his own.
“Certainly one that we feel like we controlled the game from start to finish,” said Kelly after the victory. “I think it’s one of the best four teams in the country.”
Sitting at No. 5/6 in the polls heading into the matchup, Kelly was aware that a dominant victory might allow his team to sneak into the College Football Playoff if other results were to go in their favor.
Without a conference championship, this was Notre Dame’s final chance to impress the committee enough to earn an appearance in their third playoff in the last four years.
“We controlled what we needed to control and that was to play really good football on offense, defense and special teams over the past six, seven weeks, and we’ve done that. So, we made our case,” Kelly said. “We’ll now sit back and see what other people think. But we got one of the best four teams, without question in my mind, in the country. We’re ready to prove it.”
Notre Dame also showed signs of the future in Palo Alto, as several underclassmen received high praise from Kelly after the game. True freshman Buchner proved how athletic and elusive he is with three rushes for 56 yards, while sophomore Tyree averaged 8.8 yards per rush on five attempts. True freshman wide receiver Lorenzo Styles contributed with four receptions for 27 yards. Underclassmen defensive end Jordan Botelho and safety Xavier Watts also combined for seven tackles on the defensive side.
The win secured an 11-win season for the third time in four years for Notre Dame, who has not lost a game in November since 2017.